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Page history last edited by jacobs@wisc.edu 15 years, 5 months ago



Lea Jacobs


This article was conceived as a companion piece to Ben Brewster's  discussion of Germinal which also appears on the UWfilmies wiki. Together, they represent an effort to refine the discussion of theatrical naturalism and film acting that we initially advanced in Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film (Oxford University Press, 1997).


        In 1910, the owners of a Copenhagen movie house decided they could make more money if they showed longer films for longer runs. Since such films were not available in the market, they hired a Danish-Royal-Theater-trained actress and her husband as a director and made Afgrunden (The Abyss). The film was enormously successful, and not only in Denmark: in Germany it created a craze for the “monopoly film,” and made an international star of the then unknown actress, Asta Nielsen. Nielsen and her husband Urban Gad were hired away to work in Germany producing such films for what was a new kind of film market. This new international market was particularly attractive for producers in countries such as Germany and Denmark, and later Italy, that were increasingly locked out of the international market for the short film, which was dominated by France and the U.S.  Although the Italian features most successful in the U.S. and best known today were classical epics (Quo Vadis?, Cabiria), more important in Europe were films which drew directly on the model of Asta Nielsen’s films, films centered on a female star and designed to give her the maximum scope to display her acting talents, films which rapidly came to be known in Italy as “diva films.” (Although dictionaries usually give “divo/a” as the word for film star, in this period the masculine form seems to have been rarely used.)


        Francesca Bertini had been a film actress long before she became associated with the diva tradition. First noted for her roles for Film d’Arte Italiana, the affiliate Pathé set up to make the kind of high-class short film pioneered by the French Film d’Art company but in scenic Italian backgrounds, she appeared in many kinds of parts until, with the feature Sangue bleu (Nino Oxilia, 1914), the Roman film company Celio promoted her as a diva. Sangue bleu borrows directly from the Nielsen example; indeed, the “tango of death” that the heroine is forced to dance on a variety stage is almost an exact copy (with identically dressed cowboy partner) of the dance that Nielsen was similarly forced to perform in Afgrunden. Perhaps characteristically different from the Danish films is the way, at the end of that dance, Bertini's Elena stabs herself, where Nielsen’s Magda stabs her lover. In addition, Elena is a woman divorced by her aristocratic husband who runs away with a famous actor while Magda is a Copenhagen piano teacher who rejects marriage with the son of a country pastor to follow an itinerant circus artiste. That is, the Nielsen heroine is much more clearly following her own desire, one which leads her to reject the option of a respectable marriage, while the Bertini character is undone by the force of circumstances beyond her control: divorcing a husband who no longer loves her, she loses her daughter to the former husband when she is falsely accused of having a lover. In general, the diva plays someone who belongs to, or joins, a cosmopolitan aristocracy, and she is more likely to be a passive victim than the active heroine typical of Nielsen’s parts.


     That such an ambience is not universal is demonstrated by one of Bertini’s later feature roles, as a laundress, in Assunta Spina (Gustavo Serena for Caesar Film, Rome, 1915). Adapted from a Neapolitan dialect play by Salvatore di Giacomo (1909), the film is set very specifically in lower-class Naples, and the exteriors were indeed filmed in Naples. Gian Piero Brunetta in his Storia del cinema italiano 1892-1929 (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1979, 81-84) suggests that the range of Bertini’s roles, by contrast with that of other Italian divas such as Lyda Borelli, implies that her acting can be described as “naturalistic.” While I do not doubt that the plot of Assunta Spina fits under the rubric of naturalism, and that the acting and staging of some scenes in the film also show the influence of naturalism in the theatre, it seems to me that Bertini’s technique (and incidentally that of Nielsen as well) is more reminiscent of Bernhardt than it is of the Duse, and that the blocking and use of gesture in the film is largely governed by what Brewster and I have discussed in terms of “pictorialism” in acting.


     The scene in Sangue bleu in which Elena is forced to give up her daughter to her former husband may serve as a benchmark of a pictorial style. As is typical of this film, and of the Italian diva film in general, the set is quite deep allowing for marked and prolonged entrances and exits:

Bertini is in the left foreground, when a servant announces the Prince.


She crosses to foreground right and the magistrate who oversees their divorce agreement approaches her foreground center, while the Prince (Angelo Gallina) remains in the left midground.

She lifts her hands in an imploring gesture and then runs to the Prince and puts her arms around him in an appeal.

