Cinema Crazy

Written by  Paolo Micalizzi
A short account of some wonderful cinemas and the people behind them.
The Ferrara cinema world recently lost its most representative figure, Antonio Azzalli, who was well-known regionally and even nationally for the scope of his involvement and his great passion for the cinema as witnessed by the many initiatives he organised, first and foremost the Progetto Cinema Scuola which was supported from the start by the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara.

Antonio Azzalli officially began this career in 1937, when - together with his brothers - he began to manage the Sale Riunite Apollo after the death of his father Aldo who had run the "Progetto Apollo" in Ferrara since 1915. The Apollo opened on 17 December 1921, with a showing of Maddalena Ferat by Roberto Leone Roberti (father of Sergio Leone), starring Francesca Bertini. The Apollo was at that time the best of the popular cinemas, with 1200 seats. The public clearly appreciated the new cinema, in part because in 1923 Aldo Azzalli opened a new dancing, skating and tearoom venue, and the parties organised there attracted the cream of society.

Entering Antonio Azzelli's office, lined with cinematic memories, brings back significant moments in the history of the Sale Riunite Apollo. On a yellowed sheet of paper, preserved under glass, are recorded the June 1925 receipts from King Vidor's film The Big Parade. It took over 82 000 lire in twelve days, an enormous sum. As we know, sound arrived in the cinema in 1927 with Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer featuring Broadway showman Al Jolson. But Aldo Azzalli was already experimenting with sound in Ferrara in 1925, and The Big Parade was accompanied by "noises" made by appropriate instruments such as drums and rattles, which the orchestra played live below the screen.
At one point, the film's protagonist, the soldier Slim, passed through a wood and noticed a German soldier in ambush beneath a tree. At the exact moment that Slim fired on the enemy, Azzalli, who had climbed onto a ledge below one of the Apollo's windows four metres above the ground, fired a shot with his own regulation pistol, terrifying the public who only learned what had actually happened afterwards.

Antonio Azzalli recounted this episode with much amusement, while showing other cinema exhibits: the Supercinema Apollo advertisements for such films as Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927), Laurel and Hardy's 1933 film The Devil's Brother, and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), all films which were shown in that cinema with great success: and also theatre bills from films which remained close to Azzalli's heart.

Alongside the Apollo, he launched the Apollino in 1947, a 200 seat cinema which was at the centre of the Cinema Circle's cultural activities: after the films were shown, there were lively debates between the public and the most enthusiastic cinema lovers of the time. The Sale Riunite Apollo might be described as the forerunner of today's multiplexes in Italy. In 1961 it was closed after being compulsorily purchased by the city authorities who had decided to widen Porta Reno.
Azzalli continued to work in other cinemas, but he always wanted to establish a new Apollo. This he did, in Piazzetta del Carbone, opening on 12 December 1970, with the showing of Waterloo by Sergei Bondarchuk with Rod Steiger and Orson Welles. It was inaugurated in great style, anticipating the events which the new Sala Apollo would host in the coming years.

Azzalli's enthusiasm and passion for the cinema also caught up the Embassy (another of the cinemas managed from 1958 onwards by Azzalli, who also opened the Alexander in 1973 and extended the Apollo with the Apollo 2 and Apollo 3). The Embassy several times hosted the City of Ferrara's Science Fiction Festival, and was also used by the FAC (Film Arte & Cultura), which organized many shows. FAC shows were also hosted at the Mignon cinema under Antonio Azzalli's management.

FAC's activities led, in 1977, to the founding of the FAC-Scuola, with a cycle of films in their original prints: an initiative for students organised by a group of teachers. The aim was, and still is, to use the cinema in school as a teaching aid. The scheme inclines towards high quality films, and encourages language studies by showing films in the original language. To familiarise the students with various aspects of the cinema, seminars are also held attended by experts and supported by visual material.