Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to a very important blogging event: Diva December! This is the month that I devote to coverage of the Italian divas and their films.
If you are wondering: “who?”, I have previously published the introductory article Fatal passions: an overview of the Italian divas, which outlines the genre, the major players, and why I am so drawn to these works. I hope you’ll take a look. But in short, the ‘diva film’ is a term used refer to a specific genre: the female Italian melodramas of the 1910s, dripping with fashion and emotion, sensational and sometimes operatic in scope, and always the woman at the eye of the storm, these actresses of grand passions and intense physicality.
Next week’s post is quite research-intensive, so today will be a lighter look at one of the classics of the diva film genre: Carmine Gallone’s Malombra of 1917, starring Lyda Borelli.
Malombra is a true gothic melodrama. The plot centres around Lady Marina di Malombra (Borelli), an orphan who goes to live with her uncle, the Conte Cesare d’Ormengo. Yet the castle of Malombra holds secrets; a servant tells her of her ancestor Lady Cecilia, the first wife of the Count’s father, who died as a prisoner in the rooms where Marina is now resident. Amidst the flowers and festivals of April (springtime in Italy), Marina by chance finds a letter written by Cecilia in a hidden compartment in her writing desk. “For a flower, for a smile, for a slander, the Count Emanuele and his mother are killing me slowly. I’m condemned …!” Cecilia curses the Conte d’Ormengo and his progeny, her handmirror keeping her last image, destined to break when another looks into it … as Marina does.
From that point forward, Marina’s spirit seems to merge somehow with that of Cecilia, or read another way, she (over-)identifies with Cecilia and internalizes her story. She becomes mysteriously ill and filled with a kind of dreamy mania, finding solace in a book named A Dream (“That reading deeply troubled Marina, now easy prey of any fantastic suggestions”). A subplot arrives in the form of Amleto Novelli, who as Mr. Corrado Silla acts strangely towards Marina, alternately in love then indifferent … and Silla is also the author of A Dream, writing to Marina (as Cecilia), who suspects her uncle is cooking up a marriage plot. Ultimately, Cecilia’s desire for revenge against the Conte drives things to a tragic conclusion …
The plot is at times a little hard to follow, perhaps because of missing footage. Yet as with all such stories, it’s not so much about the narrative as the way it is told: Malombra unfolds with dark romanticism, replete with flowers, boat rides, flowing gowns and the inimitable physical presence of La Borelli. (Indeed, the scenes of festivals, boats, and continual presence of flowers are reminiscent of Rapsodia Satanica). But the excess of emotion and drama is manifested most of all in the acting of Borelli herself. Lyda Borelli was a famous stage actress when she transitioned to the screen in 1913, making a grand success with Ma l’amor mio non muore! and remaining one of the top screen actresses in Italy until her retirement in 1918. Borelli’s acting style is strongly influenced by Italian theatrical conventions, painting, and dance, and is based on series of poses linked by both sinuous motion and sudden movement. She inspired the noun borellismo and the verb borelleggiare to describe her ways. To witness:
Thinking about Borelli’s screen presence taps into a larger question: what makes a good screen actress? Fashions change in this just as in anything, and the realism/’naturalness’ that is the mainstream norm now is simply one of many possible value systems. (And of course, the ideal of realism in acting is elastic over time, too). Borelli was not without her critics, but in her time many thought her very artistic, and this kind of very ‘visible’, corporeal acting style was prized. I imagine that many people today might find her mannered, perhaps even ridiculous, but anyone who would criticize her for ‘bad acting’ is rather missing the point, in my opinion: in fact, she was extremely successful at what she did. And, spoiler alert, personally I love her: I find the highly embodied nature of her screen presence to be fascinating and wonderful.
Borelli is also able to use the power of her gaze to great effect, as in this shot, where she almost seems to be breaking the fourth wall.
Another scene that stands out comes near the end of Malombra, when Marina/Cecilia is taking her meal on the patio. Holding her knife, she suddenly plunges it into the table, her left hand becoming a claw: Marina’s inner troubles dramatically expressed.
She is not afraid either to lapse into grotesquerie. There’s this very odd shot where her eyes flare, her lip curls, her teeth are bared in a hiss.
Too much? Perhaps, but in a film that is so much about feminine psychic disturbance—and one could surely read Malombra in relation to early-twentieth-century discourses around hysteria, etc—it is somehow captivating.
The elements of a diva film
Just as any genre, diva films have certain recurring motifs, or tropes. Through rigorous scientific analysis I have determined the elements that are essential to the genre, and I present these to you here. Andiamo!
