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By Phil Hall | December 5, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 262 “Cerene” (1916 Italian film with the only cinema appearance of Eleonora Duse).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been released by labels specializing in public domain silent films.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A long-expired copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely, given its lack of copyright protection and its relative obscurity in the United States.

If you say the name “Eleonora Duse” today, there’s an excellent chance that you will be greeted with a blank stare. But a century ago, that name was recognized throughout the world. The great Duse was one of the most beloved and innovative actresses to grace the stage, and her fans included President Grover Cleveland and George Bernard Shaw. Indeed, Duse’s fame was so striking that she earned the distinction of being the first woman to be the subject of a Time Magazine cover story.

Today, however, Duse’s name is virtually unknown to all but the most ardent historians of late 19th and early 20th century theater. If contemporary audiences want to see what the Duse phenomenon was all about, the only record of her acting comes from a 1916 Italian silent film called “Cenere.”

“Cenere” is based on the 1904 novel by Grazia Deledda, a Sardinian-born writer who was one of the most prominent Italian creative artists of the early 20th century. In her day, Deledda was regarded as a major talent, and she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926. Today, however, her work is barely known outside of Italy.

“Cenere” takes place in a rural Sardinian village and tells the melodramatic story Rosalia Derios, an unmarried woman who is foresaken by her lover when he discovers she is pregnant. She gives birth to a boy whom she names Anania. Despite her best efforts to raise him, she realizes that she cannot escape from her poverty and the shame of having an illegitimate child. Reluctantly, she agrees for the boy to be raised by her former lover. However, she gives Anania an amulet to keep before he is taken from her.

Years pass and Anania has grown into successful adulthood. He has a bright future, with a fine career and an attractive fiancé. However, he is haunted by his lost mother and devotes his energy to finding her. He achieves his goal, and discovers Rosalia to be a frail, lonely, near-destitute woman. He identifies himself through the amulet, and Rosalia’s emotions run amok between rapture and terror. Ultimately, Rosalia is unable to cope with the shock of being reunited with Anania and she is ashamed of what transpired. Believing she will be a burden to Anania’s adult life, Rosalia kills herself.

Clearly, “Cenere” is a highly charged story with an extraordinary central character. Deledda realized this would be a perfect vehicle for Duse, yet Duse had temporarily withdrawn from acting in 1909 and seemed content with being out of the spotlight. However, she received enough prodding to change her mind, and by early 1916 Duse was ready to come out of retirement and make her motion picture debut with “Cenere.”

In explaining her actions to take on the role, Duse explained that she wanted to explore this opportunity “because it seemed to me that in the sorrowful figure of the mother, all sacrifice for her son, a figure moving in an austere and solemn landscape, would assume the total and clear plastic and spiritual significance that the silent theater must force itself to realize.” Her commitment to the role was so strong that Duse collaborated on the screenplay with Febo Mari, the director who also played the adult Anania.

“Cenere” was shot on location in Sardinia over a four-month period, which was a fairly long period considering the finished film only ran 38 minutes. In retrospect, it is difficult to see why the Sardinian locations were necessary – no conspicuous landmarks were present in the film, the village sequences could have easily been shot anywhere in Italy, and the film’s truly dramatic moments all took place indoors.

Today, “Cenere” is not best known for what happens on screen, but what happened when Duse saw the finished film. For an actress who was known for bringing color and passion to the stage, she was unable to accept the silent, monochromatic cinema format and her performance within that framework. Her post-screening comment has been widely reprinted as a testimony on why actors cannot take stage technique to the soundstage: “I made the same mistake that nearly everyone has made. But something quite different is needed. I am too old for it. Isn’t it a pity?”

But in viewing “Cenere,” it appears that Duse was far too harsh on herself. Unlike her theatrical rival Sarah Bernhardt bombastic performance in the 1912 film “Queen Elizabeth,” Duse’s screen performance is one of brilliantly subtle emotion. The scene of Rosalia’s reunion with Anania is a masterwork of acting. Duse’s elderly Rosalia undergoes a rush of emotions in the presence of the handsome and conspicuously successful Anania: she bows in respect when greeting him, hides herself within a vast black shawl in shame of being in his presence, cautiously reaches out to touch his hands, and then clasps at his hands as if she located the rarest of all known treasures. For a silent performance in 1916, when acting was dominated by overwrought emoting, Duse’s Rosalia is uncommonly mature and heartbreakingly genuine.

“Cenere” was also well regarded in its time, and it was still being shown theatrically well into the late 1920s. Even D.W. Griffith admired the film enough to inquire if Duse would come to the U.S. to appear in one of his productions. While Duse visited the U.S. (she died in Pittsburgh in 1924 while on a theatrical tour), she never stepped before the cameras again. “Cenere” remains her one and only film.

The copyright on “Cenere” expired a long time ago and the film is now in the public domain. Sadly, most of the copies available on DVD in the U.S. are woefully inferior – they appear to be third and fourth generation dupes. There are clips of one not-bad version on YouTube; this appears to be from an Italian DVD, and one can get an idea of the majesty of Duse’s acting from the fleeting moments presented here.

Considering its age, public domain status and relative obscurity, it is unlikely any U.S. producer will make an effort to restore “Cenere” and present it on DVD. This is a major shame, since it offers a rare opportunity to experience the artistry of a long-forgotten creative artist whose brilliance has, sadly, been diminished by the passing of the years.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Lenore W. Minnick says:

    How can I get a copy of the script or video of “Duse’s Fever” written and directed by Mica Bagnasco?

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