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Kicking off its 10th year, the Sacramento French Film Festival has invited French composer Raymond Alessandrini to direct an orchestral accompaniment for its first film/concert, which will be performed by the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra.
“It’s something we’ve never done before. It’s quite exceptional,” said French Film Festival Executive and Artistic Director Cécile Downs.
The show will be held at the Crest Theatre on Jan. 29 and 30.
“It’s a very big event for us,” Downs said. “We (often) have guests, but usually they are just coming to present a film that is already finished. Having the composer of the score coming is more exceptional.”
The film to be shown is a 1928 silent film, “Un Chapeau de Paille d’Italie” (“An Italian Straw Hat”), directed by René Clair. It was originally based off the play by Eugène Labiche.
“This film is extremely funny,” Downs said. “It goes at a very, very fast pace ... in France, it is one of the most famous silent films.”
When the film was originally shown, it would have been accompanied by a pianist in a theater, Downs said.
In 1986, when the Cinémathèque Française (France’s national film center) celebrated its 50th anniversary, several composers were asked to write scores to original silent films that had been restored, Alessandrini told The Sacramento Press.*
Alessandrini was chosen to write the score to “An Italian Straw Hat” and another film.
“The challenge is always to respect the character, the style and the spirit of the director,” Alessandrini said in an e-mail. “For ‘The Italian Straw Hat,’ the difficulty was to be musically funny with the most subtlety possible, all the while staying true to the occasional surrealism of René Clair, as well as the rapidity and precision of the film editing.”
He added that in addition to needing to write the music so it is both precise and detailed – akin to the music of a cartoon – a lot of the difficulty comes in directing the orchestra so the sounds are at all times synchronized with the film’s images.
“The film is one of the great classics of French cinema and is very much appreciated by the film lovers in France and those interested in René Clair,” Alessandrini said. “It is also one of the great theater works of the 19th century.”
Alessandrini said Labiche wrote the play as a mockery of the stupidity of his contemporaries.
“It is a very funny film that puts everyone in a good mood,” he said. “The duration is 1 hour and 24 minutes, but it gives the impression that it’s over in 10 minutes. The music contributes enormously to the humor of the scenes, and it is always a sight to see these films on a big screen with a live orchestra.”
Alessandrini said he has not spent much time in the United States, but did a similar show in the early 1980s at a film festival in Colorado, also working with American musicians.
He has performed “An Italian Straw Hat” in England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and all the large cities in Italy. He has also done two show tours in Russia, and one on the Middle East, he said.
He got his start in the industry as a classically trained musician, and it was when he worked as a pianist that he met filmmakers and producers, who led him down the path to eventually composing scores to accompany restored films.
“It’s an honor to me to be able to work with the musicians of the Sacramento Philharmonic, and I hope that this will be a pleasant experience and will bring much pleasure and joy to the people of Sacramento,” he said.
“Everywhere you go in the world, this music and this film are a success,” he added. “It’s a rare show, and it’s a shame if you don’t take advantage of it.”
The film will be shown twice – at 8 p.m. Jan. 29 and 2 p.m. Jan. 30.
Tickets are $30, or $25 for friends of the film festival, philharmonic subscribers and members of the Alliance Française or Tempo. Tickets can be purchased at Tickets.com, by phone at (800) 225-2277 or at the Crest Theatre box office.
“I think, to me it’s kind of a historic moment in Sacramento,” Downs said. “We’re bringing a French composer, it’s a very very famous and funny film, and it’s just gonna be fun. I can’t say when we’re going to do that again, so it’s not to be missed.”
*Interview with Raymond Alessandrini conducted in French and translated to English by Brandon Darnell, staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.