Of all the films in Anthology Film Archives’ terrific “Woman with a Movie Camera” series, Elvira Notari’s 1922 The Holy Night perhaps provides the easiest gloss on the series’ purpose and direction. Just like Dziga Vertov’s seminal Man with a Movie Camera, although preceding that unique cinematic experiment, Notari’s film celebrates the modernity of cosmopolitan life, fearlessly experiments with editing, and never lets the audience forget that the camera is the eye as the audience bears witness to patriarchal oppression, a possible murder, and one of the most outlandish love triangles in silent cinema.
In the opening shot of The Holy Night, a group of people are playing cards as a shoe shiner pushes by, leaving almost as quickly as he enters the frame. Notari’s tinted blue frame and her penchant for resonant visual detail allows the audience not to forget the shoe shiner, foreshadowing his importance. The film establishes a love triangle between Nanniella, abused by her drunken father; Tore, the heartthrob of the film; and Carducci, its consummate villain—yet it is the shoe shiner comes to Nanninella’s rescue. After Tore is convicted for murdering Nanninella’s drunkard father (in reality, the latter fell off a hill in a drunken stupor), the shoe shiner sets out to prove Tore’s innocence. In a matching close-up between the shoe shiner and Nanninella—one of Notari’s devices for generating silent melodrama—he tells her that Carducci wants her all to himself. Their mutual heroism demonstrates Notari’s desire to produce drama out of an incisive outlook on social inequality. In this case, one of our heroes is a woman abused by her father and society, belittled because she never makes enough to buy her father the alcohol he demands, and sexually harassed by customers in the café. The other is a poor boy in rags barely recognized by the other characters of the film until he gives himself a voice and asserts himself in Nanninella’s love life.
The scholar Giuliana Bruno, in her book Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari, substantively connects these character traits to the patterns of the later Neorealist movement in Italian cinema: films like The Holy Night, she writes, “demonstrate that a cultural formation traditionally known as realism is present as well as rooted in Italian cinema from its beginnings: it is the recurrence and frequency of a filmic discourse attentive to, and inscribed within, the social network of the urban environment.” By transforming Nanninella and the shoe shiner into the heroes of her narrative, forcibly breaking out of society’s hierarchical constructions, Notari alludes to an idealized Italy, one without women in metaphorical chains, where torment isn’t romanticized, and where members of the lower class are seen as more than just creatures.
Notari depends on a wide array of cinematic techniques to formalize this vision. Most striking among them is her use of panoramic shots to externalize the infatuation Tore and Nanninella have for each other, the rocks and sea forming an expressive backdrop as the lovers cling restlessly onto one another. The ubiquitous rocks and waves of the film’s environment are no mere topographical detail, but provide a contemplative space for the audience to pause and consider the characters’ relationship. Tore and Nanninella’ relationship is defined from the outset as built upon anguish, with Tore falling for Nanninella because she “seems like a Madonna in chains” and a “celestial creature of the night”—observations he notes as he watches this woman get beaten by her drunken father. Love, we see, is constantly impinged upon or circumscribed by real, physical violence. This same intrusion of violence onto intimate relationships is repeated as Nanninella kisses the villain Carlucci on a ledge romantically overlooking the sea, the backdrop uncannily similar to that in which Nanninella and Tore found themselves, from the placement of the rocks to the choppy rhythm of the waves. “That’s the thrill of passion that resounds in me. I’m a new woman!” Nanninella exclaims. Both her putative lovers are almost as identical as the Neapolitan backdrop that frames their passions: self-absorbed, condescending, and determined to win over Nanninella even while violence is done to her person. There’s a sense of unease inherent in the narrative architecture of Notari’s films: since Tore is the only one of the two who didn’t frame someone for murder, he is deemed the better fit and the audience’s sympathies are swiftly directed toward him, nasty qualities notwithstanding.
At Nanninella and Carducci’s wedding—all part of her ploy to prove Tore’s innocence—Nanninella hears a song that reminds her of Tore and she begins to rock back and forth in a trance, saying, “That song reminded me of a past that was not yet dead and gone.” One could apply this beguiling effect to the entirety of The Holy Night. The audience is reminded of a world of true silence where not even a lone piano accompaniment attends to the fierce passions, poetic intertitles, and melodramatized setting at the film’s center—a reminder of a past that, for its voluminous expression in this film, is not yet gone.
On September 17th and September 23rd, Elvira Notari’s The Holy Night screened as part of the Woman with a Movie Camera series at Anthology Film Archives.