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04 July 2014

Francesca Bertini

'1914: Cinema of A Hundred Years Ago' is one of the sections of Il Cinema Ritrovato. Tonight, the centennial will be celebrated with an evening screening of the epic Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914) at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, including the original choral and orchestral score restored by Timothy Brock. The section also presents European and American films about ancient worlds and contemporary conflicts, pacifist films and imperialist films, the first anti-war masterpiece (Maudite soit la guerre by Alfred Machin), films on female charm and fashion, and of course the diva films. The most famous diva film of the year was Sangue Blu (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914), starring Francesca Bertini (1892-1985). During the first quarter of the twentieth century this majestic diva of the Italian silent cinema often played the 'femme fatale', with men devouring eyes, glamorous attire, clenched fists, and in opulent settings...

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard by Fotocelere, Torino, no. 324.

Francesca Bertini
Vintage postcard by L.I.F.J.

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard by La Rotofotografica, no. 44. Photo: Unione Cinematografica Italiana, Roma.

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard by Ed. G. Vettori, Bologna, no. 244.

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard by Ed. G. Vettori, Bologna, no. 2029.

Francesca Bertini
Czech postcard by Verlag Biografia, Kunstfilm G.m.b.H, Prag.

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard by Visto Censura, Torino, no. 6183-9-10-15.

Francesca Bertini
Belgian postcard. Sent by mail in 1922.

Strong, Intense, and Charming Personality


Francesca Bertini was born Elena Seracini Vitiello in Firenze (Florence), Italy in 1892. She was the daughter of a comic theatre actress.

Bertini began performing on stages as a child, particularly in Naples, where her family was settled. In 1904, at the age of 16, she moved to Rome, where she improved her acting skills, especially on theatre stages, and attempted to perform in the just-born Italian cinema.

She made her film debut in La dea del mare (1907). She appeared in one-, two- and three-reelers for the Italian pioneering companies Cines and Celio. Gradually she developed her beauty and elegance, plus a strong, intense, and charming personality, which would be the key of her success as a silent film actress.

Her first important film was Histoire d'un pierrot/Pierrot the Prodigal (Baldassarre Negroni, 1914). Soon followed by appearances in L'amazzone mascherata/The Masked Amazon (Baldassarre Negroni, 1914), Sangue blu/Blue Blood (Nino Oxalia, 1914) and a small part in the successful historic epic Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914).

Bertini was the most versatile of the big three Italian Divas - Bertini, Lyda Borelli, and Pina Menichelli. Her strong face and dignified suffering carried a large number of films, now mostly lost.

However, one of her most impressive films has survived: Assunta Spina (Francesca Bertini, Gustavo Serena, 1914). David Melville reviews on IMDb: "Assunta Spina is a work of dazzling dramatic intensity - with a heroine who is striking in her sensuality and modernity. Unlike the languid paper dolls who populate silent films by Griffith and others, Francesca Bertini plays a fully sexual woman. 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."

Bertini did not just play the role of the main character, but she also wrote the script, directed and produced the film. Later she directed herself again in one of her other famous roles, Tosca, in La Tosca (1918).

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard, no. 5560. Photo: Caesar Film, Roma. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard by Cine-Excelsa. Photo: Officine foto-artistiche Sborgi, Firenze.

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna, no. 136.

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna, no. 290. Sent by mail in 1927.

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard, no. 382. Photo: probably a publicity still for Assunta Spina (1914).

Francesca Bertini & Gustavo Serena in La signora delle camelie
Italian postcard by Ed. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: still from La signora dalle camelie (1915) with Gustavo Serena.

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard, no. 323. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Francesca Bertini and Amleto Novelli La piovra
Italian postcard, no. 236. Photo: Francesca Bertini and Amleto Novelli in La piovra (Edoardo Bencivenga, 1919).

Francesca Bertini and Amleto Novelli La piovra
Italian postcard, no. 525. Photo: Francesca Bertini and Amleto Novelli in La piovra (Edoardo Bencivenga, 1919).

Suffering Demi-mondaine


Next Francesca Bertini played another of her best roles, Margherita Gauthier. La signora dalle camelie/The Lady of the Camelias (Gustavo Serena, 1915) was based on Alexandre Dumas fils' classic stage play La dame aux camélias, which again was the basis for Giuseppe Verdi's classic opera La traviata.

