Early & Silent Film

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William Shakespeare by Film d’Arte Italiana

Posted by keith1942 on December 1, 2016

Lear and his fool.

Lear and his fool.

This was a programme of three early adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays by the Italian studio. The company was founded by Pathé and was a parallel to the French Film d’Art. These were the years when film entrepreneurs were aiming to extend audiences to the bourgeois classes. Classic works such as Shakespeare offered a cachet for this potential audience: there was the added advantage that the works were out of copyright. The Festival Catalogue notes that as the Italian company did not yet have a silent stage for film work and so the productions were filmed in the open air and

“open-air sequences filmed in real places became a distinctive hall mark of their productions.” (Luciano Di Giusti).

The films are short by modern standards and do not all survive in full-length versions. What was offered was a series of key scenes with title cards describing the plot: presumably this relied on a certain audience acquaintance with the original. At this stage of the industry the cinematography relied on a static camera filming entire scenes in one long take. So there is a tableaux feel to the staging, though there are occasional mid-shots and at time the depth of field offers more dynamic action.

The films also used the Pathé stencil colour techniques. This was applied manually by women workers. Different colours were applied as tints to different areas of the frame. The work relied to a degree on pastel shades, so the colours are not as saturated as with hand-painting. But they add to distinctiveness to the frames and offer a more vibrant image.

The key filmmaker, who directed two and most likely supervised the third film, is Gerolamo Lo Savio. At this stage in the industry credits for the various craft people are minimal. The third film is credited to Ugo Faleno, a playwright recruited to Film s’Arte Italiana. Perhaps he was responsible for the scripts for the films.

The productions were constructed around notable stage performers, another attraction for the more affluent audience. Thus in two of the films screened the lead was Ermete Novelli. He was a major theatrical star in the late C19th and early 1900s. By the time of these films he was in his 60s. And he mainly recreates his theatrical performance rather than trying a different techniques for film.  For me the more interesting actor in the films is Francesca Bertini.  Only 18 at this stage Bertini had started in theatre. She went on to become one of the major stars and ‘divas’ of Italian cinema. Her performances, even here, show her developing a specific cinematic technique.

Re Lear / King Lear, 1910. 293 metres, original 325 metres.

The film uses eight settings that present the key sequences from the play: including Lear’s original disastrous judgement against Cordelia: his misuse and abuse by his heirs: and the tragedy of first the death of Cordelia and then his own. The final scenes offer a greater depth of field with the location adding to the drama. Novelli is rather stilted and not all of Bertini’s playing survives.

Shylock

Shylock

Il Mercante di Venezia / The Merchant of Venice, 1910. 169 metres, original 270 metres.

This film is also set out in eight sequences, the key scenes from the play. However, even less of the original survives in this version, so important points like the way that Portia’s plans that develop the drama are unclear. The Venice settings, interspersed between studio sets, enhance the treatment. Novelli is a stereotypical Shylock but particularly effective in the courtroom sequence. However, Portia is played Olga Giannini Novelli, apparently Ermete’s wife. She was also in Re Lear, but this is a substantial role and she seems miscast.

Romeo e Giulietta / Romeo and Juliet, 1912. 680 metres.

This is the longest of the adaptations and is complete. The film uses a number of close-ups which increases the dramatic effect. As with the other films we are presented with a series of key scenes that trace the tragedy of the young lovers. Bertini plays Juliet opposite Gustavo Serena as Romeo, an actor who played alongside her in number of films. They are mature lovers rather than teenagers but very effective in their passion and in their final traumas.

The two earlier films were 35mm prints from the BFI National Film Archive with English title cards. Both ran at 16 fps. I was rather puzzled that neither of these appeared to have been screened in the celebrations of Shakespeare in the UK. The third print was from the EYE Filmmuseum with Dutch title cards. It ran slightly faster at 16 fps. Mauro Columbis provided piano accompaniment for all three, suiting the music to the different tones of the films.

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One Response to “William Shakespeare by Film d’Arte Italiana”

  1. popegrutch said

    I would love to see these screened with live accompaniment! I saw the first two on the “Silent Shakespeare” DVD a couple of years back, and was impressed, especially by the hand tinting on “Lear,” but the “Romeo and Juliet” is one I’ve missed so far.

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