A passionate look at the figure of the diva in Italian film of the silent era, set within the visual, legal, and popular cultures surrounding the cinema before and after World War I.
As scientific discoveries and technological advances radically modernized Europe around the turn of the twentieth century, artists of all types began questioning what it means to be human in an increasingly mechanistic world. Animated by a luminous goddess at its center, the diva film provided a forum for denouncing social evils and exploring new models of behavior among the sexes. These melodramas of courtship, seduction, marriage, betrayal, abandonment, child custody, and public reputation, to mention only a few themes, offered women a vision of—if not always a realistic hope for—emancipation and self-discovery.
In Diva, Angela Dalle Vacche offers the first authoritative study of this important "film" genre of the cinema that preceded the Great War of 1914-1918. She analyzes some seventy films, as well as the work of actresses such as Francesca Bertini, Lyda Borelli, and Pina Menichelli, to establish what the diva film contributed to the modernist development of the "new woman." Contrasting the Italian diva with the Hollywood vamp Theda Bara and the famous Danish star Asta Nielsen, Dalle Vacche shows how the diva oscillates between articulating Henri Bergson's vibrant life-force (élan vital) and representing the suffering figure of the Catholic mater dolorosa.
Taking readers on a fascinating tour that includes the Ballets Russes, orientalism, art nouveau, Futurism, fashion, prostitution, stunt women in the circus, aviation, anti-Semitism, colonialism, and censorship, Diva sheds important new light on the eccentric implantation of modernity in Italy, as well as on how, before World War I, the filmic image was associated with the powers of the occult and not with the Freudian unconscious, as has been argued until now.
Accompanying the book: Diva Dolorosa
Dutch filmmaker Peter Delpeut (Lyrical Nitrate) captures the spirit of the diva in this DVD of clips from early Italian films. Diva Dolorosa presents excerpts of fourteen films from the period 1914–1920, including Malombra, Rapsodia Satanica, and Il Fuoco. It features the work of actresses Lyda Borelli, Pina Menichelli, Francesca Bertini, Soava Gallone, and Elena Makowska.
Diva Dolorosa is a Nederlands Filmmuseum production made in coproduction with VPRO television and in collaboration with Cineteca del Comune di Bologna. The DVD was produced by Zeitgeist Films, Ltd.
A Choice Outstanding Academic Book
- Acknowledgments: The Geography of a Book
- Foreword by Guy Maddin
- Time Line: Cultural Events and the Diva Film
- Introduction: Mater Dolorosa
- Theory and Technology
- Chapter 1. The Shape of Time: Élan Vital and Memento Mori
- Chapter 2. Laocoön's Filmstrip: Classicism, Marxism, Vitalism
- Chapter 3. Orientalism: Ballets Russes, Occultism, Canudo
- Chapter 4. Wings of Desire: Aviation, Fashion, Circus Stunts
- History and Analysis
- Chapter 5. Acting: Prostitution, Vertigo, Close-up
- Chapter 6. Modern Woman: Minor Stars and the Short Film
- Chapter 7. Tropes: Obsessions and Traumas of a Genre
- Chapter 8. Nino Oxilia: Blue Blood and Satanic Rhapsody
- Conclusion: Beyond the Femme Fatale
- Portraits: Biographical Profiles of Actresses
- Archival Locations and Filmography
The diva is the most important female singer, the prima donna, on an opera stage, but the word can also describe an arrogant or temperamental woman. Closely related to the English word divine, diva means "goddess," and thus one labeled a diva competes for the spotlight with God, the ultimate divine maker of stars. Whereas God coincides with eternity, stars live and die. The point here is that the word diva connotes timelessness and infinity. By contrast, the word star is about someone special, exceptional, or superhuman, but not comparable to a divinity. In her best moments, the diva involves a certain kind of ineffable spirituality, a ritualistic otherness, and an intuitive aura about transcendence. In short, the diva is an anomalous star compared to the Hollywood model that has defined film stardom for the rest of the world. The diva's unusual contribution to the history of stardom stems from the cultural specificities of Italian modernity.
In early Italian cinema, diva meant a female star in a feature film that ran at least sixty minutes and included some close-ups for the heroine and a fairly static use of the camera. The point-of-view shot and the shot-reverse shot, two basic features of classical American cinema, did not exist in the Italian films made between 1913 and 1918. However, the point-of-view shot began to appear around 1919 or 1920 in diva films.
The three most famous divas of this period were Francesca Bertini (1892-1985), Lyda Borelli (1884-1959), and Pina Menichelli (1890-1984). One could say that Italian stardom was more hierarchical or stratified than the Hollywood model. This is why I will also discuss minor stars who specialized in playing heroines in short adventure films: to show how divas in the so-called "long" feature film were preceded by lesser-known female colleagues. In the end, my discussion of divas is based more on the films I have been able to see than on the stars' degree of celebrity. Hence, my study includes more or less detailed sections about divas slightly less famous than Bertini, Borelli, and Menichelli: Diana Karenne, Maria Jacobini, Soava Gallone, Mercedes Brignone, Stacia Napierkowska, Elena Makowska, Italia Almirante Manzini, and Leda Gys. Notwithstanding my list, there are other divas who are linked to possibly surviving films and warrant further examination: Elena Sangro, Gianna Terribili-Gonzales, Hesperia, Rina De Liguoro, Carmen Boni, Maria Carmi, and Vera Vergani.