Her importuning gesture and his subsequent rolling of the eyes is emphasized by a cut-in.

After a cut back to long shot, Bertini turns from the Prince to the magistrate, imploring again with her hands folded and raised. The Prince takes this opportunity to exit midground left.

Turning, and acknowledging his exit, Bertini moves a few paces away from the camera and extends her arms.

The Prince re-enters carrying the girl, and Bertini takes the child from him and moves to the foreground, followed by the child’s nurse. While embracing the child, Bertini gestures to the nurse to leave them. The nurse exits left, then re-enters left, and makes a more muted appeal to the Prince, standing in the midground. Finally, she approaches the mother and child in the foreground and gestures that they must go.

Bertini stands and relinquishes the child to her, staggering to a chair front right and holding on to it for support.

All exit through the rear door as she lowers her head in despair. Although one might assume the scene would end there, it does not. Bertini slowly rises up, turning to the right, puts her hands to her cheeks in horror and runs to the rear door, posing in the doorway.

After making another gesture with hands on head in despair, she turns and walks toward the camera making a series of poses: elbows bent and hands on shoulders, then arms crossed:

then arms unfolded and upraised as she hesitates a moment in her approach, then a quick run to the foreground where a slight tilt down reveals a table:

where she sits to write a letter to the actor who will now take the place of her husband and beloved child.


     One of the things that Brewster and I argue in Theatre to Cinema is that the use of gesture in this kind of acting should not be understood simply as calling upon a lexicon, e.g., arms crossed with hands on shoulders “means” despair, but rather, almost as it would in dance, gesture should be seen as elaborating and helping to orchestrate a given dramatic situation. The mother’s reaction to the loss of her child is highly stereotyped; in order to understand the scene the spectator hardly needs the accumulation of gesture which Bertini employs to convey her grief. Indeed, at a narrational level, the accumulation of gesture would only be necessary if the scene were working counter to stereotype, if, for example, we needed to be informed that the mother was overjoyed at having the child taken off her hands. But what is at issue in Bertini’s performance in Sangue bleu is not so much the conveyance of narrative information as the rhythmic articulation of the performance. In a scene largely devoid of editing, it is the timing and pacing of the gestures which move our attention from one actor to the next, from one entrance or exit to the next, and from one phase of the action to the next. Even the running to the door at the end, which might seem a superfluous wallowing in sorrow, is in fact a strategy by which Bertini effects a transition between the moment in which Elena stands at the chair, head bent in sorrow, and the moment in which, desperate, she decides to write to the man she had, up to this point, carefully kept at a distance. An appreciation of this kind of acting involves not only an attention to the grace and aptness of the gestures employed, but also, how they mobilize the space of the set and exhaust the range of emotional possibilities of the situation. Rather than being “read” for their meaning, they should be savored like a jazz musician’s improvisations on a well known theme.


     In Theatre to Cinema we argue that naturalism provides a definitive break with the range of acting styles that employed gesture toward pictorial ends. The important feature of naturalist acting as it developed in the 1880s was not that it encouraged actors to approximate real life or even some conventionalized notion of the real. Rather, in their staging practices the great naturalist directors and actors were willing to abandon not only graceful movement and gesture, but also highly emphatic and expressive gesture. In the naturalist theatre, incidental activity, stage business, became much more important than the telling gesture or pose as a way of organizing the actor’s activity on stage. There are many well-known instances of the importance accorded to mundane stage business within the movement. For example, in the 1905 Moscow Art Theatre production of Ghosts, described by Frederick and Lise-Lone Marker (Ibsen's Lively Art: A Performance Study of the Major Plays (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 105), Stanislavsky staged the opening scene, in which exposition is provided by a conversation between Regine and her father the carpenter Engstrand, by having the carpenter on stage from the start of the act, busy fixing the lock on the garden door. Such activity bears some relation to character, but it is not designed to produce a pleasing composition, nor to epitomize an emotion or situation. Along with the highly elaborated use of stage business, the naturalist theatre of the 1880s fostered an “underplayed,” even opaque acting style. For example, the naturalist director Otto Brahm commented approvingly on the performance style of Rudolf Rittner, one of the actors hired when Brahm took over the administration of the Deutsches Theater in the 1890s (“Die Freie Bühne in Berlin,” Berliner Tageblatt no. 16, 18 October 1909): 


I had the impression of something which gained extraordinary clarity from its very insignificance: I saw him simply go out a door, nothing more. He had read a letter from his Musotte, and as he mulled it over, filled with its mournful tidings, he walked off, without any ceremony—I think I have never seen anything like it. Since our whole former style of acting required an appearance of volition, of careful attention to detail, the “effective exit” was one of the weightiest requirements of this school. Every step was defended like the retreat from a battlefield, the actor holding every eye on himself until the last. The significance of Rittner’s exit consisted in that he simply went out, adding nothing. This delighted me and in this little action I saw symbolized the whole revolution of our new method of presentation.


