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‘My life sometimes seems a film inside a film’

Morelli speaks about his life’s work at the Pantalla Pinamar festival last week.
By Esteban Colombet
For the Herald

Pantalla Pinamar director Carlos Morelli talks about his lifelong love affair with cinema

Veteran film critic Carlos Morelli is one of Argentina’s leading representatives in the film industry. After decades of seeing, reviewing, presenting or promoting films in any possible capacity, he created the Pantalla Pinamar festival or “gathering of Argentine and European” cinema, as the event is branded. On the occasion of Pantalla Pinamar’s 10th anniversary edition, which ended on Sunday, Morelli talked to the Herald about his lifelong passion for cinema, shared memories about dictatorship censors and conveyed his hopes for the future.

How did your love affair with film begin?

I’d say it began through sheer stubbornness. I discovered movies at the local theatres in my neighbourhood of Belgrano. As my enthusiasm kept growing, I started bargaining with my father: as compensation for getting good grades, he would give me more pocket money to go to the movies on Saturdays and Sundays and then on Thursdays and Fridays as well.

When did you discover your inclination toward film criticism?

Oh, I think I was about 12 or 13 when I was already seeing no less than 12 films a week and then, when I was about 14, I began seeing movies on their release date, that is, on Thursday. I didn’t read any reviews before going to the theatre, I preferred writing down what I thought and then, when I was done reviewing, I would compare my text with what others had written to see if our opinions matched. When I think about it now, it seems such an entertaining teenage experience — and emotional, too, since back in those days films were shown first in downtown Buenos Aires and reached the neighbourhoods later on. There were no simultaneous releases at the time and I remember I used to love Sundays, because that’s when I went to buy the tickets.

Some mention people queuing to buy tickets all the time back then. What was it like?

Well, it’s true, there were always long lines at the downtown box offices. I would get on a tram from Belgrano on Saturday to get to the centre to buy the tickets for the next day and then return home to live those 24 hours in a state of excitement and wonder, thinking about the films I’d see on Sunday. For me, it was a ritual, fair and square. Moreover, I started seeing films on television as well by pure luck, I guess. You see, Luis Sandrini’s mother and brother lived in my building and she was the proud owner of the only TV in that place. And so my mother befriended her and I remember that in the afternoon we would have a snack and then I was allowed to go from our first floor apartment to the sixth floor flat where I would enter the magical universe of Luis Sandrini’s mother, with tea and cakes and chats about her son. He had lunch with her on Sundays. He actually help me a lot, introduced me around and got me started as a film critic.

When did you debut as a film critic?

Oh, it’s funny and I’ll tell you why. It was January 1, 1960, I was 17 years old and about to start as assistant commentator on Adolfo R. Avilés’ radio show on this station called Radio Rivadavia. I was so engrossed in that burning anticipation of my debut that I didn’t stop to think about the date. And so, I got up on January 1, put on my suit and tie and went to the radio: New Year’s Day, the sun was scorching, nobody on the streets. The radio station’s door was locked and a caretaker eventually came out and I went all-Hollywood on him, saying something like: I’m here for my debut on Avilés’ show. The guy looked at me and said, ‘Sorry, kid, today’s show is pre-recorded, no one’s working today, why don’t you come back tomorrow?’

So what did you do?

Well, I stopped for a moment to think, it was Thursday, so I decided to go to a premiere and see my first film as a critic. I had this press card that Avilés had made for me, saying: “Please acknowledge Mr. Morelli as my assistant and grant him admission to see the films.” And so I started walking in that blazing sun up to a theatre on Lavalle street. I stood in line at the box office, chin-up, brimming with pride, only to have the ticket vendor cast me this long look before glancing to the movie poster and asking me how old I was because the movie had a 18+ rating. Some first day that was!

Judging from where’re you’re standing now, it worked out pretty well.

Oh, like I said, that stubbornness! I carried on with my reviews and that same year started as a contributor for La Nación, where I worked for some years writing reviews about less important films. And then I had this opportunity to work for Clarín and I grabbed it, although, at the time, Clarín wasn’t so well-known. I worked there for 23 years, making my way from a mere reporter to deputy editor-in-chief.

However, you also worked in radio and television at the same time, you made the legendary Función Privada…

Yes, I did that show for almost two decades. When I finally left Clarín, I began working in film promotion for the Spanish Ministry of Culture, I was in charge of the entire promotion of Spanish cinema in the Southern Cone. We made some great film festivals, including the Punta del Este cinema week in BA, Chile and Paraguay.

