The elder former beauty Alba d’ Oltrevita [”Dawn of Another Life”], Contessa of the Castello d’Illusione is trapped in an old withered body, grey, wrinkled and bent. In a variation of the Faust legend, she offers her soul to Mefisto and renounces love in exchange for eternal youth. But is it possible to give up love utterly and completely? Will her pact with the devil hold strong when she, drunk from her newfound youth, meets two brothers, Sergio and Tristano, and embarks on an ages old sensuous game of lust and seduction?
This fascinating mix of poetry, music and cinema was directed by Nino Oxilia (1889-1917), an Italian journalist, filmmaker, writer and poet. It was completed in 1915, just as the destruction of the first world war was downing on Italy, but was only released two years later, in 1917, sadly the same year that Oxilia lost his life in the trenches.
The libretto for the film was written by poet Fausto Maria Martini (1886-1931) and the original, powerful music was composed by one of the most renowned composers of the period, Pietro Mascagni, whose 1890 masterpiece Cavalleria Rusticana caused a stir in the musical world and remains to date his best known opera.
A pioneering undertaking; Mascagni was the first and only great opera composer commissioned to write music for a film. He signed up on this project having no idea how difficult it would be: to time music and film perfectly he had to watch and take notes of every scene and gesture, then note the timing with a stopwatch. He went on to write a score for a very large orchestra which, by definition, could only be performed in an opera – because that’s exactly what it was: a brilliant instrumental opera pleasing to the ear, with or without the film.
On a mid-March evening in Brussels, the film was shown on a giant screen while the score was performed by the Symphony Orchestra of La Monnaie, conducted by Philippe Béran. For a single evening and the first time ever, La Monnaie combined the lyricism of music with the poetry of the finest film of the Italian silent era.
Rapsodia Satanica starred Lyda Borelli as the Contessa Alba d’Oltrevita; she was at the height of her career, a diva. Her exaggerated, grand gestures and personal style were adored and adopted by thousands of women who idolized her. A new term ”Borellismo” was born to describe the Borelli-mania, referring to all those who acted, dressed, dieted, moved and swore by her name. She retired in 1918, a year after the film’s release, following her marriage to Count Vittorio Cini. Her devoted followers were inconsolable.
The film’s poetic and mysterious feel, the transformation of the protagonist’s character from a withdrawn, drained figure to a passionate femme fatale enveloped in an air of solitude and desolation, are wonderfully accentuated by Mariano Fortuny’s ethereal costumes swathing the heroine in layers of sensual veils and silky shifts which followed and moved with her natural curves. And owing to Oxilia’s meticulous stenciling, a pigmentation technique he borrowed from Fortuny himself, and the film’s painstaking restoration in 1996, we can steal some breathtaking views of what these beautiful works of art really looked like, almost one hundred years ago.
12 March 2014