The holy trinity of Lyda Borelli, Francesca Bertini, and Pina Menichelli are generally considered the crème de la crème of diva film actresses. Yet, of course, there were many others working in this loosely-defined genre: prominent names include Hesperia, Leda Gys, Italia Almirante Manzini, Soava Gallone, and Diana Karenne. Another such diva was the Polish actress Helena (Elena) Makowska, who acted in the Milan theatre before making the move to film. She built a successful career in the Italian film industry in the teens before working primarily in Germany in the 1920s.
From the collection of the Museo Nazionale del Cinema (Torino). Refs F40839/046, F40839/019
Over a dozen of Makowska’s films survive, but they are little seen, and she is a relatively obscure figure. Of the films in which Makowska participated, probably the one most well-known today is Febo Mari’s astonishing Il fauno | The Faun of 1917, a wonderful piece of work that is somewhat akin to Il fuoco (1915) and Rapsodia Satanica (1917) in its mythic proportions: highly recommended. Nietta Mordeglia plays the female lead, with Makowska supporting. But Makowska was on the rise: one of her major roles of that year was as Ophelia in Amleto, directed by Eleuterio Rodolfi, a low-res version of which can be viewed here at the Cineteca di Bologna’s Cinestore. And thanks to the European Film Gateway project, another of Makowska’s films is also available online: Caino, her first release of 1918. So as a central diva, what can Makowska bring to the screen? Let’s find out.
Caino‘s opening shots introduce us to the major players in the film. There is Cécile Hervey (Makowska), the “highest performer of the Capital”, and her sister Elda (Elda Bruni De Negri), who is living a quiet life on the Hervey estate with their aunt Claire. Nearby the Hervey residence is the Leveson manor. Matriarch Thécla Leveson has two sons: responsible and hardworking Bruno (Achille Majeroni), who is managing the Leveson farm …
… and Maman Thécla’s favourite, Raoul (Luigi Cimara), away at medical school in the city, but hardly studious—he rolls into class late, insincerely contrite, and proceeds to eye up his pretty colleague.
A commitment has been made between the two families in the form of an engagement between Bruno and Elda; it’s a union desired by him, merely accepted by her. Now Raoul returns home, to Maman Thécla’s joy. Even though it’s already clear that Raoul lacks integrity, he’s the ‘fun’ brother, and a flirtation develops between Raoul and Elda. This causes a rift between the Leveson brothers, and eventually the engagement is broken—Raoul and Elda instead prepare to marry. Bruno, who truly cares for Elda, is both upset and angry, but goes along with it: “So be it! God sees the sacrifice … but if you harm a hair on her head …”
Enter Cécile! She arrives to help with the imminent wedding of Elda and Raoul … who gets along a little too well with this glamorous sister from the city. Raoul evokes “un sentiment de stupeur” in Cécile, and she attempts to draw him to her, encouraging his musical pursuits. In the church, Raoul is playing the organ and Cécile has a vision of the wedding that deeply disturbs her … one night, Raoul and Cécile sneak into the church and share a kiss, unknowingly watched by both Elda and Bruno. Confronted by Bruno, Raoul claims that Cécile confounded his senses, and that he is sure that he loves Elda; despite everyone’s misgivings, the wedding goes ahead.
Cécile takes fright; her vision of the wedding.
Except then, Cécile keeps interrupting the couple’s honeymoon! This state of affairs is signalled using an interesting technique: Maman Thécla and Bruno are playing chess back at the manor, and receive news of the couple; as they look at the photographs, the shot cuts to the real events of the honeymoon, where Cécile keeps turning up like a bad penny, even taking Raoul by the arm and walking away with him.
Not only that, but she introduces Raoul to the casino, where her admirer Lord Gaston covers his debts … debts Raoul takes out in the name of his brother, Bruno Leveson.
After the trip, a fête is being prepared, but Elda’s pregnancy renders her unable to attend. Cécile is to accompany Raoul instead, and finally there is a showdown between the sisters. But Cécile haughtily insists that Raoul belongs to her: “Sister, you will never be able to understand the spiritual intimacy that links me to your husband!” She goes further: Elda’s unborn child, Cécile tells her, “carries the imprint” of Raoul’s feelings for Cécile when the baby was conceived!
But Cécile’s villainy doesn’t stop there. Elda’s child, Elina, is born with Cécile’s blue eyes, and Elda starts to lose it—her crazed grief worsened by the fact that Elina is separated from her due to Cécile’s fake testimony that Elina is in danger from Elda. Elda is severely ill both mentally and physically, believing (not inaccurately) that someone has stolen her little girl; when the sisters take a carriage ride together, she pleads with Cécile to give her back. In response, Cécile takes her past the cemetery!
