February 10, 2012

Shadows Across My Screen: Elvira Notari and the Suppression of Southern Italian Cinematic Culture

Elvira and Nicola Notari
By Niccolò Graffio
“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” – George Orwell (As quoted in My Few Wise Words of Wisdom by Charles Walker, 2000)
If one seeks to create a new nation out of pre-existing peoples, mythology becomes important.  Mythology, whether of a religious, philosophical or historical nature, can serve as a glue to bind together otherwise disparate elements in a society.  It is not enough to simply create this mythology; one must also propagate and inculcate it into the masses to the point where it is accepted unquestionably by the majority.  In times past this fell to the priests of whatever religion served the rulers of the polity.  Nowadays, it is the responsibility of those who walk the halls of Academia and the mass media.

The mythology thus created inevitably serves the dominant elements of that society at the expense of the subordinate ones.  The Sardinian Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci referred to this as “cultural hegemony”.  A point that is crucial to the understanding of this phenomenon is that the mythology can have and often does contain a number of factual components.  This is necessary, otherwise it becomes easy for critics of the ruling elite to debunk it and by extension the legitimacy of that society’s rulers.

Examples of this abound in the pages of history; a famous one being the founding of the nation of Russia.  According to The Primary Chronicle, an early East Slavic work reputedly done by a monk named Nestor, Russia was originally a land settled by Slavonian tribesmen.  According to this work, these tribes could not get along with one another and were incapable of ruling themselves.  To establish order in their lands they “invited” Varangian (i.e. Norse) tribesmen from Scandinavia to rule over them and establish order.  The new Norse rulers, members of a tribe called Rus’, gave their name to the new nation.

This mythology has been used numerous times since then by Nordicists as “proof” the Slavs were peoples who were incapable of governing themselves.  During World War II the Nazis used this as a justification to invade Czechoslovakia, Poland and Russia in order to acquire lebensraum, or living space at the expense of their untermenschen inhabitants.

That Nestor the Chronicler was a political ally of Prince Sviatopolk II of Kiev and was known to share his ruler’s pro-Scandinavian policies mattered little.  Equally irrelevant was the fact serious historians have always known Slavs were quite capable of forming durable polities long before the first Norse arrived on the scene.  The Empire of Great Moravia, for example, was a central European state formed in the year 833 AD and lasted roughly 70 years.  It was destroyed, not by internal dissensions, but by an invasion of the Magyars from the east and the Bavarians from the west. 

Finally, an analysis of the histories of the Slavic peoples of modern Russia shows they could not form polities because of the Rus’: 
“As for the Rus, they live on an island … that takes three days to walk round and is covered with thick undergrowth and forests; … They harry the Slavs, using ships to reach them; they carry them off as slaves and … sell them. They have no fields but simply live on what they get from the Slav's lands … When a son is born, the father will go up to the newborn baby, sword in hand; throwing it down, he says, 'I shall not leave you with any property: You have only what you can provide with this weapon.” – Ahmad ibn Rustah: 10th century Persian explorer (printed in the March, 1985 issue of the magazine National Geographic; emphasis added). 
All these facts however, were, as I said, irrelevant, since they disputed the mythology created by members of the Scandinavian-derived aristocracy of the Russian Empire, the “Mother of the Slavs”.

The founding mythology not only gives the rabble reasons behind the existence of the nation in the first place but why some in it are ‘born to rule’ and others ‘born to serve’, or as George Orwell so succinctly put it in his brilliant tome Animal Farm:
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
As it was in Russia with the Nordicists, so it was in the new ‘nation’ of Italy with the proponents of the Risorgimento, or ‘Risorgimentoists’ as I like to refer to them.  The invasion and destruction of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was not, after all, a naked act of aggression and territorial aggrandizement, but rather a fulfillment of the centuries-old aspirations of the peoples of Italy to live under a single roof.  That tens of thousands of Piedmontese soldiers had to resort to the most brutal reprisals imaginable in order to pacify the “liberated” denizens of southern Italy was irrelevant.  All were now part of the glorious ‘nation’ of Italy and could share in its benefits.  Of course, not all could share equally.

