There’s something undeniably special about viewing silent films at the Castro. As the theater was built in 1922, it’s not too difficult to imagine that at least a handful of the films screened as part of this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival program didn’t light up the same walls with their shadows almost a hundred years ago. And what celestial shadows they were and are. At a boutique festival such as this, which only runs for four days (May 29 to June 1) and screens less than 20 feature films, it’s possible to see a clear curatorial byline—a dedication to variety that cuts a wide swath across directors (no two film by the same auteur), genres, and countries, all the while pushing forward the radical in form and narrative.
Many of the films that came out of (post)modern and historically revisionist eras of filmmaking—such as Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man—expressly took the rewriting (and righting) of historical memory as the meat of their content. But it’s rare to find a film clear-eyed about race relations (from 1928!) that also takes a Native American—or, half Native America and half Italian, in this case with Edwin Carewe’s Ramona—as its central character. Ramona stingingly darts away from the historically and morally muddied path of so many westerns that would come in the years of the talkies. In this film, white men are seen as the intolerant, merciless, and murderous villains, tacitly bent on genocide. In a scene rivaling the direct brutality of the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, the eponymous Ramona (an incredible Dolores del Rio) and her husband barely survive an attack on their village as white men play shoot ’em up for no better reasons then greed and bloodlust.