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Akin to a Puccini or Mascagni opera without the music, Assunta Spina is a
work of dazzling dramatic intensity - with a heroine who is striking in
sensuality and modernity. Unlike the languid paper dolls who populate
films by Griffith and others, Francesca Bertini plays a fully sexual
A vulnerable but hard-headed child of the slums, she's not above flirting
with a man who's not her fiance, or - once the fiance goes to jail for
attacking her in a jealous rage - prostituting herself to an official in
order to save him. Not a Madonna, not a whore, but a woman. Perhaps the
first real woman in screen history.
The gap between Image and Truth - between the sanctified image of 'woman' handed down from Roman Catholicism and 19th century melodrama, and the unvarnished truth of a real woman fighting to survive - is made explicit in the design and staging of Assunta Spina. An altar to an idealised Virgin Mary dominates the heroine's home; her less-than-ideal actions are seen and judged against it. A rare bit of calculated 'design' in a film that was shot almost entirely in the streets and slums of Naples. A style that anticipates Neo-Realism and cinema verite.
However, Assunta Spina lives in a much higher realm of art than either of those later trends. What lifts it up to the pinnacle is the acting of Francesca Bertini. One of those rare performers who goes beyond mere 'film acting'- fusing the physical grace of Margot Fonteyn with the operatic intensity of Maria Callas. Her vast liquid eyes seem to contain the whole film, and director Gustavo Serena (who co-directed, or so rumour has it, with the lady herself) manages to convey whole episodes solely through the body of his star. In the final duel between her two lovers, we never see a knife pass into flesh. All we see is a shudder pass through Bertini as she watches, and her hands clasp the air in mute agony.
In a word, DIVINA!
With a relatively simple but well-told story, plus many good atmospheric
details, this Italian feature is an effective melodrama that is still worth
seeing. It is also worthwhile as a chance to see Francesca Bertini, who was
so renowned in her day, in a role that gives her quite a wide variety of
material to work with. Her fine performance would be enough to carry the
story by itself, but the movie also has several other strengths.
The story itself is relatively straightforward. Assunta (Bertini) is engaged to be married to Michele, but Assunta's old flame Raffaele is too strong-willed to let her go. He makes an ever-greater nuisance of himself, building up quite a bit of tension, which sets off a turbulent sequence of events. The story is set against a believable and realistic background of life in Naples. The on-location filming includes scenes of many of the sights in and around Naples, and is an important part of the film's success. It also works well in putting the main characters into their social setting by, among other things, showing brief glimpses of Michele and Assunta at work.
This is the kind of story that works especially well as a silent film. The ways the characters say things are unimportant - what's important is their relationships and their attitudes, and the cast define these very well without sound. Besides Bertini's starring performance, Gustavo Serena is also quite believable in portraying the mercurial Michele. The story moves at a good pace, without any extraneous padding, and without rushing itself. All in all, it's a worthwhile little movie from the years when feature-length films were just starting to become more common.
If the Italian early cinema is known for its epic antique spectacles,
Assunta Spina means a nice change. But it is obvious that it's not the
only different film compared to the mainstream in the era. The Italian
early cinema took a lot of influences from literature and people
started to describe the lives of the common people; workers and lovers.
Assunta Spina is one of these film and a very good one. In 1914 World
War I begun in Europe, at first Italy didn't take part in it, but in
May 1915 it joined the Allied Powers. One of the consequences of WWI
for cinema was that Italy and France lost their places as the leading
developers of it and the United States started making more and more
films. Italian early cinema is part of the era when Italy was among the
biggest cinema countries in the world and Assunta Spina is one of its
most well known products.
Assunta Spina is basically a love triangle story. Assunta is a young woman, who is married with Michele but also loved by Raffaele. Love, hatred and jealousy culminate in tragical consequences. As said before the story is very simple and the narrative is minimalistic. But the gestures and expressive behaviour is magnificent. The gestures used in cinema were already very well known; to beckon, fists held high, hands on face etc. Assunta Spina is naturalistic realism and the expressions feel very natural or if not natural at least touching, beautiful and far away from exaggerating, which is common for many Hollywood silent films.
Assunta Spina is typical of the early Italian melodrama genre. It shows
ordinary people in their daily life overcome by a fate they can't
control. The natural way of acting and the fact that many scenes are
filmed outside in natural settings gives it great authenticity.
At the opposite of historical epics such as Cabiria, which intended to make people dream of being transported to other places or times, it is a film which made it possible for spectators to identify themselves with the characters and empathize with them. It is also a remarkable document on life in Naples before WWI.
Photography is often beautiful with special attention given to lighting. The final scene is particularly original in this respect. The depth of field is striking and some scenes combine views inside and outside through a window with all elements in focus and perfectly lit.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Assunta and Michele loved each other, but Raffaele who had a secret
crush on her disturbed the party. The jealous man, Michele
misunderstood, was disappointed to Assunta, scratched her face. She was
disappointed to his act, but still loved him in her inside. After all,
Michele was imprisoned. I am unsure, but one man(I cannot recall his
name and occupation) in the court told Assunta that he found the way to
release him. She was grateful to him. Several days after, he was
discharged early. She, however, was pleased him to come and afraid of
him as well. Michele wished her to greet him after being discharged. He
was angry and knew she lost interest in him. He was determined to kill
the man(He was not Raffaele), killed him. Then he disappeared.
Unfortunately she told a police officer that she went to the police
station or the court herself instead of Michele.
Raffaele is a villain, but Michele can be a villain. He was too jealous and problematic. And it is not direct, but it is quite bad that Raffaele disturbed the party even though indirectly. Owing to his direct interruption, she was ruined. Assunta Spina is a beautiful quite innocent lady, indeed.
It is splendid splendid film. Francesa Bertini was a talented Italian actress. Other performers' act satisfied me. The cinematography is quite gorgeous as well.
The other Italian films that I've seen from this early period of cinema
history are poor imitations of theatre. In the US, the movies were more
cinematic, but often confined to studios. At least in the beginning,
"Assunta Spina" is outdoors a lot. One or two images of the Naples
landscape are even pretty nice. It's difficult to go wrong with a shot
of a boat against the horizon. Some of the outdoor footage suffers from
(probably) a combination of poor lighting and deterioration of the
Generally, though, the camera barely moves and the framing is always long shots. The story is a trashy melodrama about a dysfunctional couple. One is a jealous dolt, the other a clinging, masochistic drama queen. Francesca Bertini, apparently a star in her day, is a lousy screen actress--posturing histrionically and repeatedly staring into nothing in an attempt to convey emotion. It's very boring.
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