This is a guest post for Silent London by David Cairns, a film-maker and lecturer based in Edinburgh who writes the fantastic Shadowplay blog.
The so-called “Italian diva” school of silent cinema presents challenges for those in love with narrative and closure, and not just because many of the films are incomplete or untranslated. These movies seem genuinely less concerned with plot than surrounding national cinemas, though this assertion must be qualified in a number of ways.
What the films definitely are obsessed with is their stars, such women as Lyda Borelli, Francesca Bertini, and Pina Menichelli, around whom the films revolve, wholly. It’s as if the Italians noted that stars seemed to be what the public cared for most, and so decided to put everything else on the back burner while serving up long, langurous shots of languishing, anguished beauties. Superficially resembling both the kohl-daubed vamps of the Theda Bara school, and the later Swanson type of clothes-horse drama queen, Borelli and her sisters in sin dominated their films in a way few stars have been allowed to. Dietrich, maybe, or Garbo, but even those screen queens had to make way for plotting and forward momentum.