Saturday, 9 January 2016

Top cat… Tigre Reale (1916)

Is it getting hot in here? Now it’s probably the flames, lapping ever higher over the Grand Hotel Théâtre de l'Odéon but in truth it’s been getting warmer ever since the boys first noted the arrival of Pina Menichelli as Contessa Natka. As a man they turned to watch her slink out of her overcoat and address herself to the room with arched back and eyebrow, head held high to view the audience, looking through them with the superior gaze of a higher being.

Pina Menichelli
The great divas of Italian film in the teens enjoyed the male gaze and they also rose above it. This in itself might be a deliberate part of their appeal but as exploitation goes, it’s a cut above. Francesca, Lyda… they were in complete control, theatrically-experienced women of distinct presence and intellect but it’s Pina who is perhaps the most purely cinematic. Menichelli went straight to celluloid and it shows as she plays to the camera naturally filing the frame with poised elegance and an almost unconscious joy.

Their performances are like songs and only in Italy could you really get away with such melodramatic musicality and yet, always, there was Bertini’s calculated glare, Borelli’s sneering intensity and  Menichelli’s  selfless smile, to lift us above the act: artifice completely under-cut by abandon.

Giorgio is transfixed, but Pastrone shows reaction then action
Tigre Reale (The Royal Tigress) was directed by Giovanni Pastrone who brings some of Cabiria’s movement and scale although this time without the elephants. Menichelli was in that film (as was Bertini) and here she is the focus of Pastrone’s action as the married Russian Countess with a past who drives a young Italian diplomat Giorgio La Ferlita (Alberto Nepoti) to distraction in Paris.

The two’s first encounter leaves Giorgio besotted and unable to comprehend Natka's seeming indifference.  She promises him a dance – marking his card – but he looks up to see her leaving before they can meet on the dancefloor.

Giorgio is injured in a duel and receives an encouraging note from Natka to speed his recovery. A game of frustration begins before Giorgio can be certain that his feelings are reciprocated; Natka leaves just as he arrives, breaks arrangements, pulling away in her limousine just before he can reach her – she’s always just out of reach yet reaching out enough to keep him coming (we all know how that feels don’t we?).

Natka spots Giorgio in the wing mirror
Finally the two meet and Natka’s reticence is explained in a flashback – her unhappy marriage leading to a relationship with a young man named Dolski (Febo Mari) who her husband exiles to Siberia. Naturally Natka follows only to find him in the arms of another – he had given up hope yet seeing her again his love is rekindled. She, too proud to take him back, shuts him out and challenges him to demonstrate his love which he does by shooting himself making his point whilst ensuring that she loses hers.

Natka and the love of her life
Years of half-life have left her resistant to male company too afraid of finding love and now that she has she withdraws again from Giorgio and everyone else: still married and miserable she dwindles away masking her pain through self-medication.

Meanwhile Georgio lives on learning to love a new woman, the wealthy Erminia (Valentina Frascaroli). They plan to marry but at their engagement party he receives a letter from Natka… who must see him again.

"Natka's voice has something enigmatic and fatal about it..." ran the original title card
Arriving at her rooms in the Odeon, he finds her close to death, mind and body smothered in narcotic confusion, a woman who cannot live any longer. Forgetful, she drinks another few drops of morphine and collapses on her true love… overdosed and delirious, things are about to get a lot worse as fire engulfs the Odeon and her husband Count de Rancy (Gabriel Moreau), walks in only to promptly lock the lovers in.

Smoke billows, flames rise higher… is Natka even alive? Can the lovers escape… how many operas have a happy ending?? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Tigre Reale is another extraordinary tone poem from this golden age of Italian cinematic expression. It may be too emotive for some tastes and yet, once you get the style and the method it makes for captivating viewing. It’s interesting how early cinema was so clearly an extension of existing cultural styles in each country but you would expect no less with a new medium that could only be informed by theatrical method as it forged a new identity within increasingly-porous national boundaries.

Pina sets the tone
As Pastrone influenced Griffith so he too would learn new tricks from America, Germany and Sweden. But in 1916 the style was more clearly Italian! There’s some deft touches such as Natka’s point of view shot looking in her compact mirror to see Georgio moving towards her car, whilst the fire at the hotel is mirrored by the fire dance at the neighbouring theatre as the director cross-cuts between the two dramas: one real the other imagined… truth revealed in theatre.

The Fire Dance and the fire
The flashback sequence is also well handled with excellent exteriors of the sleigh ride across the snow, Natka’s rescue and the tragic circumstances of Dolski’s sad suicide. Good work from cinematographers Segundo de Chomón and Giovanni Tomatis who also allow Pastrone to combine close-ups with camera-fluidity – there is an especially impressive moment in the theatre as the view slowly reveals the stage beyond the watching countess then the audience and her distance from Giorgio.

Cinema in the theatre
It is a lovely-looking film and yet Tigre Reale is frustratingly not available on DVD although extensive segments are included in Diva Dolorosa (1999) – a compelling compilation of the diva period with snippets of Borelli, Bertini and Menichelli combined with the lesser lights of Soava Gallone and Helena Makowska and set to Loek Dikker’s swooning neo-classical score.

There are rough copies on youTube but this film deserves the same sort of attention as Sangue Blue and Ma l'amor mio non muore both of which are on DVD from Cineteca Bologna.

Diva Dolorosa is available along with Angela Dalle Vacche's excellent Diva, Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema or on its own from Amazon.

Floral fetish: Natka nibbles the flowers in her cab...


  1. Tigre Reale is awesome. I LOVE YOU PINA.
    This is a great post, I love the way that you write about the Italian divas - you really nail their strange and wonderful appeal.

    1. Thank you very much SP! This is a really classy period of Italian cinema and I'm loving your work on the divas too! Here's hoping there are some more releases from Cineteca di Bologna! Best wishes, Paul