Satanic Rhapsody (Rapsodia Satanica) 1917

Director: Nino Oxilia
"Dances, flowers, dreams ... and the grinning Demon in the shadows awaits his prey..."
Another starring role for our very own Lord of the Manor. Poet and dramatist Nino Oxilia's lavish re-imagining of the Faust legend brought stunningly to life with elegant imageryvibrant colours and an orchestral score by one of Italy's leading composers. Italian silent diva Lyda Borelli stars.

Saddened by the sight of her youthful guests in the Castle of Illusions, the elderly Contessa Alba d'Oltrevita longs to return to her younger days. Mephisto emerges from a painting of Faust to offer Alba her youth, on the condition that she renounce love forever... she accepts, and Mephisto reverses an hourglass, turning back time...

During springtime festivities, the now young and beautiful Alba is courted by two brothers, Tristano and Sergio, as the Devil watches from the shadows. Tristano's affection is frivolous, but Sergio confesses to Alba that he is falling in love with her. At a costume party, Sergio sends Alba a note, threatening suicide if she does not meet him at midnight.

Tristano intervenes for his brother's sake, threatening and pleading with Alba to spare Sergio's life. Alba callously refuses, instead playfully seducing Tristano. As the clock strikes midnight, she and Tristano are locked in an embrace, and from outside the sound of a gunshot is heard... Distraught by the sight of his brother's dead body, Tristano flees the castle. Alba is filled with remorse -- and the first signs of ageing begin to appear on her face...

Lyda Borelli: A Priestess of Love and Death
The Castle of Illusion  is closed to outsiders: Alba wanders alone through the gardens, realising in her sorrow that "love is all ... and the rest is poor illusion". Mephisto then reveals to Alba that Tristano has been returning every night on horseback, maintaining his vigil on a hill beyond the castle. Alba once more embraces life, opening the gates to guests, decorating her quarters with the finest flowers from her garden. She covers her face with veils, imagining herself as an emergent butterfly, or as "a Priestess of Love and Death"... Mephisto looks on, knowing that his hour of triumph is approaching...

"The cinema must give the spectators fantastic visions, lyric catastrophes, marvels born of the most sturdy imagination. As in the epic poems, it must bring back the marvellous, of today and tomorrow."

So wrote the poet and political activist Gabriele d'Annunzio in an essay titled The Cinema as an Instrument of Liberation and Transfiguration as Art. He'd recently been involved with the production of Cabiria, the Italian historical epic that set new standards of grandeur and technical excellence for the feature film. His comments could apply equally well to Rapsodia Satanica, a film whose synthesis of image, sound and colour explored, according to the original programme, "the possibility of making a projection room into a magical melting-pot of all the artistic sensations in a new whole..."

A thorn amongst roses - Ugo Bazzini as Mephisto
Director Nino Oxilia took his inspiration from Symbolism, a contemporary art movement that valued spirituality and imagination over the mundane naturalism of the preceding generation. It's aim, as famously described by the poet Jean Moreas, was "to clothe the Ideal in a perceptible form." The film was based on a poem by Fausto Maria Martini (who also wrote the intertitles, as d'Annunzio had for Cabiria). Oxilia - himself a celebrated poet, journalist and playwright - developed his ideas so that every aspect of the film's production contributed aesthetically to the whole.

Integral to this grand design was the casting of Lyda Borelli as the Contessa Alba d'Oltrevita (literally, 'dawn-before-life'). Borelli was massively popular in her heyday, even contributing to the language as the word 'Borellismo' was used to describe the particular style and manner adopted by her legions of followers. Her exaggerated acting style, all grandiose gestures and sensuous movement, suited perfectly those films whose directors needed an icon rather than a leading lady. Her larger-than-life image made her one of cinema's first true stars; when she retired in 1918 after her marriage to Count Vittorio Cini, her public was devastated.

Borelli is undoubtedly the focal point of the film, which takes care never to let reality intrude on its picturesque world. Careful lighting and composition give many scenes the look of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, through which Borelli and Ugo Bazzini as her tormentor glide like phantoms. Scenes unfold against a backdrop of ornate gardens and lavish ballrooms, at the time a common feature of similar tales of the aristocracy which came to be known as 'tail-coat films'. An extra dimension is added by the vivid colours, created through a time-consuming stencilling process known as 'pochoir', which gave a richer result than the customary tinting.

Cover to the original film score
The last element to be considered was sound; for this Oxilia commissioned a full orchestral score from Pietro Mascagni, one of Italy's most acclaimed composers. Mascagni was best known for his operas, most notably his breakthrough work Cavalliera Rusticana of 1890. Rapsodia Satanica was filmed in 1915, but its release was delayed by two years while Mascagni completed the score. He personally conducted the orchestra at the film's premiere: viewing the film today accompanied by Mascagni's striking music proves that the intervening years have done nothing to lessen its impact.

Relatively obscure today, Rapsodia Satanica has been lauded by critics as one of the crowning achievements of early Italian cinema. Sadly, Nino Oxilia's finest contribution to cinema would also prove to be his last. He was killed in action just a few months after Rapsodia was released, succumbing to a shrapnel wound sustained during the first battle of Monte Grappa in November 1917.

End Credits:
Lyda Borelli (Contessa Alba d'Oltrevita), Andrea Habay (Tristane), Ugo Bazzini (Mephisto), Giovanni Cini (Sergio).
Scenario: Alfa (Alberto Fassini), based on the poem by Fausto Maria Martini, Photography: Giorgio Ricci, Intertitles: Fausto Maria Martini, Musical Score: Pietro Mascagni.
Cines, Rome
Running Time 44 mins.

No official release. Patrons are advised to seek out grey market video dealers. The film score, however is still available - and interested parties can find a complete reproduction of the programme for the film's 1917 premiere at this site dedicated to Pietro Mascagni.

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