Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The hand-tint to Hell (or The Diva is in the details)… Satanic Rhapsody (1915)

If Bertini is the thought, the determined-soul of classic Italian Diva films then could Lyda Borelli be the style and grace? Less naturalistic than her “sister” she was the one with the classic theatrical training (Bertini being more purely “of the movies” although she did theatre too) and was remarkably expressive whilst creating a natural intimacy that compels the viewer still.

She was enormously successful until her “retirement” in 1918 by which time she had married count Vittorio Cini and for the next four decades focused on raising her four children and shuttling between Venice and Rome: sometimes the going gets so good there’ll never be a “better” time to quit.

Lyda Borelli
But her work and presence left their mark on an adoring public and the reasons for this seem perfectly exemplified by this odd and spectacularly-colourful take on the Faustian-pact… a skilled mash-up of contemporary dance, art and literature…

American academic Angela Dalle Vacche makes an interesting point about the nature of the Italian “Diva” film at this stage; yes they were films centred around strong female leads but, unlike their sisters across the pond, they “…were characterized by a suffering and maternal aura (mater dolorosa) which the American femme fatales never adopted.” Their trials were to include the full gamut of women’s issues such as abandonment, divorce, adultery, pregnancy, employment and, as here, aging.

An offer she can't refuse?
Based on a contemporary poem by Fausto Maria Martin and directed by Nino Oxilia (director of Sangue Blu) in 1915, Satanic Rhapsody was not released until the year of his death in the trenches of 1917, delayed by other schedules and possibly post-production colourization! Today it stands as a remarkable testament to Borelli’s appeal as well being a remarkable film in its own right.  A pre-raphaelite delight... and more.

Ugo Bazzini - would you trust this man?
Lyda plays Alba d’ Oltrevita, an elderly society lady, who has little life left and spends her days remembering her former beauty. She wishes far too hard and from out of a painting pops the malevolent form of Mephisto (zestfully realized by Ugo Bazzini) who offers to return her youth on the condition that she destroys a small statuette of Cupid which will mean that she will be restored but never again be able to feel love…

She throws the objet d’amour to the ground (does it smash?) and is instantly transformed into her younger self, vitality coursing through the veins of her outstretched, graceful arms as Miss Borelli begins to show her extraordinary physicality.

Reaching out to Tristano and Sergio
We see her looking at her reflection in a pond, surrounded by a veil of white silk that floats around her upper body born aloft by her movement: this is youth and beauty in motion and repose. She meets two brothers Tristano (Andrea Habay) and Sergio (John Cini) and proceeds to enchant them both in playgrounds, parks and parties.

All of this is shown in remarkable colour thanks to the labours of Oxilia’s army of hand colourisers – their technique isn’t always within the line but it shows the richness of the fabrics and more than a hint of the technicolour re-birth Alba’s pact has enabled. It is very much her journey as she sashays through a society that now views her with lust and awe – no longer pity.

But one cannot traverse in glory for long without impacting on those around you (I should imagine…) and soon Sergio is smitten, jealous of his brother’s share of Alba’s affection and wanting her for himself at any cost. He delivers an ultimatum: Alba must agree to marry him or he will kill himself… Now, it’s been a while, but that doesn’t sound like a winning tactic to me.

Consequences and complications start queuing up like London buses in a tube strike and you can be sure that… well, you know, Faust…

 “Alba has a confusing idea: the whole universe is love…”

The film is split into three parts with the first setting up the rejuvenation, the second the tug of love with the brothers and the third a dance of regret, desolation, hope and mortality. Borelli dominates this sequence even more than the others and there is no end of colourful moments as she wrestles with her turmoil. This is art in film.

Mirror mirror
There are some superb compositions and none more unsettling than her standing in front of her reflection – a double image – as she slowly draws a veil over her head: a veil for marriage and a veil for death. This action is repeated in the gardens as she prepares to make the choice that will kill her… a rebirth of a kind as she leaves behind the destruction of her immediate regeneration: this is a freedom she never knew she had.

Loie swirls and Lyda twirls
Satanic Rhapsody is “opera” and I doubt any other actress in Britain or Hollywood could carry it off or at least mean it in the way La Borelli clearly does at least in this context. Dalle Vacche – in the excellent Diva – Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema – points out the similarities between Borelli’s rapturous dance and American performer Loie Fuller but then Borelli was not only well-educated but also keen to express as much of her influences as possible. She gives a thoughtful and provocative performance so different in style and tone from what I’ve seen of La Bertini…  rich cinema.

I watched the 2007 reconstruction which features the original music from Pietro Mascagni written in 1914 and now played by Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz - it is good that the music survives to complete the experience of this most artful of films.

Further reading: This is just a blog, but these works are the real deal in terms of rigour, research and analysis; well written too even if I’m still trying to get to grips with Bergsonism ...

1.       Angela Dalle Vacche’s in-depth article Lyda Borelli’s Satanic Rhapsody: The Cinema and the Occult
2.       The same author’s Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema is available from Amazon.


  1. This is an all-time favourite for me! True Italian decadence, and I just love La Borelli ... and all the Italian divas, as you know. :) Rapsodia Satanica has an almsot surreal intensity, just beautiful. Very nice write-up :)

    1. It's a film you can really get lost in and Angela Dalle Vacche's analysis shows how premeditated the mood is. One I'd love to see on the big screen and the Italian LB is great! Thanks for reading. P