This unequal distribution of benefits began first and foremost with industrialization.  It was decided by King Vittorio Emanuele II this would happen exclusively in northern Italy.  Why?  Simple – the South was too “backward”.  That there were many areas of northern Italy every bit as poor at the time was again, irrelevant.  The southern part of the nascent country would remain agricultural (and poor), guaranteeing a steady flow of cheap foodstuffs to the north, and migrant labor for northern factories to offset that region’s burgeoning labor movements.

Ponderable Quote
“In the course of the struggle for existence there comes a period when it becomes very important for a nation to be aware of her own origin, her past, her accomplishments and her mission.  What others know of her is also of vital importance because they may be in the position to form the future of this nation.  If a power intends to intervene in the life of another nation for the purpose of exploitation and territorial gain it first ruins its image and then is able to enslave it.” – Ida Bobula: Hungarian writer/historian
To complete the subjugation and exploitation of the Sicilian (i.e. the Southern Italian) people begun by the Risorgimento, it was now necessary to “ruin their image”.  What were previously the inhabitants of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies were now collectively referred to as the “Southern Problem”.  The “problem” referred to here was rampant poverty, corruption and organized crime.  That many of these were exacerbated precisely because of the Risorgimento mattered little to Italy’s northern overlords.  The image created, the myth, was that it was all the fault of those in the South.  The lack of land reform in the South, the heavy taxes imposed on Southerners, the lifting of protective tariffs on goods manufactured in the South to benefit those made in the North were merely formalities.

In addition to economic problems, there were cultural ones, as well.  The people of Southern Italy had their own languages, music, literature and cuisines, distinct from those in the north.  These were deemed “inferior”.  The new national language, a dialect of the language of the city of Florence, was now required in all schools, though it would still be awhile before recalcitrant Southerners would bother learning and using it.

It has been said those who can’t vote with their hands will eventually vote with their feet, and that is what happened in Southern Italy.  Left destitute by the bone-headed economic mismanagement of those in the North, Southern Italians fled Italy in droves for places like North and South America.  Those who remained in many cases made their way up north to eventually find work in factories.  To add insult to injury, many of those factories were being built with monies that Southern Italians living abroad were sending back home to their families.

Those who chose to remain in Southern Italy in many cases were able to demonstrate a resiliency against forces determined to keep them down, both culturally as well as economically.  Not all were men, either.  One remarkable woman was able to briefly carve out a name for herself before the black legions of conformity snuffed out her legacy and memory.  Her fate serves as a metaphor for the cruelties and injustices that were and are still being inflicted upon our people.

Elvira Coda was born in the city of Salerno to a family of modest means on February 10th, 1875.  Her parents, Diego Coda and Agnese (née Vignes), took the highly unusual step for the time of sending their daughter to school to receive an education.  She attended the scuola normale, a type of junior high school for girls where she was immersed in the Italian language of her people’s conquerors.  

Sadly, due to the success of her enemies at marginalizing her, details on her early life are scant.  After she completed her education, her parents moved the family to Naples where she obtained work as a milliner (hat maker).  She apparently became enamored with this occupation for even after she became a prolific filmmaker she continued to make hats as a hobby.

Nicola Notari was born into even more humble origins than his future wife.  At an early age he was forced to make his own way in the world.  Though he demonstrated artistic abilities, his paintings did not bring in enough money to pay the bills.  As a result, he was forced to work freelance painting photographs for Neapolitan photographers, which he found far more lucrative. 

It was during this time he met Elvira Coda.  Each found the other irresistible, and on August 25th, 1902 they married.  At the time of her marriage Elvira was the ripe old age of 27, unusual for the time in that part of the world!  

As I read the story of Elvira and Nicola Notari I found many things about them were unusual, starting with the photograph of the two of them standing together.  In most of the photos I have seen of couples in very early 20th century Southern Italy, the husband is usually seated with the wife standing off to the side and somewhat behind him, resting a hand on his shoulder.  Here the two stand together, side by side.  Elvira has not one but both hands on her husband, at once leaning into him but also almost grasping him.  Her face has an almost stolid expression with her chin tilted slightly upwards. Her eyes betray a proud gaze. You can almost hear her say, “He’s mine!” 