And the sister of the year award goes to …
Throughout all of this, Raoul is useless. The steadfast Bruno persuades him to reunite mother and daughter … but before Raoul follows through on this, Elda escapes from her sickbed in search of her daughter, with whom she absconds. She collapses by a lake, heartbroken, mad, spent. But not totally:
Elda’s spirit walks to a nearby farmhouse and directs a dog to go to her baby; it swims across the lake, picks up Elina by her swaddle and carries her away back to safety. When Elda’s body is brought back to the Hervey place on a stretcher, Bruno is overcome with grief.
Spirit-Elda points at Cécile, at the right side of the frame.
Cécile finally suffers some consequence from her actions, or at least, a modicum of guilt: at Elda’s funeral, she has a vision of her sister pointing at her in judgment. And other troubles are mounting: Gaston is back, and he wants his money. Bruno defends the honour of the Leveson name, vowing that the debt will be honoured, but is very distressed by circumstances, while Raoul proves his ultimate cowardice and runs away. An intertitle tells us that “Une femme le suit comme une ombre”: ‘A woman follows him like a shadow’.
Cut to several years later. Elina, now about four, is blossoming under the care of Thécla and Bruno. Raoul is an assistant at the School of Anatomy, but he is haunted by guilt. In the lecture hall, a female body has been placed on the examination (dissection?) slab, and when Raoul approaches, it’s Cécile he sees, writhing and reaching for him:
A brilliant, creepy, shot … but the hallucination changes form, and now it is Elda that Raoul imagines himself holding.
There’s drama between the terrible trio of Raoul, Cécile, and Gaston—meanwhile, things are going badly back at the Leveson household: they have had to dismiss all of their servants, and go to live at the farmhouse. Raoul’s card-playing luck turns, and he is caught cheating; when he loses, he engineers an escape whereby he fakes suicide. Bruno and Thécla read in the newspaper that Raoul is dead; actually, he’s on a ship, looking emo.
Some time later, a mysterious stranger knocks at the door of the Leveson farm. He meets Maman Thécla and talks with little Elina, whose face lights up as she talks of how she loves her ‘Papa Bruno’.
Raoul—for it is he, in artful disguise!—is overcome with emotion. Along with his beard, he has grown a conscience; he has come back to make things right, but also decides to take Elina with him when he leaves. It’s then that Bruno comes home, and in the fight that ensures, Bruno becomes the titular Cain: defending his family and home against this threatening intruder, Bruno unknowingly kills his brother. He and Thécla then find a note that Raoul had left, telling of his intentions to leave them in peace and start a new life with Elina, and a pile of money … everything they need to buy back their land from Gaston.
Thécla is almost catatonic; Elina, who witnessed the murder, is terrified. Bruno reads the note in true horror, which gives way to hysterical laughter. A terrible and tragic irony: the one truly noble character in this film unknowingly commits one of the ultimate sins.
As Caino‘s last intertitle tells us, “Qui meurt repose et qui vit se résigne.”
And Cécile? Glad you asked. The final shot of the film shows Cécile and Lord Gaston in a motor car, elegantly dressed, smiling and laughing. The implication is that they have just married. People surround them, showering them with flowers.
Bleak. Rather a ‘Russian ending’, no? Given the title of the film, some brother-killing was inevitable, but I didn’t necessarily expect Cécile, an unambiguously horrible person, to get off scot-free. The Italian film diva is not often a femme fatale, let alone such an unabashed one.
Speaking of which: after reading the summary above, you may be wondering why I introduced Caino as a diva vehicle for Makowska, when clearly it’s more of an ensemble drama. This is down to the advertising, of which Makowska was the focal point. To wit:
Cécile is cruel, remorseless, and malevolent—a vamp-type character with no real depth. Any motivation for why she does the things she does must be teleological. So as the designated lead actress of Caino, playing such a role, how does Makowska fare? I can’t say that she won me over. As Cécile, Makowska breaks the primary rule of femme fatale-dom, which is that she has to be charismatic. She should be the character you love to hate, but without Makowska giving her dynamism and a sense of wicked fun, Cécile is simply a terrible person who’s not terribly interesting, and Caino consequently loses steam.
For me, most of Makowska’s onscreen presence comes from her slightly alien gaze, kohl-lined blue eyes becoming milky when captured on the orthochromatic film stock of the time.
My eyes would probably register similarly.
Elda Bruni De Negri comes across as the better actress. It’s a much meatier role, and Bruni De Negri is largely equal to that range, and adds strength to what could have been a fully pathetic character.
Caino is a visually stylish film. It falls somewhere between the tableau staging and continuity editing modes of filmmaking: there are a fair amount of long takes, but Carlucci also breaks up scenes where others of the time might not. He’s also fond of extended pans:
Carlucci uses double exposures on several occasions. The main two instances have been mentioned above, but here’s a symbolic shot of Lord Gaston, the presence, the menace:
In general, there’s a strong attention to composition in Caino. Here’s a nice example of blocking: as Raoul inclines his head slightly, we see the approaching Cécile looking over the top of his head.