Since my method is not biographical, I have included available information about the lives and careers of the divas in the Biographical Profiles at the end of this study. Besides paying special attention to iconography to show that the diva was a mélange of old clichés and new fads, my approach is based on bringing out the richness of the diva's visual form as a cultural type. Notwithstanding the obvious context of art nouveau, what was the cultural paradigm containing the diva as a signifying figure? The answer: historical narration concerned with social issues. The first short fiction film produced in Italy was Filoteo Alberini's La Presa di Roma (1905; The Capture of Rome). Hence, one can easily understand that Italian cinema was born out of an obsession with history and time, perhaps because national unification occurred as late as 1860—that is, well after France, England, and Germany had become nation-states.
After starting out with a historical film, the Italian film industry, trying to establish itself in the emerging international market for the cinema, quickly turned to history, religion, literature, and opera as storehouses of historical narratives. This historical obsession resulted in Enrico Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? (1913); Mario Caserini and Eleuterio Rodolfi's Ultimi Giorni di Pompeii (1913; The Last Days of Pompeii); Cabiria (1914), by Giovanni Pastrone (1883-1959); and Christus (1915), by Giulio Antamoro (1877-1945), to name only a few of the most important box-office hits at home and abroad. For his production of Intolerance (1916), D. W. Griffith (1875-1948) himself was inspired by the Italian industry's penchant for monumentality, spectacle, and accuracy of detail in the sets and costumes.
The two most important genres of the early and silent period became the historical film and the diva film. Besides these two dominant generic specialties, the industry produced plenty of adventure films and comedies. But while the adventure film embraced the long format in 1913, comedies remained mostly short and socially self-conscious. The most successful star of the adventure film was Emilio Ghione (1879-1930), a close friend of Francesca Bertini, who gave life to the serial, I Topi Grigi (The Grey Rats). The most acclaimed comedians of the silent period include André Deed (1884-1938), as Cretinetti, and Ferdinand Guillaume (1887-1997), as Polidor. No complete, in-depth study of the Italian silent-film industry has ever been written in English, a problem linked to the lack of translations of Italian and French film scholarship for monolingual English audiences and specialists.
Whereas Gian Piero Brunetta has argued that the historical genre was more important both aesthetically and commercially than melodrama, my findings indicate that, first, the diva film was at least competitive with, and perhaps equal to, the historical film in popularity. Second, the diva film was a specific genre in and of itself, not an occasional specialization of melodrama in general. Diva films became a genre because of the intense social consciousness they exhibited in denouncing the corruption of adult young males. Given that, according to the diva film, many adult males cheat, steal, lie, pimp, kill, disappear, or loaf, the most important topics of this genre were courtship, first love, seduction, pregnancy, virginity, marriage, adultery, abandonment, divorce, child custody, prostitution, public reputation, employment, relatives, and financial power.
Third, and what is most important, the diva film was concerned with history—namely, time—since its primary topic was the change from old to new models of behavior in the domestic sphere and between the sexes. Besides the historical film and melodrama, Brunetta also addresses short comedy films, which he places at the bottom of the generic hierarchy. It is worth noting, however, that the topic of gender roles in transition was central to the comedies produced before World War I. At the same time, issues of sexual confusion or role reversal also appear in the context of adventure and science-fiction films, such as Mario Roncoroni's Filibus (1915) and André Deed's L'Uomo Meccanico (1921; The Mechanical Man). My guess is that many other examples relevant to genre, gender, and stardom in the history of early Italian cinema are waiting to be discovered and analyzed.
In short, were we to compare the diva film to the historical film genre one more time, it would become apparent that the diva film's preoccupation with men and women redefining themselves is absolutely dominant in the social and cinematic imagination of the period. This interest in the boundaries of identity is not surprising, since Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays in 1895, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium and polonium in 1898, Albert Einstein developed his special theory of relativity in 1905, and Ernest Rutherford was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1908 for his studies of radioactive decay. Clearly, the turn of the century was marked by several scientific discoveries challenging notions of energy, being, substance, and visibility. Needless to say, all these categories not only upset the equivalence between surface and depth, but they also reshaped definitions of masculinity and femininity, gender roles and sexual orientation, biological features and physical appearances.
In contrast to the more private focus of the diva film, depictions of antiquity and battles in historical films offered opportunities for spectacle, but not much regarding the new couple or the new family. Everybody had something to say or to learn about love, passion, and betrayal, and that was why everybody went to the cinema. Since historical characters were most predictable in their dominant male and subordinate female roles, the epic genre attracted its mass audience through its use of settings, its deployment of crowds of extras, its staging of rapid or highly choreographed actions, and its reliance on special effects such as crumbling temples, erupting volcanoes, and sea storms. All this enormous effort was meant to pay tribute, so to speak, to lofty and legendary topics.
In contrast to the historical film's spectacular and external emphasis on public, heroic action, the diva film struck a more domestic, hidden, personal, yet highly sensitive chord. So complicated and controversial were the issues at stake that the diva grew out of the struggle for change in Italian culture. This icon became a model of transition for Italian women and a figure of temporality for the society at large. So intensely preoccupied was she with the theme of transformation that her sinuous, ever-shifting outline stood for the ways in which Italian men and women experienced change and looked at modernization with both eagerness and fear. The diva's corporeal plasticity was nothing else than a symptom of ambiguity and uncertainty about breaking away from the past and moving into the future.
