Close-Up Cinema, Shoreditch, London
28 November 2017
(Warning: Contains spoilers)
We were up in Shoreditch this evening, at the Close-Up Cinema to see the first of two Italian ‘Diva’ films they are screening this week, both restored for and screened at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. Tonight’s film is Assunta Spina (1915),co-directed by and starring Francesca Bertini. Based upon a story by Salvatore di Giacomo originally dramatised for the theatre, Bertini had had a minor role in a stage production of the drama while still an unknown actress. But by 1914, such was her acting reputation that when approached by the studio to star in the film, she apparently accepted only as long as she was also allowed to write and direct it. In his introduction to the film, Ehsan Khoshbakht showed a short clip of a 1982 documentary, The Last Diva, featuring Bertini still, even at almost 90 years of age, marvellously living up to her diva reputation (image, left), pointing out that although co-star Gustavo Serena was credited as director it was she who was the real creative force behind the picture. She also laid claim to Assunta Spina being the progenitor of neo-realist film making.
The film opens with Assunta Spina (Francesca Bertini) a laundress living outside Naples meeting her fiancé Michele Boccadifuoco ( Gustavo Serena), a Naples butcher, off the train. But the continued presence of Raffaele (Luciano Albertini), a former suitor of Assunta, serves to make Michele increasingly jealous (image, left). In revenge for being spurned by Assunta, Raffaele writes anonymously to Michele saying that she is being unfaithful to him. Michele arranges with Assunta’s father that she will go to live in Naples and work in his laundry, to which Assunta readily agrees.
Later, on Assunta’s birthday, Michele meets her at the Naples laundry with a ring and proposes. Together with friends they go for a picnic to the seaside resort of Possillipo. But when Raffaele turns up, Michele’s jealousy returns (image, right), further inflamed when Assunta flirts with Raffaele after Michele refuses to dance with her. When a passing gypsy fortune teller reads Assunta’s palm, she foresees ‘blood in her future’. The picnic breaks up as Michele storms off. As the group are returning home he rushes out of his shop and slashes Assunta’s face with a knife. Although he runs off he is soon caught by the police.
At the subsequent trial, Assunta nevertheless pleads on Michele’s behalf saying that it was not he who attacked her. However, he is found guilty and jailed for two years. Outside the court room, Clerk of the Court, Don Federigo Funelli (Carlo Benetti) takes an interest in Assunta. He promises her that, in return for unspecified favours, he will see that Michele serves his sentence in a local prison where she can still visit him. Over several months, Assunta and Funelli become romantically involved and Michele’s letters from jail go unanswered.
On Christmas Eve, Assunta goes out to look for Funelli (who appears to be tiring of her) and begs him to come home with her for dinner but he returns to a bar. Back home Assunta is preparing a meal, telling a friend that she and Funelli are to be married and will be gone by the time Michele is released from prison. But later that night, she is surprised by Michele’s unexpected return, released six months early from his sentence. In an increasingly fraught confrontation Assunta eventually reveals her unfaithfulness and in a blind rage Michele rushes out and stabs the returning Funelli to death, before running off. When the police arrive, it is Assunta who confesses to the murder and is arrested (image, left).
When Assunta Spina was made (shot in 1914 and released the following year) Italy had been at the cutting edge of cinematic development for most of the early to mid-teens of the last century. Although most attention today probably focuses upon the influence of feature length Italian epics and blockbusters such as The Last Days of Pompei (Dir. Mario Caserini, It, 1913) or Cabiria (Dir. Giovanni Pastrone, It, 1914) on cinematic development worldwide, a string of so-called ‘diva’ films made during this period were equally influential in heralding the birth of the femme fatale across Europe (including Marlene Dietrich, Else Heller or Pola Negri) and America (Theda Barra, Louise Brooks or Evelyn Brent) and, going beyond the silent era, they would remain a recurring presence in films up to the present day (for example, Kathleen Turner in Body Heat (1981), Sean Young in Blade Runner (1982), Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction (1994) or Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl (2014) . The three most significant stars of these Italian ‘diva’ films were probably Lyda Borelli, Pina Menichelli and leading lady of this evening’s film, Francesca Bertini.
