Italia Almirante Manzini was a major diva of the Italian silents who has, so far, been mentioned on this blog only briefly. I like her a lot—she’s always fun and engaging to watch. Despite a stately appearance, I perceive a certain gentle wryness to her smile; it seems both that she is enjoying herself and that she is in on the joke.
A little background: Almirante Manzini began her acting career on the stage, and entered films in the early teens, but it was the mighty Cabiria (Itala-Film, 1914) that established her as a cinematic star. As is well known, Cabiria was groundbreaking both formally and narratively, and it’s still highly enjoyable; in my opinion, it’s one of those classics that wholeheartedly deserves its critical reputation. Almirante Manzini is resplendent as the Carthaginian noblewoman Sofonisba (a character based on the historical figure Sophonisba), living in luxury, complete with pet tiger.
After Almirante Manzini was dethroned by Pina Menichelli as Itala’s prima attrice in 1915/16, she worked for several different studios, where she was directed by some of the leading names in Italian film (e.g., Augusto Genina, Febo Mari). In the twenties, she worked primarily for Fert-Film and Alba-Film, usually directed by her cousin, Mario Almirante. Her career saw a number of big successes, and she was considered a major film diva until she left the screen in the twenties, only returning for a single talkie in 1934. The good folks at European Film Postcards have profiled several of her films, including L’arzigogolo | The Court Jester (Alba-Film, 1924), a successful film which is also notable for its striking costuming.
A couple of prominent film historians have described Almirante Manzini as the ‘matronly’ diva, a classification that surprised me when I read it. She is not especially older than her contemporaries: with a birth date of 1890, she’s younger than Lyda Borelli, Hesperia, and Soava Gallone, the same age as Menichelli, and 2-3 years older than Francesca Bertini, Leda Gys, and Maria Jacobini. (If I had to grant any actress of that era the ‘matronly’ tag, I’d probably nominate Maria Gasperini Caserini as a better candidate … maybe Mercedes Brignone). It’s true, though, that Almirante Manzini is much more society woman than ingénue. And unfortunately, not many of her works are readily available from which I can draw a comprehensive judgment of her screen persona.
Despite the discussion above, today I’m going to look at a film which is not remembered as one of Almirante Manzini’s career highlights, if indeed it is remembered at all: Notte di tempesta (Night of the Tempest or Stormy Night) of 1916.
Italia Almirante Manzini plays Hélène de Rovéda, brother to Carlo, and daughter to the Comte de Rovéda, a widower. Into the lives of the Rovéda family come Madam Astor, her son Robert, who is studying engineering, and her fetching daughter Viviane. The Astor siblings become some sort of wards of the Rovéda family; the Count invites Viviane to stay with them, as a companion to Hélène.
But it’s not Hélène’s social fulfilment that the Count is really interested in. Finally healing from the death of his wife, Viviane has caught his eye, and we see his jealousy as Viviane and Carlo strike up a rapport and flirtatiously romp around together. Seeing a chance, he invites her to Milan with him under the pretext of buying a graduation present for Robert (Carlo: “Can I come too?” Papa: “No.”). When Carlo gets an invitation to depart on an extended trip, the Count seizes the opportunity to finance the voyage. Things get steadily creepier when the Count comes upon Viviane crying one day, and tries to comfort her. She shrinks from his touch before fleeing the house, making a passionate plea to Hélène and her mother to leave. And so the plans are laid.
“That evening, each had their secret,” an intertitle tells us. And in darkness, the storm breaks … metaphorically and figuratively. In her room, Hélène awakes—lightning flashes and the wind streams past the curtains as she moves to the window, hearing a strange sound. She leaves her chamber only to see the Count coming out of Viviane’s room …
In Part II, Hélène goes to visit Viviane and her ill-begotten child, yet the tragedy has still not abated: an ailing Viviane departs from life, and her brother Robert arrives to find everyone black-clad at her gravesite. Hélène takes charge of the situation: she cares for the baby, concocting a fake story about how ’emigrants’ gave her the child, and pulls some strings to get Robert a job—to which she drives him, proving herself a modern woman indeed.
A year later, Hélène’s brother Carlo returns from his trip, and he’s suspicious—not only does he not believe her story about the baby, he’s none too happy about ‘that engineer’ hanging around the house. Finally there’s a showdown between the siblings, and Hélène draws a line in the sand: “This child is mine; and this house is too! Get out!” Robert, who loves Hélène, is shocked by the revelation. But after only a little bit more angst, Robert learns the truth about the child’s parentage, and Hélène and Robert reconcile, setting the stage for them to live happily ever after, raising Viviane’s child (who is, let’s remember, also Hélène’s half-sister) together.
A hackneyed plot? The critics of the time thought so too, calling out the screenwriter Marco Praga—a well-known playwright—for a subpar recycling effort. And really, Notte di tempesta is mediocre at best. The Count de Rovéda (Ubaldo Stefani, who played Glaucus in Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei) is a tiresome character before he becomes a loathsome one: lots of manly brooding, etc. At least Rina Pirani (Viviane) and Memo Benassi (Carlo) bring some liveliness to the proceedings. This seems to have been Pirani’s only film role, which is a shame: she’s good, portraying Viviane as youthful and winsome, yet also as a woman with a backbone.
The first half of the film is solidly an ensemble drama, with Almirante Manzini arguably playing second fiddle to Pirani and only ascending to diva status in the climactic titular scene. Narratively, thematically, and temporally this sequence is the centrepiece of the film, and it’s effectively played.
And Hélène’s disillusionment with her rapist father is expressed in an operatic manner, which is, naturally, something that I approve of.
Still, even though the second half of Notte di tempesta really becomes Almirante Manzini’s show, I found it a bit of a slog. The film just seemed to deflate. Perhaps it was, in part, Viviane that I missed, and the rapport between the two women. They were charming together:
I don’t think Italia Almirante Manzini is shown to her best advantage in Notte di tempesta. Her makeup and/or lighting is quite severe, and costuming is a mixed bag: her dresses often fall on the heavy side and virtually swallow her up. Here’s one that probably falls into that category, but which I rather liked anyway:
Still, Almirante Manzini has her moments. Her brother’s over-zealous troll-saluto and her response to it cracked me up:
Also, there’s a scene where it looks like her head is sprinkling water.
Notte di tempesta was Silentium-Film’s first outing. (They weren’t a prominent company, and I haven’t seen any of their other films, although I note that they released the first screen adaptation of Dario Niccodemi’s 1915 play Scampolo; the 1928 Augusto Genina-directed version starred Carmen Boni). A critic of the time wrote, “Frankly we expected more from the Silentium’s debut”, although it apparently did reasonably well. But indeed, Notte di tempesta neither was nor is one for the history books.
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A note. Given that it’s already the end of March(!), I’m going to conclude Diva ‘December’ here, even though it’s just three entries this round. I’ll be back in a few months with more diva-rific antics; in the meantime, you may peruse the archives here. I’ll also be unveiling a different project to do with Italian silent film soon, so look out!
PS: this is my 100th post. Thank you all for reading and joining me on my silent film journey!
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Notte di tempesta [Night of the Tempest]. Dir. Guglielmo Zorzi. Milano, Italy: Silentium-Film, 1916. Preserved by Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique (Cinematek) and available to watch here on the European Film Gateway. I use the French names given in the Belgian print; the original Italian names differ slightly, for example Elena Roveda rather than Hélène de Rovéda. The Astor family is the Sther family in the original.