It's the tragic story of a tuberculosis-ridden, suffering demi-mondaine who wants to get rid of her past and settle down with her lover, but this is denied, first by society (his father) and then by fate (her own illness and premature death).

The drama inspired many actresses. In 1915, La dame aux camélias had already been filmed twice, first with Vittoria Lepanto (1909) and later by the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1911). In 1915, Bertini's rival Hesperia made a competing version of La signora dalle camelie (Baldassarre Negroni, 1915) and in the US Clara Kimball Young made another version (1915).

In the following decades versions followed with Theda Bara (1917), Erna Morena (1917), Pola Negri (1920), Alla Nazimova (1921), Sybil Thorndike (1922), Tora Teje (1925), Norma Talmadge (1926), Yvonne Printemps 1934), Greta Garbo (1936), Micheline Presle (1953), Maria Felix (1954), Sara Montiel (1962), Isabelle Huppert (1981), Teresa Stratas (1983), etc.

Bertini became popular internationally. Her sophistication emulated around the world by female filmgoers. Reputedly, she earned $175,000 in 1915 - a record for the time.

She developed the current acting techniques of film actresses by making it more sober, banning broad gestures or the mincing ways of the Diva. She is one of the first film actresses to focus on reality, rather than on a dramatic stereotype, an anticipation of Neorealistic canons. The expression of authentic feelings was the key of her success through many films. She could perform with success the languid decadent heroine as well as the popular common woman.

Among her most popular films were Ultimo sogno (Roberto Roberti, 1920) and La donna nuda (Roberto Roberti, 1922) opposite Angelo Ferrari. The director of these films, Roberto Roberti, was the father of spaghetti western genius Sergio Leone.

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard, no. 441.

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard. Photo: still from Ultimo sogno (Roberto Roberti, 1920).

Francesca Bertini in La giovinezza del diavolo
Italian postcard by G.B. Falci, Milano. Photo: publicity still for La giovinezza del diavolo/The youth of the devil (Roberto Roberti, 1922).

Francesca Bertini in Ultimo sogno
Italian postcard by Ed. G.B. Falci, Milano. Photo: publicity still of Francesca Bertini in Ultimo sogno (Roberto Roberti, 1921). The man could be the male protagonist, played by Mario Parpagnoli.

Francesca Bertini in La ferita
Italian postcard by Ed. G.B. Falci, Milano. Francesca Bertini in the Henry Kistemaeckers jr. adaptation La ferita (1920) by Roberto Roberti. While the film, originally entitled La blessure, was shot in 1920, it was only released in 1922 and hence - because of the new fascist regime - 'italianised' into La ferita. The woman right of the nun is Mary Fleuron, while Bertini is standing right. The two women are each other's rivals in the film.

Francesca Bertini in La ferita
Italian postcard by G.B. Falci, Milano. Francesca Bertini in La ferita (Roberto Roberti, 1920).

Francesca Bertini in La donna nuda
Italian postcard by Ed. G.B. Falci, Milano. Francesca Bertini in the Henry Bataille adaptation La donna nuda (Caesar Film 1920), directed by Roberto Roberti. The man could be Franco Gennaro who plays the old painter Rouchard. After a suicide attempt over her persistently infidel lover, the painter Pierre Bernier (Angelo Ferrari), the model Lolette (Bertini) recovers in the hospital and decides to return to her old tutor Rouchard. The film was a remake of a film with Lyda Borelli, made in 1914 by Carmine Gallone.

Francesca Bertini in La donna nuda (1922)
Italian postcard by G.B. Falci, Milano. Photo: still from La donna nuda (1922) with Angelo Ferrari.

Francesca Bertini in La giovinezza del diavolo
Italian postcard. Photo: still from La giovinezza del diavolo (1922).

Countess Bertini


La giovinezza del diavolo (Roberto Roberti, 1922) was a remake of the female Faustian tale of Rapsodia satanica (1917), starring another silent diva, Lyda Borelli. But by the 1920s, Borelli had retired from stage & screen, after a wealthy and aristocratic marriage, even if her films lingered on in the cinemas.

Director of La giovinezza del diavolo was Roberto Roberti, but the film bore its quality mark by the artistic supervision of Gabriellino D'Annunzio, the son of the famous poet, who just had filmed La nave, with D'Annunzio's mistress, dancer Ida Rubinstein. La giovinezza del diavolo had an unlucky life. It received its censorship card only two years after production and was finally released in 1925, when the diva trend was definitively over. Only Raimondo Van Riel received praise for his part as Mefistofeles.

