Rails (Rotaie) 1929

BFI Southbank, London

23 July, 2017


So, hands up all those who believe that Italian neo-realist cinema began with the work of directors such as Visconti, Rossellini and De Sica around the end of the Second World war?  Wrong!  Because this afternoon at the BFI Southbank we were privileged to see a rare screening of Rotaie (Rails), a stunning example of formative Italian neo-realism directed by Mario Camerini and made in 1929.  

The film ticks virtually all of the neo-realist boxes.  There is a focus on social reality, largely from a working class perspective amid the struggle to survive, all portrayed with a gritty realism.  The cast are largely unknowns with some acting for the first time and the film is shot mostly on location.   

 In attempting to summarise the film’s plot, some difficulty arises because there are clearly one or two missing scenes. While this does not spoil enjoyment of the film it does mean that a couple of leaps of imagination are needed to fill in the gaps.  The film opens with a young couple (Käthe von Nagy and Maurizio D’Ancora) arriving at a cheap hotel.  They are newly wed or seeking to pose as such.  It emerges that they are penniless, that the girl’s family object to her choice of husband and that they are about to enter into a suicide pact.  But when the vibrations from a passing train upsets the poison the woman reveals her reluctance over the pact and admits she only entered into it because of her love for her husband.  Unable to pay the hotel bill they sneak out (image, left) and seek shelter in a railway station where they are in thrall to the exotic destinations being advertised. Discovering a lost wallet bulging with money (image, right) and only halfheartedly trying to return it to its rightful owner, the man decides to buy first class tickets to wherever the next train is going to.

The next morning in the train’s restaurant car the woman in particular feels out of place amongst the other first class passengers and she attracts the curiosity of a fellow traveler, Jacques Mercier (Daniele Crespi). At their destination the couple check in to a plush hotel.  Mercier, who is staying at the same hotel, becomes increasingly interested in the woman and asks the couple to dine with him and his own companions. The woman becomes jealous of the man’s attention to their host’s female companion. He then goes off to play cards with other guests and wins a lot of money.  Left alone, Mercier kisses the woman but she rejects his advances.

 Bitten by the gambling bug (image, left) , the next day the man looses heavily at the roulette table.  With their hotel bill to pay the girl manages to pawn her ring to raise the money but the man also gambles this away.  When he attempts to steal some of Mercier’s roulette chips he is caught but Mercier claims it is all a mistake and takes him aside, giving him sufficient money to pay the hotel bill.

[ There is then a misplaced inter-title translation and a key scene is missing.  In the correct version Mercier knowingly says to the man that his being out of place in this society has made him vulnerable.  Mercier writes a note to the woman telling her to come to his room at eleven when he has an offer that might interest her.  In the missing scene the woman asks the man what the note means and he explains how he is now in debt to Mercier and she realises that she is the means of repayment.  With the man seemingly unwilling to prevent this she reluctantly sets off for Mercier’s room. ]

Once inside, Mercier attempts to seduce her but she resists just as the husband, having had second thoughts, bursts in. Throwing down the money Mercier had given him, the man and woman leave together.  Fleeing the hotel without paying once more, they have only sufficient money to return home by third class train travel. Back home the man is shown having got a job in a factory and is met after work at the factory gates by his devoted wife.  

 Prior to Italy’s entry into World War One its film industry had been a world leader in establishing new cinematic forms and styles.  Films such as Quo Vadis (Dir. Enrico Guazzone, 1913) and Cabiria (Dir. Giovanni Pastrone, 1914) were hugely influential with American directors such as D W Griffith and their development of the Hollywood epic while Thais (Dir. Anton Giuliu Bragaglia, 1917) was a significant influence in the evolution of German expressionist cinema. The end of the Second World War and the growing emphasis on neo-realist films such as Ossessione (Dir. Luchino Visconti, 1942), Rome: Open City (Dir. Roberto Rossellini, 1945) and Shoeshine (Dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1946) once again saw Italian cinema at the cutting edge.  But the years in between were a very lean time for quality film making in Italy. This period was dominated either by films known as ‘telefoni bianchi’ (a genre of light-weight bourgeois comedies so-named for their upper-class settings and lavish set designs (that prominently featured white enamel telephones) and promotion of conservative values, thereby avoiding the attention of the censor) or by increasingly crude propaganda films, made at the government’s behest, to promote and strengthen Mussolini’s fascist rule. Although director Mario Camerini may have been guilty of making a number of films which fell into both of these categories, his work on Rails clearly marks him down as a director of great skill and one not afraid to tackle more challenging subject matter.  

Right from the start of Rails, one is struck by the extreme economy in the use of inter-titles.  Much more than is usual in most silents we instead had to rely on a gesture or a facial expression to determine what is going on and yet the skill of the director and the cast was such that we were never in doubt.  More than that, this was achieved not with over emphasised theatricality on the part of the actors but with beautifully understated performances,with just the hint of a glance or a frown conveying huge meaning.  Kathe von Nagy in particular was superb as the woman when, in their cheap hotel room, she manages to express the hopelessness of the couple’s situation, her fear of their suicide pact and relief when the poison spills, without ever uttering a word.  Similarly, in the railway station while the man is thinking ahead as to what benefits his finding of the lost wallet could bring, her look perfectly encapsulated that confusion between the benefit to them but the moral duty of returning the wallet to its rightful owner. Hungarian born Nagy (1904-1973) was not an unknown when the film was made, as some contemporary sources claim. She had previously made at least nine films in Germany and had apparently been heralded as the up-and-coming young actress of German movies of the 20’s.   She successfully made the transition to talkies, making films in Germany, France and Italy although most appear to have been musicals or light comedies which seemed a waste given the dramatic ability she demonstrated in Rails.  She made her last film in 1952 and, after being injured during the 1956 Hungarian uprising, eventually moved to America where she worked as a teacher of French.  

