Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Italian Cinema

Più forte che Sherlock Holmes (1913)

Alternate Titles: Stronger Than Sherlock Holmes, Sterker dan Sherlock Holmes.

This Italian short trick film is a slapstick chase-comedy in the style of Alice Guy and other directors of earlier decades. The name of Holmes is only invoked to bring in the concept of crime and pursuit, the movie has nothing to do with the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmesThe movie begins with a man reading a magazine, while his wife peacefully dozes next to him at the table. An over-the-shoulder shot is cut in to reveal illustrations of a cop and a robber in the magazine, then the man also slumps to sleep, dropping the magazine to the floor. Two figures emerge from the magazine, by use of double exposure: One is the burglar from the illustration, and the other is a copy of the sleeping man, now dressed as the cop. He gathers up his hat and gun while the transparent burglar beckons to him from the fireplace. The burglar disappears, and the policeman pulls back a curtain, revealing an opening to the outside. In the next shot, he pursues the burglar through what looks like a thick forest, but might be simply his backyard (a fence is visible in the lower left of the screen). He fires his gun and waves his nightstick. The next shot shows us a lake, with the two figures running towards it from the opposite side. They leap in and swim towards the camera, fully clothed. About halfway, the burglar again becomes transparent through double exposure, and appears to walk on his hands across the surface of the water. He does some cartwheels to tease the cop, who is still struggling along through the water. Finally, he vanishes and appears on a bridge.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmes1 Read the rest of this entry »

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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 SpinaAssunta 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 Spina1Assunta 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.

Assunta_Spina_(1915_film)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.

Assunta Spina2The 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.

Assunta_Spina1915Much 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.

Taking stock of 1916

"Mametz Western Front" by Frank Corzier

“Mametz Western Front” by Frank Corzier

From a global political perspective, 1916 was starting off as a grim year, especially so far as the First World War was concerned. In 1914, people thought the war would be over by Christmas. In 1915, it was clearly a longer struggle, but there was still a general hope that the next offensive could be the decisive one. By 1916, it was starting to look like the war could be a perpetual bloody stalemate, with each side taking bits of ground here, while losing them there, and nothing decisive ever taking place. Yet, instead of seeking an armistice based on compromise (did France really need Alsace-Lorraine? Did Austria-Hungary even care about Serbia anymore?), both sides chose to double-down on the stakes in terms of human lives. A record-breaking death toll continued to rise, with no end in sight.

Serbian Infantrymen.

Serbian Infantrymen.

From a film history perspective, what was bad for the goose became very good for the gander. Before 1910, France was the undisputed leader of film production, even the majority of films screened in the US were French. But, France had always been at an economic disadvantage to the United States for the simple reason of the difference in population and the corresponding difference in market caused by number of film-goers. In order to recoup money for an expensive production, a French studio had to count on big international sales. For an American studio, domestic sales took care of all costs, and the international market was icing on the cake (incidentally, I predict that a similar situation will lead to Indian dominance in the global film market within the next century). Once the First World War cut off France’s international distribution system, their collapse was complete. Nationalization of resources (like silver) needed to make motion picture film was merely a nail in a coffin that had been shut even before the guns started firing.

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medBut all this new opportunity for American profits led to a time of change and innovation in the US film industry. 1915 had seen the final vindication of the “feature” film, not least because of the huge success of “Birth of a Nation,” shown at live-theater ticket prices in front of enthusiastic crowds in each city in opened in throughout the year. Other directors could now convince their production offices that expensive features could be worth the invention: every studio wanted to back the “next” “Birth of a Nation.” And audiences demanded longer, more sophisticated stories with better acting and cinematography than before. American studios responded, and the concept of “Hollywood” began to crystallize as representing American film, and even simply to stand in for the film industry everywhere.

Hollywood_SignOf course, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world suddenly went to sleep and stopped making movies. Russian studios remained committed to high standards of art, the Italians were demonstrating that their visual talents went beyond painting and sculpture, and even in 1916, Gaumont Studios in France was able to finish “Les Vampires” and produce “Judex,” two of the most influential serials of the period. While this blog remains largely interested in the development of the Hollywood system in its early years, we’ll be looking at some of these European materials in the year to come. Similarly, if I can ever get my hands on a Japanese Century Film, I’ll be happy to include one of the twentieth century’s most notable filmmaking nations as well, although there will be some interesting cultural differences to consider there, such as the importance of live narration over music. Here’s to the movies of 1916! I hope you enjoy accompanying me in exploring them. Tune in next Sunday for the Century News for January.

The Inferno (1911)

Inferno_1911_filmThis Italian production shows both the sophisticated level that special effects had reached in Europe and the appetite of audiences for feature-length films on serious topics. In some ways, it remains grounded in the limitations of early 1910’s cinema – no close-ups (except Lucifer at the very end), predictable camera angles, limited camera movement, etc, but in others it demonstrates remarkable originality and willingness to experiment. In fact, I would say that the subject matter of Dante’s Inferno does not lend itself to a more traditional narrative approach, and it may well be that the movie is better for its “flaws,” better for trying an experimental structure than it would have been ten years later following the “rules” of “film grammar.”

