ASSUNTA SPINA (Francesca & Gustavo Serena Bertini, 1915, Italy, 70m, BW)
Directed by Gustavo Serena
Produced by Giuseppe Barattolo
Based on Assunta Spina
by Salvatore di Giacomo
Cinematography Vittorio Storaro (senior)
Language Silent film
Assunta Spina is a 1915 Italian silent film. Outside Italy, it is sometimes known as Sangue Napolitano ("Neapolitan Blood").
Assunta Spina is a laundress living in Naples, engaged to a violent butcher named Michele Mangiafuoco. She is also courted intensely by Raffaele. When she accepts Raffaele's offer to dance during an open air feast in Posillipo because she feels Michele is ignoring her, tragedy strikes. Michele, blinded by rage, slashes her face and is subsequently arrested. During the trial she bears witness in order to rescue him, saying he never wounded her, but the jury does not believe her. She is enticed by the court vice-chancellor to strike a bargain—Michele will stay in the nearby prison of Naples instead of Avellino, and at the end of the punishment Michele will kill the vice-chancellor before Assunta's eyes. She must take responsibility for the act before the eyes of the police in order to save her man.
The original novel from which the story was taken was written by Salvatore di Giacomo, and had been adapted to a successful theatre drama in 1909. Before Francesca Bertini became a famous actress, she would perform in this drama as a walk-on in the laundry scenes. Five years later, when she had started her career as a film actress, she and actor-director Gustavo Serena adapted the drama for film. Bertini is sometimes listed as co-director of the film. The film stock was colorized with 4 colors and distributed worldwide by Caesar Film.
One of the aims of creating this film was to reveal the subtle expressive power of filmmaking, compared to theatrical plays. Francesca Bertini fully displayed her talent for the first time, setting a new standard for acting on the silver screen. Her performance is generally rated as extraordinary, and in polar opposition to the work of writer and dramatist Gabriele D'Annunzio who was very popular at the time.
For example, the movie Cabiria by Giovanni Pastrone (1914)—one of the first known films where a camera moves through scenes while filming—was once considered a masterpiece at least in part because D'Annunzio had written the captions, but to modern moviegoers they seem excessively emphatic and redundant. The same can be said of the marked gestures of many actors and actresses of the silent era. Bertini wanted to end this affected behavior, so she focused on realism.
Her performances bear a closer resemblance to reality because of some acting devices: never look into the camera, use everyday gestures, and so on. The lunch scene in Assunta Spina, for example, still has impact because of these devices. The attempt to reflect reality also reduced the need for captions explaining the action. Even though only a single year passed between the release of Cabiria and Assunta Spina, there seems to be at least a decade's worth of difference in artistic subtlety and nuance.
Assunta Spina (played by Francesca Bertini) is a poor but beautiful laundress in Naples, Italy. She is dating the butcher Michele (co-author and director Gustavo Serena), but her former beau Raffaele keeps hanging around, making Michele jealous. He’s enough of a jerk to send Michele an anonymous note, suggesting that Assunta has been unfaithful. One day, Michele comes into the shop where she works and gives her a ring, making their proposal official. The shop is closed and everyone goes to a seaside café to celebrate. When Raffaele suddenly shows up, he is offered a glass of wine and asked to celebrate with them, but his presence throws a pall over the proceedings. Michele becomes sullen, despite Assunta’s assurances that she loves only him. She keeps trying to get rid of Raffaele, but he won’t take a hint. She finally gives in and dances with Raffaele, since Michele won’t dance, which throws Michele into a rage. He breaks up the dance and stalks off angrily. His mom cusses out Assunta and blames her for the trouble. Then, as the wedding party is walking home, Michele runs out from a doorway with the knife and slashes Assunta’s face.
Now, looked at objectively, this is the story of an abused woman who takes the blame for her abuser, prostitutes herself for him, and even protects him after he has committed murder, at the cost of her own life. But, it probably needs to be thought about more in terms of the conventions of Italian opera, which it clearly imitates. In that tradition, it is the story of a woman who places her love for a man above all other values, becoming a martyr in the process. Francesca Bertini, one of the recognized “Divas” of the Italian silent screen, clearly relishes the role, her every movement expressing the tortured fate of a woman in love. She, along with director Gustavo Serena, co-authored the film adaptation of this story (which she had previously performed on stage), so it’s not a question of the screenplay being a “male perspective.” In some ways, the movie reminded me of one of Mizoguchi’s movies about women and their limited choices in a male-dominated society.
The acting in this movie stood out to me more than any other element. It’s always interesting to watch the body language of another culture, and silent film offers a kind of window into the ways people communicate non-verbally that is harder to notice voyeuristically when dialogue is present. The cliché that Italians talk with their hands is frequently reinforced in this Neopolitan film, particularly by Serena, whose characteristic gestures had me thinking of stereotyped accents and speech patterns. Katherine at “Silents, Please!” is the true expert on silent movie Divas, and I won’t tread heavily on her turf by closely analyzing Bertini’s performance, but what struck me about her particularly was her use of chairs as props throughout this film. She clutches them, moves them about, slides into them, falls into them, and knocks them over to express different situations. In the final scene with her and Serena, he also gets into the act and with only three chairs between them on the set, it sometimes seems they will wind up dueling over who uses which one.
Francesca Bertini, or La Bertini as she was known, was one of the three iconic divas of early Italian cinema alongside Pina Menichelli and Lyda Borelli. She was, perhaps, the most widely known among them, and certainly the best known outside of Italy. In 1915, the year that Assunta Spina was released, she commanded a salary of $175,000 — more than any other actress of her day, even more than Mary Pickford, a fact that La Bertini proudly notes during a 1982 documentary about her titled L’Ultima Diva. With Assunta Spina, Bertini took on the role of director. Her longtime collaborator Gustavo Sereno is credited as her co-director, however a quote from Sereno indicates that Bertini was the true creative force behind the production:
“La Bertini was so excited to play the part Assunta Spina, that she had become a volcano of ideas, initiatives, suggestions, and in perfect Neapolitan dialect, organized, commanded, and moved the extras, the views, the angle of the camera, and if she was not pleased with a scene, demanded (and obtained) to redo it according to her views.”
In arguably her most famous role, Bertini helped to create a visual record of life in Naples. The emphasis she put on realism infuses the film with a documentary flavor. Her decision to leave the footage largely unedited means that the scenes unfold at an agonizingly realistic pace. This sense of uninterrupted time only adds to the painful drama of Assunta’s story. The majority of the figures we see on screen were Napoletani extras selected by Bertini — the police officers who shepherd away Assunta’s lover Michele were played by real police in their real uniforms. Likewise, the clothing that Bertini wears as Assunta was not the work of a costume designer, they were Bertini’s own garments.
In L’Ultima Diva (1982) the then 90-year-old actress defiantly stakes her place in history:
“They say neorealism, neorealism, now everyone has invented neorealism, but the first real neorealist film is Assunta Spina!” In fact, despite being a melodrama, Assunta Spina was not typical of films of the era nor was Francesca Bertini defined by her role as a diva. She pushed back against the broad and overwrought gestures that were prevalent at that time, preferring to play her roles with more subtlety — unaffected and spontaneous. She was known for wanting to get everything in a single take and being exacting about her work and the work of those around her.
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