Pina Menichelli is the very ideal of the diva in Il Fuoco (Italy, 1915). Introduced only as an illustrious poetess and countess, she steps out of her chauffeured car in a feathered outfit and hat that makes her look like a bird of prey. And she acts that way too when she meets the young artist Mario (Febo Mari), “the unknown painter.” She is inflamed by the power of his commitment and the beauty of his art but love is a very different kind of thing for her, a momentary conflagration of great excitement and heat that quickly burns out. And fire is the appropriate metaphor for a woman whose seduction includes smashing an oil lamp onto a table just to watch the flames burn.
Menichelli, whose contorted poses and curled smiles give her the look of a female Nosferatu in Milan couture, makes Theda Bara look like a pretender. This countess treats seduction like a competition to be won but she really does feed on the physical charge of the affair. She simply burns out so quickly that she has nothing left for her abandoned lover, who here is pretty much a mama’s boy whose first step away from maternal protection leaves him crushed, broken.
It’s directed by Giovanni Pastrone, whose Cabiria (1914) is one of the landmarks of Italian epic spectacle. He brings the scale down for this film and takes his camera in closer for the more intimate story. The images and costumes are lavish and the performances tend to the operatic, larger than life in every respect, but he stages these scenes to express the internal drama rather than the external spectacle and in one scene offers a rare and subtly striking truck in from a medium long shot to medium close-up of the two lovers, all the more dynamic in a 1916 film that otherwise resorts to cutting and the occasional pan to reframe.
And a note on the accompaniment with Stephen Horne on piano, flute and chimes and Jill Tracy (a local SF singer) doing wordless cooing and moaning. It’s like an Ennio Morricone score for a giallo: erotic, threatening, haunting, the siren call of a sexual predator who devours and abandons her prey. A perfect evocation of the drama playing out onscreen.
It’s actually a misnomer to call Marlene Dietrich a “diva,” as her performance is as un-diva-like as you can get. Dietrich maintains the focus by remaining still amidst the activity. Even in a film as measured and conducted as The Woman Men Yearn For (Germany, 1929), she gives a performance defined by the smallest gesture and the most subtle of shifts in gaze and expression: a slight drop of the eyes, a tiny parting of the lips, the body dropping with a sigh.