Diva films about diva films

After spending some quality time with the films of Borelli, Menichelli, and Makowska, now I want to cast my net a little wider. Diva films were a major force of the Italian film industry in the teens—but how did people perceive this genre and these actresses? More specifically, how was this expressed within the medium of film itself?

A notable film that engages with the diva phenomenon is the gentle parody L’Illustre Attrice Cicala Formica | The Illustrious Actress Cicada Ant of 1920. The director and writer, Lucio D’Ambra, was a journalist, novelist, essayist and playwright who entered the film world in the mid-to-late teens, founding his own production company D’Ambra-Film in 1919. D’Ambra is little-known today, but in his time was considered a gifted writer-director of light comedies. Perhaps his most widely known film work is the Lyda Borelli vehicle Carnevalesca (1917), for which he was the writer. He has also been seen as something of an early film theorist, describing his ideas about film as “a fantasy of the eyes” (fantasia degli occhi) in the 1920 essay Il  mio credo (‘My Creed’).

Lia_Formia_card_sml LIllustre Attrice Cicala Formica (14) 2
Postcard of Lia Formia; Formia as ‘Cicala Formica’, the Actress

L’Illustre Attrice Cicala Formica stars D’Ambra’s regular leading actress Lia Formia in the title role. It’s a rather charming story about a wannabe actress, her attempt to create a film, and the family that hinder as much as help her. At the opening of the film, we are introduced to her family and household one by one, these “opponents of the future great actress”, in intertitles with a frequently humorous tone (“… the husband of the married sister, a magistrate as serious as the law, impartial as a verdict …”) This sequence shows off one of D’Ambra’s interesting stylistic flourishes: he uses triangular mattes in the introductory shot of each character, a technique not at all usual in diva films. My immediate ‘triangular screen’ reference point is Lois Weber’s Suspense (1913); the famous sets from Bragaglia’s Thaïs (1917) also come to mind. The triangle matte is also used elsewhere in the film, as is a hexagon matte.

06-LIllustre-Attrice-Cicala-Formica-1920-Lia-Formia-triangle LIllustre Attrice Cicala Formica (15) sml

The Actress and her family don togas and go to the village square to begin shooting, a plan which is derailed by several judges arriving to bestow an prize upon the Actress’s father. “This daughter of mine is obsessed with the cinema … It makes me lose my mind …” he grumbles. After a cash injection via piggy bank, the production gets back underway, this time with a script furnished by the Actress’ suitor, the young Marquis. Or as the intertitle tells us, a “script” (sogetto)—in many of the intertitles, film-related words are placed in inverted commas, presumably for emphasis or as an introduction to new terminology. Thus we read sentences like ‘… the Illustrious Actress Cicada Ant, in the garden of the house, can finally begin to seriously “shoot” her first “film”.’ (… L’Illustre Attrice Cicala Formica, nel giardino di casa, può cominciare finalmente a “girare” sul serio il suo primo “film”.)

08-LIllustre-Attrice-Cicala-Formica-1920-camera-DX LIllustre Attrice Cicala Formica (19) sml
LIllustre Attrice Cicala Formica (25) sml 09-LIllustre-Attrice-Cicala-Formica-1920-Lia-Formia-film

There are some neat shots of the filming; I’m particularly partial to the silhouetted image of the Actress spooling through the film at above lower right. Earlier in the film, we’ve seen her striking diva-esque poses:

03-LIllustre-Attrice-Cicala-Formica-1920-Lia-Formia-preen 04-LIllustre-Attrice-Cicala-Formica-1920-Lia-Formia-gesture

Now, production in progress, she’s arguing on the set with the cameraman, and playing the film prima-donna, complete with her Norma Desmond moment: “And the young actress already screams like a great actress, ‘I want my close-up!'”

The night of the premiere—described as the ‘consecration’ of the Actress—arrives. She is laurel-wreathed, “humble in such glory”, curtseying before her audience. And: disaster! It turns out that due to operator error, all of the motion of the film is in reverse. Thus the Actress is ripped out of the river by an invisible force, walks backwards, and slides up the edge of the rampart.

10-LIllustre-Attrice-Cicala-Formica-1920-Lia-Formia-curtsey 11-LIllustre-Attrice-Cicala-Formica-1920-Lia-Formia-backwards

“Sad sunset of short glory”, an intertitle tells us, and after the uproar of the performance, the Actress is back to her daydreams and sewing. “And you here, mending socks, diva of my boots!”, her father scoffs. However, the door is left open for a continuation of the adventures of the Actress. As the closing intertitles tell us, “Not all stars have the fault of a cameraman to excuse the immeasurable stupidity of their first film. And in a second story, we’ll see the Illustrious Actress Cicada Ant reach the pinnacle of her glory.”

