Amleto (Hamlet) (1917)

Watershed Cinema, Bristol          

                                                                     23 June 2016

We were down in Bristol tonight at the Watershed Cinema to watch a rarely screened Italian version of Hamlet, Amleto (Dir. Eleuterio Rodolfi).  Released in 1917 this was possibly the fourth screen version of Hamlet filmed in Italy but the first of feature length.  It starred Ruggero Ruggeri, a renowned Italian stage actor, in the title role. Long thought lost, an incomplete copy of the film was discovered at the Cinémathèque de Toulouse.  Following restoration it was re-screened for the first time at the XX International Film Festival Libero (Il Cinema Ritrovato) in Bologna in 1991. 

 Tonight’s screening at the Watershed was introduced by Luke McKernan, film historian and Lead Curator; News and Moving Image at the British Library.  He provided some interesting ideas to explain the high numbers of Shakespearean adaptations in the early years of silent cinema (over 200 being filmed) including the raiding of literary and dramatic archives by producers eager for fresh source material, a preference for material out of copyright thus avoiding royalty payments and a desire by producers to offer a more sophisticated product in the hope of attracting a moneyed, middle-class audience.  By the early 1910s, with the arrival of the feature length film, producers could move on from the crude simplification of a play’s depths and subtleties as required by a 15 minute short and provide instead the whole of the play with reasonable fidelity.  

But, as Luke added,  the Italian silent film industry had peaked by 1914 with such spectacular historical epics as Quo Vadis (Dir. Enrico Guazzoni, 1913) and Cabiria (Dir. Giovanni Pastrone, 1914), made on a grand scale, with massive budgets and casts of thousands.    In contrast, Amleto was made under very different economic circumstances at a time when Italian cinema was in decline. It was an altogether more modest production; though not an impoverished one.  He went on to describe it as a good and interesting film, perhaps not a great one but arguably the best silent Shakespeare film in existence and certainly one that needs to be much better known.

As the only surviving original print of this film has French inter-titles, Luke would also be providing a simultaneous translation although this would not be literal but would, instead, be relying on more of Shakespeare’s original text.   Accompaniment for the film was provided by renowned pianist Neil Brand. 

The story portrayed in Amleto sticks largely to Shakespeare’s original (although it avoided that delicate Cumberbatch issue of where to put “To be or not to be”, by not putting it anywhere!).  The first few minutes (probably less than ten) of the film are missing so we join it at a funeral for Hamlet’s father, followed by the appearance of his father’s ghost and Hamlet’s plan to feign madness in order to discover the truth of his death.  We follow the uncertainty over Hamlet’s affections for Ophelia and a major scene shows the play which Hamlet organises to tease out King Claudius’s guilt or innocence over his father’s death.  After Hamlet mistakenly kills Ophelia’s father she sinks into madness and drowns.  Hamlet avoids Claudius’s plan to kill him.  Following a dual with Ophelia’s brother Hamlet is mortally wounded but is able to kill Claudius.  Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, mistakenly drinks poisoned wine also meant for Hamlet.  Hamlet takes his place on the king’s throne but dies as his friend Horatio places the crown on his head.

Having watched the film, I’d certainly agree with Luke McKernan’s view that this was an interesting film and one that needs to be better known.  But I’m less convinced about whether it is a good film and would seriously question his assertion that it is the best silent Shakespeare film in existence.  And a couple of sources appear to indicate that on its initial release the film was neither a critical or popular success. 

My main area of criticism concerns the film’s plotting.  I think that anyone coming cold to this film without pre-knowledge of the Shakespeare story would have great difficulty in following its storyline.  In particular, Hamlet’s decision to feign madness and his relationship with Ophelia are difficult to make sense of.  While this may be as a result of missing sections of the print, discussion after the film appeared to indicate that the only substantial missing part was right at the start.  I think difficulties with the plotting stem instead from having to pack in a fairly comprehensive version of what is after all Shakespeare’s longest play into a feature running barely an hour. As a result, it suffers some of the same problems as the earlier shorter film adaptions of Shakespeare’s work, in standing more as a record of the play’s key moments than as a cogently plotted stand-alone film. 

