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The Arts Voyager, 3-8: Un-censored
From Jean Vigo to Jean Genet and Jean-Luc Godard, Eisenstein to the MItchell Brothers, Pasolini to Iran, the Cinematheque de Toulouse fetes banned films

The Cinematheque de Toulouse has the only known copy of the above large format poster for Jean Renoir's 1937 "The Grand Illusion," part of a special exhibition March 5 - April 10 at the cinematheque devoted to the film, also being projected in full digitally restored splendor as part of its Zoom Arriere festival focusing this year on "Forbidden Cinema," March 9 - 17.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

If you thought the most daring, dynamic, and heritage-devoted cinematheque in France was the Cinematheque Francaise, think again: If ever there was any doubt that that the Cinematheque de Toulouse far outdistances its Paris cousin, the former's 6th annual Zoom Arriere festival, this year focusing on Forbidden Cinema, makes it clear that there's only one cinematheque in France that constantly explores risk while at the same time mining the country and the world's rich celluloid heritage, preserving, restoring, and most important sharing rare and engangered treasures, and it's in the Rose City. While the Cinematheque Francaise continues to place box office over patrimoine, with retread tributes to American film-makers like Tim Burton and Robert Altman dominating its programming, beginning Friday and lasting through March 17 the Cinematheque de Toulouse, along with partner cinemas throughout the city, will project a staggering parade of more than 60 films banned for various reasons from the dawn of the medium through the present.

Left: Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay in Jean Renoir's 1937 "The Grand Illusion," based largely on Renoir's own experiences as a soldier in World War I. Right: On location for the film. Collections of the Cinematheque de Toulouse.

The films have been selected based not on country of origin or historical epoch, but rather with three uber-axles in view:

** The field in which the intervention took place, encompassing films that had problems during production, with distribution, or that had to be circulated clandestinely.

** The agents of intervention, be it the State, the profession, or society (social or religious groups and/or institutions).

** Modes of intervention, be they pressures, mutilations, or outright bans (for minors or the general public).

A scene from Milos Forman's "The Fireman's Ball," 1967, the last film Forman shot before leaving his native Czechoslovakia.

The programming thus ranges from the violently vile, such as Stanley Kubrick's 1971 "Clockwork Orange" and Pier Paolo Pasolin's 1975 "Salo" (or "The 120 Days of Sodom") to films that ran up against religious mores and often protests like Jean-Luc Godard's 1984 "Je vous salue Marie" and Luis Bunuel's 1930 "L'Age d'Or," to a special evening of contemporary Iranian cinema and another of East German films shot in the 1960s and '70s and banned by the Communist regime. So many films treating the Algerian 'conflict' were banned by French authorities over the years that they make up a subset for Forbidden Cinema, including Godard's 1960 "Le Petit Soldat," Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 "The Battle of Algier," Rene Vautier's "Africa 50," and Jacques Panijel's 1961 "Octobre a Paris," treating the massacre of Algerian residents of Paris protesting the war and discarded into the Seine by police acting under the authority of Marcel Papon, a since-convicted World War II criminal who still managed to get appointed prefect of Paris. The high art of Jean Genet will also be on view in his 1950 "Chant d'Amour," a poignant portrayal of a sexually charged encounter between male prisoners, as will the low art of infamous San Francisco pornographers Jim and Artie Mitchell, represented by the 1972 classic "Behind the Green Door." There will even be two programs of silent pornographic films.

A shot from Sergei Eisenstein's silent film "The General Line," released in 1929.

But the genius of the Cinematheque de Toulouse, and the biggest reason it gets my plaudits over the Cinematheque Francaise, is the rarely seen archival jewels that will be celebrated in this festival, among them Jean Vigo's 1933 "Zero de conduite," about boarding school boys who rebel and Sergei Eisenstein's rarely seen "Bezhin Meadow," an elegy to a disappearing rural way of life from 1935, and his 1929 silent film "The General Line." (The former, opening the festival March 9, will be presented in a cine-concert, with live accompaniment, a regular feature of the cinematheque.) For you see, understanding that preservation is also vital to a cinematheque's mission, the Cinematheque de Toulouse has also quietly become one of the leading restorers and repositories of Soviet-era films. And when the cinematheque offers a not-so-rarely-seen classic like Jean Renoir's 1937 anti-war tale "The Grand Illusion," it does so in grand style; the film is also the subject of a special exhibition running at the cinematheque through April 10. And it closes the festival March 17 in a digitally restored presentation.

Oh and there's one more reason the Cinematheque is the best value going in French cinematheques: A year's pass -- you get to see everything it shows, without restriction -- costs just 90 Euros.

In Jean Vigo's rarely shown "Zero de conduite," (1933), boys at boarding school decide to rebel. Vigo's life may have been short -- he died in 1934 at the age of 29 -- but his influence on French film-makers has been long.

In the seldom screened "Bezhin Meadow" (1935), opening the Cinematheque de Toulouse's "Zoom Arriere" festival March 9 to live musical accompaniment, Sergei Eisenstein delivers an elegy to a rural Russian - Soviet world in transformation. The cinematheque has one of the leading collections of Soviet and Russian films in the world, taking special pride in its restorations.

Regimes may change, but societal norms remain constant: Perhaps only the persistent cultural conservatism of French society explains why Luis Bunuel's "L'Age d'Or," above, was banned from the time of its 1930 release until 1980.

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