Saturday, 25 March 2017

The poet and the painter… Il Fuoco (1916), Lillian Henley and John Sweeney, Kennington Bioscope

One of the great silent Italian divas and the return of the Bioscope Dream Team, Lillian Henley on voice and John Sweeney on keys, this was an evening to savour as we were lost in the infinite gaze of Pina Menichelli and the heat of dangerous passion.

If Borelli was the most expressive overall, Bertini the most naturalistic, then Menichelli is perhaps the most purely cinematic diva with a career born in front of the cameras not on stage and a face meant to be photographed. She’s got cheekbones to burn and commands the audience’s attention as easily as her lover, sneering a wide-angled smile that just radiates operatic haughtiness.

You think it’s funny back there in row five? Maybe it is and maybe she means it to be; this is Fifty Shades of Red in which the lead character knows the extent of her own caricature… nothing phony to see here just a mesmeric talent and a woman who knows how to wear an owl headdress. She is a joy to watch and moves as freely as she expresses: a moth that burns the very flames it's attracted to.

Pina Menichelli
Diva films put the woman at the centre of the story and not necessarily as a tragic adornment. In Il Fuoco (The Fire) it is the leading man, the painter Mario Alberti (Febo Mari) who is subject to the female will and who is not guaranteed a happy ending. Over in the US, Theda Bara was channelling Kipling’s very British idea of a femme fatale as the vamp in A Fool There Was but in Italian film, women were just that bit more sophisticated.

Yes, Pina may stalk her male prey with darting ornithological exaggeration but her little mouse is all too willing to play along as he paints a sunset and she sneaks up behind passing poetic comment as he struggles with his vision. Mario is stricken and yet when he returns to see her again the next evening at the same spot she rudely spurns his attentions before storming off.

Febo Mari
But the poet is merely toying with her prey and has left a note on a bulrush setting out the terms of their ensuing contest in which she will seek him out in his “nest” and he will try to take control of her… He tries ot prepare but she takes him by surprise, scorns him as a mother’s boy and then demonstrates the energy efficiencies of pure passion: he can either love in a mild way like his table oil lamp or be consumed like the flames that erupt when she smashes it.

Naturally he opts for the quick burn and the next thing we know its morning and as she slinks him away, arms and hands intertwined, he leaves a note for his mother: he has gone to find the way.

In the poet’s castle – yes, busting rhymes paid out as big then as now – the artist’s creativity  reaches new heights as he paints his love as she drapes herself on the nearest couch. It’s a passionate work and one that impresses the critics and public alike. Mario is a star of his lady’s making and his painting makes him rich.

But… you cannot dream without awaking can you?

Giovanni Pastrone directs with Caibirian dynamism and there is some gorgeous composition as well dreamy dolly shots as his camera moves around the action.

The film came with Italian titles translated by David Robinson and impeccably read by Lillian Henley accompanied by John Sweeney on piano. I loved what this duo did with TerjeVigen last year and they were no less impressive tonight. Lillian brought musical intonation to the reading, working hand in hand with her fellow pianist: only a silent film musician would know how to pace the words and only another could control their playing so well as to allow the reading to meld with their playing. All the words said and all the notes played in exactly the right order!

There were some huge, romantic chords from John – so much emotional on screen - and Lillian’s modulation was precise, filled with practiced emotional edge: the two were dueting and Pina made three. More please; this stuff should be on prescription!

We watched a superb 35mm print travelled over from Italy as part of a joint venture between the Bioscope and South West Silents – an exciting alliance that promises more riches from European archives.

Amleto Novelli and Pina Menichelli,
Also on the plane was a short film also featuring Pina but in a more conventional romantic comedy, Papà (1915) directed by Nino Oxilia. The film begins with a jaded playboy, Giuseppe Piemontesi, discovering that he has a son out in the country. Looking for purpose in his life, he heads out to meet the young man who turns out to be the not-so-young Amleto Novelli (about 30 at the time, not much younger than his cinematic “dad”).             

The lad has been romancing a local beauty, played by Pina, and disappointing a lovelorn shepherdess (Suzy Prim), well, amidst the lovely scenery, can you guess what is going to happen…?

Cyrus Gabrysch played along to this pastoral aperitif and enhanced its gentle if slightly confusing joy with Lillian making verbal sense of the translated titles.

So, you're my Papa?
First up we broadened our minds with some travelogues from the Cineteca di Bologna DVD Grand Tour italiano. 61 film dei primi anni del ’900 (available direct from Bologna!). There was a sea of faces from 1910, all gobbling up the potential of instant fame from the faces looking back up at them on screen, a novelty that never fades. Then to the skies for some fascinating shots taken from the Brera Observatory in L' Eclisse parziale di sole del 17 aprile 1912 - a partial solar eclipse had been filmed and the mechanism for capturing this event was shown: all this from a time when relativity was barely a twinkle.

Next we joined a group of patiently-posing dignitaries at The Great ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone of the sugar factory in Casalmaggiore (1910) the stone was carefully laid and then the men – and a few women – power posed like so many cigar-chomping frozen peacocks, for the moving camera.

L' Eclisse parziale di sole del 17 aprile 1912
Lest we forget that the Italian sense of humour is amongst the most advanced in the World, a smashing 35mm print of A Shrapnel Duel (1913) was shown: two silly men trying to blow each other in pursuit of a young woman’s hand. Bombs are attached to the daft duellists and they try and hit their opponent’s shell using metal hammers: be careful not to lose your head (and other body parts) in love or war.

Lillian was on piano for these first three, as modulated and expressive with music as with words.

Ben fatto Bioscope!! Stupendo!


  1. As you probably know, Il fuoco is a personal favourite of mine! It's just so expressive, so committed, so mythical.
    It's interesting to contrast it with Papà - a very different, less distinctive role for Pina.
    As always, thanks for writing :)

    1. It's a stunning film and the presentation was superb with Lillian Henley's reading and John Sweeney's playing. Each diva is so different and so powerful!

      Best wishes & thanks for reading!!

      Paul :-)