Sunday, 29 July 2018

Divas in Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival 2018


When in Rome… this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival included a fair dollop of domestic product with so many films from the early silent period and, of course, including the greats of the “diva period”. There are no doubt intricate socio-cultural reasons behind the predominance of such strong female leads at this time – not forgetting strong men like Mascist or the heroes and villains of classical Rome – but the fact is that no other country seemed to have celebrated women in quite the same way.  The influence of turn-of-the-century “black romanticism”  on Italian arts mixed with more contemporary concerns of a changing society led to women holding an almost unique position within film narratives,

As Angela Dalle Vacche, has said*: "Although widely used in contemporary English, the word diva in 1915 Italy meant something different from what it means today (and elsewhere) …the female stars of that period were characterized by a suffering and maternal aura (mater dolorosa) which the American femme fatales never adopted. Furthermore, in early Italian cinema a diva-film meant a melodrama with Orientalist décor dealing with women’s issues such as aging, abandonment, divorce, adultery, pregnancy, employment and so forth.” 

In other words, as Angela also says: “the diva is not a vamp”.

Pina Menichelli 
La moglie di Claudio (1918) with Antonio Coppola, 35mm

In the first film featuring Le Grandi Tre Dive, Pina Menichelli set the opera-without-sound mode to stun with maximum radiance as she threw her head back, smiled her malevolent smile and laid waste to half a dozen male hearts and minds. Actually, make that, *absolutely* stunning... Pina may be an acquired taste, but do you think she gives a damn what you care? She is superbly twisted in this film which features foreign agents trying to get hold of top secret inventions – a similar plot to the Ritrovato’s Wolves of Kutur serial (Great War pre-occupations).

Pina’s character, Cesarina, is married to inventor Claudio Ruper (Vittorio Rossi Pianelli) who has a super new gun but an unfortunate cash-flow issue… the baddies are intent on stealing his designs and selling them to overseas powers which is strictly against his dream of peace through enabling one-nation benevolence…

Cesarina and "him indoors"...
None of this bothers his wife who is busy seducing his adopted son Antonino (Alberto Nepoti) and Ruper’s ace engineer Moncabré (Gabriel Moreau). Unknown to Cesarina, he has been sent to seduce her (Ha! Good luck for trying pal!) but, of course fails, and she gets the emotional drop on him and, his mind turned to mush, he gifts her the money he was supposed to use to bribe her for the plans…

He gets despatched and the baddies get badder while Cesarina becomes more and more outrageous… it can only end one way… or can it; the final third twists and turns allowing Pina ample chances to display charm and disdain; in some ways she’s the perfect diva and then you think of Bertorelli and Bertini; all three so potent and so different. Here Giovanni Pastrone directs with powerful economy; he knew his lead so well.

Antonio Coppola accompanied with some playfull jazz-inflected dramatics; it must be a joy to accompany Menichelli, that throw of the head always the cue for dramatic disdain as she stares out to admire the quivering men in her way…

Francesca Bertini and Gustavo Serena in L'Avarizia

L’Avarizia
(1918) with Daniele Furlati, 35mm

It was Bertini time and the Diva you’d least like to face in a fist-fight, did not disappoint.

Francesca was magnificent in her rage in a film that dealt with the poisonous effects of greed with all the narrative subtlety of Sham 69 (look ‘em up kids!). Watching diva film, listening to classic Italian progressive rock music (don’t @ me) and just being in Bologna you have to leave your critical ego at the door… if you want to. This is expressive film that is driven by powerful, genuine emotion more than subtle plotting. It works on your emotions as much as Sennett works on your sense of humour; you don’t laugh with Bertini you share her angst, passion and fury… it’s an exegesis experience and you’re cleansed by the shared recognition of tragedy and – if you’re both lucky – redemption.

This film was one of a series dealing with the seven deadly sins and, as you’d expect, hit the nail right on the head, repeatedly. Bertini plays, Maria a woman kept in near poverty by her avaricious Aunt who lives in her sick-bed and takes every penny she can earn and hoards it while her niece struggles to look after them both.

Maria has a lover, Luigi (frequent collaborator Gustavo Serena), who is similarly held back by his father (Franco Gennaro), a scribe and draughtsman, who hides his small fortune in the secret panels of his desk and plans for his son to marry someone with better prospects. The youngsters have each other and the sunshine and need for little but are dragged down by the bitter appetites all around them.


Ron’s friend is a wastrel who does nothing but spend his inheritance and hang out with fine young things in expensive restaurants… they laugh at Luigi, “the pleb” who cannot connect with these pointless butterflies. Meanwhile Maria is pursued by a fraudulent count, who possibly in a hang-over from a previous film on lust, wants the one he can’t have and will stop at nothing to persuade Aunty to exchange her girl for cash.