Obviously, the last thing a diva can do is simply go out a door; doors are for posing in, and the conventions of the diva film, even the set design and the articulation of space, are predicated on the actress thinking up something new and intriguing to do on her way to that threshold.


    As I have already noted, while there are some ways in which Assunta Spina appears to be inspired by naturalism, it seems to me to fall largely within the compass of pictorial acting and staging (a plot summary of the film follows this essay; please note that this description is based upon material deriving from the Bologna Cineteca restoration which has footage of the courthouse sequence that does not appear in the DVD of the film released by Kino Video). Even the location shooting, which would seem to be an outgrowth of verismo, actually works towards a spectacular use of landscape. Of course, it could be argued that given the topography of the Bay of Naples, one would have to be a sorry cinematographer indeed not to achieve spectacular backgrounds, but even landlocked city scenes such as this:

seemed to have been calculated in terms of their pictorial effect. Similarly, the wonderful set of Assunta’s laundry:

allows for the display of incidental business, here the women working inside as well as people loafing in the “street” outside. But note that the set is structurally similar to that of Elena’s residence in Sangue bleu, discussed above, and that it also allows for highly dramatic entrances and exits—a propensity that is underscored by the filmmaker’s willingness to adopt different camera positions on the set for different scenes, varying the space according to situation and mood (this being one of the most striking differences between Assunta Spina and Sangue bleu).


     The emphasis on working class life does give rise to departures from the kinds of decorum and elegance with which the diva is usually associated. In an early scene Michele has lunch with Assunta and her father, feeding his fiancée with his knife:

and, even after Michele has put on his hat and coat in preparation for their departure, the couple continue eating and drinking:

a gesture which in the context of Italy in the 1910s would probably have seemed much more uncouth than it does to the fast-food-wise consumers of today. Nonetheless, such instances of incidental activity decline precipitously after the opening, expository, sections of the film as Bertini relies increasingly on expressive gesture related to the dramatic situation.


     Thus, after Michele, having slashed Assunta’s face in a jealous rage, has been put on trial for assault, Assunta is confronted in the lobby of the courthouse by Concetta, Michele’s mother:

Concetta lunges forward violently at the sight of her enemy:

complaining that Assunta has ruined her son’s life. Concetta’s gesture is matched by Bertini’s forward movement:

She then moves in to stand nose to nose with Concetta as she defends herself and turns to show her scarred face:

But if Assunta is by no means simply passive, the most radical departures from lady-like decorum are assigned to Concetta, not the star. As her friends try to pull her back, Concetta spits at Assunta:

and makes rude gestures:

Throughout this interchange Bertini remains relatively still, only putting her hand to her brow at the end of it:

A measure of relative decorum is thus preserved for the star. Moreover, the uncouth gestures, while motivated as typical of working-class Neapolitans, are far from incidental movements which are simply there to typify a class or a social position. Note the blocking of the scene, with each of the antagonists supported by female attendants in two carefully posed groups each of which reacts as an ensemble to the gestures of the principals. The gestures of the principals themselves constitute the visual counterpart of the thrust and parry of verbal argument. They are exploited for their expressiveness and are crucial to the rhythmic articulation of the scene, orchestrating the developing conflict in the way that a shot-reverse-shot interchange might in the sound cinema.


     A final example is from two scenes that also take place in the lobby of the Naples courthouse. The first seems quite naturalistic in its evocation of extraneous incident and activity, the second quite the opposite. The courthouse lobby set is formed of three rear walls at oblique angles, with doors to the different court rooms in the left and center ones and the building’s exit through the right.


There are two tables set up in the lobby, one midground left, the other further back and to the right. Behind each table sits an usher (named Diodate Sgueglia and Aniello Torelli respectively in the play, unnamed in the film’s titles). There is much incidental activity in the first view of this set. People of different social classes and professions come and go through the doors. A priest and others try to give papers to or get directions from Sgueglia. Two policemen enter front right leading a man in prisoner’s uniform, followed by his wife and child, whom he tries to talk to as the policemen try to hurry him forward. He is taken off into the rear left courtroom; his wife and child and various of her friends are joined by the priest rear center, where they talk together excitedly. Assunta enters with some of the laundresses and Michele is brought in. He tries to talk to Assunta and is taken off by the police through the rear center doors.