Nicola, on the other hand, is standing with his hand in his pocket (!) His body is tilted slightly towards Elvira.  A relaxed smile is evident on his face.  He really seems to be enjoying the moment.  His body language seems to say, “I’m with her.”  "Unusual" is the incorrect word to describe these two.  A better adjective would be “unconventional”.  

After their wedding, Elvira joined Nicola in painting photographs.  Eventually they “moved up” to coloring moving pictures.  They found their first jobs coloring films on commission for the Neapolitan film producer Roberto Troncone and the exhibitor Menotti Cataneo.

While all this was going on the Notaris found time to have three children: Edoardo, Maria and Dora.  By 1906, tired of just coloring films, the Notaris decided to start producing their own.  Three years later the production house Films Dora was born.  As one might have guessed, the name came from their daughter, Dora.  Of their three children, though, only Edoardo would take an active part in his parents’ productions.  He would appear in almost all of their films, in most cases as variations of the character Gennariello.  Six years later Films Dora would become Dora Films.

At this point it is important to let the reader know something.  While on paper the production house of Films Dora was the work of Nicola Notari, in actuality it was Elvira Notari who was the "brains" behind the operation!  While Nicola did the camera work and assisted in other endeavors, the producing, scriptwriting and editing were done by Elvira.  She also handled the books.  In addition, she acted in some of their earlier movies, started her own acting school, and even hired the actors, both professional and amateur, in their productions!

This is not to say Nicola did not make important contributions, just that he was the junior partner in the endeavor known as Films Dora (and later, Dora Films).  In addition to making feature films, the Notaris would sometimes “supplement” their income by filming documentaries of news-making events as they occurred.  In this Nicola’s work foreshadowed modern cameramen affiliated with news’ networks.    

His work behind the camera at times caused him to put himself in harm’s way.  The most memorable example of this occurred when an emotionally distraught man grabbed a small arsenal of light arms and barricaded himself in a house in Naples, firing on anyone who tried to apprehend him!  Nicola climbed the terrace of the Hotel Tricarico which adjoined the house and for several days filmed the police siege of the building.  This in spite of the fact the deranged man took several shots at Nicola himself!

Nevertheless, early reports in the Italian press that Nicola Notari was the director of Films Dora contrasted with future testimony from the Notaris’ own son Edoardo and later official documents.  In the three extant feature films she is also clearly listed as the director.  First the Risorgimentoists tried to bury her, figuratively speaking, for being a woman.  Later, they all but destroyed her legacy for the "crime" of being a Southerner!

To be sure, many works of the silent film era have been lost forever due to carelessness or neglect.  Early films were made with nitrocellulose which made them very flammable.  In addition, if attempts were not made at preserving the films the nitrate caused them to degrade over time.  According to film historians, a number of priceless works were lost this way including silent films by Laurel and Hardy and even Buster Keaton!

Those that weren’t ruined by neglect were often deliberately destroyed because studio heads saw little value in keeping them around.  By the time the advent of home video made it profitable to preserve the classics many of them had already tragically disappeared.

In the case of the films by Elvira Notari, however, there was an even more malicious intent behind their ruin.  Her films were part of the genre of Neapolitan popular cinema.  They dealt with issues with which most Neapolitans were acutely aware: poverty, crime and suffering.  She did not attempt to sugarcoat anything!  This put her in the sights of the cultural hegemonists in the north who routinely blasted her works for showing Italy in a “negative light” even as they were forced to admit they were popular throughout Italy!
A still from Elvira Notari's 1917 movie 'E scugnizze (Urchins) or
Mandolinata a mare (Mandolin Music at Sea). 
The history of silent film in Italy is something that is scarcely ever mentioned, much less studied, here in America, but it would surprise many to learn Italy had a thriving silent film industry.  Much less known is the vibrant regionalist silent film industry that existed.  Film studios existed as far south as Sicily, but it was Naples and Rome that led the way.  Naples, in fact, became a fertile ground for cinematic innovation.  During the silent film era there were no less than three film studios operating in Naples: Dora Films, Lombardo Film and Partenope Film…all family-run enterprises.  Of these three the works of Dora Films were unquestionably the most popular. 

