The atmosphere of intense excitement was palpable in the Haifa Cinematheque’s small auditorium last Friday, the second day of the 29th Haifa Film Festival. Dozens of cinema fans filled the auditorium, waiting with great anticipation for the screening of the classic, “Providence” (1977), the first English-speaking film by one of the greatest French directors, Alain Resnais.
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A decade-long legal tangle led to the loss of copies of the film - a situation that was only rectified when a French producer stepped in, bought the rights to the film and funded its complex restoration, which took several years. Israeli filmmaker Jorge Gurvich was instrumental in bringing the film to Israel, after hearing that the restored version had been screened for the first time at the Venice Film Festival. He stood on stage with moist eyes, proud that the Haifa Film Festival was only the second festival in the world to screen the restored version. In the audience was the film’s cinematographer, Ricardo Aronovich, 83, who came especially to Haifa from Paris for the screening and who agreed to tell Haaretz something about the film’s production.
“Providence,” based on a screenplay by British playwright David Mercer, consists of two principal parts: an evening that showcases the ideas and nightmarish memories of an elderly author, played by Sir John Gielgud, and a birthday party for the author. The film is an emotional and intellectual challenge for the viewer and, despite the mixed reviews it received when it first came out, it is still fresh and relevant today.
Renais shatters traditional narrative and time conventions, mixing the characters in a dream-like fashion. In so doing, he offers a bag of cinematic tricks that are intended to create an atmosphere of discomfort. Broad sections of the film are narrated by the author, who builds the film before our very eyes, choosing characters, wondering out loud what to do with them, dismantling and constructing scenes, and sometimes losing control altogether. At the same time, he grapples with his demons, with his excessive drinking and with the fact that he is slowly dying. The film presents a nightmare that touches on the creative process, on oedipal conflicts and on destructive interpersonal relationships. A number of film critics have claimed that director-screenwriter David Lynch was strongly influenced by this film when he created “Lost Highway” (1997) and “Mulholland Drive” (2001.)
Interestingly, “Providence,” has been revived in the city in which it was conceived. Mercer wrote extensive sections of the screenplay during a vacation with his Israeli wife, Dafna Mercer, in the home of her mother in the Haifa neighborhood of Bat Galim. From the balcony where he worked on his typewriter for several hours each day, Mercer had a view of the Mediterranean in the background.
An Argentine Jew who has been living for many decades in Paris, Aronovich continues to work as a cinematographer. He was born in Buenos Aires into a Russian family, which he describes as “Jewish gauchos.” After Juan Peron was toppled from power in a military revolution, Aronovich moved to America, where he studied cinematography at the IIT Institute of Design, a graduate school of the Illinois Institute of Technology, located in Chicago. Returning to Argentina, he worked with local directors, such as Simón Feldman, and then traveled to Brazil to film Ruy Guerra’s “Os Fuzis” (“The Guns”) in 1964. When Guerra asked him to shoot his next film in Europe, Aronovich and his wife journeyed to Paris, where he has made his home ever since and where he continues to work in his profession. In the course of his long career, he has contributed his cinematographic skills to many films by famous directors, including Costa-Gavras’ “Missing” (1982,) Ettore Scola’s “Le Bal” (1983) and “La Famiglia” (1987), and Louis Malle’s “Le souffle au coeur” (“Murmur of the Heart”; 1971.)
“It was a great surprise and honor when Alain Resnais asked me to do this movie,” he says about “Providence.” “I was a friend of the camera operator. Resnais and I only met once - and the deal was sealed. We became friendly, as much as one can, since Resnais is a detached, cold person, although he seems friendly. He is a great artist who shoots with great elegance, but he declined after ‘Providence’. I can never tire of watching it. It’s an important and touching movie, truly a great work of art.”
How was it to work with Resnais?
“He was both very present and tranquil. But I think it’s difficult to get close to him. Prior to the shootings, we had long talks and we looked together at photographs he had collected. He is in fact a great photographer. I grasped what he wanted and needed, and extensive tests had to be done in order to achieve it.”
How do you compare working with him to other directors?
“Fortunately, I have worked with many directors. Ettore Scola was without any doubt the most enjoyable to work with. He is a ‘mensch.’ I’m not sure I could say that about Resnais.”
Cinematography plays a key role in creating the film’s somber and confusing atmosphere. Aronovich explains that the “first and main part of Providence had to be sinister, oppressive, cold and ruthless. And at the end of the film, the reality part of the party, there is an explosion of warmth and color that comes after all the grayish and bluish scenes.”
How did you achieve it?
“The big house of the lawyer, for example, was designed to look like a mausoleum, with the look of a lot of marble and with a huge entrance. I had a wonderful time collaborating with the art director of the film. We could pinpoint the mood of heavy, cold, mortuary-like scenes in it. In the opening shots of the foliage, Resnais insisted on giving the trees a special sinister character. So we filmed dark trees and used filtering and color corrections.”
The images in the movie have been compared by film critics to surrealist paintings.
“We actually never talked about it. But you could say that the film is in certain parts surrealistic. We shot in Belgium, in Antwerp and Brussels, and in Providence, Rhode Island. The idea was to confuse the viewer. For example, we shot Dirk Bogarde sitting in the car from two angles: The right-hand side was shot in Antwerp and the left-hand side was shot in Providence.
“Or there was a bedroom with a huge staircase, and in the next shot the staircase was gone. Some things were very subtle, just to impose a strangeness throughout the film. Most of the film was shot in a studio. It’s a very well-done example of what I love in cinema.”
In one of the most difficult scenes, a physician uses a scalpel to cut open the corpse of an old man whose inner organs are then exposed to the viewer. Aronovich reveals that this was the corpse of a man who had died a week before the scene was shot.
“It was very hard to do it,” he says. “It was shot in the mortuary of a university in Antwerp, with one of the bodies that were given to the medical school. It was quite harsh. It’s a film, especially if you were working on it, that makes you very aware of death.”
He notes that it was a great honor for him to work with such an illustrious cast, which includes, besides Gielguld and Bogarde, David Warner, Elaine Stritch, and Ellen Burstyn. “Sir John Gielgud was very serious about his role,” he recalls. “I remember him asking out loud: ‘Shall I say I have great pain up my ass or I have great pain up my arse?’”
“Nobody knows it, but there is a famous Argentinian novel called ‘Diary of the War of the Pig,’ by Adolfo Bioy-Casares, which I am positive was an inspiration for the film,” says Aronovich. “Resnais and Mercer never admitted it and I didn’t want to embarrass them. The script was very detailed, from the very first to the last shot, and was hardly changed during the filming. David wrote a wonderful script with very rich language.”
Throughout your career you only filmed one movie in Israel. Does being Jewish affect your work?
“I never thought about it, but being Jewish is very present in my life and important to me. I somehow try to convey the idea to others that I am not European, that I’m from Argentina and Jewish. In fact, I read lately a serious article that claims that Israeli cinema and Argentinian cinema are the two best cinemas today.”