Famous cinema negatives get a positive revival

November 26, 1999

Some of the great masterpieces of the golden age of Italian cinema have been painstakingly restored and can now be projected in close-to-original quality, thanks to Italy's National School of Cinematography and one of its former teachers.

Mario Sesti, who until last year taught language and technique of cinema, is heading an ambitious programme, Cinema Forever, that has already restored such films as Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita.

Over the years, a wealth of old films has been acquired by Mediaset, the Italian media giant controlled by political leader and former premier Silvio Berlusconi as it expanded.

"In 1995 Mediaset decided to restore the most important of these films before age and bad conservation ruined them beyond repair," Mr Sesti said.

"For each film, the aim was to recreate a negative of the best

possible quality from which new copies could be printed. To do this we had to restore the original negative when this was still in existence or put together a new negative from the various positive copies that were available."

Almost all the films are in black and white. "The black-and-white film used up to the 1940s was on a nitrate base," Mr Sesti explained. "This was of excellent quality and long-lasting. In some of the old silent films the quality and detail of the images is amazing. But nitrate film was terribly inflammable so it was outlawed.

"Today polyester film is used. We'll have to wait and see how long that lasts. What I do know is that today's film lacks the quality, the rich blacks, bright highlights and grey tones of the 1940s."

In his search for prints Mr Sesti worked with the archives of the Scuola Nazionale di Cinematografia, which has developed a network of most of Italy's private and public film archives.

"The most difficult restoration was Fellini's Sceicco Bianco - we had to use pieces of prints and negatives from five different sources," said Mr Sesti.

In creating a new negative, a crucial phase is the processing of the various sections of copied film. There must be no perceptible differences in light values and contrast. In fact for many of the great directors the processing of their films was a key creative tool used to create particular atmospheres.

Mr Sesti is fortunate in being able to work with 81-year-old Vincenzo Verzini, the same processing expert favoured by Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni.

Mr Verzini said: "Ideally, we should make digital copies. But this is still very expensive. Storage would also be a problem, since just one frame can amount to many megabytes of data."

Orio Caldiron, professor of film history at Rome's La Sapienza University and a former director of the Scuola Nazionale di Cinematografia, collaborated with Mr Sesti on much of the research.

"Technically, they have done a wonderful job, saving some very important films.

"It is encouraging that a private company like Mediaset should carry out a project of such philological rigour. It is an operation that also has the merit of recalling attention to some great films," he said.

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