Close-Up Cinema, Shoreditch, London
29 November 2017
(Warning: Contains spoilers)
We were back at the Close-Up Cinema in London tonight for the second of two classics of Italian ‘diva’ cinema. Last night it was the turn of Francesca Bertini in Assunta Spina, released in 1915 (see our review here). But tonight we’re going back a couple of years further, to the very beginning of the era of ‘diva’ cinema with Ma l’Amor Mio Non Muore!, made in 1913 and starring Lyda Borelli. Retitled for release to English speaking audiences as Love Everlasting, the film’s more literal translation of ‘But My Love Does Not Die’ is perhaps more apt.
The film opens in the Grand Duchy of Wallenstein with the spy, Moise Stahr ( Giampaolo Rosmino), being tasked by unseen enemies to steal the military plans of the Duchy. These are in the care of Colonel Holbein (Vittorio Rossi Pianelli) who lives with his daughter Elsa (Lyda Borelli). Having befriended the colonel and his daughter Stahr visits them and while everyone is distracted steals the plans. When the theft is discovered the disgraced Colonel shoots himself while his daughter is exiled by the Grand Duke. Separately, the Grand Duke’s son, Crown Prince Maximilien of Wallenstein (Mario Bonnard) is advised by his doctors that his ill health will only be eased by a holiday retreat to the Riviera, taken incognito.
Meanwhile, Elsa attends an audition with theatrical impresario Schaudard (Camillo de Riso)in an effort to support herself with a stage career. He is immediately impressed, signs her up and she is soon a big star using the name Diana Cadouleur. Despite her success and a coterie of suitors she remains unhappy. Until, that is, she meets the crown prince. Neither of them realises who the other is and they are soon romantically involved. Realising that he could not marry an actress, Maximilien asks Elsa if she will give up the theatre and she agrees. They then set off for a boat trip together.
But on the boat is the same spy, Stahr, who stole the military plans. He recognises both the Crown Prince and Elsa, knowing both their true identities. He informs the newspapers of the Crown Prince’s affair and scandal ensues, causing the Grand Duke to order the return of his son. From the letter recalling him, Elsa learns Maximilien’s true identity and flees, broken-hearted. Writing to Maximilien as she awaits a train she tells him of her true identity and of her and her father’s past.
But unable to leave, Elsa meets Schaudard and agrees to resume singing. Maximilien finds her in her dressing room where they once more profess their love for one another and all seems fine. But after Maximilien departs Elsa falls into despair at the impossibility of their situation and takes poison before going on stage. When she collapses Maximilien rushes on and, with her last words Elsa tells him ‘My love does not die’, before dying in his arms.
Ma l’Amor Mio Non Muore was Lyda Borelli’s (Studio shot, right) first film and one that was written especially for her. Depending on which source you follow, Borelli was born in either 1884 or 1887 into a theatrical family in Genoa …or La Spezia. On stage from an early age, by the time she was 18 she was already taking leading roles and attracting a significant following. She became a favourite of poet and writer Gabriel D’Annunzio and her theatrical fame was such that the term “borellismo” came to be used to describe women who sought to act, dress or move as she did. The popular and critical success of Ma l’Amor Mio Non Muore brought Borelli even greater fame and proved to be the first of a string of so called ‘diva’ films which were to become one of the strongest themes of Italian cinema of this era.
Of all the Italian film divas of the silent era Borelli is often described as the most iconic, the most elegant and in this film it is not difficult to see why. In terms of theatricality, her performance is almost off the scale, a case of grand-gesture acting of the highest order with ne’er an opportunity missed for a grand sweep of an arm or and anguished spin of head (images left and below right). It was particularly interesting to compare her performance with that of Francesca Bertini in yesterday’s screening of Assunta Spina which was much more grounded and realistic (although not without Bertini’s occasional lapse into grand-gesture territory!) . Borelli’s acting has been described as based upon “excessive gestures, painful expressions and languid gazes. She was essentially a dark femme fatale representing desire and sensuality. She often interpreted characters defeated by diabolical destinies who ended up killing themselves (often with poison – she died in 8 out of 14 films…)” and so it was in Ma l’Amor Mio Non Muore. But underneath all of the theatricality there were moments of greater subtlety, with, for example, a face pained by quiet resignation or of suppressed anger.
