In 1957, three friends from the Italian town of Alfonsine who shared a passion for film and communism, set out on a trip to the Soviet Union to explore their dream country. They recorded the whole journey on an 8mm camera. Using unique archive footage of the amateur filmmakers, The UK-Italian co-production The Train to Moscow by Federico Ferrone and Michele Manzolini tells the story of hope and disillusionment as the men came face to face with reality.
The film was introduced at the Doc Launch Presentation that took place March 9, 2012 as part of the East Doc Platform, to highlight 8 soon-to-be-released documentary features. The Train to Moscow received the East Doc Platform Award for Best Project in Post-production.
The Train to Moscow is based on a unique archive film material made by three amateur filmmakers in 1957. Where and how did you discover it? Or were you at first interested in the historical event – the first journey of Italian communists to the USSR – which led you to the film material?
With the producer Francesco Ragazzi we were thinking for about four years about making a film about the communist utopia in Italy. In July 2009, while we were doing some research at the Italian Amateur Film Archive (Home Movies), we discovered almost by accident an 8mm film about the trip to Moscow in 1957, shot by amateur filmmaker and communist supporter Enzo Pasi, who had died a few years earlier. While continuing our research, we started watching the whole archive of Enzo and interviewed his relatives. We then discovered that two of Enzo's best friends and comrades, Luigi and Sauro, had also been amateur filmmakers since the fifties. Their 8mm films were beautiful and the story behind them even more interesting. We understood that the most intimate and original way of telling the story of the communist utopia was through the lives and films of these three men.
How much film material did you work with? The film doesn’t consist only of the footage from the trip to Moscow but also many situations of everyday life in Italy at the end of 1950s.
We had access to over 30 hours of 8mm film archives. We used material from the early 1950s to the mid 1960s related to our characters' personal stories. They include everyday life in Italy, the trip to Moscow but also political rallies in Alfonsine and Bologna, a communist New Year’s Eve and even a trip to newly independent Algeria.
All shots shown in the film – including those of everyday life in Alfonsine – were taken by Sauro, Luigi and Enzo who all participated in the journey to Moscow. Did you reduce your selection from the amateur film archive just to these three or did you take into account all the available material?
We only used the material shot by the three. Alfonsine is a very small town so it is already a miracle to discover that in the 1950s three different amateur filmmakers lived there.
The footage is visually very strong and impressive, sometimes with a certain aspect of avant-garde style. It seems more 'professional' then 'amateur'. Although the film uses shots made by three different filmmakers, they have a great visual symbiosis. Is it caused by your editing work and selection or is it present in the material itself?
Most amateur filmmakers of the 50s had a much more developed practical knowledge of cinema than today. We consider our three characters genuine, although non-professional, filmmakers. It was only in a very few sequences that we focused our editing on harmonizing their styles. It is important to note, for example, that in Moscow Luigi, Sauro and Enzo only used one camera. In most of the original sequences, it is virtually impossible to determine who was filming. That is very significant as they seemed to have the same style and vision, political and cinematographic.
Almost all parts of the film are in black and white, the only colour sequence is from Moscow, which supports the utopian vision of the USSR as paradise. Is it the only part they shot in colour or is it your effort to underline the utopian point of view?
The first time that they ever filmed in colour was in Moscow. They had bought colour film, which was very rare and expensive for amateur filmmakers at that time. We wanted the small explosion of colour in this sequences to correspond to their emotion the moment they arrived in Moscow: a dream-like dance scene with a group of very colourfully dressed Moscow girls. For us, that represents the zenith of their utopian dream.
Do you use any part of the original film sequences from Sauro's film made in 1957, which was restricted by the Italian communist party? Or do you edit the original material (to build up the story of the film) from the very beginning in your own way?
In 1957, the Italian Communist Party was not in power nationally but it was the main party in Alfonsine. The original film sequences shot by Enzo, Luigi and Sauro were not actually censored by the party but they did indeed tried to boycott the screenings and avoid all possible discussions about the flaws of the Soviet regime. Concerning the editing, we edited the original film in our own way from the very beginning. In some particular sequences we stuck to the original editing but most times this meant a totally new visual form.
The film refers to a historical event but its topic – the awakening from a dream, the collapse of a utopia – is more universal. Generally, the film deals with the phenomenon of political utopia, which is something that is still relevant today. Do you think that in this sense your film might not be seen just as a historical study?
That is a crucial question. We were both born in the 80s and for most people of our generation, the disillusionment and suspicion surrounding politics is so strong that utopia and political participation in general have often been seen as something weird or even dangerous. Still most of us genuinely feel the need for a greater ideal to believe in, but we are often afraid of taking a stand. Our quest for utopia in this film is linked to this desire for and fear of political commitment.
In your previous films (Merica, The Enemy Within) you also deal with the topic of "how dreams are created" and follow the confrontation with reality. It offers an interesting social-historical view. What fascinates you about this phenomenon?
Our previous films dealt with immigration: utopia and the creation of a dream are a central part of every journey, especially those of migrants. The reason for our fascination is probably the confrontation between dream and reality.
Political passion is significant for the 20th century. Nevertheless, political utopia is still present today, isn’t it?
The era of political utopias as we knew it in the 20th century is probably over but the desire for a better society is still very strong. Today the idea of a perfect society is just a dream whereas in the past it was a concrete political goal. Italian communists of the 1950s, like Luigi, Sauro and Enzo, really believed that the dream was about to become reality. The confrontation with utopia is at the very center of our film.
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Il Treno va a Mosca , Italy, United Kingdom, 70 min, 35 mm, Digi Beta, Archive , Experimental, History
In the aftermath of Stalin’s death, three Italian communists engage in a trip to the Soviet Union to challenge their utopia with an 8mm camera.In 1957, Sauro, Luigi and Enzo all live in Alfonsine, a small town in Italy ruled like a miniature Soviet Union by the Italian Communist Party. As many communists in the West, they dream of the Soviet Union, and hope for the great Revolution. But with the wind of reform and self-criticism blowing through the Eastern Bloc after the death of Stalin the image of the Soviet Union as the workers’ paradise begins to crumble. They therefore decide to travel to the USSR to find out what is true and what is false in this supposed land of milk and honey. They film their entire journey with their 8mm camera. Through this invaluable personal archive, our film tells the hopes, disappointments and challenges of three young men faced with the reality of what seemed to be a utopia come true.