Monday, October 29, 2012
The Dumb Girl of Portici
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.