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Monday, October 29, 2012

The Dumb Girl of Portici

As part of MoMA's Tenth Annual To Save and Project Festival, the silent film, The Dumb Girl of Portici, was screened. This film, an historical epic directed by pioneer feminist filmmaker Lois Weber and starring the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova in her only feature film appearance, was an adaption of the 1828 opera La Muette de Portici, by Daniel Auber, a historical re-telling of the uprising of peasants in 1647 Naples against Spanish rule. The piece introduced dance into opera using a mute heroine, whose lack of words are replaced by vibrant and emotional movement.

The film was designed as both a historical drama on a grand scale for 1916 (this also being the time of D.W. Griffith epic films like Birth of a Nation and Intolerance), and a star vehicle for Anna Pavlova, considered to be one of the finest ballerinas in the history of dance, and an exquisite artist in her own right. The film opens with Pavlova dancing en pointe, occasionally being supported by an "invisible" man hidden against the black background. It didn't have much to do with the rest of the film, just a treat for the audience coming to see the great ballerina for the first time on screen.

The opera's plot, at the heart of it, centers Pavlova as Fenella, a poor mute Italian woman, who falls in love with a Spanish nobleman that poses as a fisherman, and ultimately betrays her in order to maintain control of her people. The plot gets complicated, but Pavlova displayed both a moon-eyed fragility, and a wildness that exemplified her creative spirit and cosmopolitan worldliness. She was truly a magnetic star to behold.

However, while Pavlova was an exceptional dancer, she falls into the cliches of silent film acting, by overacting with exaggerated gestures and facial expressions that were sometimes unintentionally hilarious. It was understandable because she was playing a mute woman, with no title cards to display her dialogue, but it resulted in Pavlova waving her body all about wildly, looking more insane, than finding more subtle ways to express emotion through dance.

The film took major chances in staging the riots of the Neapolitian peasants against their Spanish rulers, with a grand finale that MoMA compared Weber's direction of action sequences to be a predecessor to Kathyrn Bigelow. It was wonderful to see hordes of extras playing peasants that were storming the scenes, stabbing one another with swords, falling off of balconies, and taking back their rightful land. Again, the acting can be more influenced by overdramatic theater styles, like extended moaning while dying, and swords clearly going under a victim's arm than through them. But it was the early days of silent film, and The Dumb Girl of Portici was a monumental film that was a landmark for a woman director, a showcase for an unforgettable star, and was a treasure of the Wild West-like days of silent filmmaking, where anything was possible.

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