Monday, 7 September 2015

Everlasting love... Ma l'amor mio non muore! (1913)

Ma l'amor mio non muore! was specifically written for Lyda Borelli, one of Italy’s leading stage actresses and featured her performing two of her most famous roles on stage: Salome and Zaza in front of an undoubtedly star-struck audience of extras. It’s one of the moments; historical film as history in itself; the actress and her effect.

Lyda Borelli on stage
As Ivo Bloom notes in the booklet for the Cineteca di Bologna DVD release, it’s also a document of La Borelli finding her way with the new medium: her first time on screen, developing her film acting style and so instinctively well, even from the modern viewpoint. Next to Asta Nielsen, Borelli’s acting is amongst the most naturalistic you’ll find in 1913. Yes there are a few moments of over-wrought arms-aloft, hand-jiving but look closely and you’ll notice an incredible range of expression: fleeting moments of anger, and even disgust that wouldn’t be found on the face of many.

Borelli didn’t care about her “look” so much as her expression, it seems, even though the look took care of itself... and her storytelling is in many ways well in advance of the film’s narrative.

Borelli often shows emotion through poise alone...
Mario Caserini directs well with lots of similarities to contemporaries in Italy as well as elsewhere in Europe – Bauer, Christensen, Blom, Perret et al. There is, as Bloom notes, less editing than in American cinema but long takes on huge sets which provide their own “cuts” in the story.

The vast "playing area" of the Colonel's house
 In Colonel Holbein’s house, the parlour leads off to his study on the right and the dining room on the left which is initially covered by curtains. The characters move around in long takes and are choreographed to move the narrative around the space: Ida’s character Elsa being romanced by Sthar the spy at her piano whilst the traitor looks over to the study to see the two colonels examining the war plans he must steal. The colonels leave and whilst Elsa says farewell, Sthar sneaks across to the study and takes his prize.

No doubt Lois Weber or DW Griffith would have done this differently but it works all the same whilst also looking altogether more splendid and grandiose than they might have made it. It’s probably a bit lazy to say that the Italians favoured style over substance but there are some rich textures in the mis-en-scene and so many huge floral displays.

La Borelli also has more costume changes than Lady Gaga or even Lady Miss Kier (anyone remember DeeLite: a costume change for almost every song if memory serves!?) and this film is a must for dedicated followers of Mariano Fortuny and the rest. And, of course she wears it all well, with a practiced physicality developed over a decade on stage and yet with granular emotional control that belies her cinematic experience: she sucks the viewer into these improbably large spaces and you completely overlook some of the hams surrounding her (Improbable spaces? Impossible beards!).

The film starts with information being handed to the spy Moise Sthar (Gianpaolo Rosmino); he reads the instruction then furrows his brow working out how to achieve his goal to steal the secret war plans of the Wallenstein army.

The Rotter!
Next we cut to the army’s chiefs of staff, including Col. Julius Holbein (Vittorio Rossi Pianelli) who returns home to his daughter Elsa (Lyda Borelli) and their massive drawing room. They are entertaining Colonel Theubner (Emilio Petacci) tonight and he is greeted before the surprise arrival of Sthar who’s fiendish plan is to go to the colonel’s house and steal the plans!

The camera pans and follows Lyda...
The cur makes up to Elsa who politely demonstrates her skills on piano for him as he prepares his audacious robbery. Mission accomplished and the Holbein family are in ruins: the Colonel does the honourable thing leaving the blameless Elsa to be exiled. Harsh, as the young people now might say…

Elsa may be down but she is not out and, having made her way to the Riviera, soon secures a gig at the opera where her song and dance begins to ensure sell-out audiences. She’s the toast of the town and pestered by male admirers in a manner that must have been all too familiar to La Borelli.

Mario Caserini moves his characters with geometric precision
Surrounded by men in dinner suits, Elsa has never been more alone until she catches the eye of another sad-looking individual. We know, but she doesn’t, that this is Prince Maximilien of Wallenstein (Mario Bonnard) who has been sent to the coast to recuperate from illness, his father the Grand Duke of Wallenstein (Dante Cappelli) having been the same man who signed the order to exile Elsa…

The Prince and the showgirl... get a little too close for the censors
Fate has thrown the two together and soon they fall in love after Maximilien hears Elsa’s playing in a village church: just so we’re all clear - she might be an actress but she’s a soulful one.

Queue some moments of happiness and a quite convincing canoodle on a yacht which would never have got passed the powers that be in the US: passion.

But... even this new reality cannot escape the couple’s collective past and they are spotted by Sthar (what a spy he is!) who, having already done so much damage, is still intent on “revenge” and sets about revealing their relationship.

You know this will not play well in Wallenstein but will obligation and shame tear this love apart?

I watched the 2013 restoration which looks quite unreal for a 102 year old film (that’s as old as my Aunty Lil – who still looks grand!) with hardly a blemish. This makes the close-ups immensely rewarding as the Italians appeared to use far less make up than the Americans: Borelli lives!

There’s a choice of two soundtracks, a collection of contemporary works and an excellent new score from Francesca Badalini who plays on piano accompanied by Aurora Bisanti on violin and Guilia Monti on cello.

The disc is available direct from the Cineteca di Bologna or from Amazon (who bizarrely have it listed in books) – an important part of Italian film history and crystal clear view of one of the greatest performers of the era. Oh, I forgot to mention that she was a diva? Of course she was, but she was an actress more than anything else and her work is still fascinating.


  1. Lyda! Oh, she's so great. Well, you know I'm a big fan of the Italian actresses of this era - and their flower displays. :) I wouldn't personally describe her acting as naturalistic, I consider her much more stylized than Bertini for example, but in a way that she really owns. Smart of the filmmakers to tie in her real life stage successes, too! It's a very accomplished debut, I think.

    1. Maybe not naturalistic but certainly very controlled expression - with no histrionics and a wonderful mix of physical and facial expressiveness. Bertini was ahead of her time (pre-neo-realist?) both were so different and yet so compelling!

      viva l'Italia!