As for the acting, I wasn’t convinced by Ruggero Ruggeri (image, right) in the lead role.  His stage antecedents are clearly in evidence with a highly theatrical performance although, having said that, his final scene sitting on the throne as death gradually overtakes him is very understated and quite moving.  He is also not helped by being way too old for the role (he was 46 when he made the film) something like 15 years older than the actress playing his mother!   Ruggeri (1871- 1953) was one of the leading figures of the Italian stage in the twentieth century, apparently noted for his more restrained, sober style of acting.  He became particularly well known for his portrayal of the works of playwright Luigi Pirandello.   Ruggeri starred in his first silent film in 1914, going on to make ten more followed by a similar number of talkies.  He scored a theatrical triumph with his rendition of Hamlet in 1915 and the 1917 film is largely a reprise of that performance.  He continued to make films until his death in 1953, the last two being only speaking parts as the voice of god in the Don Camillo films ( The Little World of Don Camillo (1952) and The Return of Don Camillo (1953) ).     

Among the other leading roles, Mercedes Brignone (studio image, right) as Hamlet’s mother was excellent, with a much more measured and nuanced role as she struggles to make sense of the events taking place around her.  Brignone (1885-1967) also came to film from a stage career.  Born in Spain to Italian theatrical parents she began acting as a child. She made her first silent film around 1912 and soon had star billing.  Her last silent role was in 1924 but she returned to film in Italy’s first ‘talkie’, The Song of Love (1930).  Although by now relegated to lesser roles she continued to appear in film as well as on stage until shortly before her death in 1965.  Also good was Helena Makowska (studio image, right) as Ophelia (although she does go a tad over the top in a highly theatrical descent into madness). Ukrainian born Makowska (1893-1964) arrived in Milan in 1912.  Initially singing in opera she made her film debut in 1915, going on to make some 40 silent films in Italy before moving to Germany in the early 1920s.  She was interned in Germany for most of World War II before resuming her career in Italy.  She made her last film appearance in 1958. 

 Amleto’s director, Eleuterio Rodolfi, (1876–1933)  made over 100 silent films (as well as starring in many of them) including the epic Last Days of Pompeii (1913).  In 1917 he founded his own film company Rodolfi Film, initially in order to make Amleto.  He made his last film in 1924 and died by suicide in 1933. 

 Returning specifically to Amleto and also on the positive side, the film looks very good (despite some nitrate damage).  With more of a middle-age Renaissance feel rather than the more traditional Scandinavian setting, the stage sets and costume were excellent.  I was less convinced by the few exterior shots (usually just a few extras in military costume seemingly plodding along interminably).  Also interesting were a couple of camera tricks.  While the appearance of Hamlet’s ghost might not have been much of an advance on the Melies’ early camera tricks the superimposing of a real face on the skull of Yorick was clever and very effective.  And one or two scenes are beautifully shot.  While a drowned Ophelia floating in a stream may be lifted straight from the Millais painting it did look wonderful.

My last criticism concerns the inter-titles.  I felt that it was a mistake for Luke McKernan to substitute Shakespeare’s text in place of some of the original wording in his translation. Just as I like to see silent films in their original format, the same goes for the inter-titles.  Let us see (or hear) what the original writers intended!   As for the accompaniment from Neil Brand, this was of his usual excellent standard, effectively complementing the film, with his efforts deserving of double praise as it was not a film he had seen before. 

So was this a good film?  Well, probably not really one I could follow without having previously read the play but there was some good acting, the film looked great and there were some very effective moments, so on balance a good-ish film.  And the best silent Shakespeare film in existence?  Well, here I’ve got to disagree.  While it may be the best as of when it was made I can think of better subsequent adaptions.  In particular, Asta Nielson’s portrayal of Hamlet (Dir. Svend Gade/Heinz Schall, 1921) I would say is an altogether better film (albeit one which takes some pretty hefty liberties with the story line, not least the fact that Hamlet here is in fact a woman disguised as a man!).  But where I would certainly agree with Mr McKernan is that Amleto is an interesting film and one that needs to be much better known.  If you get the chance, do go and see it and make up your own mind.