When on a shopping spree for anguish, rapture, martyrdom, comas, counts, rapes, bastards, orphans, dogaressas, philtres, sirens, suicides, mistaken identities, flower festivals, and sudden fatal loves—even a tattooed baby—one need look no further than the Italian Diva Film, a vast clearinghouse of art nouveau decors and 19th-century melodramatic devices still in wondrous working order.
Anthology Film Archives is opening up the gaudy inventories of 14 such movies, which flourished on the continent between 1910 and 1920, and which starred cinema’s first divinities: Lyda Borelli, Pina Menichelli, Francesca Bertini, and other Olympian ancestors of the merely mortal stars of Hollywood history. (The series was a New York Film Festival sidebar last year.)
Gathering into one deeply conscious glance all the beauty scattered so sublimely through that last hour of the fin de siècle, the Italian film diva is both the movie’s center and the movie itself; she is the eye and the hurricane. Indolently we bathe in her fragrant mysticisms and sensualities, while all about her, rent hearts and havoc are strewn with the violence of Armageddon. Even she is consumed by the force of her own storm—babies are ripped from her arms, leering roadmen are thrust into their place. She is buffeted by betrayals. Her purses are torn away. Her hands are pelted by ducal kisses innumerable.
Savagely lashed by her own tresses while Destiny blasts her soul, the diva cries out for vengeance, cries out with her entire body, and this is what is most spectacular about the diva film—the vocabulary of the body! Aided only in part by as many as 30 drool-inducing costume changes per film, the diva’s body twists and ripples in endless metamorphoses expressing wave upon wave of inner tumult. Ever so slowly—for the film’s time is the diva’s time!—and in a fashion completely alien to our New World eyes, do the torso and its limbs strain toward an unprecedented posture of prurience enmarbled, and upon achieving this shocking pose, move on to the next astonishing attitude, unfurling the fingers first, languidly allowing these digits to splay about the face and the bosom of the diva and in so doing inscribe upon those marvelous surfaces the plots of all stories from all times.
During the screenings you can’t help imagining you sit next to Wayne Koestenbaum, that great curator of history’s taxidermied opera divas, chronicler of their conduct, and exegete of their every signifier. You pretend you’ve introduced him to these florid films and by doing so you’ve struck him dumb. The cine-diva’s vocabulary smites him with its vastness, strangeness, and uncanny accessibility—like hieroglyphics made suddenly readable.
Penny-dreadfully named—Satanic Rhapsody, Royal Tiger, The Painting of Osvaldo Mars—and aggressively assembled by genuine but forgotten Italian auteurs, the diva films at Anthology are hugely watchable. Packed with melodramatic non sequiturs, dazzling and long-abandoned editing tropes, and sometimes outright peculiar toning and tinting strategies, these compact little dramas—most of them run under an hour—induce the most arcane intoxication.
The films’ morbid and degenerate yoking of sex and death, and their closety devotion to costumery and decors, spritz the bruised-fruit aromas of Decadence from one end of the program to the other. One can feel in all the scenarios the pervasive influence of Gabriele D’Annunzio—a kind of Italian Walt Disney of his day. It seems plausible that D’Annunzio, the great sensualist author and poet, ghostwrote the screenplays, and with his one tin eye shining, oversaw the production of these movies like the construction of so many death-rides at a great Liebestod theme park.
While the cult of the diva grew within the Italian populace, Mussolini could perceive the fevers of degeneracy in this great film genre. Preferring more subservient women for his country’s ideal, he especially disapproved of an art form that celebrated the fearsome power and savage suffering of the feminine. After his rise to power, the diva film went into eclipse.
Now, exalted by the imminent return of the diva, if only for the duration of the Anthology series, I’m determined to throng her portico with the other ardent suitors. Then, at first sight of her and her heartsick entourage, I shall toss my unworthy self headlong at the hem of her dress, hoping to plant there just one kiss before being swept into oblivion by the delicious fury of the Divine.