Rapallo (1914) A Silent Film Review

A pre-WWI Italian actuality showcasing the attractions of Rapallo, situated on the coast of the Italian Riviera. Local landmarks are dutifully showcased and the entire short film features applied color on the trees and water.

Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of EYE’s YouTube channel.

See the lovely lakes and the wonderful telephone system

While we often associate early film with the magic of Méliès and madcap world of nickelodeon moviemaking, fans of the cinema also had an insatiable taste for nonfiction fare. Films featuring wildlife, scientific subjects, famous public figures and more attracted moviegoers but travel pictures showcasing various locations near and far were particularly popular. For the equivalent of about a dollar admission, audiences could see films from every continent, including Antarctica.

Rapallo’s ships on display.

Actualities, the category that most of these early films fall under, differ from documentaries in that they are not out to tell a story or present a persuasive argument. The very act of selecting shots is editorial to a certain extent but actualities are generally all about “This is interesting, look at this.” Their innocent bluntness is the secret to their charm.

Nonfiction portrayals of faraway places in the silent era ranged from samplers running less than a minute all the way up to full feature-length movies. The topics could be remarkably specific (In the Moonshine Country, an actuality showing off the culture of illicit liquor-brewers in rural America) or ambitiously broad (Finlandia displaying the landscape, industry and sporting accomplishments of a newly-independent Finland in documentary form).

The castle still stands.

Short travel actualities were a mainstay of film programs for decades and the 1914 Italian film Rapallo follows the then-established formula: see the general area, courtesy of a gentle pan, and then highlight some of the more famous local landmarks. But, while it’s typical of the period, it’s done particularly well.

When Rapallo was released, the municipality was already well-known as a place of inspiration for artists and thinkers. Famous guests prior to the film’s release included Jean Sibelius, Max Beerbohm and Friedrich Nietzsche and later visitors included Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway. On a sweet note, chocolatier Domingo Ghirardelli was born in Rapallo.

Hannibal’s bridge. Whether or not he brought his elephants has not been explored.

Temperate climate and beautiful waters remain key to Rapallo’s appeal, so the bulk of the split reel production (approximately five minutes of runtime) is taken up with shots of sailing ships. One of the few title cards in the surviving Dutch export print introduces the viewers to two other draws: a memorial statue of Christopher Columbus (born in neighboring Genoa) and Hannibal’s Bridge, which may or may not have been used by the famous Carthaginian but it sure makes a good story.

Rapallo is color tinted with most of the picture hand- or stencil-tinted with blue water and green trees. Applied color was expected and demanded at this time but the delicate colors combined with the gentle camera movement give Rapallo a dreamy, soothing tone. Whether it was intended as a motion picture tourist brochure or as simply another location to add to a company’s actuality, catalog, it certainly makes its subject look attractive over a century after it was released. Kudos to the anonymous filmmaker.

Greetings, tiny boy of Rapallo.

Another classic element in actualities is the stares of the locals as they see the filmmakers at work. In one case, a small boy stares into the camera as the operator pans across waterside villas. Given the young man’s prolonged, prominent position in the shot and the fact that he is so smartly dressed, it’s likely that his inclusion was intentional.

Considering the popularity of actualities, it’s a shame that relatively few are treated as standalone works in their own right. Actuality shorts have been released over the years, of course, but narrative films from this period receive far more attention in general. Fortunately, there has been an uptick interest with archives leading the way. For example, modern audiences can enjoy the Brilliant Biograph presentation curated by EYE, which showcases early actualities lost for over a century because no machines capable of running the obsolete 68mm format survived.

Ooo, pretty!

Rapallo is typical of its genre and era but its particularly high quality and brief, just-a-taste runtime makes it a perfect choice for anyone who wants to give actualities a shot. The colors lack the precision of French productions of the era but their fluidity actually works with the water shots and swaying trees. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend five minutes.

Where can I see it?

Stream it for free courtesy of the Eye Filmmuseum.


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  1. Joe Thompson

    Hi Fritzi. That is a beautiful film. My grandparents were born about 30km down the coast and up the hill from Rapollo, I like the pan shot around 1:20. The coloring makes it look as if Columbus is floating in the air.

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