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Italian divas were queens of the silver screen

By Peter Crimmins Daily Planet Correspondent
Friday October 13, 2000

In the handsome program catalog for “Divas: Divine Women of the Italian Silent Cinema,” filled with gorgeous movie stills, Pina Menichelli reclines on her side, her dress slipping off her shoulder, the line of her neck describing sultry insolence.  

In the accompanying text, curator Professor Angela Dalle Vacche explains Menichelli's devilish reputation is due in some extent to her jutting chin. 

“I do see her as the producer of the blank slate or ground zero for women's emancipation to begin,” writes Vacche of the Diva, a uniquely Italian phenomenon from over 80 years ago. The series of eight films featuring six Divas of the screen will be illuminating the Pacific Film Archive's theater beginning Sunday and continuing through the end of October. 

Vacche and co-curator Gian Luca Farinelli insist the legacy of the Italian cinema goddesses can be drawn into the American movie tradition.  

The acting style may seem far removed from anything in Hollywood, but the Divas created a movie magic every This-Year's-Girl owes a debt to. 

The “diva,” Vacche explains, comes from opera wherein the primadonna, through her voice, could break from the tribulations of the world and achieve a purity of spirit and emotion.  

Now the term is thrown around dance clubs quite liberally to describe any woman who can carry a tune on top of techno house beats and funky bass lines.  

The silent screen Diva, poised between 19th century opera and 20th century disco, ushered women into modernism. 

The characters in this collection of films are typically upper-class, draped with furs and dripping with pearls, bearing the spiritual burden of corruptive love, unlucky circumstance, and being Italian at a time when women in the other European countries were achieving some progressive social status.  

Italian women couldn't vote, smoke, or even buy a magazine subscription with the consent of a man. The Diva is marked by suffering. 

Wherefore the screen idol, but toward the ethereal? Passionately sacred and defiantly worldly, Divas are “at once priestesses and conscious victims of all the rites of Eros.”  

So writes Gian Piero Brunetta, professor at the University of Padua, in the program catalog. 

Their bodies, expressive and eroticized by the camera, communicate through quasi-theatric gestures and poses.  

Likened to miming, the body language of these actresses can seem artificial, simultaneously conscious of the over-emphatic stage mannerisms and the “smaller, temporary, or random movements suggesting invisible rhythms under the surface of the skin,” writes Vacche.  

The actresses were re-inventing their craft to play to the camera's scrutiny, rather than the peanut gallery's myopia. 

In a recent article in Film Comment magazine, Vacche thumbnails the “holy trinity” of Italian silent screen actresses: Francesca Bertini (The Goddess of Passion), Lyda Borelli (The Goddess of Transformation), and the supine Menichelli (The Goddess of Contradiction).  

These actresses don't sing like their operatic forebears, nor even speak in these pre-talkie films. Their other-worldly gestures and expressions imply an expressive space outside of speech.  

An elusive space, as Vacche writes: “This lost dimension is divinity itself, the aura that surrounds miracles, and magic that hovers around ritual objects.” 

The language used to describe the women can get as rhapsodic as the Divas themselves. “The Divas give off a light that transcends the space of cinema,” writes Brunetta, again, in the program catalog. “The Diva claims new rights, overturns centuries-old values and models, and reveals new dimensions of the human soul.” 

The films were restored under the direction of the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna and are fresh from the New York Film Festival.  

This is the first trip the to United States for most of them. PFA director and globe-trotting filmgoer Edith Kramer said she has seen a few of the Diva films in different cities around the world, but is looking forward to seeing them together in a package. 

“If you go to one it may seem quirky,” said Kramer, “but to see them as a whole you realize this is a whole genre of film.”  

It’s was a cinema being created at the same time D.W. Griffith was creating the film language in “Birth of a Nation” and “Tolerance” that would dominate American filmmaking. The Diva stylings may be lost in modern filmmaking, but the pre-WWI, rag-tag Italian film industry laid the foundation for the star system, which powers the Hollywood economy to this day. 

Kramer particularly recommends “Tigre reale” (Royal Tiger) wherein everything that could happen to a proud if hapless Russian countess does happen, in spades. She says it's a real hoot. It screens on Sunday, along with a 1999 documentary about divism, “Diva Dolorosa,” featuring footage from the Italian silents reworked into “the ultimate Diva film.” 

For screening information on “Divas: the Divine Women of the Italian Silent  

Cinema,” call the Pacific Film Archive at 642-1412, or