Inferno2The story is known to anyone familiar with classic literature: Dante describes being taken on a tour of Hell by the spirit of Virgil, who, as a Pagan is barred from Heaven and lives so to speak in the “up-scale suburbs” of Hell. This has been interpreted as Dante using his powers as a poet to do the impossible (go to Hell and return to tell the tale) and Virgil represents the spirit of Italian or Roman poetry upon whose shoulders he stands. At any rate, most of what they do is look at tormented souls in the various “circles” or levels of Hell. Once in a while, Dante sees someone he knew in life, or has heard of, and asks them to tell their story. More frequently, Virgil and Dante are challenged by one or more of the demons whose job it is to tormented the fallen souls, and Virgil authoritatively makes them stand aside. We see Cerberus, the three-headed guardian of the gate to Hell, the burning walls of Dis, the river Acheron, the serpent Geryon, the giant Antaeus, and Lucifer himself at the end.

Inferno-_1911,_plutoAs I’ve suggested, each of these scenes plays out in a more-or-less theatrical format, with the camera defining a “stage” for the players to act on. However, within that framework, there’s some interesting creativity. Because of the concept of Hell as a vertical hierarchy, the outdoor shots are generally done on sloping hills or mountainsides (easy enough to find in Italy!). This in itself gives a different kind of geography to the “stages” I’m talking about. In general, the stages are large enough to fit a good number of naked extras as tormented souls. Many shots have twenty or more people visible, which is highly unusual for the time. We also get a kind of close-up, when Dante focuses his attention on a single soul, there will be a “jump cut” and we suddenly see Virgil, Dante, and the individual soul in a three-shot (still large enough to see them from head to toe). In that sense, this is one of the earliest examples I’ve seen of editing within scenes, rather than between them, although I think D.W. Griffith had done it already. Another narrative device, familiar to us today but quite new then, is the flashback, in which souls describe to Dante how they reached their sorry fate, and we cut to a dramatization of what they describe. The one camera movement I caught was a backward tracking shot to reveal a particular condemned soul.

Inferno1The special effects may be based on the work of Méliès, but are in general in advance of his techniques, and far in advance of his imitators in the USA. Several matte shots are done, at least two of which required three or more separate shots to be integrated. One impressive example of this was the carnal sinners being blown about by the winds of Hell. We also see a couple of examples of stop-motion transformations as sinners are turned into lizards and other animals. And there are tricky matte shots in which leprous souls are missing legs or arms, or even carry their own heads about. Several characters are made to fly, presumably through the use of wires, and these shots look consistently good as well. There are a number of shots in Dis where actors are fairly close to (real) flames, and I found myself worrying about their long robes catching fire. A number of “Giants” are created through simple forced perspective, yet it works because the filmmakers are careful not to break the illusion (and because they don’t use multiple shots).

Inferno-_1911,_cainaThat’s not to say that everything is executed perfectly. For one thing, there are way too many Intertitles, more and longer than I’ve seen in any movie from this period. This was probably necessary because without the context of being told what was happening in each new scene before it begins, audiences would probably have been scratching their heads at the surrealistic grandeur. Still, it cuts into the pacing and makes it a slower experience to watch. In the shot where the souls are boarding the ship over Acheron, at one point Dante and Virgil are blocking our view of the action, which could have been avoided with a POV-edit, but it didn’t occur to them. Some of the “monsters” are a bit ridiculous-looking as well, particularly the fluffy Cerberus and the “black mastiffs” which look like perfectly friendly dogs.

InfernoStill, this was a bold project whose producers demonstrated a faith that cinema was a new kind of art form that could be used to show things that otherwise could only be imagined. They based the imagery on the illustrations of Gustav Dore for an older edition of the Divine Comedy, and on the whole their work paid off. Apparently it was a huge financial success and was successful in getting audiences to pay raised ticket prices in the era of Nickelodeons in the US. It remains an impressive document in the development of film history.

Directors: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe De Liguoro

Camera: Emilio Roncarolo

Starring: Salvatore Papa, Arturo Pirovano

Run Time: 1 Hour, 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Last Days of Pompeii (1913)

This probably wasn’t the “first disaster film” – I haven’t researched it, but I recall several 1890’s movies about the sinking of the battleship Maine that might deserve that title. However, it was an early example of a feature film in which a disaster plays a major role in the plot. Unlike a more modern disaster movie, you don’t get the disaster as means of heightening the tension early in the film, but rather in the form of a Deus ex Machina that resolves all the problems at the end. It also presages “Cabiria” somewhat, being an Italian feature-length movie, set in ancient times, which tries to show an epic sweep of life and death, victory and defeat, comedy and tragedy. It isn’t quite as successful, being mostly stuck in a simple love triangle (or quadrangle) involving the myopic but heroic Glaucus, his lady Jone, his blind slave Nidia, and an Egpytian Priest named Arbace. Arbace covets Jone, and Nidia secretly loves Glaucus, but ultimately sacrifices himself for his happiness. The movie is based on a novel, which has been remade many times, probably with more impressive special effects, though for the limitations of a hundred years ago, I thought the red-tinted destruction scenes at the end did a good job of conveying pandemonium.