And many shots are in themselves striking images.
The couple of contemporary reviews of Caino that I’ve found were complimentary (which reviews in these publications tend to be, in my experience). A reviewer in La vita cinematografica, who had seen a preview showing at the Salone Ghersi, notes that the production does not use the usual luxurious ostentation to mask technical or narrative flaws, but matches environment to character exquisitely, and praises the work of the four principal actors. In Film, the writer is embarrassingly breathless, talking of Makowska’s “inexpressible effectiveness, prodigious charm […] all her exuberant passion, all her dazzling radiance”. Wow, slow down there. … Or don’t:
The most fervent expectations surround the preparation of this great movie of Carlucci Productions, Caino, which heralds one of those rare performances of beautiful, amazing strength, passionate drama, at which the public will not be able not to break out in expressions of irrepressible enthusiasm. Caino is truly one of the most organic works of arte muta that has ever been imagined and translated into reality in life, on the silent stage; it is yet another amazing work of magic, a powerful creation of beauty, that L. Carlucci has drawn from an original Arabic novel, adapted to the modern environment. The film is full of new situations, all throbbing with original life, it is a very impressive statement of magnificence. Carlucci Productions is enriched, in Caino, with a priceless jewel. The choice of its exterior locations, and the creation of the interiors with imaginative and eclectic taste, warm inspiration and amazing genius.
Overselling things a wee bit, in my opinion. It is a well-designed film with a well-structured narrative, but as detailed above, I don’t find Makowska the artistic triumph these reviewers did.
- Maman Thécla Leveson is played by Mary Cleo Tarlarini, an important actress in early Italian cinema who also became a producer.
- As a four-year-old, Elina’s eyes are clearly not blue!
- The censorship notes state that two plot points should be suppressed: the episode in which Cécile speaks of an alleged spiritual love that would conceive a child with the imprint of Raoul’s lover instead of his wife; and the false suicide of Raoul, on the grounds that it was an “insidious” means of escaping just consequences. However, the surviving print quite clearly has not omitted these elements, so presumably they were only suppressed in the domestic version.
- There’s a clear contrast between city and country in Caino: all of the antagonists—Cécile, Raoul, Gaston—are strongly associated with the urban world. Beware the corruption of the city! In the case of Makowska, this supports the generally held idea that the diva is an urban creature.
The diva criteria
Let’s have a look at just how diva-esque Caino really is by examining the following categories.
Copious costume changes. I counted around 17 different outfits on Makowska. In a film of 1h44, that’s one per every six-ish minutes of screen time. A few of Makowska/Cécile’s looks:
Symbolic naming. In the existing print of this film, the primary four characters are named Cécile and Elda Hervey (Makowska, Bruni de Negri) and Bruno and Raoul Leveson (Majeroni, Cimara). On the IMDb listing, Cimara is listed as Cain, Majeroni as Abel, and Makowska as Eve. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense: this would make the Leveson brothers Cécile’s ‘sons’, with ‘Abel’ killing ‘Cain’. And in fact, the Italian censorship visa record refers to Cecilia and Raoul, so who knows where the IMDb character names came from.
A necklace of notable length. In sickness, and in health:
Headwear that borders on the avant-garde. Makowska/Cécile sports an array of hats, but what stood out most was this jewelled headband.
Emotive piano playing. Yes, but not on the part of the diva. Early in the film, Elda is listening to Raoul play the piano, and the music transports her to a vision of them embracing:
Later in the film, the same scenario repeats, but this time with the onlooking Cécile picturing herself in Raoul’s arms.
Side note: in her opening scene, we see Elda play a joke on her aunt by placing the family kitten under the strings below the bridge of her cello.
Men with wacky hair. A classic disguise technique: a beard renders Raoul completely unrecognizable, even to his own mother.
A dramatic scene involving flowers. The most salient example is the scene of Elda and Raoul on their honeymoon. Well-wishers are throwing flowers up to their window, and there is a closeup of two flowers standing on the window ledge. Snip, and dissolve! The Elda-flower has lost its head.
One might also mention the flower display at the funeral, the bouquet that Gaston sends to Cécile, and the flower shower of the ending scene.
Feminine sufferance. Poor Elda: she had her head turned by a man of weak character, but everything else really came down to the vile Cécile.
The rest … The intertitle category only applies if the original Italian titles are available, so I think that it’s just mirrors and veils that we’re missing! I’m sure future diva films will see a return to these elements.
– – –
Read my past writings on diva films here! Next week: a meta look at the diva film genre.
– – –
Caino. Dir. Leopoldo Carlucci. Torino, Italy: Corona-Film, 1918. Preserved by EYE Filmmuseum NL and available to watch here on the European Film Gateway (French intertitles).
Note on nomenclature: In Italian advertising of the teens, Makowska was billed as Elena Makowska, but nowadays she is almost always referred to as Helena, so I’ve followed that practice.