The silent film era, thanks in part to productions like Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, for many is firmly stuck in a world of golden-age thinking. Wasn’t it a great time? Classic, black-and-white, the comedies, the epics, the soft-edged, hand-cranked, haloed look of it all. But for every Safety Last, Metropolis, and Hunchback of Notre Dame, there were hundreds of lesser works; the loss of many silent films is terrible for film historians, but helps the story that it was a wondrous time of artistic commitment in general, rather than particular cases.
Love Among the Ruins takes its cues from this kind of thinking, and combines it with a play towards the rise of interest about film preservation techniques. Between digital technology and the continued work of locating and identifying materials in archives, films are still being brought back from the dead: Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson and Philippe Garrel’s Actua 1 are just two recent examples. Love Among the Ruins uses that narrative to open as a documentary account of a long-thought-lost-now-discovered Italian silent film (which coincides with an earthquake, because just finding a film wouldn’t be enough). After meandering through a series of interviews (the documentary acting plays out like an elaborate lie, where every Italian film scholar spouts the same vague praises about the film) and restoration process examples (which talk down to its intended audience, who has likely seen nitrate-film discussions on TCM and better, quicker demonstrations on Criterion releases), the actual silent film plays out uninterrupted.
The reason some people lament the end of the silent era is that the form was still developing, innovating, and that it was only financial considerations that abruptly shut off production — who knows how it might have changed, how it might have impacted film technique for the future? This is the question that haunts the thoughts of those that imagine silent film as something alive — here it’s costume party filmmaking, where the only direction to the actors appears to have been “Act over the top!”
At barely 70 minutes (divided roughly in half between the two segments), while guessing intention is a pointless game, there does seem to be a lack of ideas, and a lack of actual engagement with the form. There’s a soldier at war, a love correspondent at home, an overbearing father, a teacup-sipping suitor, and all of them widen their eyes and attempt a facsimile of gestural performance. It’s the work of people who can identify common themes, but haven’t asked why they work — at least in The Artist, the same things that marked it clearly as something made in this decade, such as the reliance on dialogue, streamlined narrative structure, and quotation of sound films, made it a more interesting “silent” film. Compared to how television makers are playing with classic-film in-jokes (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s TCM introduction; Amy Schumer’s 12 Angry Men), Love Among the Ruins is a conservative, obvious work of parasitic art where a logline with a connection to a recent Academy Award winner was more important than anything else.