In contrast, Rails was only Maurizio D’Ancora’s (1912–1983) second film and his first in a starring role.  Incredibly he was just seventeen when the film was made, but as with Nagy he demonstrated great dramatic ability, particularly in expressing a growing but naively misplaced confidence which he thinks his new found wealth has brought him.  Continuing to act in films until 1946, D’Ancora (whose real name was Rodolfo Gucci) then decided to retire and join his brothers in the famous Gucci fashion house. 

Playing the seducer Jacques Mercier, Daniele Crespi was also excellent in a slightly creepy English villain sort of way. Although avoiding the usual pitfall of overstated villainy I did notice at least one twist of his moustache, so you knew right away he was a bad‘un. As well as acting in Rails, Crespi was also responsible for the film’s production design, which again was excellent, particularly in highlighting the contrasts between the bleak townscape, the luxurious holiday resort and the industrial workplace.  He presumably also had a say in the stunning selection of art-deco travel posters which so captivated the couple at the railway station.  

Rails was also commendable for its cinematography.  Much critical praise for the film’s camera work focuses upon the scenes of the train journey, as the rails flash by, the roulette table montage scenes and the industrial landscape with parallels being drawn with the work of Eisenstein and Vertov.  Impressive as these scenes are, praise is also due to the filming of more intimate moments, the way, for example, when in the cheap hotel the woman’s hand moves down from her lap, across the bed to her purse and the letter sticking out of , taking our eyes with it, or the shot of the clock whose face dissolves to reveal its inner workings.     

The upfront melodramatic plot-line in Rails clearly anticipates the theme of the 1993 movie Indecent Proposal (Dir. Adrian Lyne) in which the wealthy Robert Redford pays Woody Harrelson to sleep with his wife, Demi Moore.  But Rails carries with it much deeper themes, focusing on the traversing of borders between poverty and wealth,between social classes and between indolence and meaningful work. It is the train, travelling on its iron rails that provides the means by which the couple make this journey.  With the lure of the exotic travel posters and a bulging wallet in hand they (or perhaps more so the husband) anticipate a happier new life that wealth will bring.  As the train departs, the woman asks “Where are we going” to which the man replies “Where the others go”, the implication being that he is not just talking literally of the other passengers train but of those people unlike themselves, those with wealth and position.

But moving into this ‘higher society’ of unearned wealth does not bring the joy and satisfaction they anticipate.  In fact, it is quite the opposite, threatening not just their happiness but their very future together. So it is once again the train on its iron rails that returns them to their own world, but this time in third class.  Initially uncomfortable in the sparse carriage on account of their fine clothes, a small boy offers them an apple, an act of kindness out of character with their previous experience at the smart hotel.  The couple soon strike up conversation with their fellow passengers (image right) and are accepted, unlike their earlier journey in first class when they were looked down on by the other travelers.  And the final message of Rails is loud and clear, that true happiness and contentment comes with honest labour, in a message reminiscent in many ways of Soviet cinema of the time.  However, the picture of the hard working husband with his dutiful and loving wife (busily knitting baby clothes? image left) clearly wasn’t meant to challenge traditional gender distinctions of the period!

Mario Camerini (image, right) is not a director whose work I am familiar with.  Indeed, he seems to be virtually unknown outside Italy and a lot of his silent work appears lost.  But on the strength of Rails alone he was clearly a director of considerable talent and one who was to provide significant influence over the development of the post-Second World War neo-realist film genre.  Certainly Vittorio De Sica appeared in several Camerini films as an actor and one sources has spoken of Rossellini and Visconti working with him also although I have not been able to find any record of this.  As for Camerini himself he continued directing until 1972, making over 50 films.      

 Although Rails was made as a silent film, a sound version was subsequently produced.  It does not appear as if the silent version was ever released theatrically and several sources refer to it as a lost film, which it clearly isn’t! A restored copy version of the silent version was shown at Pordonone in 2009 but there is no indication of this version ever being released on DVD although it has been shown on Italian TV (from which a copy has ineviatably made its way on to You Tube, which usefully includes the above mentioned missing scene). Although the version screened today at BFI and at Pordenone in 2009 both ran for 74 minutes, IMDb gives a running time of 91 minutes and a screening at MoMA in New York in 1978 ran for 92 minutes.  It is not known if these longer screenings were of the sound version of the film or if there is a more complete copy of the silent version in existence.        

Providing a superb live musical accompaniment for this afternoon’s screening was the multi-talented Stephen Horne, playing piano, flute and accordion.   With a beautiful lightness of touch during the more intimate moments, his discordant hand strumming of the piano wires was the perfect match to the frenzy of the the roulette wheel scenes in which the couple’s world seemingly collapses. As usual, his accompaniment added enormously to enjoyment of what was already a great film.