As Aldo Bernardini has argued, female stardom in the sense of divismo was no domestic discovery, but a systematic form of mass cult that Italian cinema imported from abroad. Although she was trained in the theater, the Danish actress Asta Nielsen (1881-1972) was the first European star to invent film stardom. Nielsen's name and way of being became a trademark of emancipated femininity in innumerable countries. She launched herself into this more subliminal and far-reaching form of iconicity with Afgrunden (1910; The Abyss). And Nielsen became the first star because she introduced an unprecedented vertical tension into her acting style for the screen. The vertigo in Nielsen's acting brought out film's power to make visible otherwise invisible psychological states.
Before Nielsen, the divine Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) rose to stardom through her sensationalistic way of living and her flamboyant yet tragic acting style. Eleonora Duse (1858-1924), instead, distinguished herself by the spiritual slant of her quiet but intense introspective approach. Whereas Sarah Bernhardt always played herself, regardless of her ostensible role, Duse's fusion with her characters is worth commenting upon. In fact, she anticipated Stanislavsky's method and the Actors Studio technique, which were based on the performer's psychological merging with the character.
Just like Nielsen, Duse strove to make visible the depths of interiority, but she never used her acting to openly display the erotic dimension of the female body on stage. Extremely private in daily life, Duse was capable of great passions, but she was also modest and idealistic. In contrast to Nielsen's assertive language of desire on-screen, Duse brought to the stage the corporeal geography of medieval mysticism by using her hands, props, silence, stillness, and emptiness as departure points toward something either invisible or overwhelming. Duse's inconspicuous but open-ended acting style recalled Italian women's habit of assuming expressions of religious absorption. The so-called "mystical look," with eyes raised to the sky and hands brought together in prayer, was how most women posed for a photographic portrait. This Catholic cliché was adopted by innumerable aunts and mothers in the family album of every home, and even by Sarah Bernhardt, who was Jewish.
Although she was influenced by Bernhardt's exuberance, Duse's spirituality, and Nielsen's independence, the film diva also differed from all her predecessors because her frantic acting underlined a negative view of the female body. And this is perhaps why the Italian film diva has been confused with the femme fatale of northern European painting and literature. The twisting human figure of the diva became a site of hysteria, out of which some new positive shape might emerge. With a mute eloquence comparable to a suffragette's speech, the Italian diva expressed the struggle of women caught between old-fashioned standards and new options for the future. Yet despite the musical and dance-like qualities of her acting, the diva's characters in film were unable to develop further and embrace a truly feminist, avant-garde practice. Indeed, the film diva came up against too many obstacles and could not prevail, and so her melodramas could not evolve into more interesting narratives and visual forms. In the aftermath of World War I, the Italian film industry, after several golden years of great success, collapsed. Between 1919 and 1922 the rise of Fascism reversed all the advances of the women's emancipation movement and rekindled the debate about divorce that had been triggered by the proposed Sacchi Law.
Even though diva means "star," the Italian diva was much more erratic and complicated than the Hollywood star, possibly because American mainstream cinema was tied to values of narrative coherence and depth of character, which the diva film overlooks for the sake of dazzling visual display and an operatic heightening of emotions. Thus, the diva was an anomalous star in the Hollywood sense of this term. At the same time, it would be wrong to assume that the diva did not incorporate or borrow traits from the femme fatale and from all sorts of other legal, scientific, and artistic definitions of femininity typical of her cosmopolitan period. She was so mixed that to study this topic is daunting due to the cross-national, intertextual, cross-cultural, and intrageneric connotations.
Symptomatic of twentieth-century traumas and neuroses, the diva's acting was double edged, for her characters are torn between the artificial, statuesque posing of a respectable woman, and the animal swiftness and sly ferocity that Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909) attributes to thieves, prostitutes, and anarchists. The combination in one type of these two extreme postures—rigidly elegant and callously flexible—demonstrated that the diva's cultural function was to embody a conflicted answer to major changes within sexual and social relations. On-screen, the diva is afraid of, but also eager for, new behaviors and fresh situations. By contrast, Hollywood stardom as a whole was built on the belief that, on the one hand, greedy vamps were always evil, and, on the other, that any new way of being, either personal or economic, was, by definition, always good. This kind of trajectory is comparable to that of an arrow, hurtling forward without doubts or hesitations, trusting in a sort of blind faith in improvement or, in any case, massive change.
Regardless of any painful adjustments it might require, change, in American cinema, was considered the equivalent of progress within a linear and goal-oriented trajectory valuing effort, success, and the future. The Hollywood female star's inclination toward change, therefore, did not correspond to the mixture of subordination and anticonformism, suffering and rebellion that was typical of Italian female divismo. As Mira Liehm remarks in Passion and Defiance (1984), the Italian diva generally looked sad or melancholic, whether she portrayed a single mother, a prostitute, an abandoned wife, or an artist's model.
The diva's acting was often overreactive, spectacular, and operatic instead of psychologically motivated and introspective. This is because her character's sense of self does not stem from a level of personal entitlement, but rather from the approval of her family and society at large. Typically, she looks alone even when she is with a lover or a husband. She feels obliged to stand beside the man who betrays her, either because children are involved or because she doubts whether she can take on a more independent role for herself than the traditional personae of mother and wife.