And how did you get to create Pantalla Pinamar?

Well, after working for some five years for the Spanish Ministry of Culture, Jorge Coscia, the current Argentine Secretary of Culture, approached me with a proposal to join the Film Institute Incaa as an adviser on film festivals. And one day he brought me here to Pinamar, introduced me to the mayor, we talked a lot and Pantalla Pinamar was born the next day. It was in 2004.

You once called Pantalla Pinamar a “boutique festival.” Why?

Oh, it’s actually quite odd, you know? In 2006, if I’m not mistaken, I was invited to the Spanish Embassy in Buenos Aires where Ambassador Carmelo Angulo presented me with the Cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic. And during the ceremony he made this commendatory speech about how much I had done for the promotion of Spanish cinema. And when he got around to Pantalla Pinamar, which was my last achievement on his list, he said “and the new boutique festival.” He coined the phrase and I liked it, after all, it was, like he said, a small festival brimming with beautiful things. I just adopted the term but the copyright belongs to Ambassador Angulo.

How do you choose the films screening at Pantalla Pinamar?

We’re working closely with the Argentine industry to screen new releases and we also pay tributes to special films on their anniversaries. As to foreign productions, we focus on a number of festivals such as Cannes, Toronto, San Sebastián and Málaga. What’s more, over the last few years we’ve started this project where we focus on certain European countries. We work with embassies, they come up with proposals, offer films and concepts and we make a choice.

Is there any film that would account for a formative experience in your case?

Oh, many, I could just mention Casablanca, The Third Man, Citizen Kane, Potemkin. And then there’s Fellini — Amarcord not just because I loved that film but because I’ve always admired Fellini and happened to witness an event that was quite cinematographic in itself: I was in a small theatre in Rome for the screening of Amarcord and Fellini showed up. The people gave him a standing ovation and started hugging him when the film ended. I had the chance to witness Fellini’s reunion with common people, with the pizzamaker and the shoemaker, the type of small culture individuals. Moreover, it was such an odyssey bringing Fellini’s City of Women to Buenos Aires, due to censorship problems. So we decided to bring Fellini himself to make sure the censorship office wouldn’t dare to meddle. We arranged everything with him, we ran this huge story on the front page of Clarín, I had been with Fellini at his Cinecittà studios. However, in the end he couldn’t make it because of his mother, who was ailing, and Federico had to go to Rimini instead of Buenos Aires. He called me and explained everything and well…. Italian until the end, of course.

Amarcord was a fixture in Función Privada, but I remember the furore of The Crime of Cuenca.

Ah, yes, that was a significant moment. I was working at Clarín and we had this idea of organizing a week dedicated to Spanish cinema ‘In Freedom’ in 1983. I went to Madrid with famous distributor Argentino Vainikoff, whose son Luis Vainikoff is now our programming coordinator here at Pantalla Pinamar. We managed to produce a week that mobilized so much support and interest. It was unforgettable. We got 19,000 people going to the Opera theatre in August of 1983, we brought the largest delegation in the history of the Spanish film industry, headed by director Pilar Miró, who was imprisoned for a while after doing The Crime of Cuenca.

And you dared show it in Buenos Aires.

Yes, we even brought the complete version, which was very tough, especially the opening scenes. We had serious concerns about showing the film, I even got this call from a censorship official who told me they had heard about the film and so on, and so forth. And I had to just tell him: ‘Look, we’re going to show the film, it comes with the support of the Spanish Ministry of Culture and the director, Pilar Miró, is a very important filmmaker. However, we didn’t take any chances and when the film arrived, we hid it in Clarín’s safe deposit box and only took it out before the screening. We showed the film at the Opera theatre to a full house.

It was a tricky moment to screen that film.

Oh, you tell me! Pilar and I presented the film and the people couldn’t believe their eyes, it was August of 1983, the military juntas were still in the Government House just a couple of blocks away. Just think about it, this film, with its cry for freedom and its unmitigated hardness, was being shown in a country still ruled by a military government. It was a truly unforgettable moment. And when the screening ended, people just sat there in the crowded theatre, thunderstruck. Then Pilar Miró got up from her seat and someone from the theatre broke the silence with his shout: “Gallegos, no murais nunca!” (Spaniards, don’t you ever die!)