At the end of the day, Cicala Formica is a family comedy, but it certainly nods to the diva film genre, in the way that the Actress mimes actorly gesture, her on-set dominance, even the exaggerated way in which everyone flaps their handkerchiefs around to help revive her after she has fainted. In her book Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema, Angela Dalle Vacche sees Cicala Formica as being indicative of Italian female emancipation in this era, “not only based on social and legal issues, but also deeply rooted in the structure of the Italian family.” And yes, the Actress does return to the family (and the status quo) at the end of the film; but then again, it’s not through her fault that the film was defective. The film treats the Actress with such affection that the ending doesn’t really bite. Cicala Formica is a light-hearted look at female ambition and stardom, directed with style and energy by D’Ambra, and with an engaging performance from Lia Formia.

I only managed to find one contemporary advert for Cicala Formica (below left), but searching was made a little difficult by the fact that a film with a similar title was released in 1919 (below right). Note the picture of D’Ambra in the full-page ad from La rivista cinematografica: Lia Formia may have her name in large letters, but D’Ambra was the main marketing point.

La rivista cinematografica 14 1920 Cicala Formica sml In penombra 02 1919 - Linda Pini, La cicala e la formica sml
La rivista cinematografica no. 14 of 1920; In penombra no. 02 of 1919

L’Illustre Attrice Cicala Formica was hardly the only film to parody diva film acting. An early instance of this—perhaps the first, although I can’t say for sure—comes in the Leda Gys film Leda innamorata | Leda in Love of 1915, advertised as a “delightful comedy” (delicioza commedia).

La vita cinematografica 44 del 1914 Leda innamorata crop2  La vita cinematografica 07 del 1915 Leda innamorata crop
La vita cinematografica no. 44 del 1914; La vita cinematografica no. 07 of 1915

Leda innamorata was written up in film magazine La vita cinematografica; therein, reviewer Pier da Castello praised star Leda Gys’ mimicry, which he notes the film seems to be have written to showcase. “The audience laughs, and laughs with pleasure when it sees La Gys caricature [Francesca] Bertini or [Maria] Carmi.” The main plot of the film seems to concern a woman in love with her uncle (!), and in the last act she develops feelings for the cousin who had been there all along (!!), but Gys’ caricatures must have been the highlight; the reviewer ends by saying:

We are still in time. We suggest an imitation of Borelli! Miss Gys, we believe, will be happy to accept a job that has this intention. And even better if you will weave other imitations. But no more than an act or two.

Accept our proposal, Miss Gys?

La cinematografia italiana ed estera 07 del 1916 Leda innamorata sml

La cinematografia italiana ed estera no. 07 of 1916

No word if Gys acquiesced. She was herself a very well-known actress of the teens, also working steadily in the 1920s. Several of her films have been shown in festivals and cinémathèques, but I only know of one of her starring films (Christus of 1916) that is available to watch online. (She does appear in Francesca Bertini’s L’amazzone mascherata, which I wrote about here, but it’s a pretty minor role).

Speaking of which: a more developed example of the diva metafilm is found in 1918’s Mariute, produced by and starring Francesca Bertini herself, the queen of the Italian screen. Mariute is half film-within-a-film diva parody and half patriotic war drama, with Bertini playing the dual roles of herself, the diva actress, and a peasant girl, Mariute, from Friuli.


Bertini as Mariute.

In Diva, Angela Dalle Vacche describes the plot of Mariute in detail. Bertini plays a version of herself: a diva actress who lives luxuriously, sleeps in, lounges around in her boudoir. Gustavo Serena—who often directed the real-life Bertini—plays the director, who repeatedly telephones Bertini to get her to come to the set, and when Bertini arrives, she is greeted by a group of young girls and a reception committee. Quoting Dalle Vacche,

After the intertitle “Miss Francesca Bertini at Work on the Set,” we see a trite example of film melodrama with all the well-known ingredients: a tense conversation between two lovers, a letter—perhaps an anonymous message, because one lover has betrayed the other— scenes in which someone faints or someone gets strangled. The shallowness of the material is apparent; neither Bencivenga nor Bertini try to hide it.

Dalle Vacche’s phrasing is a little odd here, as it seems to me that this banality is wholly intentional. Anyway, in the studio, a colleague is talking about the cruelties suffered by civilians in the occupied territories; that night, Bertini falls asleep and dreams the story of Mariute, a young woman and mother-of-three whose husband is away at war, and who is assaulted by enemy soldiers.

The scene of Mariute struggling against the soldiers is intercut with shots of her grandfather and her children at home. When she returns, she is traumatized; her grandfather comforts her as she explains what happens. He grabs his shotgun and leaves: when he returns, we are shown an intertitle of a single word: “Vendicato” (‘Avenged’).

02-Mariute-(Bertini-Film-per-Caesar-Film,-1918)-Francesca-Bertini-look-2  03-Mariute-(Bertini-Film-per-Caesar-Film,-1918)-Francesca-Bertini-sobs
The anguish of Mariute (with her grandfather in the left picture).

Bertini the diva actress awakes to great distress. Although it doesn’t appear in the fragment of the film that is available to watch, Angela Dalle Vacche states that the following intertitle appears: “Such a terrible dream kindled the patriotic flame in the heart of Francesca Bertini.”