Betrayed by men and in competition with female rivals, the diva is often a woman with no real or productive function in society; she can make herself useful only as the unhappy nurturer or passive relative of those around her. At the same time, there are enough moments of repressed desire and stifled anger in these films to indicate that the diva longs for social justice. The diva dreams about some kind of miraculous transformation or redemption that would ensue if she finds the courage and the energy to break away from her submissive and duty-bound existence.
In short, within an oscillation between mystical-visionary and hysteric-melancholic postures, the diva's acting style mostly fits the stereotype of the mater dolorosa, or sorrowful mother, depicted by Michelangelo Buonarroti in his sculpture Pietà (1500; Compassion), to cite one of the most famous examples. But there is also a twist to this comparison. While the Virgin Mary is a willing and loving mater dolorosa toward the sacrificial son of God, the diva is mostly a woman who suffers because she was born a woman, whether she has children or not. In fact, the society in which the diva lives accepts a woman only if she fits within a self-effacing role of some kind. Furthermore, Michelangelo's mater dolorosa underlines the strength of the bond between a "virginal" mother and a "divine" son.
Although the diva's pain can derive from the loss of a child, her general way of suffering stems from either the painful choice to remain in the past or the lonely decision to break the rules. From this fundamental lack of acceptable options, it is not surprising that, at the end of most melodramas, she returns to the status quo or she is punished or killed. On the other hand, in many diva films the diva kills in self-defense. In La Piovra (1919), for instance, Bertini kills her stalker, and in La Storia di Una Donna (1920; The Story of One Woman), Menichelli nearly succeeds in shooting her rapist. In this respect, the Italian diva differentiates herself from the Hollywood femme fatale, who, out of materialistic greed, kills her male lover or leads him to ruin. With no interest in money, the diva kills to correct a social injustice.
Installed in the basilica of Saint Peter's inside the Vatican, Michelangelo's Pietà—this poignant episode of maternal mourning and total devotion to the crucified son—depicts an event preceding Christ's resurrection. According to Catholicism, this rebirth was a divine event defeating human time and evolutionary history alike; similarly, the diva dreams of liberating herself into a new persona above and beyond the constraints of the present and the disappointments of history. Yet it was the crucified Christ who experienced a glorious and public resurrection, well before the quieter and more private ascension to heaven of his suffering mother. Most importantly, according to Catholic dogma, her virginity was what allowed Christ's mother to reach heaven corporeally, with her mortal body intact.
For the film diva, the Catholic legacy of the mater dolorosa underlines a model of only patient nurturing, with no rebirth, no defeat of human time, no new beginning. In the drudgery of daily life, the diva's forced devotion or excessive attachment to her male companion degenerates into a self-destructive act through which she stubbornly holds on to an ideal love that cannot last. The desires of the Italian diva oscillate between sacred and profane poles: between impossible dreams of heavenly transcendence and the temptations of primitive bestiality, shown whenever she looks like a feline, an owl, or a snake.
Both personae, the mystic and the animal, are, in the end, male projections meant to erase or frame female sexuality. But the extremes of mystic or animal also mean that the very unfolding of modern life is an ambiguous realm of painful uncertainties about where things might be heading. Indeed, around the turn of the century, conceptions of space and time changed so radically that their previously accepted linear contours twisted themselves on the screen, diva film after diva film, and especially in the minds of men and women who did not know how to restructure their ways of thinking and behavior in a modern way.
Whereas order, control, metonymy, efficiency, and monotony prevailed in American modern culture at the beginning of the century, in early Italian cinema, anxiety, utopia, excess, metaphor, and imagination won out. The premise of this book is that Italian modernity was delayed and dysfunctional, but also ambitious and spontaneous. Thus, the organization of my chapters is divided between two sets of basic forces: the pull toward the past against the leap into the future, the falling down into regressive practices in antithesis to the search for spiritual elevation. One could say that the debates over the modern self and the nature of the new woman used the diva's body, on the one hand, to produce arabesques or loops that piled up with unprecedented energy, and, on the other, to spawn a deformed body with grotesque outlines hinting at monstrous births. In other words, the new woman either looked unrecognizable because she was too abstract, or became nonrepresentational because she was too strange. Finally, one may wonder why I am using these terms—arabesque and grotesque—and one may also be curious about their origin or relevance to the diva as a moving image about change, or, in Gilles Deleuze's words, a time-image.
Let us argue for a moment that a Victorian optical toy called a phenakistoscope, developed around 1833, left its special trace inside the moving images of early cinema. While standing in front of a mirror, let us rotate the phenakistoscope's disc, a single human form repeated all around its border. At first, if the speed is not too great, the figure will begin to deform itself into a doodle, and later, at maximum speed, it will unravel into a quasi-abstract graphic pattern. Not only did the disfiguring and deforming principles of the phenakistoscope stay on inside the apparatus of early cinema, but its fast or slow spinning was also relevant to the way in which a whole society perceived people and things. The arabesque and the grotesque conveyed the mixed and chaotic rhythms of modern life, one out of synch with a more gradual and predictable model of history.
Thus, the diva's arabesques and grotesqueries signaled how difficult it could be to move toward change steadily but effectively. Indeed, such a warping of space and time was constantly staged by the diva film, whose roller-coaster narratives were about the absence of a systematic temporal trajectory. Such a lacuna may be put into relation with a society lamenting the loss of responsible adult males. Often reduced to disobedient children or vulnerable sons whom the diva tolerates, supports, or accepts, these carefree or exploitative partners stood for a void in modern, constructive, and responsible historical agency. This is why, in the diva film, to compensate for the proliferation of dandies and Don Giovannis, of male artists and loafing aristocrats, old and tough patriarchal figures stay on. It is as if the narrative needs the previous male generation in order to reach some kind of closure. Yet these grandfathers or old uncles, representing an antimodern and anachronistic regime, behave either overprotectively or despotically toward their young female relatives.