     In contrast with this emphasis on incidental activity is the scene which follows the sentencing of Michele. Assunta enters from the rear center door, followed by three laundresses.

Ernestina, one of the laundresses, gives her a chair. Funelli (Carlo Benedetti), at Sgueglia’s table midground left, looks at Assunta curiously. It is just possible to see that Funelli asks Sgueglia who Assunta is, but this is largely blocked by Assunta and the laundresses in front of Sgueglia’s table.


     Just before the title: “The sentence. Two years! Two years!” Bertini poses with her hand on her head:

Bertini sits in the chair. The laundresses bend over her. Funelli is just visible continuing to look at her from Sgueglia’s table:

Bertini rises and reaches out to Michele as he is dragged by policemen on through the rear center doors and then off front right:

Following the title: “Federico Funelli, a notary, is struck by Assunta,” the lobby is inexplicably empty save for the two ushers, Funelli and Assunta. This permits a focus on the gestural duet about to be performed by the two principals. At first, Funelli seems to be ignoring Assunta:

Then, he approaches her. A dialogue title follows (many titles in Assunta Spina, like this one, combine two or more speeches, without indication of the speaker, whose name, deducible from the surrounding images, I have added in square brackets). [Funelli]: "Come, come, there’s no point in distressing yourself like this." [Assunta]: "Suppose they send him to a jail a long way away? How shall I get to see him?"


Funelli comes closer to Assunta with his hands in his pockets and shrugging. She looks at him and begins to stand:

Funelli leans back and puts his left thumb in his waistcoat armhole and then leans forward and wiggles his eyebrows:

Dialogue title: [Assunta]: “And what must I do? Money? How much? I’ll sell everything. Tell me! Speak!”  Dialogue title: [Funelli]: “It is not a question of money…with you.” [Assunta]: “Thanks very much!." The poses interspersed with the dialogue titles refer to them, almost as if phrase by phrase. Bertini poses with raised hands, corresponding to the section of the title which reads “What shall I do?”:

She reaches to her head and ears, indicating she will sell her jewelry. He responds with a gesture indicating “I don’t want money”:


There is a belly to belly pose as he says, “…from you":

To indicate Assunta’s refusal, Bertini turns away from Funelli and wraps her shawl around herself:

She reaches over and sets the chair between them with a plop (mirroring her ironic “Thanks very much!”):

She sits on the chair. He raises his arm in an “OK!” gesture:

She drops her head as he looks away:

He turns to look at her again, gesturing with a sweep of his right hand. He goes to Sgueglia’s table. She moves her head from her right hand with her right elbow resting on her knee to her left hand, left elbow resting on the chair back:


     Funelli exits and Assunta remains seated. Ernestina brings word that Michele is supposed to serve his time far from Naples in Avellino. Funelli re-enters and observes the women talking (he is visible behind them). Bertini then raises her hands to her head in despair. She looks rear left, sees Funelli and shoos Ernestina off front right. She stands and moves the chair which she had previously interposed between them off to the left with a decided gesture. Funelli pretends to ignore her and goes to the table rear right, his back to her. She stretches out her left arm to Funelli, calling him. He turns and points to his chest with his right hand (as if to say: “Are you talking to me?”):

Assunta glances at Sgueglia as Funelli saunters to front right. Satisfied Sgueglia will not hear, she grabs Funelli’s right elbow with her left hand and whispers in his ear. A dialogue title follows. [Assunta]: “You told me Michele could stay here in Naples?” [Funelli]: “Yes its true.” Another title: [Assunta]: “Then I want him to stay in Naples!”  [Funelli]: “All right…but we should discuss this somewhere else.” They negotiate. Assunta turns to look back before exiting:

She exits front right, while Funelli stays to wink triumphantly at Sgueglia. He makes a gesture with right hand held high, palm down, fingers extended (as if to say: “I’ve got her!”):

He exits front right.


