‘Locked up in the castle of illusion, dawn languished in the disconsolate autumn of the heart.’
An elderly Countess longs for the days of her carefree youth. The devil appears and grants her wish, provided she does not fall in love. She eagerly embraces high society’s party scene, but her meeting with two brothers proves to be fateful…
Another riff on a familiar tale as Lyda Borelli makes a deal with the devil under the watchful eye of director Nino Oxilia. This silent Italian production was based on poems by Fausto Maria Martini and runs just over 40 minutes, although some sources credit a length of just under an hour.
Social gatherings are a nightmare for the elderly Contessa Alba d’Oltrevita (Borelli) as she mourns the loss of her youth. So, it’s little surprise that she’s keen to accept an offer of rejuvenation from Mephisto (Ugo Bazzini) when he steps down out of a family portrait. There’s one caveat: the deal is off if she falls in love. This condition isn’t an issue as the fun-loving Borelli is only interested in having a good time, flirting with eligible men and leading them on before throwing them aside.
However, not all of her prospective beaus want to play her games, particularly brothers Tristano (Andrea Habay) and Sergio (Giovanni Cini). Both fall in love with her, and, aware of the fact, she finds flutters hither and thither through the party scene, playing one off against the other. However, the brothers have a strong bond, and instead of becoming rivals, Cini steps aside in favour of Habay. Then, Borelli rejects him, and the prospective suitor prepares to kill himself.
Although most famous as the Germanic legend of Faust, deals with the devil are rooted in the folklore of most every culture on Earth. The first historical record of the tale dates from the 6th Century when Theophilus of Adana supposedly sought Satan’s help to acquire a position as a bishop in the Byzantine Empire. The basics were already present and correct; the selfish ambition, the temptation, the repentance, the absolution and, finally, the payment of the ultimate price. The legend was an enormous favourite with early filmmakers, too, most notably French pioneer Georges Méliès, who shot multiple versions of the story.
Given the overfamiliarity of the tale, even by 1915, a new approach was clearly necessary. However, that’s what’s completely absent here. Instead of the doomed romance of Faust and Marguerite, we have the half-hearted canoodling of Borelli and Habay, as she floats through drawing rooms in shimmering dresses, and he broods heroically in corners, looking a bit miffed. Additionally, scenes of Borelli circulating amongst party guests exchanging (probably) bitchy small talk don’t really resonate in the silent medium.
The visual presentation needs to pick up the slack in the absence of an exciting story, but these aren’t particularly distinctive. Oxilia does deliver some variation in his shots and only lets the camera dwindle for a short time without an edit, but the work is still mainly undistinguished. There’s a little coloured stencilling here and there, mainly of wardrobe items, with Bazzini draped in a dark scarlet robe and Borelli favouring the odd touch of a watery green or gold.
The performances are very much of their time, although the cast avoids some of the worst excesses and over-emoting of the era. The best moment of the film is when Bazzini peeks covertly through the leaves of some houseplants, his face dominated by his glaring eyes, Spock brows and a Tory smile. But the real problem is the thin plot, which could easily be condensed into one of those early, short ‘trick films’ based on the tale.
The film’s release was delayed for two years, which explains why some sources list it with a 1917 date. The delay was not due to concern about the content or the ongoing war in Europe but instead its musical score. In a major coup, the producers had hired prestigious composer Pietro Mascagni to provide it, but the work took him two years to complete. It’s a mark of the high regard in which he was held that the producers were prepared to wait for that length of time rather than release the film without it.
Oxilia was initially known as a playwright whose 1909 work ‘Good-bye Youth’, written in collaboration with Sandro Camasio, was filmed on several occasions. He began directing films in 1913 and became known for ‘diva films’, a short-lived trend of projects designed to showcase leading actresses in tragic, emotional roles. Given that Borelli is rarely offscreen here, it’s fair to assume this was one such film. Sadly, a mere eight weeks after its release, Oxilla was killed in action in the mountains of North-East Italy, another casualty of the ‘War to End Wars.’
A drab enterprise, highly derivative and of little interest to any bar silent film enthusiasts.