Through the arabesque and the grotesque, the acceleration or the slowing down of my imaginary phenakistoscope relies on two opposite but complementary rates of motion. These two speeds—slow and fast—greatly differ from the always-identical rhythms of the assembly line in the American factory. There, production proceeds step by step, each step calculated in advance to maximize profit. Although the images of a Hollywood film may seem faster or slower according to the external reactions they trigger, generic Hollywood narratives are fairly predictable in their internal pace: by a certain point, the story achieves a climax, a resolution, and a closure, as if the whole process had been timed on an invisible clock. Hollywood is like a factory in the sense that the creativity of storytelling is there—live and strong—but it is also either channeled or regulated.
By contrast, diva films, both singly and as a genre, are much more accidental, erratic, uneven, badly plotted, and unpredictable in their developments. This much more nonsystematic, emotional, and subjective handling of temporality greatly differs from the Tayloristic, measurable protocols of time used in both the American factory and the Hollywood studios. But the key questions, at this point, are what was the cultural source of this more improvisational model of time and why did the diva film embrace it? My study will argue that the handling of temporality in the diva film was influenced by the irrational, impulsive climate produced by the great popularity in Italy of the philosophy of Henri Bergson (1859-1941). For the French thinker, energy battles against death, and spontaneity and subjectivity are in conflict with logic and measurement. In the history of early Italian film theory, the genealogy of this philosophical legacy goes from Bergson to Giovanni Papini (1881-1956), from the former futurist critic Sebastiano Arturo Luciani (1884-1950) to painter-turned-film-producer Pier Antonio Gariazzo (1879-1964), and from filmmaker Nino Oxilia (1889-1917) to Ricciotto Canudo (1879-1923), an Italian expatriate in Paris who was at the center of the cine-club movement in the twenties. All these writers and artists celebrated an obscure stream-of-consciousness tempo in film at the expense of the cognitive and explainable models of thought deployed by Hollywood narratives.
In line with Bergson's sense that flights of the imagination are more important than reality or science, and despite the absence of the point-of-view shot and of the shot-reverse shot, a profoundly subjective gaze was in charge of the diva film. It was as if the whole genre were a sort of delirious phenakistoscope through which Italian audiences watched themselves struggling and suffering with outdated gender roles. The diva film's internal, diffused subjective gaze accounts for its amazing mixture of lyricism, paralysis, and desperation, while it also subtends its spellbinding décor, the escapist mise-en-scènes, the Gothic schemes, the futurist allusions, and the utopian or mystical yearnings.
Divas, Industry, and the Arts
The film historian Aldo Bernardini has demonstrated that the Italian film industry was organized (or scattered) according to either city or region. Production houses in different areas of the country tended to specialize in competing genres. The diva film, with its aristocratic, art nouveau, and often protofeminist slant, was produced more in northern Italy (Milan, Turin) than in the south. Naples, instead, was the most important city for the realist handling of crime-ridden melodramas, often inspired by popular songs in the local dialect. The Italian film industry's organization was structurally weak. Its major failure was the absence of Hollywood's vertical integration—that is, stable links across production, distribution, and exhibition to ensure a steady and fast diffusion of films throughout the territory without too many interlopers to drain the original company's profit. Creativity was also a problem in the young Italian film industry, for if Hollywood quickly came to behave like a factory, it also knew how to be creative enough to update and differentiate its products. By contrast, genre films in Italy were often redundant internally—i.e., structurally—as well as externally—i.e., intertextually and intragenerically.
Already during the silent period, the American vertical system of integration, by which a film moved smoothly from production to the box office, enabled Hollywood to quickly conquer the rest of the world with action, romance, and suspense. In short, cinema was a more organized business in America than in Italy. The wealthy aristocracy and the entrepreneurial upper bourgeoisie were heavily involved in early Italian filmmaking because these two groups included the investors in films and the producers. Their personal agendas, however, did not interlock into an overall industrial system, and their financial adventures with the cinema could lead to quick success or sudden bankruptcy. In Life to Those Shadows (1990), Noel Burch correctly links early Italian cinema to the middle class, which did not enjoy the financial means of the aristocracy, although it embraced the latter's nationalistic and decadent ethos. In France, the film industry became experimental and anticonventional while also managing to remain in touch with the democratic values of the working class. In the United States, cinema was made of narratives appealing to the masses, and showed no interest in strange experiments or elitist creative solutions. Early American cinema addressed the recent immigrants who could not afford other forms of entertainment and who were drawn to the humblest form of representation, in contrast to more prestigious media, such as theatre, whose lineages were still subordinate to the aesthetic values of the past.
Without a doubt, cinema too, had a populist appeal in Italy, but it was also mainly an urban phenomenon. The tension of old and new, which placed the diva between the nineteenth-century operatic stage and the twentieth-century filmic screen, ended up performing a strange detour through the ancient form of the commedia dell'arte: this old but fluid tradition turned out to enable women to refashion their own image in the new industry according to new fictional roles and professional models.
