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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This early film version of the Gabriele D'Annunzio drama is amazing; it
features some deeply impressive sets and costumes, as well as elaborate
title cards, and dramatic acting that's more subtle than usual for its
period. I regret that the print which I viewed did not have a cast list
or other credits.
The story unfolds in a series of tableau-like scenes, each performed before an elaborate setting, and prefaced by an explanatory title. There are no dialogue intertitles, and some of the captions are as operatic as the subject matter: one of them reads "The Hunchback's Revenge!"
SPOILERS NOW. The film is a drastically simplified version of D'Annunzio's story. Hunchbacked Gianciotto is married to beautiful Francesca, but he is summoned to command his troops in the war. He entrusts his wife to the care of his handsome brother Paolo. When Gianciotto learns that his wife and brother have cuckolded him, he kills them both, then slays himself.
By far, the most impressive aspect of this production is the series of elaborate outdoor sets. At this early date, many film makers -- notably Georges Melies and the Lumiere brothers -- were relying on painted backdrops. We see one such backdrop here, for the scene in Gianciotto's army encampment. The actors stand in front of an actual tent, while behind them a painted backdrop shows a series of tents stretching into the distance. However, unlike in the films of Melies or the Lumieres, this scene is carefully lighted so that the fakery is almost undetectable. It took me a moment to realise that the tents were a painted backdrop. Elsewhere, there is a spectacular scene in an elaborate floral bower.
All of the actors in this drama wear beautiful Renaissance costumes, and give performances which are commendably restrained in view of the operatic material. The actor who plays the hunchbacked Gianciotto is not convincing, but -- in the days before digital effects -- it was really impossible for an actor with a healthy spine to counterfeit a hunchback convincingly. Even the great Lon Chaney, in his classic portrayal of Quasimodo, obviously wore a false hump over an unbroken spinal column ... making his chest cavity seem larger, whereas a genuine hunchback's chest cavity would be made smaller in by his deformity.
One actor in this Vitagraph film plays a jester who also serves as a messenger. This actor is constantly leaping and capering, but always in a manner appropriate to his character. However, I was slightly distressed by a scene in which this jester mocks Gianciotto by imitating his hunched posture and lurching gait. I always find it crude and tasteless when a healthy person makes fun of a handicapped person. I'll rate this very ambitious early film 9 out of 10.
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