The 1860’s saw the creation of the pseudo-nation of Italy.  The period starting around the time of World War I would witness a concerted attempt by northern hegemonists to consolidate and centralize their authority in every aspect of Italian life, including the film industry.

This centralization of the film industry began with the establishment of a trust known as the Unione Cinematografica Italiana (It: “Italian Cinematographic Union”) or UCI in 1919.  It united no less than 11 major production houses together under one roof and established two laboratories for developing prints.  One was conveniently located in Turin and the other in Rome.  The government actively encouraged every major producer, director and cameraman to join.  In addition, major male and female film stars signed on board.  Surprise, surprise, film production companies from Southern Italy were banned from joining!

The films produced under the aegis of the UCI were usually “big budget” spectacles that often dealt with historical themes, such as ancient Rome.  These films were exported in an effort to “glam up” Italy’s image in the eyes of the international community.  The smaller production companies of Southern Italy, with their regionalistic themes, were effectively shut out.  This was especially true of those films by Elvira Notari which dealt with starkly realistic themes the Risogimentoists would rather have ignored.

In spite of this, the Notaris continued their work and eventually found a way to export their films to waiting audiences – the members of the Southern Italian Diaspora!  Their films followed Diaspora members throughout Western Europe but also into the United States.  

It was in New York City, home to a large Neapolitan-American population at the time that Dora Film of America was born.  Records show this company served as a main point of distribution throughout the Western Hemisphere.  Though films by Elvira Notari were seen by Southern Italian audiences in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and even in cities in South America, by far their largest audiences were in the theatres of New York City.

Bureaucracy in Rome required that filmmakers obtain permission before their films could be shown nationwide or internationally.  This allowed censors to demand editing of a film or even reject it altogether.  To circumvent this, Elvira Notari found a quirk in the law that allowed her to obtain the necessary paperwork from a more sympathetic Neapolitan office.  By the time the Roman office had made up its mind one way or the other, in many cases the films had already been viewed in the Americas by waiting audiences.

Curiously, most of her films were never copyrighted here in the United States.  A Piedigrotta (1921), ‘O festino e ‘a legge (1921), and ‘A Santanotte (1922) were the exceptions.   

As mentioned earlier, Elvira Notari’s films dealt with issues regarding Neapolitan life, in particular the life of Neapolitan women.  Her work no doubt was an early attempt to focus attention on the problems facing women in Southern Italy.  This made her a prototypical feminist film director!

Forced monogamy, spousal abuse, adultery, single motherhood, betrayal as well as murder, incest and suicide were issues all covered at one point or another in her films.  In at least one of her films suicide was used as a metaphor for female liberation from the oppressiveness of forced marriages.  This occurred in Ritorna all’onda (Return to the Wave, 1912).  The heroine in this movie was rescued as a little girl by two boys and later grew to love them both.  They in turn fell in love with her.  Unwilling and unable to choose between the two, she committed suicide by drowning herself!

Distrust of the Law was a recurring theme in many of her movies, no doubt serving as metaphors for her own contempt for the oppressiveness and neglect of Rome.  While in films that dealt with this theme many sordid and even vicious crimes were committed, the director deliberately blurs the lines between good and evil, right and wrong.  An interesting example of this was her movie La Medea di Porta Medina (The Medea of Porta Medina, 1919).  This film was based on a novel of the same name by the 19th century novelist Francesco Mastriani, which in turn, was based on the story of Medea by the 5th century B.C. tragedian Euripides.  

Mastriani, and later Elvira Notari, redid the story to make the central characters members of the lower classes. The “Medea” in Notari’s film (and Mastriani’s novel) is a sexually liberated woman named Coletta Esposito who has a child out of wedlock with a man who lives with her and promises to marry her.  Secretly, however, he plans to marry another.  When she learns his betrayal, like the original Medea, she kills her own daughter in revenge.  Elvira Notari shocked Italian censors by showing Coletta as being not entirely undeserving of sympathy in spite of her crime.

