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Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008

The Defiant Divas

Women of Italian film

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   In his forward to Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema (University of Texas Press), filmmaker Guy Maddin writes beautifully, knowingly, about the female stars of Italian film before the coming of sound. Alas, he's not the author of the book. Diva is the work of Angela Dalle Vacche, film studies professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. A thoughtful and intriguing account of feminine roles in a traditional society in transformation to modernity, Diva is mired nonetheless in academic cultural theory and overlooks anything uncongenial to its thesis. Diva is an insightful, close reading of many obscure movies, but misses a few of the larger points.

  One of them is nothing less than the indispensable precedent for the flaming emotionalism of film divas and the febrile stories they inhabited in opera, which was not the preserve of the elite in Italy but-like the movies themselves-popular entertainment. Vacche's previous book, Cinema and Painting: How Art is Used in Film, is apparently the template. Vacche makes interesting comparisons between the image of screen divas and depictions of women in the older visual arts, including the patient suffering of Roman Catholic iconography, while largely ignoring the medium that gave birth to the idea of the diva.

  Her knowledge of the literary and philosophical currents swirling around Italy at the time of cinema's invention is stimulating if incomplete. She touches on the occultism that hovers in the background of some films, but seems unaware or uninterested in its pervasive influence on many intellectual circles of the era. And in examining known facts, Vacche's interpretations sometimes walk on wobbly legs. Her explanation that the popularity of historical epics in early Italian cinema resulted from the nation's late unification strains, like much of her book, for an obscure point when the obvious one will do better. Surrounded by the ruins of Rome, it's no wonder that Italy's early filmmakers often turned to ancient history.

  Speaking of history, Vacche receives low marks for egregious errors. She states that Germany's unification occurred before Italy's, when the opposite is true, and that the Ethiopians defeated the modern Italian army in 1896 with "spears, arrows, and sticks" when in fact they had been well armed by the French and the Russians. Did Vacche derive her impressions of "primitive" Africa from watching too many Tarzan movies?

  But Diva includes many virtues in its presentation. Along with full-color reproductions of movie posters and the unusual beauty of the book's design and typography, Diva comes with a DVD, Diva Dolorosa. The accompanying documentary offers a fascinating glimpse into the fin de siecle decadence that informed early Italian moviemaking, a hothouse of pain and pleasure, love and death.