Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Homage to the Female Creator: Maria Gasparini and _La ribalta_ (1913)
Stella Dagna

Last modified: 2010-06-03


If the delight and desire of appropriating images form the base of how cinema sees the world, it is not surprising that film directors can fall in love with their actresses and vice versa. The myth of the Muse contributes to the fascination these couples exercise on the audience. In the collective imagination, the actress, objectified by the male gaze, is a natural filmic material, which becomes malleable in the hands of her partner and creator.
 Such reduction to conventional gender roles within the creative process is unexpectedly called into question in an Italian film melodrama of 1913, La Ribalta, directed by Mario Caserini and interpreted by his wife Maria Gasparini: a noblewoman in love with a theatrical actor accepts under his pressures to step on the stage. At first she does it just for fun, but then she goes on revealing a surprising talent that ends up alienating her mentor, unable to deal with the humiliation to be rejected in the background.

The story is known thanks to the original script now preserved at the Museo Nazionale del Cinema (Turin), while only a fragment of the original nitrate print survives in the archives of the Cineteca di Bologna. As short as it is, this piece of film is nevertheless very interesting, since it offers the quite disturbing ending sequence: the man, rendered churlish by his disaffection,
directs the protagonist in a suicidal scene. The actress prepares her own true poisoning and dies, followed by her lover’s enthusiastic exclamations in front of what he thinks to be her greateast interpretation. The whole situation is made even more complicated if one thinks that Maria Gasparini,
the actress, was in fact the wife of the director, Mario Caserini.

During the first decade of the 20th century, Gasparini, also known as an “intellectual actress,” was among the most appreciated actresses of the Italian screen. At a time when women practicing the acting profession were not well considered in the public eye, her name was among the few feminine names film reviewers were ready to acknowledge in positive, and often even enthusiastic terms. An example of dignity and discipline, Gasparini had forged her character at the hard school of La Scala Opera House in Milan, where she kept working for years as a solo ballerina. La Scala archives  preserve several photographs in which she is portrayed in the costumes of various ballets and pantomimes, works that in many cases she was to later interpret also for the screen. Her partnership with Caserini, whom she had met in Rome on a film set, lasted throughout all of her life. In 1914 he dedicated to her his ambitious blockbuster Nerone e Agrippina, but an even more sincere homage to her is no doubt this little movie made just one year before. In focusing on the ambiguous relationship of the man to the woman, the film actually seems to affirm the superiority of female creativity.

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