RAPSODIA SATANICA (Nino Oxilia, 1920, Italy, 40m, Col-BW)
Satan's Rhapsody (1917)
Rapsodia satanica (original title)
Drama, Fantasy, Horror
July 1917 (Italy)
A Faustian tale about an old woman who makes a pact with Mephisto to regain her youth, in return she must stay away from love. After the deal she meets two brothers who fall in love with her.
Director: Nino Oxilia
Writers: Alberto Fassini (screenplay) (as Alfa), Alberto Fassini (story) (as Alfa)
Stars: Lyda Borelli, Andrea Habay, Ugo Bazzini
Though society pays homage to the position and wealth of the Countess Alba d’Oltrevini (Lyda Borelli), in reality she is a lonely old woman. After an evening spent surrounded by youth and beauty, Alba is left alone to mourn all that she has lost in life. As she passes a painting representing a scene from Faust, she finds herself feeling envious. As she moves on with a sigh, a satanic figure emerges from the frame... As Alba studies her reflection in a mirror, Mephisto (Ugo Bazzini) moves silently to her side and places a hand upon her shoulder. She screams, and recoils in terror. Mephisto calms her, and then explains that he has come to offer her a bargain: he can restore her youth and beauty, but in exchange she can never fall in love. He offers her a small statuette, a symbol of love: by breaking it, she accepts his conditions and renounces love forever. Alba hesitates, but finally casts the object to the ground.
Rapsodia Satanica is a gender-switched version of the legend of Faust. The desperate longing of the elderly Alba d’Oltrevita (“dawn before life”) for her lost youth invokes the appearance of Mephisto, who slips out of a painting to offer Alba a literal deal with the devil.
Following on from John Gottowt’s earlier performance as Mr Scapinelli in The Student Of Prague, Rapsodia Satanica offers up another devilish figure who clearly enjoys his work. As he lurks and spies and chuckles to himself at the foolishness of mortals, Ugo Brazzini is an unnerving yet oddly likeable Mephisto. Meanwhile, Lyda Borelli’s performance as Alba is everything that we tend to associate with silent cinema, all extravagant gestures and dramatic poses; however, it is highly likely that this was a deliberate choice by Nino Oxalia, who sets his film in a stylised, unrealistic world which abounds with symbolism. Borelli herself is – at least during this part of the film – repeatedly linked with emblems of new life such as flowers and butterflies, and uses her flowing dresses and wraps and gauzy veils to maintain the visual connection.
It should also be noted that, in addition to the emphatic presence of the film’s leading lady, Rapsodia Satanica offers a range of more subtle touches to the viewer, such as the imaginative use of mirrors and other reflective surfaces, and any number of striking compositions. The location shooting also catches the eye, particularly the slightly misty lighting effects that turn real settings into another form of unreality.
This is an efficient little take on the deal with the devil story, at least partially because Ugo Bazzini gives a fun little performance as Mephisto, the devil who makes his offer to the old woman; I like the way he creeps around at the edges of scenes waiting for his opportunities to spread misery and unhappiness. Lyda Borelli also does a good job as the "Faust" character, though it does require quite a bit of sympathy with the silent (as in opposition to talkie) mode of acting, as she does come off as a bit too obvious at times. I like the prologue and the first act the best; the second act seems to be mostly about the main character being depressed, and that gets a bit old after a bit. Nonetheless, this is an interesting and silent Italian film.
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