As Bernardini and Martinelli explain, leading players or "first actors" could easily become "artistic directors" at the production house that had originally hired them. During the era of the short film, whenever a performer arrived on the shooting set, he or she became one of the many elements of the company; specializations were still rather vague, and everybody would help, according to what needed to be done. Within this framework, the performer would learn about directing, writing, costumes, and sets.
To be sure, this interchangeability of professional roles came from the commedia dell'arte: a lowbrow kind of stage, open to improvisation without a rigid division of labor. In this context, the capocomico was simultaneously the leading actor and the director of the performance. It was exactly in this kind of flexible climate that Duse started her career. From the stage to the shooting set, professional roles remained blurred and potentially less prejudiced against women's leadership during filmmaking. In other words, the commedia dell'arte's loose working method made room for an enabling alliance between women and the cinema.
Besides opera and theater, other art forms were called upon to feed the creative vein of the emerging Italian film industry. The famous titles of Italian and international literature were widely used for all sorts of adaptations, but in the most superficial fashion. The weakness of the Italian novel—mostly limited to the historical genre—in comparison with its French and English psychological counterparts was notorious, and widespread illiteracy explained opera's monopoly on the imagination of the Italian masses. The humble status of early cinema and the lack of enough indigenous novels with a flair for personal drama meant that the literary sources for the diva film were often imported from France and belonged to the lowbrow category of the feuilleton. Four diva films, however, stand out for their domestic literary origins. Carmine Gallone's Malombra (1917), with Borelli, is based on the eponymous novel (1881) by Antonio Fogazzaro. Giovanni Pastrone's Tigre Reale (1916), with Menichelli, is based on a novelette (1873) by Giovanni Verga (1840-1922), a Sicilian writer known for his realist (verismo) fiction rather than for his symbolist-decadent works. In fact, it is worth noting that, besides Tigre Reale, Verga wrote Eva (1873), the story of a Sicilian painter who ruins all his romantic and artistic ideals for the sake of a female dancer, and, under the influence of the French naturalist Émile Zola, Eros (1875), an analysis of psychological and social conflicts between men and women. The third diva film in this list, Gustavo Serena's Assunta Spina (1915), with Bertini, was based on a loose, elliptical adaptation of Salvatore Di Giacomo's play in Neapolitan dialect (1909), combined with his short story of the same title (1914) written in mainstream Italian. Finally, Febo Mari's Cenere (1917), with Eleonora Duse—the only film role the famous actress ever performed—comes from a story (1904) by Grazia Deledda (1871-1936).
As film historian Giovanni Marchesi explains in his essay on the relation between cinema and literature:
French literature's great influence on silent Italian cinema fits within a more general climate of French intellectual dominance during the whole nineteenth century and for a good part of the twentieth century: one must keep in mind that since the Enlightenment, Italian culture had found itself in a situation of backwardness and isolation that was compensated for through the appropriation of French authors—Balzac, twenty-one films; Sardou, sixteen; Xavier de Montepin, ten films; Henri Bataille, Dumas fils, and Ponson du Terrail, eight films; Georges Ohnet and Eugene Sue, seven films; Feuillet and Bernstein, five films; Dumas père and Gyp, four films; Feydeau, three films; Zola, seven films; Gautier, four films; Maupassant, two films; Flaubert, one film; Stendhal, one film—and foreign literature in general. The great Russian novelists, for instance, reached Italy through French translations; likewise, a few years later, Soviet cinema, once again, arrived in Italy by way of Paris; finally, one must remember that Svevo, who, with Pirandello, is the only Italian literary figure of European stature at the beginning of the twentieth century, achieved recognition thanks to the intervention of French literary criticism. (emphasis added)
Marchesi's examples apply to film production beyond the diva film. Yet there is no doubt that Victorien Sardou, Henri Bataille, and Georges Ohnet ranked among the most famous and prolific producers of melodramatic novelettes and theatrical sources that were later adapted into diva films not just once, but sometimes through several remakes, interpreted by the same or by different divas.
Besides opera, theater, and literature, dance is another appropriate term of reference for the diva as a cultural phenomenon. In his book Paris/Manhattan: Writings on Art, the cultural critic Peter Wollen writes:
The decadents articulated a view of sexuality which rigorously refused any conventional ascription of sexual nature. They portrayed a world of androgyny in which desire could run against the grain, in the wrong direction and toward the wrong object. They contested the conventional division of sexuality into active and passive. This scandalous disruption of conventional sexual stereotypes allowed modern women to identify with Salome and, along with parallel identifications with the maenad (Isadora Duncan) and the witch (Mary Wigman), to lay the foundations of modern dance, the single art form dominated by women, from Loie Fuller and Ruth Saint Denis, through Mary Wigman and Martha Graham, up to Pina Bausch and Yvonne Rainer, and beyond.
The diva film was comparable to a new kind of dance, one meant to illustrate an intense and fascinating page in the history of the battle between the sexes. Many diva films feature the image of a couple involved in the most spectacular step in the tango: the drop, or throw, in which one partner picks up the other, who pretends to be falling to the floor. One could say that the history of the diva film is all about this alternation of drops: the female partner is often doing the falling, but the male lead sometimes surrenders to the choreographic direction of the new woman of modernity.
