Tuesday, October 2, 2018 at 7:30pm
Nino Oxilia's Satanic Rhapsody

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Introduced by Angela Dalle Vacche

Satanic Rhapsody, Nino Oxilia, 1917, digital projection, 41 mins

Rapsodia Satanica is a diva-film, that is, a work built around a female star whose marketing prestige overshadowed even the reputation of the director, Nino Oxilia. Although widely used in contemporary English, the word diva in 1915 Italy meant something different from what it means today. Most people associate the term with a strong, beautiful and dangerous woman, derived from the nineteenth-century femme fatale of painting and literature. Such a definition is relevant to the film-diva of early Italian cinema, but only in a limited way, since the female stars of that period were characterized by a suffering and maternal aura (mater dolorosa) which the American femme fatales never adopted. Furthermore, in early Italian cinema a diva-film meant a melodrama with Orientalist décor dealing with women’s issues such as abandonment, divorce, adultery, pregnancy, employment and so forth.

In the case of Rapsodia Satanica, Lyda Borelli’s character becomes the conceptual centerpiece of the whole film. To be sure, she was a famous star of the stage, until 1913 when she agreed to work in Everlasting Love with director Mario Caserini. Borelli’s success with her first film experience was enormous: a new film genre was born along with a new kind of female stardom, so that the young actress’ manners became a fashionable mode of behavior for millions of young Italian women. In the wake of such an explosion of celebrity for Borelli, when the young Oxilia was chosen by Cines, a Roman production house to direct Rapsodia Satanica, it was a great opportunity for his artistic career. As a film concerned with romance, aging, physical beauty, and personal happiness for a powerful woman who lives alone, Rapsodia Satanica fits within the genre of the diva-film, but Oxilia used every element at his disposal to raise the stakes of the genre itself from within and to move the whole project in a more philosophical and experimental direction.

More specifically, there are at least two reasons why Oxilia’s Rapsodia Satanica stands out in comparison to similar films from the same period. Firstly, Rapsodia Satanica exhibits a fascination with the late nineteenth-century obsession with occult forces intertwined with an Orientalist agenda. Just a few years before the shooting of Oxilia’s film, the Italians’ taste for the exotic and the esoteric had been kindled by the arrival of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Rome. Secondly, Rapsodia Satanica is concerned with the theme of temporality, or the so-called “fourth dimension,” a key topic in Italian circles studying the borderline between scientific and paranormal phenomena. The film’s preoccupation with time demonstrates the widespread influence of Henri Bergson’s philosophy of duration. In contrast to a traditional, linear, and teleological understanding of history, Bergson’s duration or the resilience of an imaginative impulse—élan vital—was a whole new way of thinking about subjectivity and creativity which shaped the ideas of many Italian intellectuals in Oxilia’s time.

A remarkable example of early cinema for its use of outdoor locations, its stenciling color technique, and its Caravaggio-like chiaroscuro lighting, Rapsodia Satanica re-explores the bargain between Faust and the devil from a feminine point of view. Such a reinterpretation of the Faustian myth illuminates cinema's multiple temporalities of recording, projecting, and viewing, thus underlining Bergson's collusion of time and introspection for the sake of new ways of being.


Angela Dalle Vacche is a Professor of Film Studies in the School of Literature, Media, Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is the author of The Body in The Mirror: Shapes of History in Italian Cinema, Cinema and Painting, and Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema.

Special thanks to the Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna.

Tickets - $8, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.