We’ve mentioned Función Privada, how did you pick the films for the show?

Función Privada was quite a funny chapter in my life because, from the very beginning, Rómulo Berruti and I were two virtually unknown gentlemen, just two journalists from Clarín. We had been working at public Channel 7 since 1977, but all of a sudden, in 1983, after the democracy was restored, channel editor Miguel Angel Merellano approached us with a proposal to do a film programme at 10pm to compete against channels 9, 11 and 13. We were like, ‘You’re crazy, nobody even knows us,’ never mind that colour television was just beginning and it was all the rage. It truly seemed a recipe for disaster: two guys that virtually nobody had heard of, on primetime on Saturdays, showing black-and-white films. But then, in the middle of that lunacy, we came up with the idea of showing old black-and-white series and actually found a production of Flash Gordon. And it was unbelievable, 20-point rating at 1am showing Flash Gordon!

So much was rumoured about you two drinking on the small screen.

Ah, right! Well, in fact, when we started showing Argentine cinema, we talked about inviting directors to our programme. It was broadcast at nighttime, so we said, let’s have a drink, it was water but it looked good on the screen (laughs)… And then the madness started, the embassies calling us, the Polish embassy saying, Very well, but couldn’t these two gentlemen drink a bottle of Polish vodka? And then the Italian embassy: ‘How about enjoying a good Chianti?’

So there was never any alcohol in fact?

No, no, no, it was water. Just this one time, Rómulo was coming down with the flu and had a small drink, but people decided to believe what they wanted. I remember we used to say: ‘Listen, why don’t we get something to eat, as well?’ It was a show full of good films, food, drinks…

The rating figures you reached were impressive, considering there were enough options between the other national channels and the cable television…

Oh, don’t I remember. Channels 9, 11, 13, nothing. We were so powerful they couldn’t touch us — and there were enough attempts at censorship, meddling… We were just showing high-quality films that got tongues wagging. Even nowadays we meet at least four or five people a day who talk to us about that show. I like to believe we formed our audience. It was pure polemic, the perfect formula: two guys sitting in a living room, talking about what they like, showing people what they liked, referencing personal tastes, familiar anecdotes… Our programme became a sort of high-end reality show but in earnest, with two guys who only shared the fact that they presented a film together. However, people were so moved and they actually thought we were doing the show live and used to call and ask for Rómulo or for me. They would say things like, ‘Tell Rómulo to cut down on his drinking because when the film started his eyes were bloodshot’ as if we were broadcasting live while drinking the whole world dry. But we didn’t bother denying it, since it was an intriguing image which seemed to work just fine. Ours was like a film inside a film.

Your show is still remembered today; its memory lingers.

I believe it was our manner — knowledgeable but stripped of any protocol — that captured people. We stopped doing Función Privada in 2000, it’s been 14 years already. People still greet us on the street as if it were yesterday. It’s a strange feeling, it’s as if Función Privada never stopped.

This year, you mark Pantalla Pinamar’s 10th anniversary and also four decades since the release of some iconic films. Statistics and polls nowadays say that people are still going to the movies although there have been some generational changes in the last 40 years. How do you see the audience today?

The Argentine moviegoer is an important moviegoer, both in quality and quantity, they spend good money on going to the movies, they talk about films, they bring it up and make it part of the daily culture. In Argentina, films are present everywhere at all times, from casual meetings to family dinners. It would seem that cinema is a key topic for Argentines not just a consumption item or a moment of mere entertainment. And I have to add that, while this audience enjoys the more conventional American cinema, they also see niche films from abroad in spite of the reduced options. It’s painful for someone like me, who goes to film festivals, to see how much is being denied to Argentine moviegoers and how distributors don’t dare bring some films or keep them in theatres for a short time. It’s painful to see highly-acclaimed films arriving here without getting a well-deserved acknowledgement.

After 10 years of Pantalla Pinamar, where are you headed in this second decade?

Look, I believe when something works you shouldn’t change it too much. Moreover, the film world provides all the news and novelties I need, it has a special dynamic that warrants an up-to-date approach. We’ll keep working together with the embassies, I love this diplomatic presence in Pinamar and the scope it lends to this event. You just have to keep your eyes wide open and see everything there is and everything that happens. And, if there’s any doubt, the audience will provide the answer, as always.

 

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