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The Forgotten: "Rapsodia Satanica" (1917)

A Faustian pact leads to tragedy in swooning supernatural romance "Rapsodia Satanica" (1917).
David Cairns
Rapsodia Satanica belongs foursquare to the "diva dolorosa" school of Italian silent cinema, movies of and for and about their vampish leading ladies, in which melodramatic narratives might at any moment be entirely subsumed in welters of veiled languishing. Even by these delirious standards, Nino Oxililia's penultimate feature (before his death in WWI) is heady stuff.
The femme fatale in this case is Lyda Borelli, one of the top stars of the era. When we meet her in the prologue: she's a hunched, huddled crone, wrapping her natural exuberance within layers of black, hobbling around her "Castle of Illusions" shooting longing looks at the young people in love.
Then, Mephistopheles appears, emerging from a painting in a marvelous bit of trompe l'oeil. Since the movie is hand-tinted, this red devil's transition from two to three dimensions is all the more compelling: the shimmering panels of color both augment and erase the division between photography and painting.
It's notable that while Faust usually requires the promise of being able to perform virtuous deeds to clinch his deal with the Devil, female equivalents such as Roger Corman's The Wasp Woman are motivated only by the desire to have their youth back. So it is with Borelli here.
Reminiscent at times of Gloria Swanson in full Norma Desmond mode, Borelli manages to combine quite naturalistic facial responses with highly stylised waftings and gesticulations, a kind of visual equivalent to operatic vocals. Italians, on their native ground, often seem to be acting as if in a silent film anyway, so imagine what they're like when they really are in front of a whirring camera with no microphone to shame them.
Hoppla! Like John Barrymore's Dr. Jekyll a few years later, Borelli's countess effects her transformation with acting along, loosening her hair and clothing and straightening her posture, while throwing back her head to absorb the life-giving effulgence of the Klieg lights. "Strong-featured" would be the polite term for Borelli, a striking, powerful, doughy woman with a jaw like the prow of a galleon.
All this has transpired before Part One even begins, and Madame Borelli's mandible now sets course for two nubile brothers, wooing one and tormenting the other to death for kicks. That's all that happens in Part One.
The second and final part has even less plot, consisting entirely of Borelli swanning gloomily around her extensive grounds. As David Bordwell observes, some of this trancelike wandering in cavernous interiors, with mirror-multiplication of characters, anticipates Citizen Kane's Xanadu: but it continues much longer, a sustained wallow in dreamy aesthetics and languid, romantic angst.
At this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, Rapsodia Satanica was presented with its score by Pietro Mascagni painstakingly resynchronised. The version you can see here has not had this important work done, but is nevertheless a compelling and weird manifestation of the artistic impulse in the mid-silent era.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


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