On its release in 1915, Assunta Spina was both a critical and commercial success, further securing Bertini’s position at the apex of Italian film stardom and contributing to her reportedly earning that year in the region of $175,000, in excess of that earned by America’s then biggest female star, Mary Pickford. Seen by the standards of today’s cinema, the acting may look overly dramatic and theatrical (although such a judgement might perhaps be tempered by what we could call something of a characteristic flair for the dramatic by Italians, be they actors or not, right down to the present day, particularly in comparison to we somewhat more staid northern Europeans). But at the time, Bertini’s performance was praised for injecting a far more naturalistic tone into cinematic acting. And while there may have been times when her performance was characterised by some over-dramatised, grand gesture acting, there are many other scenes in which she would not be out of place in a modern drama. One extraordinary scene in particular stood out. As the film builds to its climax, Assunta and Michele are engaged in a long and increasingly tense discourse (image, left) and we get a scene, filmed apparently in one take, with just a single brief inter-title, which lasts maybe six or seven minutes, in which the entire conversation, its course, its tone, the changing mood of both characters is perfectly conveyed through the largely understated acting of the two leads. I can’t actually think of another scene of this duration, just of a conversation, in any other silent I’ve seen.
In fact, the whole film is also marked by a pleasingly restrained use of inter-titles (particularly when seen, for example, in comparison to the verbiage used by Pastrone and Gabriele D’Annunzio in scripting Cabiria just a year earlier) with the performances of the actors being allowed to very effectively ‘speak’ for themselves. Furthermore, for a first directorial effort by Bertini, the film is extremely well staged, confident and dramatic. And if sometimes it has the feel of an Italian tragic opera abut it, dominated by a long suffering and tragic heroine (image, right) , perhaps a Carmen or an Il Traviata, then surely that was the intention. The photography is at times exquisite, particularly the outdoor scenes in the Bay of Naples while the final scene, with shafts of light cast over the dead Funelli’s body is stunning. And this is a beautifully restored, tinted version of the film.
After Assunta Spina, Bertini went on to even greater success with a version of La Signora dalle Camelie/The Lady of the Camelias (Dir. Gustavo Serena, It, 1915). Although Italy’s film industry as a whole suffered badly during the war years, Bertini films continued to appear regularly and her popularity soared once more in the early 1920s with two films directed by Roberto Roberti (father of Sergio Leone). Having turned down an offer from Fox to move to America in order to remain with her husband in Europe, Bertini gradually withdrew from acting as the 1920s progressed but she resumed her career late in the decade following her husband’s premature death. Although she never regained her former celebrity status, Bertini continued to make the occasional film, her last appearance being in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976), until her eventual death in 1985 at the age of 93.
Amongst the film’s other performers, Gustavo Serena was also excellent as Michele, perhaps less restrained than Bertini but convincing as the jealous and thuggish butcher (almost in a Brando/Streetcar sort of way, image, left, killing Funelli). Carlo Benetti as Funelli was less credible, coming over more as your dastardely Hollywood villain, while his overly ham-ish death scene drew the inevitable titter from the audience. And in a tiny but amusing vignette, look out for the lowly clerk outside the courtroom who becomes increasingly annoyed as Assunta’s friends repeatedly take away the chair from in front of his desk for her to sit on, a lovely touch.
And what of Bertini’s claim that Assunta Spina saw the birth of neo-realism in film. Well, she did have a point. The film was focused largely upon the working classes although it was hardly centred around the daily grind of survival. Much of the shooting was done on location, often seemingly with passers by unaware of what was going on. While the main roles might have been taken by established actors, a lot of the minor and supporting parts were apparently amateurs. So if not the first true Italian neo-realist drama, then it was certainly a powerful contributor to development of the genre, along perhaps with the (now believed lost) drama Sperduti nel buio/Lost In Darkness (Dir. Roberto Bracco, It, 1914) and certainly Rotaie/Rails (Dir. Mario Camerini. It, 1929).
Lastly, a word about the recorded soundtrack to the film. This was something of a disappointment, with the predominantly guitar/mandolin combination becoming increasingly wearisome and largely failing to reflect the on-screen happenings. Additionally, singing on a silent film soundtrack is invariably a bad idea, and so it proved here. The only saving grace was that the lyrics were in Italian, which I don’t speak, so they proved only a limited distraction from the visuals.
Oh, and in just a final word to the couple sitting next to me, constant chatter and wildly inappropriate giggles throughout a silent melodrama are highly annoying. I will be less polite next time!
(NB Assunta Spina is available on disc from Flicker Alley and can be viewed on YouTube in a number of versions including the one screened tonight.)