Rapsodia Satanica (1917)

“Grinning in the shadows, the demon awaits its prey…”


Director:  Nino Oxilia

Starring:  Lyda Borelli, Ugo Bazzini, Andrea Habay, Giovanni Cini

Screenplay:  Alberto Fassini and Fausto Maria Martini





Synopsis:  Though society pays homage to the position and wealth of the Countess Alba d’Oltrevini (Lyda Borelli), in reality she is a lonely old woman. After an evening spent surrounded by youth and beauty, Alba is left alone to mourn all that she has lost in life. As she passes a painting representing a scene from Faust, she finds herself feeling envious. As she moves on with a sigh, a satanic figure emerges from the frame… As Alba studies her reflection in a mirror, Mephisto (Ugo Bazzini) moves silently to her side and places a hand upon her shoulder. She screams, and recoils in terror. Mephisto calms her, and then explains that he has come to offer her a bargain: he can restore her youth and beauty, but in exchange she can never fall in love. He offers her a small statuette, a symbol of love: by breaking it, she accepts his conditions and renounces love forever. Alba hesitates, but finally casts the object to the ground. A laughing Mephisto inverts his hour-glass…

Comments:  Though we almost habitually think of Hollywood as always at the forefront of movie production, prior to World War I international cinema was dominated by Italy: in fact, ironically in light of later developments, the Americans were then much given to copying the Italians. However, with the coming of war this once staggeringly imaginative and powerful industry was swept away, with Italian cinema not recovering its former status until the 1960s. Nevertheless, the fact remains that at the dawn of feature-film making, the Italians led the way. They were the first to grasp that cinema could also be art.

Then, too, in Italy there was no stigma attached to being involved in film. On the contrary, many artists who had made their name in other areas dabbled at one time or another in cinema, exploring the possibilities of the new medium. One of Italy’s leading directors at the time was Nino Oxilia, and in 1915 he conceived an ambitious project, a “complete work” involving artists who were all leaders in their chosen field. He therefore hired popular stage actress Lyda Borelli to be his star, the poet Fausto Maria Martini to write his intertitles, and the composer Pietro Mascagni to write his score.

The latter, in particular, was a breakthrough decision, being one of the first instances of music being composed specifically for use in a film, and highly influential in this respect. It could even be said that Mascagni took this particular responsibility a bit too seriously: though the filming of Rapsodia Satanica was completed in 1915, the score was not finished until 1917, and nor could the film be released until then. When it finally achieved its belated debut, Mascagni made a personal appearance to conduct the live orchestra. Nino Oxalia also attended the premiere of the film, which was to be his last: he was killed in action at Monte Grappa later the same year.

Rapsodia Satanica is a gender-switched version of the legend of Faust. The desperate longing of the elderly Alba d’Oltrevita (“dawn before life”) for her lost youth invokes the appearance of Mephisto, who slips out of a painting to offer Alba a literal deal with the devil…

Following on from John Gottowt’s earlier performance as Mr Scapinelli in The Student Of Prague, Rapsodia Satanica offers up another devilish figure who clearly enjoys his work. As he lurks and spies and chuckles to himself at the foolishness of mortals, Ugo Brazzini is an unnerving yet oddly likeable Mephisto.

Meanwhile, Lyda Borelli’s performance as Alba is everything that we tend to associate with silent cinema, all extravagant gestures and dramatic poses; however, it is highly likely that this was a deliberate choice by Nino Oxalia, who sets his film in a stylised, unrealistic world which abounds with symbolism. Borelli herself is – at least during this part of the film – repeatedly linked with emblems of new life such as flowers and butterflies, and uses her flowing dresses and wraps and gauzy veils to maintain the visual connection.

It should also be noted that, in addition to the emphatic presence of the film’s leading lady, Rapsodia Satanica offers a range of more subtle touches to the viewer, such as the imaginative use of mirrors and other reflective surfaces, and any number of striking compositions. The location shooting also catches the eye, particularly the slightly misty lighting effects that turn real settings into another form of unreality.

Mephisto tells Alba that she can have back her youth and her beauty, but in exchange she must renounce love forever. Alba hesitates painfully – after all, what is the use of youth and beauty if not to enjoy love? – but in the end she accepts the bargain, casting to the ground a small statuette representing love as Mephisto inverts his hour-glass.

Instantly, Alba is restored. Mephisto hands her the small mirror before which she was sobbing heartbrokenly when he appeared. She stares into it, entranced, letting loose her long hair, now dark again, admiring her face, and running her hands over the smooth, youthful skin of her neck and shoulders. She does not notice that a smiling Mephisto is silently contemplating the symbol of love, which did not break when it struck the floor…

And naturally, having made a supernatural bargain that requires of her the renunciation of love, the first thing Alba does with her restored youth is get involved in a messy love triangle.

