Early & Silent Film

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Il Fiacre N.13 / Cab no. 13, Italy 1917.

Posted by keith1942 on December 21, 2017

This film was screened in the ‘Cineteca Italiano 70’ programme at the 2017 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. This was a series in four episodes, running for a total of 170 minutes. Carlo Montanaro, in the Catalogue, provided some background.

“Not many Italian silent films structured in episodes have survived, though a good many were made … Most of them were based on foreign models, particularly French, and some were direct reworkings. One such case is Il Fiacre . 13, from the novel of the same title by Xavier Henri Aymon Perrin, Count of Montépin,  a highly prolific and much-loved author whose books were vehicles for the depiction of social inequality, narrating stories of love, death, betrayal, blackmail and redemption.”

The film certainly fitted this description. It bore a strong resemblance to the plotting of the classic French serials of the teens. The villains were affluent and/or aristocratic. However, the issue of social inequality was limited as the characters were divided into virtuous and evil rather than representing classes as such.

Episode One – Il delitto al Ponte di Neuilly / Murder at the Neuilly Bridge

This first in the series was banned in Italy but seen abroad. Presumably a story in which someone is falsely charged, found guilty and guillotined was felt to question ‘legitimate’ authority. In this episode we meet key characters, Duke George de Latour (Vasco Creti), whose devious plans and actions in order to obtain the family estate and fortune motivate most of the action. Claudia Varny (Elena Makowska) assists George: she is the most interesting and dynamic character in the film. As interesting in many ways is Gion Giovedi (Alberto A. Capozzi, also co-director), an Apache, a member of a violent criminal underworld and a stock character in silent films. And there is the coachman who drives the fatal cab, (Umberto Scapellini).

Episode Two – Gion Giovedi.

An innocent man is sent to the guillotine for a murder at the bridge where, unbeknown at the time, a baby is kidnapped. These events intertwine with the ducal fortune and, in particular, the machinations by Claudia. The  murder and the kidnapping remain the central events propelling action and investigation throughout the series.

There are numerous development and new characters. Most importantly we meet Berta, the daughter of the innocent victim of the guillotine, and in a powerful sequence she swears vengeance on his tomb. We meet a young doctor, Etienne, who will be an important link between characters, including René. The latter, a friend of one victim visits the cemetery to inspect the mausoleum to the deceased Duke and meets Berta and thus  becomes an investigator into the crimes.

Episode Three – La filial del ghigliottinato / The Daughter of the Guillotined Man.

Carlo Montanaro describes this as

“the grimmest episode, where evil seems to prevail …”

It was also the shortest episode. As the crimes of George and Claudia start to come to light Berta is kidnapped to prevent exposure. Meanwhile René inveigles himself into Claudia’s villa. At a grandiose party he uses a theatrical tableaux to confront Claudia with her past. A really dramtic sequence.

Episode Four – Giustizia! / Justice.

The title tells all, but the drama continues. Berta is rescued from a burning house. Characters’ past and their hidden family relationships are revealed. The virtuous are rewarded and the wrongdoers punished. The latter offers a slight ambiguity. The nemesis of Claudia develops real pathos a she is parted from a beloved daughter.

Montanaro comments on the overall plot:

“the narrative is an unending series of dramatic revelations where events are carefully illustrated and explained by intertitles, which, as with all the films of this type, bear witness to the style of the material’s direct literary origins.”

So despite the numerous and dramatic changes and turns of events in the film I was never lost in the development of the plot. Rather as with other literary works, [e.g. ‘Jane Eyre] ‘ the long arm of co-incidence is stretched to the point of dislocation ‘. There are a number of flashbacks filling in plot information. And numerous conventional tropes: apart from tableaux’s, fires, kidnapping, secret assignations., a cemetery: there are  overheard plots in bars, a duel, incriminating letters, important paintings, hidden documents, and significant jewels.

As Montanaro also notes much of the power of the film derives from the performances, especially those of Alberto Capozzi as Gion Giovedi and Elena Makowska as Claudia. I also thought that their characters were the most interesting in the script. Gigetta Morano plays Berta, and she is the most charismatic of the virtuous characters.

The film has a range of settings: some of the interiors are sumptuous but it was the smaller scale sets and some of the exteriors that struck me as particularly well done. The cinematography by Giovanni Vitrotti is a key contributor to the generally fine visual presentation. There are often interesting camera angles, especially high angle shots looking down on characters. And there are some excellent tracking shots for the period. The film has a lot of effective tinting.

In all we had 3,500 metres of 35mm at 18 fps. This film was screened in two parts. Donald Sosin provided the accompaniment for Episodes one and two and Mauro Colombis provided the accompaniment for Episodes three and four

 

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