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Diva Doings

A new book and DVD recall the passionate excess of the Italian diva of silent films

By Michael S. Gant

AMERICAN SILENT-FILM fans are familiar with the vamp, personified most famously by Theda Bara. A new book and DVD reveal a related female fury known as the "diva," who reigned over Italian silent cinema in the years before and during World War I. More complex than a simple man-eater or femme fatale, the Italian diva perched perilously between the strict Catholic morality of the past and the uncorseting urges of modernization. Divas struggled to find love, passion and independence and yet were often condemned to suffering (hence the "dolorosa") by the strictures of traditional society. The diva films exalted the ecstasies and agonies of their female leads, who were prone to magnificent, fatal gestures in the name of love, even when the men in question weren't worthy of the sacrifice. Since narrative was deemed less important than showy dramatic moments, these films lend themselves especially well to the subtle editing techniques of Dutch director Peter Delpeut, who specializes in "found footage" from the silent era. In Diva Dolorosa (1999), Delpeut splices together representative scenes from the work of heavy-lidded actresses like Pina Menichelli, Lyda Borelli and Francesca Bertini to create a kind of "ur-diva" film. The fancy balls in which wealthy suitors court these exotic peacocks give way to more intimate reveries (often accompanied by the scattering of rose petals from giant bouquets) and heated declarations of undying love and, finally, to some bracing doses of morphine to "overcome the double insanity of love and death." The lurid intertitles give a flavor of what is happening: "The venom of love once more poured into her heart."

The clips Delpeut uses are often gloriously tinted in deep shades of blue, green and ochre. In one over-the-top scene, a diva taunts her admirer for his half-hearted commitment. "True passion is a flare; it reaches up to the sky, but only for a brief moment," she says, before setting the guy's dining-room table on fire as the screen floods with red smoke. Several long sequences from Rapsodia Satanica (a typical no-holds-barred title) show Borelli, whose character has bought immortality by jettisoning true love, wrapped in flowing diaphanous veils. Tossing caution—and veils—to the wind, she exits the castle that keeps her young and embraces the natural world ... and death. As she heads into the sunlight, we can see faint lavender hues on her gown. She moves through a grove of cypresses and finally vanishes into the dark woods of death. In a fadeout, her sheer gauze floats by itself over a light azure sea.

The acting can be wildly florid but never seems risible or histrionic. Watching Diva Dolorasa fills you with the desire to experience more of the riches of this bygone and unknown film era. (Delpeut did the same with rare silent films from the rest of Europe in his feature Lyrical Nitrate, also available on Zeitgeist.) Diva Dolorosa can be purchased separately or bundled with Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema (University of Texas), a dense historical and critical study of the genre by film teacher Angela Dalle Vacche. Setting the diva in the context of extreme stresses in Italian society and art (especially the Futurist movement) and noting the line from stage divas like Sarah Bernhardt and the first real female movie star, Asta Nielsen, Vacche provides a great deal of illuminating background material and extensive descriptions of individual films (although she spins some academic webs that can lay traps for the unwary—I'm still confused by what she means when she talks about "verticality" in acting styles). The book contains many wonderful stills and posters.

DIVA DOLOROSA by Peter Delpeut; one disc; Zeitgeist Films; $29.99

DIVA: Defiance AND PASSION IN EARLY ITALIAN CINEMA, by Angela Dalle Vacche; University of Texas Press; $34.95 paperback with DVD

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