Directors: Mario Caserini, Eleuterio Rodolfi

Starring: Fernanda Negri Pouget, Ubaldi Stefani.

Run Time: 1 hr, 27 Min.

You can watch it for free: here.

Silent Shakespeare (1899-1911, 2000)

shakespeare

For the Bard’s birthday, I thought I’d review this collection, but it’s a little tricky because I already reviewed all of the movies it includes. Unfortunately, there are no special features or commentaries for me to discuss, so all I can say is that if you’d like to see a collection of very early film adaptations of Shakespeare all in one place: here it is. I can also mention the music, by Laura Rossi, which is subtle and appropriate to each film, although not what original audiences would have heard (it was composed for the DVD). I was a bit surprised, based on the title, that the most recent film on here was from 1911. That’s appropriate for this project, which only goes up to 1914 (for now), but I’d have thought that there were other, probably bigger, adaptations of Shakespeare in the “Classical Silent” period. Possibly they limited themselves for reasons of access and copyright, and perhaps a new collection with more recent movies will be forthcoming one of these years.

Worldcat link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/44478627

Merchant of Venice (1910)

Merchant of Venice

This is another Italian adaptation of Shakespeare, by the same director who gave us “King Lear” a little while before. This makes sense as an adaptation, since the story is clearly set in Italy, but unfortunately the version we have is incomplete, so it’s hard to rate its success. It feels a bit rushed and overly-ambitious, introducing many characters and showing sub-plots that wind up unresolved. It’s another nice hand-tinted color print, and Lo Savio has taken advantage of some good locations for backdrops to the action. “The Merchant of Venice” is today probably Shakespeare’s most controversial play, sometimes invoking calls for censorship, because its villain is a Jew, who is made to represent all Jews in his greed and inhumanity. In 1910 this would likely have been a lesser consideration, in Italy and most of the continent, however what we have of this version seems to downplay the anti-Semtic theme, making Shylock a victim of his own duplicity rather than a representative of a race or religion. He is, however, trapped at the end by a law prohibiting Jews from spilling “Christian” blood, so an element of the original remains. On the whole, this movie comes across as less successful than the last couple I have discussed, but as I say it may be because of missing footage.

Director: Gerolamo Lo Savio

Run Time: 19 Min (original), 8-9 Min (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

King Lear (1910)

King Lear

One of the interesting things about silent movies is how readily they adapt subject matter across cultures. This is the first Shakespeare film I’ve talked about from a non-anglophone country, but since the emphasis is not on dialogue, there’s no sense of anything “lost in translation” between English and Italian. It also is the first film I’ve discussed which includes some hand-painted scenes and some tinting, so, in effect, a color film. There were many color film experiments in the silent era, and some studios employed large numbers of low-paid painters to apply color to movie strips by hand. The effect, when done well (as it is here) is striking and somewhat ethereal, since the hand-painting varies slightly from frame to frame. In terms of telling the story of King Lear and his daughters, I found some of the choices here interesting. The good daughter, Cordelia, is portrayed in the opening as somewhat taciturn, maybe even dour, and one can understand Lear’s preferring his more vivacious-seeming daughters. They also spend a good deal of time on a setup in which Lear compares his unfeeling daughters’ hearts to a stone, which it seemed to me might have been better blended with the previous scene of their betrayal, since all the actor has to do is talk to his servants, where a confrontation with his daughters would have been more visually interesting. There is no attempt to add a happy ending, and this comes off as the most “adult” or sophisticated century Shakespeare thus far.

Director: Gerolamo Lo Savio

Run time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Cabiria (1914)

Cabiria

Director: Giovanni Pastrone

This could possibly have been the most immediately influential film of the year 1914. Often falsely credited as the “first feature film” or as the “first use of tracking shots,” it most probably introduced those concepts to many audiences and apparently also inspired Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith at key points in their careers. Viewers familiar with Lang’s “Metropolis” will readily recognize the Temple of Moloch in this film, for example. It also introduced audiences to the Italian hero “Maciste,” who would star in literally dozens of “sword & sandal” films in the following century (many of them have been re-titled to the more familiar “Hercules” for English-speaking audiences). Here, he is cast as a slave, serving a Roman who has infiltrated Carthage during the Punic Wars. It’s also interesting in political/historical terms, for having been written by Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet who would later inspire the early fascists with his symbolic occupation of Dalmatia. It would be a mistake to see this as a straight nationalist propaganda film, but the action and adventure is certainly steeped in the glory and romanticism of ancient Rome, and includes tropes, such as the salute and the fasces itself, that would later become important symbols. Be that as it may, the translated inter-titles, and especially the pagan prayers, are quite striking in their poetry.

Run Time: 120 minutes

You can watch it for free: here.