Risorgimentoists began "turning the screws" on Dora Films and other independent Southern Italian film companies even before the rise of Mussolini.  His ascendancy to power, however, hastened the process.  In 1926 film distributor Stefano Pittaluga acquired the UCI trust and absorbed it into his own company.  He also furthered along the centralization of Italian cinema, gaining much wealth for himself along the way.

The rise of Fascism saw with it even greater restrictions being imposed on what filmmakers could put on celluloid.  In addition, total dictatorial control of the economy made it impossible for Dora Films to export any of their work without government approval.  Editing and re-editing in an attempt to make their films more palatable to Fascist censors merely delayed the inevitable.

Fascist repression, consolidation of the film industry and the invention of sound film (which was much more expensive) all put in the nails in the coffin of Elvira Notari’s career as a film director.  Dora Films officially ended film production in 1930.  At the outbreak of World War II Elvira and Nicola Notari relocated to the town of Cava de’ Tirreni in the province of Salerno where the former film director and cameraman were now reduced to running a store selling photographic equipment.  On June 17th, 1946 she died there at the age of 71.

The Fascist ruination of the Neapolitan film industry was complete.  In 1932 Gustavo Lombardo, the head of Lombardo Film, moved his operations to Rome in order to survive.  He changed the name of his company to Titanus and made a solid career for himself by selling out his heritage.  Before Fascism was through with Italy almost all the works of independent Southern film producers like Elvira Notari were sucked down some long-forgotten Orwellian memory hole.

Though her and her films have become the victims of social amnesia, like many others of our people, she left her fingerprints on the pages of history. A number of film historians point to her work as a direct source of inspiration for the later film genre of Italian neorealism.  

Attempts to retell the story of this pioneering filmmaker have run into great difficulty because of this.  German film producer Angelika Ledge-Jaskola attempted to create a documentary on the life and works of Elvira Notari but was forced to abandon the project due to a lack of materials and documentation.

In spite of the setbacks, attempts are still being made to draw attention to her contributions.  Since 1987 Neapolitan feminist filmmaker Lina Mangiacapre has awarded an “Elvira Notari Prize” at the Venice Film Festival to people who produce meaningful films of women.  While I laud Ms. Mangiacapre’s attempts to keep alive the frail memory of Elvira Notari, my criticism is her award should only be given to those who make films of Southern Italian women!

Elvira Notari’s career can be compared and contrasted to that of another pioneering female filmmaker – Leni Riefenstahl of Germany.  Both were women filmmakers trying to earn a living in a man’s world.  Both were considered visionaries, but that is where the similarity ends.  Like Gustavo Lombardo did with Mussolini, Leni Riefenstahl cashiered her soul and career to Adolf Hitler in exchange for being allowed to make big budget films.  After WW2 she was captured by the Allies.  During an interrogation she denied knowledge of the existence of Nazi concentration camps even after writer Budd Schulberg caught her contradicting herself by stating she made Nazi propaganda films out of fear of being sent to one!

Her later film career was severely tarnished by her Nazi past.  Ironically, it was the Nazis who were largely responsible for saving her greatest films – Triumph of the Will (1935), Olympia I & II (1938) and Tiefland.  The last she started filming during WW2 but didn’t finish until 1954.  Though obviously a brilliant film director, Leni Riefenstahl was never able to make another full length feature film again.  She spent the remainder of her life as a photographer.

Elvira Notari, on the other hand, resisted with every ounce of her being the attempts by the Fascists to conform to their vision of Italian life.  Even when she edited and re-edited her films to make them more to their liking she still managed to slip in themes the censors deemed “scandalous.”  The price she paid for this was obscurity.  

Martin Luther King Jr. once electrified the world with his “I have a dream” speech.  Like him, I have a dream as well, though admittedly mine is much different than his.  In my dream, i Due Sicilie is free and independent once again, with its capital re-established at Napoli.  This time it is not under the rule of foreign-derived monarchs but is instead a constitutional federalist republic with each region now a "state of the union".  

In the capital there is a large building housing the national archives – the history of our people. In this building there is a hall containing the names of those our people who have made their mark in the annals of history.

And the name of Elvira Notari is among them!

Further reading: 
• Giuliana Bruno: Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari; Princeton University Press, 1993