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Essential Films
Chapter 10

Buy this film
(Silent Shakespeare

Re Lear [King Lear]
Gerolamo Lo Savio
Film d'Arte Italiana / Italy / 1910

Starring: Ermete Novelli, Francesca Bertini, Giannina Chiantoni
Based on: King Lear by William Shakespeare
Music by: Laura Rossi (new score).

Ion Martea
posted 8 September 2006

The period of experimentation that laid down the basic features of film ended at the turn of the 20th century. Editing, cinematography (including the introduction of colour), narrative, special effects, and sound (live music accompaniment became a norm by 1910, to make up for the lack of synchronised sound), all developed sufficiently to shift the director's focus from technology to art. Since then, cinema has offered a space to develop ideas and tell stories through moving images. Technology took a secondary position: it was used to enrich the production, but was not its drive.

In the early 1900s, film companies were constantly searching for material that would elevate the medium, (and through this the respectability of the production company,) above the level of narrow entertainment. Classic works of literature quickly became popular with film directors. Film adaptations were aimed at raising the overall production values, often using well-known theatre performers and directors. It is not then surprising that when it came to choosing material, the prime suspect emerging was William Shakespeare. There were around one hundred films based on the plays of the English bard in the first two decades of the 20th century, thus establishing Shakespeare's status as the most adapted author in cinema history from the very beginning.

Only a handful of these films have survived, primarily because of improper archiving, yet the ones that are left exhibit an interesting feature about Shakespeare's work. The grand soliloquies, the vibrant language, so dear to the theatrical world, were immediately abandoned in the process of silent filmmaking, as pure declamation accompanied by title cards proved to be inefficient in achieving an engagement with the audience. Yet, these productions show that Shakespeare is still appealing even without the rich linguistic tapestry. A great example of this is the Italian production of King Lear, directed by Gerolamo Lo Savio.

Lo Savio constructed the film around the singular image of a deserted father. Lear in this case is not a man caught in a war between Reason and Nature, but rather a man who is incapable of making the distinction between overt and implicit love. King Lear becomes the story of the king brought down by his own pride in wanting a public exhibition of his daughters' affection.

There is something quite infantile in this production. The stencilled frames are dominated by a rather faded colour tone (probably also due to improper storing of prints), yet the sharp contrast of colours brings with it the magic of fairy tales to the story. This is probably why the opening courtyard scene, in which Lear aims to divide his kingdom, is so gripping. Lo Savio does not aim for realism, but magic. The performance is not one of a father and his three daughters, but of mythological characters leading a chaotic life; indeed this sense is carefully cultivated. Lear, played by the celebrated Ermete Novelli, really does become that mythical god, towering with his imposing physic and his age above the ordinary humans.

Cordelia, Lear's beloved daughter, is the only other character in the story who is genuinely god-like, untouched by the evil of this world. Francesca Bertini plays the youngest daughter with an angelic innocence, which does contrast with Regan's and Goneril's obvious flattery. The mood of the film is set in this opening scene. Lo Savio encourages the audience's emotional attachment to the heroes of the play, and its immediate dislike for the rest of the characters. (Even the clown is not given the chance to rise to Shakespeare's all-knowing philosopher, and remains just a ridiculous caricature.)

In this context, the text is redundant. Knowledge of the play is also not essential, unlike in other films of the same period that are essentially filmed stage productions with various title cards displaying rough descriptions of the scenes to follow. King Lear works because it tells Shakespeare's story all by itself, it understands the conflicts between characters, and adapts them to the medium of a silent film. The brilliance of the play is not derived from the language, but from insight into the human tragedy at stake.

It would be unfair to claim that the performances verge on over-acting. Novelli in particular proves that his Lear is in deep pain after being rejected by the two elder daughters. He doesn't need words to express his fall - he kneels, sobs, compares the human heart with a stone, becomes a beggar, only to be rescued on the verge of madness by his youngest child.

The reunification with Cordelia is a tour de force for both Novelli and Bertini, who was to become one of the greatest actresses of Italian silent cinema. Lo Savio's insistence on escaping time, restoring Lear's reason, gives Bertini the opportunity to show heart-breaking compassion for her fallen father. Lear's awakening is not one of joy, but of relief mingled with regret. The scene is charged with remorse for his over-powering pride. Cordelia wishes she had expressed her love, Lear wishes he had never decided to divide the kingdom. It is not the usual interpretation of the scene, but it does work.

The fairy-tale tone is what helps Lo Savio depict that final grief after Cordelia's death, so poignant in the original play. The quick wrap-up of the print available today is the only sequence that is shown on a single colour tinted palette, which is a consequence of poor preservation, rather than directorial intention. However, in retrospect, the damage done to the prints is ironically quite telling. The original contrast between good and bad, established by colour, vanishes, as Lo Savio ends on the grim note of the father's utter destruction. There are no more characters we care for, and hence the end (which leaves out the fate of Regan and Goneril,) is just a faded note of despair.

King Lear was adapted in a number of successful productions throughout the 20th century, yet Lo Savio's version, which does away with the Edmund-Edgar subplot completely, is unique among them. The lack of dialogue is turned into an advantage in a brave attempt at understanding Lear's loss as a parent, and through that his loss of the human bond. Lear's death does not have to be seen, as the afterthought lingers in the spectator's mind long after the film has ended. Did Shakespeare intend King Lear to be a hymn to fallen fathers? Probably not. But Lo Savio's King Lear is a tender, haunting ballet of gods under the quiet piano accompaniment of Laura Rossi, composed for the recent BFI restoration. Even gods can fail if pride eclipses the instinct of the heart.

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