Friday, August 8, 2008

Be beautiful! and be sad!

Diva Dolorosa (directed by Peter Delpeut, 1999)

A Dutch documentary about Italian silent film stars doesn't necessarily sound terribly promising. But throw in the influence of fin de siecle "Black Romanticism" and suddenly it's a glittering doorway to another world.

Instead of any recitation of facts, this movie unreels as a feature-length montage of archival footage, featuring gorgeously-dressed women with haughty expressions and dark circles under their eyes, caught in "the double insanity of love and death." In various segments, the heroines taunt their lovers, act out the ways love can go tragically wrong (into various permutations of murder and suicide), and sometimes go fantastically mad. The scenes of hysteria add new meaning to "letting one's hair down," as a few of the actresses suddenly undo their 'dos, letting their incredible amounts of pre-Raphaelite Rapunzel hair free before really launching into the crazy.

Occasional intertitles (in Italian, with subtitles) are interspersed throughout, including such melodramatic gems as "Let me deliver you from evil. In the graveyard of the soul, love will blossom," and "the venom of love once more poured into her heart."

Sadly, the films these scenes were clipped from (with evocative names like La Donna Nuda and Tigre Reale) are otherwise unobtainable to the general audience, although at least they've been restored and still existence in film museums, so it could be a lot worse. That does make me wish there was a companion movie of a more traditionally "documentary" nature, or an optional info text, identifying all the clips as they appear.

I got a copy of this from Netflix, but the DVD is included as a set with Angela Dalle Vacche's recently published book Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema, which I'm now really, really tempted to buy. Funny how yesterday I didn't know anything about early Italian cinema, and didn't even know there was a gap in my life.

Highly recommended, especially for a certain kind of dramatically-inclined young woman in search of style inspiration. Just please, focus on the poetry, not the daggers and the morphine. You'll be happier in the long run.

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