Assunta Spina (1915)
This film was apparently made and released at the end of 1914 and beginning of 1915 – different sources give it different years. I’m going with the 1915 date primarily because I only got to see it now and that allows me to consider it for the Century Awards for 1915. There will be a note to that effect at the end of this review.
Assunta Spina (played by Francesca Bertini) is a poor but beautiful laundress in Naples, Italy. She is dating the butcher Michele (co-author and director Gustavo Serena), but her former beau Raffaele keeps hanging around, making Michele jealous. He’s enough of a jerk to send Michele an anonymous note, suggesting that Assunta has been unfaithful. One day, Michele comes into the shop where she works and gives her a ring, making their proposal official. The shop is closed and everyone goes to a seaside café to celebrate. When Raffaele suddenly shows up, he is offered a glass of wine and asked to celebrate with them, but his presence throws a pall over the proceedings. Michele becomes sullen, despite Assunta’s assurances that she loves only him. She keeps trying to get rid of Raffaele, but he won’t take a hint. She finally gives in and dances with Raffaele, since Michele won’t dance, which throws Michele into a rage. He breaks up the dance and stalks off angrily. His mom cusses out Assunta and blames her for the trouble. Then, as the wedding party is walking home, Michele runs out from a doorway with the knife and slashes Assunta’s face.
Assunta is horrified by what has happened, but still feels that she loves Michele. She goes to the trial and testifies that she drove Michele to it, but the judge sentences him to two years in prison. Don Federico, an official at the court, pretends sympathy and offers to help Michele, in exchange for unnamed favors from Assunta. At first she resists, but when word comes to her mother that the prisoners are to be sent to another city, where she couldn’t see Michele, she relents and invites Federico to dinner. Over the months, she finds it harder to visit Michele or even respond to his letters, as her life becomes more entangled with Federico. Finally, Federico seems to lose interest in her, and she finds herself feeling unworthy of anyone. Michele is released early and finds her preparing dinner for Federico, but at first, he is so happy to see her that he doesn’t notice. Then, the truth comes out. Michele grabs a knife from the table and stabs Federico, who staggers up to Assunta and dies. When the police arrive, Assunta claims to have killed him, saving her man from having to return to prison.
Now, looked at objectively, this is the story of an abused woman who takes the blame for her abuser, prostitutes herself for him, and even protects him after he has committed murder, at the cost of her own life. But, it probably needs to be thought about more in terms of the conventions of Italian opera, which it clearly imitates. In that tradition, it is the story of a woman who places her love for a man above all other values, becoming a martyr in the process. Francesca Bertini, one of the recognized “Divas” of the Italian silent screen, clearly relishes the role, her every movement expressing the tortured fate of a woman in love. She, along with director Gustavo Serena, co-authored the film adaptation of this story (which she had previously performed on stage), so it’s not a question of the screenplay being a “male perspective.” In some ways, the movie reminded me of one of Mizoguchi’s movies about women and their limited choices in a male-dominated society.
The acting in this movie stood out to me more than any other element. It’s always interesting to watch the body language of another culture, and silent film offers a kind of window into the ways people communicate non-verbally that is harder to notice voyeuristically when dialogue is present. The cliché that Italians talk with their hands is frequently reinforced in this Neopolitan film, particularly by Serena, whose characteristic gestures had me thinking of stereotyped accents and speech patterns. Katherine at “Silents, Please!” is the true expert on silent movie Divas, and I won’t tread heavily on her turf by closely analyzing Bertini’s performance, but what struck me about her particularly was her use of chairs as props throughout this film. She clutches them, moves them about, slides into them, falls into them, and knocks them over to express different situations. In the final scene with her and Serena, he also gets into the act and with only three chairs between them on the set, it sometimes seems they will wind up dueling over who uses which one.
Much of the movie was shot outside, on the streets of Naples during daylight, and while that was a good choice for background, it didn’t give me much basis on which to judge the cinematographer on lighting. What I did notice was a definitely deliberate use of framing and blocking, particularly in crowded scenes, which assured that Bertini was the center of attention at all times. She, of course, remains beautiful even with the aesthetically-positioned scimitar-shaped scar running down her face. To a large degree, the movie is about her, and showing her to the viewer as much and as beautifully as possible. In that sense, it seems to me a success.
Note: At the moment, I’m considering adding this movie to the nominees for “Best Actress” and “Best Screenplay” for 1915. Please comment if you have any thoughts.
Director: Gustavo Serena
Camera: Alberto G. Carta
Cast: Francesca Bertini, Gustavo Serena, Luciano Albertini
Run Time: 72 Min
You can watch it for free: here.
Nice writeup! Haha, I don’t know if I’m an expert on the Italian divas, but I’m certainly an enthusiast. 🙂
Assunta Spina was one that didn’t necessarily grab me at first, but over the last couple of years I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more and now I esteem it highly. I think it’s a great example of the tableau staging tradition, and a true vehicle for La Bertini. As you say, the production is designed to keep her at the centre at all times, and I think she adds a lot of power to what could have been quite a miserable role.
Thanks for your thoughts. It certainly stands out as a highly stylized and deliberate form of filmmaking for the time. I somewhat dismiss Bertini’s claims that it was “the first neorealist film” as latter-era self-promotion. It does seem to fit a style or movement at the time, and it’s not perfect, but for me at least it’s different from the American, Russian, and French movies I’m familiar with.
I see Bertini’s point, but it’s a bit too different of a context, I think.
By the way, did you see the wiki page for Assunta Spina? Contains such neutrally descriptive sentences as, “Even though only a single year passed between the release of Cabiria and Assunta Spina, there seems to be at least a decade’s worth of difference in artistic subtlety and nuance.”
Yeah, I noticed also that there’s a tag demanding citations. I thought about logging in to my old account and putting some in for “The Last Diva” documentary and “The Silent Era,” but that “Legacy” section is such a mess, I’m not sure I want to get into it.