     The actors’ gestures and poses in this scene do not seem substantially different from the use of gesture or attitude in other diva films of this period and are perfectly consonant with the pictorial style. Bertini’s pose standing arm outstretched as the police take Michele away resembles her pose in Sangue bleu  when the Prince exits to get his daughter. Her poses with head on hand while sitting in the chair resemble similar “thinking” poses from other scenes in Sangue bleu, not to mention Lyda Borelli’s similar use of a chair in Ma l’amor mio non muore. While we do not find an extended passage in which the diva is left alone to express her grief in gesture, as is common in the genre, the film does eliminate the supernumeraries in the later lobby scene, in contrast with the first, in order to call attention to the interchange between Bertini and Benedetti, a gestural interchange which has been carefully plotted to follow the course of the intertitles. Finally, Benedetti’s gestures evoking such complex ideas as feigned indifference, and a slightly mocking graciousness, as well as the final mark of triumph exchanged between the men, seem to me to rank alongside Bertini’s work as one of the high points of this style.


     Which brings me to a final speculation on the absence of the divo in the European cinema of the teens. As noted in Theatre to Cinema, naturalist acting in the sense of the abjuration of emphatic gesture, the kind of pared down style celebrated by Otto Brahm, would have been a very big risk in the early feature cinema—at a point in film history in which filmmakers were just beginning to learn how to tell long and complex plots without the use of spoken language. In our view it is not really attempted until the very late 1910s and early 1920s, once filmmakers have mastered the panoply of editing and staging devices that provide other means not only of telling stories, but of developing and heightening dramatic situations. The cinema remains wedded to pictorial acting techniques in the 1910s for very good reasons that are intrinsic to the development of the medium itself. However, as Jon Burrows has insightfully pointed out in a recent work on acting in the early British feature (Legitimate Cinema: Theatre Stars in Silent British Films, 1908-1918 (University of Exeter Press, 2003), 61), by this point in theatre history, pictorial styles had begun to seem old fashioned (even if some commentators bemoaned the “anemic” acting of the modern school, they thereby recognized the current taste for reduced styles). The many derogatory remarks about actors posing in the American and English film industry trade press suggests that this discourse was making itself felt in the cinema (although it is not evident to me that this was the case in Italy), even while film actors continued to pose and obviously felt the need to pose. Perhaps the wide-spread social conventions which make it more acceptable for women to articulate emotions and to have recourse to expressive gesture made it easier for actresses to circumvent this particular conundrum. The diva may move her hands about her face and flutter about in her chair and strike tortuous attitudes in ways that no male film star—as opposed to a male character actor or a “heavy” such as Benedetti playing Funelli in Assunta Spina—any longer dared to attempt. Hence, for example, Mario Bonnard’s stiff and relatively wooden performance in contrast with Borelli’s rapid alteration of posture and gesture in Ma l’amor mio non muore. The male equivalent of the diva is not the man who sighs and poses, but the stevedore who climbs sheer rock faces and dives off high cliffs—Maciste.



Summary of Assunta Spina


One of Assunta Spina’s former admirers, Raffaele, sends a letter to her fiancé, Michele Boccadifuoco, falsely accusing her of consorting with another man. Assunta calms Michele’s jealousy by agreeing to leave her father’s house and to run a laundry next to Michele’s butcher shop. Later, Raffaele shows up at a birthday celebration for Assunta and the two flirt, prompting Michele to stalk off in a jealous rage. On the street, returning from the party in the company of friends, Assunta is assaulted by Michele, who slashes her face. Assunta is taken inside where she calls for a mirror, and tries to hide her face. After Michele is arrested, however, she lies in court in an attempt to have him acquitted. Outside the courtroom, Michele’s mother-in-law berates her for ruining her son’s life. Michele is sentenced to two years in prison in Avellino. Assunta bargains with the notary Funelli, agreeing to sleep with him if he will see to it that Michele serves his time close to home in Naples. Feeling guilty about the affair with Funelli, Assunta stops visiting Michele in prison, as well as replying to his letters. After a year and half, on Christmas Eve, Assunta appeals to Funelli to come to her house for dinner, and he agrees half-heartedly, having obviously lost interest in her. She confesses to one of her friends that she is pregnant and hopes that Funelli will marry her and take her away before Michele is released from prison. Assunta’s dinner preparations are interrupted by the arrival of Michele, who has been released six months early. When she confesses that she is no longer worthy of his attentions, he rushes from the room in a rage. Encountering Funelli in the street, he wounds him and Funelli staggers into Assunta’s room to die. The police enter and Assunta allows herself to be led away as the perpetrator of the crime.


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