In 1921 Bertini married count and banker Paul Cartier. After a decade of divadom she withdrew from filming. She moved to Paris, but when her husband died, she moved back to Rome, where she would remain until her death. In order to take care of her son, she returned to the film sets, and thus in the second half of the 1920s she made a comeback.

She acted in a handful of late silent Franco-German coproductions, opposite established actors such as Jean Angelo, Fritz Kortner and Rudolf Klein-Rogge: La fin de Monte Carlo/The End of Monte Carlo (Henri Étiévant, Mario Nalpas, 1926), Mein Leben für das Deine/Odette (Luitz-Morat, 1927), Tu m'appartiens/You Belong to Me (Maurice Gleize, 1928), and La possession (Léonce Perret, 1929).

She also acted in the multilinguals Königin einer Nacht/Queen for a Night (Marcel L'Herbier, 1930; also shot in a French and Italian version) and Odette (Jacques Houssin, Giorgio Zambon, 1934; shot in a French and an Italian version). The latter was the third version of Odette, based on a Stella Dallas-like tearjerker written by Victorien Sardou.

In 1914, Bertini had already performed in a Odette-like film, Sangue blu, which narrative is close to that of Odette. In both versions she expressed the diep grief of a well-bred but fallen woman who loses her child because of a divorce. Years later, she is allowed to see her child once more, pretending to be a friend of the child's mother, and then she commits suicide.

Bertini continued to act with some regularity until 1930. From then on she made each decade one film. In 1976 Bernardo Bertolucci was able to convince her to emerge from her stubborn silence, accepting a role of a nun, sister Desolata, in Novecento/1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1977). This was to be her last performance in a feature film.

In 1982 she was the subject of the documentary L'Ultima Diva/The Last Diva (1982), shot in her early 90s, she was as sharp and commanding as ever. She was also one of the Divas featured in Peter Delpeut's beautiful compilation film Diva Dolorosa (1999).

Francesca Bertini died in 1985 in Rome, at the age of 93.

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard by Ed. Vettori, Bologna, no. 1046.

Francesca Bertini
Italian postcard by Ed. A. Traldi, Milano.

Francesca Bertini
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 723/1, 1925-1926.

Francesca Bertini
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 723/2, 1925-1926.

Francesca Bertini
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 723/3, 1925-1926.

Francesca Bertini
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 723/5, 1925-1926.

Francesca Bertini
French postcard by Editions Cinémagazine (EC), no. 2066. Photo: Studio Rudolph, Paris. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Francesca Bertini and Jean Angelo
French postcard by Europe, no. 227. Photo: Sélections Cinégraphiques Maurice Rouhier. Jean Angelo and Francesca Bertini in the late silent film La fin de Monte-Carlo (Henri Etievant, Mario Nalpas, 1927). In this film, Bertini plays Cora, a woman who suspects Jacques (Angelo) to have killed her husband. Still, she falls in love with him and they live their romance in Monte-Carlo. When Cora's father is desperately in need of money, Jacques takes over of battleship and menaces to bomb Monte-Carlo if the casino doesn't give him money...

Francesca Bertini and Fritz Kortner in Mein Leben für das Deine
Italian postcard by S.A. Pittaluga, no. 341. Francesca Bertini and Fritz Kortner in Mein Leben für das Deine/My Life for Yours (Luitz-Morat, 1928), an adaptation of the play Odette by Victorien Sardou. Francesca Bertini played the part of Odette in three film versions: Odette (1916), Odette (1935), and this film.

Francesca Bertini
Austrian postcard by Iris-Verlag, no. 5171. Photo: Verleih Philipps & Co.

Francesca Bertini
French postcard: Editions Cinémagazine, Paris, no. 490. This card must be from Bertini's career in the late 1920s. In Mein Leben für das Deine (an incomplete copy was found at the former Netherlands Filmmuseum (now EYE)) she holds the same enormous fan of ostrich feathers as the one on this postcard. Here Francesca Bertini is not the young star anymore, but what a glamorous light, what a dress and what a pose!

Francesca Bertini
Watercolour by F. Spotti.

Sources: Gianfranco Mingozzi (Francesca Bertini), David Melville (IMDb), Volker Boehm (IMDb), Greta de Groat (Unsung Divas of the Silent Screen), Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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