Copious costume changes. Borelli wears an incredible array of dresses, from the flowing to the frou-frou. By my reckoning, she wore about eighteen outfits in Malombra, roughly one per four minutes—very respectable. Here are a few of her looks:
Mirrors. Cecilia’s letter reads, “I committed my last image to the mirror. When you identify yourself within it, the mirror will break.”
A dramatic scene involving flowers. Malombra is filled with flowers: in the gardens where Marina walks; decorating the interior of the castle; in jardinières on the castle’s patio. But two instances stand out: the room filled with flowers; and on the water, when Marina is showered with blooms in her boat.
Symbolic naming. Malombra: literally, ‘dark shadow’.
A veiled diva. Check and check! And I mean check.
A necklace of notable length.
Headwear that borders on the avant-garde. Not really, but this is both lovely and dramatic:
Feminine sufferance/trials and tribulations. An uncle who wishes to marry you off against your will; the strange attitude of a writer; most of all, the dangers of living in a place full of “strange legends”, cursed by the vengeful ghost of a female ancestor.
Men with wacky hair. This fellow takes the bird’s-nest approach:
Emotive piano playing. (And flowers).
Incredible intertitles. Malombra sets a high-water mark here. Who could forget these lines?
- On a symptom of Marina’s mysterious illness: “Uncontrollable bother against anything modern.”
- On Marina’s recovery: “Medicine had managed to cure her body, but who would manage to save her soul?”
- On the passionate and desperate state of Marina: “Under the double madness of love and death.”
What can top love and death? Love, death … and flowers:
And the coup de grâce of the finale:
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Malombra was strongly advertised in contemporary periodicals, usually double-billed with Madame Tallien, which debuted a couple of months before Malombra. Here are some examples of the adverts that appeared in cinema magazines and journals:
A writeup in Film in July 1916 informs the public of the forthcoming release, speaking of the intimacy which Borelli will bring to the film, and a lengthy review is published in La vita cinematografica in April 1917. Author Pier da Castello discusses the film in relation to its source material, the 1881 source novel of the same name by Antonio Fogazzaro, but his real target is the art form of cinema itself and the role of Borelli within it. Indeed an interesting topic, but I could not easily grasp all of the nuances and therefore won’t take it up here. He praises the photography of Malombra, but critiques the visual style: “I should mention the decoration; if you take away the feast of flowers on the lake, there is very little that is really nice. Do not speak of the interiors; with the exception of the library—for its great style—the semi-external good light effect of the lodge, the rest is not up to Cines.” He goes on to mention the castle interiors and the room full of flowers as “far from masterpieces of mise-en-scène”.
Not so bad, surely?
Malombra was restored by the Cineteca di Bologna from two incomplete original-era nitrate prints, one Italian and one from the collection of SODRE in Montevideo. 1500m of the original 1705m survives, the majority of footage coming from the Uruguayan print. A search on the Media History Digital Library confirms that Malombra was distributed—or at least available for distribution—throughout Latin and South America: for example, it’s mentioned in the news sections of Cine-Mundial devoted to Argentina, Cuba, and Brazil.
There are even a couple of mentions in North American journals. One notice in Moving Picture World (28 July 1917; and reprinted in Motion Picture News of 04 August 1917), contains an interesting note on the problems of import and translation of Malombra, which was apparently retitled From the Great Beyond in the US.
It is built on psychic lines, and Lyda Borelli plays the part of a girl with two souls. On the arrival of the print in was placed in work for titling, but the subject of metempsychosis stumped the would-be titlers completely. Other channels were tried out; finally, the services of Leon J. Rubinstein were contracted for. He interpolated a set of titles which reduce the scientific elements of the picture to the easy understanding of the layman.
Funnily enough, a different article in Motion Picture News of 21 July 1917 had stated that “Shepard and Van Loan” have just completed the titling of Malombra. What to believe? For what it’s worth, this other MPN report also confuses Lyda Borelli with Leda Gys, stating Borelli to be the star of Christus (1916).
The restored film was released on VHS in 1995, and the digital copies floating around are derived from that tape—hence the relatively low quality of the images shown here. The score by Michele della Valentina is good.
As for the novel Malombra, it has been adapted for film twice more: a lavish 1941 version starring Isa Miranda, and then what looks to be a soft-porn version in 1984. There was also an Italian TV series in 1974. Regardless of these other adaptations, the dark decadence of Lyda Borelli must surely stand out. For all the strangenesses and lacunae of the film, Malombra is something quite special.
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Read my past writings on diva films here. Next week: investigating two mostly-lost Pina Menichelli films!
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Malombra. Dir. Carmine Gallone. Rome, Italy: Cines, 1917.