Mariute-(Bertini-Film-per-Caesar-Film-1918)-wakes-(1)  Mariute-(Bertini-Film-per-Caesar-Film-1918)-wakes-(2)
The diva in repose; Bertini awakes in fright.

According to the eminent Italian film historian Vittorio Martinelli, Mariute was commissioned by the Istituto Nazionale delle Assicurazioni (National Institute for Insurance). The scene is not included in any extant prints, but film historian Roberto Paolella recalled that Mariute originally included an ending scene in which Bertini addressed the audience directly, urging them to buy war bonds from the INA. Viva l’Italia!

Although the online clip primarily shows Bertini as Mariute, it seems that the film as a whole focused heavily—perhaps overly—on the diva’s lifestyle, and it would be really interesting to see more of those diva/studio scenes. That said, the Mariute dream-story is powerful, and it is gutsy of Bertini to take on the issue of wartime rape.

Mariute (Bertini Film per Caesar Film, 1918) Francesca Bertini (6) sml  Mariute (Bertini Film per Caesar Film, 1918) Francesca Bertini (8) sml
Mariute struggles against the soldiers.

Dalle Vacche reads Mariute’s rape as a symbolic response to the growing power of women in society, but the centrality of Bertini as actress and producer, as well as the apparent lack of strong male characters in the film, would seem to undercut that interpretation. I think the message is more simple: the audience is being told to support Italy’s war effort, lest more women should suffer Mariute’s fate. And Mariute can also be seen as an example of female power; as Dalle Vacche writes,

Regardless of ideological disputes across Italian society between prowar futurist groups and antiwar socialist demonstrations, Bertini in Mariute chose to be a famous diva speaking with authority to her following, and this was a rare demonstration of a woman’s political agency in public.

The dichotomy between the character ‘Francesca Bertini’—who is heavily blurred with the real-life Bertini—and peasant girl Mariute is very clear: Bertini shown as a powerful woman with the ability to effect change, who must take a political stand, versus a woman who is victimized as a result of (male) conflict. It’s a telling commentary on the frivolity of the film world, patriotism, and the star personality of Bertini, who through this role positions herself as a socially aware person.

… And not only that, but one who is willing to poke fun at herself. The Francesca Bertini in the film decides to curb her diva excesses: she vows to rise earlier and arrive at the set “just half an hour late.”

Mariute (Bertini Film per Caesar Film, 1918) Francesca Bertini (5) sml

On the set.

– – –

L’Illustre Attrice Cicala Formica [The Illustrious Actress Cicada Ant]. Dir. Lucio D’Ambra. Roma: D’Ambra-Film, 1920. Restored in the 1990s, presumably by the Cineteca Nazionale (Roma), which holds a copy of the film. Available to watch here on YouTube (poor quality). Italian intertitle transcription and (very) rough English translation here.

Leda innamorata [Leda in Love]. Dir. Ivo Illuminati. Roma: Celio-Film, 1915. Not known to be extant.

Mariute. Dir. Edoardo Bencivenga. Roma: Caesar-Film & Bertini-Film, 1918. A fragment with length of 09:02, restored by the Museo Nazionale del Cinema (Torino), is available to watch here on their Vimeo channel. Per the description above, it primarily shows Bertini as Mariute, not in diva mode. Other copies of Mariute are held at the Library of Congress, the Cineteca Nazionale, and the Danish Film Institute.

– – –

Regarding diva ‘metafilms’: future post(s) will cover titles such as La valigia dei sogni | The Suitcase of Dreams (1953), L’ultima diva: Francesca Bertini (1982), and Peter Delpeut’s Diva Dolorosa (1999). But for now, it’s time to say goodbye! Thus ends Diva December. For those who need more divas in their life, the rest of my writing on diva films can be found here, and an overview of the diva film genre is here.

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6 Responses to Diva films about diva films

  1. MIB says:

    Your site really is a Pandora’s Box of silent movie treasures in that you open it up and all this great stuff come flooding out.

    Thanks again for sharing this with us and Merry Christmas to you! :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hans Egede says:

    Thanks for the link of “Mariute”, good to know this one survived, well, at least partially.

    >>I only know of one of her starring films (Christus of 1916) that is available to watch online.

    As for Leda Gys, have you already watched “Histoire d’un Pierrot” (1913, poor copy) ? I’m very fond of this tragi-comedy.


    • As for “Mariute”, copies also exist in other archives – I believe the LoC one is relatively complete (though of course, the US version may differ from the Italian release). But at least the general public can see this fragmentary version from the MNC!

      I’d forgotten about that Youtube version of “Histoire d’un Pierrot”, thanks for the reminder. I’ve watched it a while ago, but it’s tough going with this kind of quality! Seeing this film in good quality is high on my wishlist. :)


  3. I deeply appreciate the passionate info on Lia Formia. Brava!


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