Zeitgeist Films // 1999 // 70 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // March 25th, 2008
Consume my soul in a thousand flames!
At the turn of the twentieth century, Europe was awash in "fin-de-siecle" anticipation, with similarities to how America acted about the dubious Y2K scare. At the time, people had lived in wealthy decadence but felt that great social and political change was coming. The art of the time reflected this as well, especially after Oscar Wilde published "Salome." The idea of "Black Romanticism" became popular. In this style, there was no beauty without ugliness, no wealth without poverty, and no decadence without a fall from grace. The films represented in Peter Delpeut's Diva Dolorosa illustrate this aesthetic in film and, specifically, how it was reflected in the performances of the lead actresses. These "suffering divas" have been suffocated their entire lives by custom, never allowed to express themselves outside of a few specific actions that would not risk their reputation or that of their families. Passion still reigns, however; these women aren't dead. They are fawned over by their suitors who say they'll do anything for love but, once the women agree, they are immediately infantilized and turned into walking, breathing, barely talking dolls. The emotion that brews in their hearts must come out, but all the frustration and all the suffering turns this emotion destructive, and the consequences in these movies are often dire.
Like Delpeut's highly lauded Lyrical Nitrate, Diva Dolorosa is a composition of found silent Italian film footage, dating from 1914 to 1920, in which the "Diva film" was a popular genre, though often risky for its stars. These films showed women struggling for power and attaining it in any way possible. Using re-edited clips from 14 films, Delpeut creates a new film that gets at the main thrust of this genre by using the repetition of similar scenes from different films. Told in three acts, we witness these women, from all walks of life, first as they suffer the indignation of courtship and their subsequent trivialization, then as they explode in a ball of passion, and finally get a comeuppance that they do not deserve. Often driven from their lives of innocence into worlds of decadence, their broken spirits strive for release and explode betrayal and murder, the same crimes of passion prevalent in American films of the time. These women cannot be confused with the precocious innocence of Mary Pickford or the vamping evil of Theda Bara; they are instead reacting to a society that has destroyed their souls for centuries, the same society that will punish them for trying to be free. There is no happy ending for these divas, and Delpeut effectively shows the broad-sweeping issue of the suffering wife.
Diva Dolorosa is presented silent with occasional Dutch intertitles and an extremely effective original score by Loek Dikker. Its use of repetition is almost hypnotic, and the music keeps the story moving along at a fair clip. The stereo sound is as good as it needs to be. There's no hiss, but the only sound is the orchestral score, so there isn't a lot of work for the speakers to do. The film clips themselves are a mixed bag, which is to be expected from silent films. The transfer is perfect but, since a lot of this footage has degraded beyond repair, it is understandably difficult to make a print that isn't full of problems. Zeitgeist's release is scant on extra features, but does contain an interesting essay that describes the genre in greater detail and a photo gallery that helps identify the particular films and stars. It's a very impressive collection of footage that makes a very good point. I'm not sure there is a lot of value in repeated viewings, but it did open my eyes to a genre of silent film I had not experienced.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English, Silent with Musical Underscore)
* English (With Dutch Intertitles)
Running Time: 70 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Essay by Angela Dalle Vacche
* Statement from director Peter Delpeut
* Photo gallery