The plotters intertwine as Maria – who can’t read or write as Aunty wouldn’t pay for schooling – inadvertently gives the game away by asking Luigi’s father to write down a love letter to her son. Once he realises who her love is he turns the communication into an anonymous accusation that Viv is betraying him with the Count who is going to fund the opening of her dress salon. The lover’s split in a physically-impressive scene with the actors almost intertwined in an agony of miss-conception… and this is just the start. Ron goes off to Sicily to recover – much snickering from the Italians in the audience – whilst Aunty dies in shock after seeing what misery she has heaped in her girl…

Fortunes rise and fall as Maria does indeed open her salon with her inheritance but it’s not enough and she has to contract with the Count for extra capital. The salon is a smash and we get to see Bertini the clothes horse as she models a series of exquisite gowns… Mean Luigi makes his way in the south and is soon ordering people around in impressive trousers…

Sadness is a warm gun...
But the Count wants payment in kind and he picks on the wrong woman to force his affections… he attacks in the night but reckons without the full force of Maria’s will. This section allows Bertini to power through her paces like a feral cat at bay with huge tresses of obsidian curls flying as she destroys the predator. There’s a price to pay and, as is always the way, there’s simply no guarantee of a happy ending.

The film was directed by Gustavo Serena and produced by Francesca Bertini herself, off all the divas she had most control over what she did. We also saw the closing, most dramatic clip from Tosca in which the actress goes through the agonies of the double-crossing of her lover… Bertini’s range is spectacular but she reins herself in, never wanting to lose the grounding reality.

Lyda Borelli
Carnevalesca (1918), Antonio Coppola, 35mm

Lastly but not least, Lyda Borelli, arguably the most sophisticated of the three grand divas, more graceful and choreographed than her sisters but no less powerful… a stronger theatrical foundation meaning that she is more mannered than Borelli and less wild than Menichelli.

The Leggenda di Santa Barbara (1918) was screened, a short in which the eponymous Babs (Borelli) has to fend off the murderous Vandals who killed her father with a box of explosives. Borelli saves her sisters by unleashing the explosive at just the right time… allegorically and figuratively… Barbara's father is killed during a raid of the Vandals. When Barbara and the other women are threatened, she throws a box with explosives to the attackers, which causes their death.


Carnevalesca (1918) is based around a series of carnivals that illustrate the life of royal cousins in the castle of Malaysia, from innocence at the White Carnival to blossoming love as Luciano falls for his cousin Lyda at the Blue Carnival. But there are other claimants for the throne and cousin Carlo (Livio Pavanelli) makes his move through intrigue and implication, aiming to kill two birds with one selfish stone…

This last, crucial, section: The Black Carnival, was screened again and it is worth repeated viewing as Carlo’s tangled webs of deceit leads Lyda’s character to stab her lover in the mistaken belief that he killed her father. Borelli appears to flex her entire being when she emotes, arching her dancer’s back and drawing her face into a mask of fright and fury… She’s exhaustingly-engaging and optimises the tragedy with forensic, almost paintfully detailed, expression.


It's like free-running – performance parkour – as Borelli, her character fired by a mix of fury and self-loathing, tears across the screen in search of the double justice required to put things right. It’s nip and tuck for subtlety between her and Bertini but boy are they magnificent. I could watch this over and over, as she tests her lover over diner, literally lifting the table lamp to better see his face for signs of treachery, moving agonisingly to the conclusion that he’s guilty and she must be the one to deliver justice.

Once the deeds are done, she tries to hide from her shame, never stopping as she walks off, heart destroyed and chased by guilt into the forest.

Again the accompaniment from Antonio Coppola was subtle and dynamic, exactly what these performances demand.


The Cineteca Bolognia have released Diva! a 4 DVD box set timed with the Festival and it duly arrived at the end of the week and made its way – after payment – into my bag: it contains a lavish booklet and four films , two each from Bertini and Borelli and the only shame is that only one is new to digital media and that Menichelli is not included.


Strong female leads continued even after the age of the diva had nominally passed and we saw two performers from the twenties who continued the tradition if not the style.

Rosè Angione and her hapless lover, played by Alberto Danza
The films of Elvira Notari were covered by the festival including this curio, E Piccerella (1922) starring Rosè Angione as Margaretella, a Neapolitan woman of fierce hair and huge desire, for freedom and expression. As with Pina’s character above, Margaretella wants for nothing save the exhaustion of her lovers as they foolishly attempt to provide satisfaction at the expense of their sanity and lives. But Angione seems more purely cruel than Menichelli, perhaps more vamp than Diva. Great hair though and a hard-working performer!

Leda Gys
Leda Gys wasn’t strictly speaking a diva but she had a smile to launch a fleet and as local girl Pupatella, she is cast in an American film about Naples in Vedi Napoli e poi muori (1924). It’s a celebration of the city and the actress which features a huge closing sequence showing the actress ub the joyous Feast of Piedigrotta. Accompanist Antonio Coppola was almost to the limits of crescendo at the climax of one of the feel-good hits of the festival!

*In her essay “Lyda Borelli’s Satanic Rhapsody: The Cinema and the Occult"



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