Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Pre-neo-realism… Francesca Bertini's Assunta Spina (1915)

Filmed entirely using natural light in wintry November 1914, Assunta Spina presents a stunning portrait of Naples in its already slightly-faded glory. Always one of the most edgy Italian cities, it makes a suitably gritty backdrop to this adaptation of Salvatore di Giacomo’s play of tough love lost and the price to pay.

Nominally directed by her co-star Gustavo Serena, Francesca Bertini claims pretty much full credit in the superb documentary accompanying the Kino release: The Last Diva (1982), made when she was in her early nineties but still very much with her faculties intact: a consummate professional who knew her worth,  proud of her many grandchildren and her past career.

She provides a fascinating commentary on her most famous film as she is taken to a screening: as far as I know this is pretty much unique? It’s very moving to see her gaze upon her past beauty and to see her mouth 70-year old dialogue – “the title cards are superfluous”, she says, lip-reading but also following her own rich emotional expression.

There are dozens of location shots, all of which used locals as extras and which add to the feeling of realism – “I was the first to invent neorealism, not them!” she exclaims not without justification. It’s maybe not Rome Open City but it has more in common with later French cinema such as Cœur fidèle or Pabst’s social drama, than the epics you associate with early Italian cinema. We couldn’t hear then but the dialogue was delivered in Neapolitan for additional authenticity… this is almost method Dogma!

Bertini, Gustavo Serena and Luciano Albertini
Bertini had a small part in Cabiria but there’s no sense of its influence on this fraught, micro-drama filmed less than a year later. There are no close-ups but plenty of medium-range shots that allow you to follow the actor’s thoughts as love, jealousy, anger and despair play themselves out.

It feels operatic and that’s not to suggest that the acting was histrionic – Bertini famously had more subtlety than most “divas” of the period and this is forcefully underlined by clips in the documentary of her 1916 and 1934 versions of Odette (the latter directed by Marcel L’Herbier). Her style is compelling in both films but she has clearly developed a lot in the intervening years and plays the role with Garbo-esque grace and depth.

Even at 90 she is ordering the men around and teasing them and she admits that she must have been hard to work with given a personality for which the word “forceful” might seem inadequate, whilst she also liked to nail things in single takes and without much rehearsal…

Bertini had played small parts in the stage adaptation of di Giacomo’s story and wanted to use it as a vehicle to show what she could do in presenting great tragedy without frills.

The film opens with a view of the Bay of Naples into which Bertini is faded in: all power and purpose, setting the audience up for the next hour by assuring them that this will be dramatic and she will take them through the turmoil ready or not – almost a mission statement for her theatrical will power.

Assunta lives on the outskirts of Naples with her father and has fallen in love with a butcher, Michele (Serena – one of the stars of Quo Vadis?) who works near her laundry in the centre of town. There are great location shots of the two walking on the beach, rowing through the Bay and overlooking the city: see Naples and…

But Assunta and Michele relationship is undermined by the lingering affections of the man who has lost out, Raffaele (Luciano Albertini) who haunts the lovers and tries to sow seeds to push them apart. He writes to Michele warning him that his love is seeing someone else but after rushing to surprise Assunta the butcher is assured that all is well.

Michele proposes to Assunta in her laundry and they set out for an engagement party in Posillipo which provides one of the film’s great set pieces as the lovers set off across the bay and celebrate, al fresco, in the shadow of the ancient walls.

But it can’t last: Raffaele turns up to sow discord and Michele can’t set aside his jealousy for his love. Frustrated, Assunta makes things worse, by flirting with Raffaele. One thing leads to another and the two men have to be hauled apart. But, far worse is to come as – in a rage – Michele, slashes Assunta’s cheek. Safe to say the wedding is off.

Michele is arrested and looks set for a long stretch in spite of Assunta’s guilty interventions. She argues that she provoked him and tries to take the blame…but it’s too late and he is sentenced to two years.

She is offered help by one of the court officials, Don Federigo Funelli, (Carlo Benetti) who has a particularly cruel trade in mind. Assunta manages to keep Michele in Naples Prison and even to gain some visiting rights, but she sacrifices her love and her soul to do so.

No spoilers: With every passing month she falls more for her helped and her sincerity towards Michele drains away. When Funelli gets bored and leaves she is left in ruins with no man to support her and Michele not long from release: how can she face him after so long a betrayal? Can he ever forgive her when she tells him – how can she even begin to explain?

Assunta Spina is a very human story and easily believable especially when viewed in the context of the times (as Bertini reminds her interviewer). Jealousy is a powerful emotion and the alpha female cannot quite resist her power over men – a “flirt” as Bertini observes in 1982.

There’s excellent camerawork from Vittorio Storaro following the imaginative direction of Bertini and Serena (if he could get a word in edgeways…).

Serena and the other actors support well but ultimately we only have eyes for La Bertini who dominates with her instinctive positioning, under-played intensity and range. She claimed not to be able to afford lighting or to use make-up and so what we see is even more impressive: a natural beauty in every sense.

The Kino DVD is available direct and from the usual online retailers. It comes replete with an interesting soundtrack based on contemporary operatic themes: more in keeping than a piano roll would have been – FB deserves the additional dramatic emphasis: her power and sincerity is never in doubt.

Post script: Frustratingly, there are few of Bertini’s 100 or so silent films surviving or available to view. The Lady of the Camellias (1915) is available on YouTube whilst two films are on the European Film Gateway in decent quality: L' Amazzone Mascherata (1914) and
Diana L'Affascinatrice (1915).

There are snippets from Malia (1917), Odette (1916) and La Bufera (1913) also on YouTube but no sign of Tosca and other films mentioned as being in the film archives in the documentary. It is to be hoped that more of these will see the light of day. From all accounts, Francesca’s Bertini’s talent and range is not something you can fully appreciate from a single film, no matter how good.

Tosca re-enacted

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