Looking beyond Borelli’s performance and at the film as a whole it was very much a picture of two halves. The first, set mainly in the Holbein household, had very much the look of a filmed play, very static, almost staid, all studio shot (image left) . However, it was interesting in that a lot of the action took place at the edge of the screen, often with events unfolding at both sides at once, for example where Elsa and Stahr are standing at the piano to the left of the screen while her father and a colleague are at the extreme right viewing their plans (image right), causing the viewer to switch attention back and forward between the two. There was also a intriguing and nicely framed close up shot of the Colonel and his colleague viewing the plans by the light of a table lamp.
But in the second half, as we move to the Riviera, the film opens up with a much more fluid pacing and an emphasis on outdoor location shooting. As Elsa finds success on stage, Borelli gets an opportunity to reprise some of the roles, such as Salome, with which she had found fame in the theatre. But it was a short, very naturalistic, scene as Elsa and Maximilien together sail in a small boat on the lake which struck me as the only time in the film when Borelli was being Elsa rather than acting at being her (Image left).
The film’s second half was also notable for a number of intriguing camera shots. For example, clever use was made of the mirror in Elsa’s dressing room, revealing the arrival or departure of characters outside of direct camera shot (image below right). Also, in her final performance, there was a shot of her taken from over Maximilien’s shoulder as he watches from one of the theater boxes (image below left). This was in striking contrast with all of her earlier performances which had been shot from behind the performers back, looking out to the watching audience. But with the film’s finale, Borelli almost paid the price for her overt theatricality as the dead Elsa dramatically slipped out of Maximilien’s arms…… and her head visibly bounced off the floor with a (silent) thump!
Director Mario Caserini came to Ma l’Amor Mio Non Muore with a significant reputation as an early cinema pioneer, dating back to 1906. He directed the first screen version of Othello (1906) and followed this with a large number of other Shakespeare adaptions including Romeo and Juliet (1908), Hamlet (1908), Macbeth (1909) and another go at Hamlet in 1910. Following the success of Ma l’Amor Mio Non Muore he went on to direct the early Italian epic Last Days of Pompeii (1913) and continued directing until his early death in 1920, aged just 46.
After Ma l’Amor Mio Non Muore Lyda Borelli continued her film career, in particular with noted films such as Rapsodia Satanica (1915) and Malombra (1917). But at the height of her fame she decided to give up acting after marrying into Italian aristocracy. She died in 1959 aged 75. Amongst the rest of the cast no one really stood out. Mario Bonnard was particularly wooden as Maximilien, although that didn’t prevent him having a long film career, right up until the early 1960s. Emilio Petacci as the Military aide, Col. Theubner was guilty of some of the worst ham acting ever put on film (as well as having the worst ‘mutton-chops’ sideburns!). The only saving grace amongst the supporting cast was a small comic vignette from Camillo De Riso as the theater impresario Schaudard.
Lastly, a word on the recorded musical accompaniment. This sounded to have been recorded live and consisted in part of a full orchestral accompaniment interspersed with original recordings, mainly of operatic arias, intended to mesh in with the on-screen action. Some of the recordings were of considerable age, possibly even contemporary with the film itself judging from the scratchy, gramophone-sounding reproduction I thought that this was an interesting and worthwhile experiment but one which didn’t really work, with the various recordings being too inflexible to smoothly match the on-screen images.
( NB Ma l’Amor Mio Non Muore is available on disc from Cineteca Di Bologna and can also be viewed online with a couple of different musical accompaniments at YouTube. )