Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema

Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema

Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema

Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema


As scientific discoveries and technological advances radically modernized Europe around the turn of the twentieth century, artists of all types began questioning what it means to be human in an increasingly mechanistic world. Animated by a luminous goddess at its center, the diva film provided a forum for denouncing social evils and exploring new models of behavior among the sexes. These melodramas of courtship, seduction, marriage, betrayal, abandonment, child custody, and public reputation, to mention only a few themes, offered women a vision of- if not always a realistic hope for- emancipation and self-discovery.

InDiva, Angela Dalle Vacche offers the first authoritative study of this important "film" genre of the cinema that preceded the Great War of 1914-1918. She analyzes some seventy films, as well as the work of actresses such as Francesca Bertini, Lyda Borelli, and Pina Menichelli, to establish what the diva film contributed to the modernist development of the "new woman." Contrasting the Italian diva with the Hollywood vamp Theda Bara and the famous Danish star Asta Nielsen, Dalle Vacche shows how the diva oscillates between articulating Henri Bergson's vibrant life-force ( lan vital) and representing the suffering figure of the Catholicmater dolorosa.

Taking readers on a fascinating tour that includes the Ballets Russes, orientalism, art nouveau, Futurism, fashion, prostitution, stunt women in the circus, aviation, anti-Semitism, colonialism, and censorship,Divasheds important new light on the eccentric implantation of modernity in Italy, as well as on how, before World War I, the filmic image was associated with the powers of the occult and not with the Freudian unconscious, as has been argued until now.


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 nineteenth-century melodramatic devices still in wondrous working order.

Within these pages are the gaudy inventories of these diva films, which flourished on the continent between 1910 and 1920, and which starred cinemas first divinities: Lyda Borelli, Pina Menichelli, Francesca Bertini, and other Olympian ancestors of the merely mortal stars of Hollywood history

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 thirty 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 films time is the divas 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 but imagine 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.

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