The tango, however, is a dance with rigid gender roles, which the futurists made sure to condemn, along with the museum-city of Venice and the moonlight; on the other hand, the iris shot with Amleto Novelli on top and Lyda Borelli at the bottom of the frame for the closure of the very first diva film, Ma l'Amor Mio non Muore (1913; Everlasting Love), not only became a common way of ending diva films or setting up photographs, it also resonated with a stubborn longing for a romantic ideal of stylized gracefulness.
Needless to say, painting and sculpture are also relevant to an understanding of the diva film as a visual form and as a genre concerned with temporality and women's issues; references to futurist and metaphysical art, and to decadent and neoclassical styles, will be scattered throughout this study.
Diva, Vamp, and Femme Fatale
In Leopoldo Carlucci's Caino (1918), Elda, a betrayed country wife, dies of sheer pain, while her sister Cecile, the femme fatale played by the diva Elena Makowska, remains unpunished and eventually marries a wealthy evil Frenchman. This example notwithstanding, the equivalence between the diva and the femme fatale, in the genre of the diva film, was more an exception than a rule. To be sure, in Giovanni Pastrone's Il Fuoco (1915; The Fire), Pina Menichelli is the ultimate femme fatale. In Febo Mari's Il Fauno (1917; The Faun), Elena Makowska, playing an evil seducer and crafty mistress, has nothing of the mater dolorosa about her. On the other hand, the films I examine closely in the present study make it clear that the Italian diva was no simple national variation on the international figure of the femme fatale.
In other words, she was not always and only a projection of male paranoia about the other sex, as has been argued until now, a stance that grossly confuses the Italian diva with the American femme fatale or vamp. There are many Hollywood performers who deserve the designation of star, vamp, or femme fatale, but only Theda Bara (1890-1955) can be said to be the American counterpart to the phenomenon of the Italian diva.
As Janet Staiger explains in Bad Women: Regulating Sexuality in Early American Cinema (1995), Theda Bara's overnight success in 1915 was symptomatic of male anxieties stirred by the unprecedented degree of freedom enjoyed by immigrant girls in large American cities. Bara's sudden rise to fame was sustained by the film's industry aggressive marketing, which constructed a whole legend around her modest origin. Bara was born Theodosia Goodman, the daughter of a Jewish tailor, in Cincinnati. Yet Bara was billed as a woman of mystic powers, born in the Sahara, the love child of a French artist and his Egyptian mistress. The studio publicists came up with an anagram of "Theda Bara": "Arab Death." On-screen, Theda wore indigo eye makeup to emphasize her pallor, and she surrounded herself with symbols of death, such as skulls, ravens, and serpents—clearly imitating Bernhardt's morbid necrophilia.
In Frank Powell's A Fool There Was (1915), based on "The Vampire," a poem by Rudyard Kipling, Bara is a generic social evil, comparable to alcohol or bankruptcy. The concern with alcoholism here strikes a meaningful note of similarity between early American and early Danish cinema. By contrast, alcohol was not a major theme in early Italian cinema. Furthermore, it is worth noting that supporters of women's emancipation in the United States were often involved in temperance campaigns. Feminism, antialcohol leagues, and the negative reputation of cinema as a source of female employment leading young, naïve women into white slavery was another triptych of social concerns common in America right before Bara's success.
Because Bara's character is only an enigmatic symptom of social disturbance, she has no family and no circle of friends. Thus, she is a sort of abstract negative force that operates independently. She is evil for evil's sake, since it never becomes clear whether she is acting out of a desire for personal revenge. In Powell's film, as a character with no name, literally called the Vampire, Bara strikes, succeeds, transforms each man into a social outcast, and then exits the narrative completely unscathed and unpunished. Bara always wins, but feels nothing. There is no anger, there is no past; likewise, there is no compassion, there is no delusion, there is no confusion. The diva film, by contrast, continues to be moving and thought-provoking, precisely for all the opposite reasons: naïve girls fall in love and are abandoned; lonely mothers are punished despite their good qualities; and women are worthless unless they are young and beautiful. The genre is a feast of paradox and oxymoron. Most importantly, in A Fool There Was, the betrayed American wife, played by Mabel Frenyear, does suffer during the adultery, but she also has a community of friends that supports her. Everybody is quick to condemn her husband's betrayal.
In contrast to Theda Bara's vamp, who has a superficial taste for blood, Italian divas kill not so much for sheer cruelty but because their characters rebel against patriarchal genealogy, sexual harassment, rape, or adultery. In this respect, the Italian diva does not embrace the traditional femme fatale's gratuitously or egotistically murderous vocation. In other words, the diva does not kill from financial motivation or for social advancement. The diva, ethically conscious, divides the world into those who have power and money and those who do not, into those who are fair and empathetic and those who take advantage of vulnerable people. As a woman, the diva always knows that, regardless of her own economic situation, she has hardly any recourse when misfortune strikes. The society in which she lives is so misogynistic that even wealthy women are often the victims of a patriarchal system.
