Thursday, 18 February 2016

The shadow connection… Malombra (1917)

“I committed my last image to the mirror. When you identify yourself within it, the mirror will break.”
Even through the ghostly haze of the nth copy digital images, this film carries an atmosphere and unsettling style all of its own. We’re almost exclusively in an old castle on an island in the middle of Lake Como and, like the star Lyda Borelli are unsure of what is and isn’t real.

In the film her character becomes somehow melded with a woman from the past and is gradually contorted by the agonies of her untimely demise whilst we look on pulled into the picture and locked in fascination at Borelli’s physicality and her use of gesture and form. The film is disjointed and my Italian is worse than my French but it doesn’t really matter as Lyda’s continuity of thought and expression explains all you really need to know.

Lyda Borelli
This is a Diva film and one explained with aplomb on the Silents, Please! blog but I’ll add my own take for what it’s worth. Lyda Borelli’s performance is mannered beyond all Anglo-Saxon restraint but that’s what so great about it: this isn’t pantomime, this is opera and Borelli’s expression is real in its exaggeration and how else would you want your Gothic heroine to disassemble?

Directed by Carmine Gallone, Malombra is based on the 1881 novel by Antonio Fogazzaro and begins with the arrival of a young woman on an isolated island. Malombra wears a black shawl as the makes her way from the jetty up to the gates of a high-walled castle where she has come to stay: is she grieving or has she been ill? She is greeted by her uncle the Conte Cesare d’Ormengo (Augusto Mastripietri) who owns the property.

There’s already an atmosphere of dislocation building and clearly Malombra is not at her best: she has come to recuperate but is she also being imprisoned? In a later film, made during Mussolini’s war-time regime, Malombra can only leave the island once she has married.

Days are spent lounging in the castle’s impersonal rooms and watching the sky float past being rowed across the lake… peace may be finding Malombra. Then, she accidentally discovers a hidden diary in a bureau along with a mirror through which a connection is made through the ages with Cecilia… her uncle’s first wife and a woman driven to her death by his cruelty.

Too much of a connection
Malombra is sent into shock by this ghostly connection as Cecilia’s last moment passes into her… a young writer Corrado Silla (Amleto Novelli) comes to her aid and helps her recuperate. Soon the two are drawn to each other…

Years before Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen seduced each other through the medium of chess; Malombra and the Doctor grow closer over the board. The camera switches from one to the other, Malombra making her play, Corrado reacting and then back to the winner who in losing the game has the man at her feet.

You just don't get this with draughts...
But all is not right with Malombra, and the next day she is overcome and tries to escape only for Corrado to stop her… in a daze and panicked she is clearly not the grand master of her emotions she had appeared… the two share an embrace but it is not right.

Silla withdraws from the island leaving Malombra in the care of the family Contessa Salvador (Giulia Cassini-Rizzotto), Steinegge (Amedeo Ciaffi) and the latter’s daughter Edith Steinegge (Consuelo Spada). Malombra is nudged into the direction of Conte Salvador (Francesco Cacace) – the Countessa’s son. But Malombra’s strangeness makes her impossible to reach and she prefers to read gothic romance rather than to re-connect with the living.

Borelli is perfectly suited to the expression of a woman possessed – her face and form contorted into extremes – everyday comforts losing their taste as she pours flowers onto the floor of her rooms: signs of life cast aside a funeral for hope with no life left to celebrate.

Elsewhere Silla has a relationship with Edith but he will always be drawn back to the unfinished business of his love.

Opera and not pantomime
Gradually Malombra realises the full horror of her connection to Cecilia and must confront the need to balance books… but has she been driven too far and is there any way back?

Giovanni Grimaldi’s cinematography captures the light and Lyda perfectly and there are no end of images shot for painterly impact alone. The Isle of Death, the woman who’s soul is being lost to the shadows and the tortures that move across her face as she loses herself in Cecilia’s nightmare.

Abandon in boats
The horror is in the inevitability of possession and the relentless descent. I’m not the only one to think of Rebecca but this film lacks that story’s sense of restraint… It is, however, a magnificent vehicle for Borelli and another example of Italian cinema in its silent prime.

Sadly Malombra is not available on commercial DVD apart from excerpts featured on the Diva Dolorosa DVD which, as previously mentioned is available separately or along with Angela Dalle Vacche’s essential Diva, Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema.



  2. Haha, I wrote that after I'd had a drink or two ;) Sorry! It's such a strange film, full of dislocations, but I really like it. That chess scene is fantastic, and La Borelli at her intense and gothic best ...

    1. No worries - me too! :-) It's another high quality performance from LB and a film that needs a decent DVD release! P

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