Alba’s regeneration coincides with the coming of spring, and she makes one of a reckless band of young people that attends a festival to dance and flirt and go boating. At the festival, she is introduced to the brothers Tristan and Sergio, who become her joint escort. She flirts with both, and they respond according to their different natures. The quiet, shy Sergio begins to fall in love with Alba in earnest; she accepts his homage, but laughs at his gravity. At the same time, Alba herself is dangerously drawn to the more outgoing and self-confident Tristan. And all the while, Mephisto watches, grinning…

Matters come to a head when Tristan realises that Sergio is really in love. Sergio comments bitterly that Alba loves him, Tristan, but Tristan scoffs at the idea that she is serious—or that he is. Tristan wishes Sergio the best of luck, promising that he will not interfere. Sergio therefore calls upon Alba (finding her playing with a half-grown cat that clearly did not want to appear in this film; it finally makes its escape). He speaks to her in solemn tones, assuring her that his fate must be either love or death, but Alba continues to treat his declaration lightly.

Alba throws an extravagant costume party. As she dances, she is interrupted by a footman delivering a letter. It is an ultimatum from Sergio: if she does not come to him at midnight, he will kill himself on the steps of her house. Disturbed and uncertain, Alba withdraws to a private sitting-room to ponder her next move—and to try and see if Sergio is really out there. She does not see Mephisto, laughing at her from behind the curtains…

Out in the ballroom, Tristan finds the crumpled letter which Alba dropped, and is horrified by its threat. He finds Alba, and pleads with her to take pity on Sergio and so save his life. Alba responds by treating the matter as a joke, tearing up the letter and laughing at Tristan’s earnestness. However, one glance out of the window to where Sergio sits slumped and defeated by a fountain convinces Tristan that his brother will do as he threatens. He turns from Alba in disgust, and goes outside to reason with Sergio, promising that his brother that will never again have anything to do with Alba.

Alba has her servants send her guests away. As midnight draws near she is joined by a frantic Tristan, whose pleas to his brother have fallen on deaf ears. Alba continues to treat the matter lightly, until Tristan drags her to the window and forces her to look at the forlorn figure outside. In his desperation, he even threatens her life, but she defies him and he cannot go through with it.

As the precious seconds tick away, Alba tries to turn Tristan’s thoughts from his brother to herself, declaring her passion for him, caressing him and inviting his embraces. When he begins to respond she pushes him away, pointing at the clock and asking if he really wants her to go to Sergio..?

She makes a move to do so, but suddenly Tristan steps between her and the French windows. They kiss…

…the clock strikes midnight…

…and from outside comes the sound of a shot.

Though genuinely shocked and remorseful over this tragedy, Alba is quickly focused upon what she considers a greater one. Tristan’s kiss, and his horrified recoil from her as she cradles his brother’s body, have revealed to Alba the state of her own heart. She rushes to the mirror, gazing in horror as the first signs of ageing show themselves in her face…

When autumn comes, it finds Alba brooding alone behind the locked gates of her estate, having cut herself off from the world; she concludes solemnly that there is no life without love.

Meanwhile, although he enjoys Alba’s unhappiness, this state of emotional stalemate is no fun for Mephisto – who appears grinning from behind a vase of roses – and he sets to work bringing about a crisis. He brings to Alba’s attention a solitary horseman, often seen at dusk upon a nearby hillside. It is Tristan, he tells her—and in spite of everything, he still loves her…

Alba must then wrestle with the tide of her own returning passion, her painful awareness of the world beyond her gates. She tries to avoid reality by re-invoking her own personal, solitary springtime. She surrounds herself with flowers, even scattering them upon the floor to form a carpet; but it is of no use. Always there is her consciousness of the horseman…

Alba begins to roam the night, draped in veils and thinking of herself morbidly as a priestess of love and death. Tempted beyond endurance, she uses her veils to signal the horseman, who begins to ride slowly in the direction of the estate. As she wanders through her grounds, she suddenly finds herself confronted by a cloaked figure, and throws herself eagerly into the man’s embrace—

—but it is not Tristan: it is Mephisto; and when Alba frees herself, she no longer the beautiful young seductress. Laughing, Mephisto forces Alba to kneel by the pond, where she can see her own reflection. One long, horrified gaze later, she collapses and dies. Mephisto takes her back into his arms…


Footnote:  This film can be watched online, but in prints of various lengths. Unfortunately the ones offering the best visual quality, and even some tinting, are also missing some footage, including Mephisto’s revelation of the horseman’s identity, which makes nonsense of the ending. The full-length film runs approximately 44 minutes.

“Hey, that gives me a great idea for a film! Or maybe a comic book…”

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2 Responses to Rapsodia Satanica (1917)

  1. Fuzzy says:

    I’ll definitely have to check this one out. The cycle of international copying seems to have come back around in the last fifteen years or so, as Hollywood finds itself remaking and ripping off foreign films en masse – although, sadly, not too many of those have been Italian films.


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