The Feminization of Film
During the first decade of the twentieth century, neither women nor the cinematograph were taken seriously by the establishment, although everybody was aware of the suffragettes' movement and of the threat that the cinema posed to good literature and the traditional theater. One way to demonstrate how powerful women were in early Italian cinema is to look at the trade journals. Based on the frequency of photographs, there were far more female stars than musclemen climbing the ladder of fame before World War I. And there were so many of these photographs—all of different divas—that some of the women appeared and disappeared overnight. As a result, the popular impact of husbands, dandies, pimps, brothers, and fathers in the diva film was tangible but limited. Amleto Novelli as the perverse Russian expatriate in La Piovra (1919), Febo Mari as the vulnerable artist in Il Fuoco (1915), and Emilio Ghione as the rough guy in Ivonne, La Bella Danzatrice (1915) represented the three most important categories of masculinity in the diva film as a genre. Notwithstanding the talents or looks of these male stars, they all remained subordinate to the diva on-screen. In real life, however, some of them—Paolo Azzurri, for example—were able to develop their own production companies, just as Francesca Bertini did. Through Bertini Films or Azzurri Films, for example, they tried to exercise more control over their earnings. Still, Francesca Bertini and Emilio Ghione died in abject poverty.
It might be fair to say that early cinema in Italy was born a woman. Perhaps the trailing of a woman's skirt anticipated the moving image. Perhaps the acting convention of the diva opening a set of richly draped curtains onto a theatrical space amounts to a generic necessity in the diva film. Like the skirt, the curtain shows that movement and cloth need each other: the diva, who already controls the movement of her skirts and her curtains, is also in total control of her appearance and disappearance. In other words, her dominance of the visual register stays on, regardless of her punitive elimination at the end of most narratives. She dominates not because she is in control but because, rich or poor, she is beautiful; and beauty was a positive value in a culture sensitive to an ancient aesthetic practice at odds with the glitches and rough spots of mechanical reproduction.
Even the history of the appropriation of the English word film into the Italian language spells out a strong alliance between the medium and femininity. Around 1913, the diva film in Italian was commonly called la film, a feminine noun. Before this grammatical reincarnation, however, film was still referred to as il cinematografo, a masculine noun. At the very beginning, il cinematografo was nothing more than a fun topic included in booklets and magazines along with crossword puzzles, cartoons, songs, anagrams, nursery rhymes, and all sorts of other linguistic, technological, and quotidian curiosities for children and adults.
Most importantly, in the days of short films, the masculine noun in daily speech, il cinematografo, had a negative connotation—it meant mental confusion. This pathological definition of the cinema was adopted by the socialist Edmondo De Amicis for his novelette Cinematografo Cerebrale (1909), a sort of light-hearted divertissement about patriarchy in a state of crisis. De Amicis's text is worth summarizing because it describes the shift from a weak sense of male self-confidence to a feminization of patriarchal authority.
In De Amicis's novelette, the wife is out in the world and the husband is home alone. Loneliness and idleness lead to introspection about a father's worst fears and fantasies. However, this turn to repressed materials within the psyche does not involve a complete loss of control. In Cinematografo Cerebrale, De Amicis relies on a traditional use of grammar. His sentences do not give up logical organization; they do not yield to the power of free association, dangerous analogies, or ambiguous puns. His mind wanders through a gallery of old-fashioned fantasies about women without opening up to modernism's stream of consciousness.
De Amicis's placement of masculinity in the domestic sphere suggests that the bourgeois man was lagging behind the times despite major innovations in society: the department store, the airplane, pants for women. De Amicis's feminization of the male protagonist enables the writer to position the cinema as cinematografo inside daydreaming and memory, but also outside technology and productivity. By the end of the novelette, when his wife returns home, the paterfamilias is relieved: he no longer has to face his inner cinema, and he is much happier having some female company over which to reestablish his power as the head of the family. Despite the protagonist's attempt to maintain the status quo in language and at home, it was around 1910 that il cinematografo began to shift to la film.
Divas and dandies—it is expected that they all live, love, succeed, suffer, cheat, kill, and die. But early Italian cinema yields a more subtle and surprising discovery: the pulsing beat of time in the inanimate things that surround these fictional human beings. The world of objects looms large in the diva film: clocks, hourglasses, cigarettes, roses, veils, curtains, photographs, rings, hats, gloves, shoes, clouds, trains, rocks, gates, and fireplaces are as important as acting styles or narrative structures in this genre. Indeed, the problem of historical change and its impact on gender roles is the topic of the diva film. Once again, time feels and looks subjective in this genre, for it is depicted between the extremes of cigarette smoke trailing away and perfect neoclassical statues. And there is more: the withering roses and the cigarettes wasting away in the air are also about melancholia and loss. In a sense, they remind viewers that everything passes: painting is replaced by cinema, but no matter how young the new medium is, it already knows that its own life span is limited. Roses, cigarettes, and clocks are all memento mori or vanitas images about human frailty and the passage of time, which, in turn, is an indifferent and cold reminder of mortality. Veils, curtains, and draperies suggest mobility and revisions, but even these objects are volatile and unreliable. Yet to better understand why the diva was a figure of temporality split between a life-giving impulse that overrides all forms of history, on the one hand, and the memories of a soon-to-be-bygone era, on the other, my reader will have to learn about the ideas of Henri Bergson and their impact on the construction of the diva at the turn of the century.
“Diva is an impressive study on an important and fascinating topic. Those interested in European cultural studies, feminism, World War I, theater history, and early twentieth-century nationalism—to name a few areas—will find this book of value.”
Charles Musser, Professor of Film Studies and Theater Studies, Yale University
“Diva is a phenomenally rich archival, cultural, and theoretical source regarding early Italian cinema most specifically and European modernity in the early twentieth century more generally. Few film histories offer this kind of intellectual range, and I eagerly anticipate this book's impact on the field and its reverberation among other related disciplines.”
Jennifer M. Bean, Director of Cinema Studies and Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Comparative Literature, University of Washington