The 38th New York Film Festival’s principal sidebar event is devoted to a fascinating but unfamiliar genre: the diva film. In Italy, during the 1910s, a special breed of prima donna arose whose movies owed their immense popularity more to the charismatic personalities and flamboyant, often operatic acting styles of the leading ladies than to any technical or aesthetic qualities of the productions. For the most part, the divas inhabited narratives set in aristocratic or upper-bourgeois worlds marked by rigid social conventions. But they were unhappy goddesses, boldly addicted to love and intrigue, who refused to assent to society’s norms and suffered for it.
The most eminent silent divas were Francesca Bertini, Lyda Borelli, and Pina Menichelli. Bertini was the prima diva assoluta, the most versatile and accomplished actress of the three; she worked in historical films and populist dramas and was as natural in a tattered shawl as an evening gown with furs and feathers. She made 90 films between 1909 and 1921 and became one of the main attractions of Italian cinema’s early period. At age 88, she came out of retirement to make an astonishingly well-preserved appearance in Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976). Sad-eyed, ethereal Borelli, thin and sinuous, a queen of unsatisfied passions, often resembled an art nouveau figurine. Menichelli was the most devilish and voluptuous of the three. At home with aggressive and perverse characters, she was an expert flasher of cruel, knowing smiles.
It was in Gustavo Serena’s Assunta Spina (1915)—codirected by the actress—that Bertini emerged as an international star. She plays a young laundress who becomes the scapegoat of jealous males; her striking performance is in a measured, extremely modern style, devoid of emphases. The location photography of Serena’s film is extraordinary for the period; the details of working-class Neapolitan life are seamlessly integrated into the story. Assunta Spina, totally unlike anything else in the series, marks the beginning of the realist strain in Italian cinema.
In Nino Oxilia’s lyrical Satanic Rhapsody (1917), Lyda Borelli appears as a female Faust, an elderly countess whose pact with the devil offers her eternal youth if she renounces love. This entertaining fantasy is on view in a lusciously tinted and toned print restored by the Bologna Cineteca. Oxilia, a talented playwright, was killed in action during the Great War, before he could fulfill the promise of his youth.
The wildest and campiest item in the series is Giovanni Pastrone’s Royal Tiger (1916), in which Pina Menichelli acts up a storm as a capricious Russian aristocrat who drives men to suicide and fatal duels. Its climax is the most spectacular fire in silent European cinema. The stunning cinematography is by the great pioneer Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomon, who later worked on Abel Gance’s Napoleon.
A catalog to the series contains a provocative essay on divismo by co-curator Angela Dalle Vacche. This is a fascinating retro, but a few queries are still in order. The omission of Gianfranco Mingozzi’s invaluable doc, The Last Diva: Francesca Bertini, is puzzling. As is the programming of Augusto Genina’s Scampolo (1928), made when the genre was long a thing of the past. This mediocre German film stars the waifish Carmen Boni, whose persona is that of the docile girl next door. Its inclusion in this series is pure Looney Toons.