A short Italian melodrama about the tragic life of an adulterous lion tamer. Fernanda Negri-Pouget stars as Nelly, who throws over her husband for a dashing aristocrat and lives to regret her choice. Also, lions.
Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of EYE with Dutch intertitles.
Prior to the First World War, Italy led the way with costumed epics, first as shorts and then as feature-length productions. Mario Caserini’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1913) was one of the big historical productions of this era and, like many silent movie fans, I was most familiar with his work in this category. However, Caserini made films in a variety of genres, including the wildly popular circus setting.
Nelly la domatrice is a two-reel melodrama from the middle of Caserini’s career, produced between titles like Messalina, Lucrezia Borgia and The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Last Days of Pompeii. Melodramas are often dismissed as being overblown and silly but the fact is, we modern people like melodrama just as much as our silent era counterparts, we just prefer it to involve Jedi and superheroes rather than lion tamers. It’s all a matter of perspective and getting in the mood.
Fernanda Negri-Pouget stars as Nelly, the top-billed lion tamer of a husband-wife act. Her spouse, Alfredo (Mario Bonnard), adores her and they live a happy life with their adorable dog. Since we can’t have a movie about a happy couple breakfasting with their spaniel, trouble is on the horizon.
Count Wilhelm (Mario Voller Buzzi) attends Nelly’s show and immediately sets about courting her. She is flattered by his grand gestures and sophisticated ways and Alfredo can only watch as his wife’s love slips away. Wilhelm asks Nelly to run away with him and to prove his sincerity, he retrieves a flower from a cage containing Sultan, the star lion of the show.
With Nelly gone, nobody wants to see just a male lion tamer and Alfredo is fired from the circus. His professional and personal life is in shambles. Nelly fares no better. While she and Wilhelm are happy at first, he soon grows bored and his roving eye begins to roam once again. Nelly sees her mistake and longs to return to Alfredo but will her repentance come too late?
Whew! Dramatic stuff but I thoroughly enjoyed this short and the key reason is the quality of the acting. Being more familiar with Caserini’s historical work, I was delighted to see that he could guide his cast to quieter, more modern performances.
Large-scale historical epics (as well as space operas, high fantasy stories, etc.) generally require a bigger style of acting so that the cast can match the dramatic scenery, costumes and events. This was the case even in the silent era. However, when silent movie acting is discussed in modern times, it’s not unusual to see it treated as though there was only one method and style.
In fact, silent era actors were just as capable of regulating their performances as their modern counterparts but it’s always a delight to see it done as well as Nelly la domatrice. Fernanda Negri-Pouget is particularly excellent. She plays her desire for Wilhelm with all the giddy cruelty we would expect but her best moments come when she realizes she is about to be replaced as his lover. The horror, the realization that she threw away her life and then the acceptance that she can do nothing about it… Negri-Pouget lets it all play out on her face without resorting to mugging or playing to the cheap seats.
Mario Voller Buzzi is also excellent as the heartless Wilhelm. He is not played as a cartoonish monster, simply a spoiled and selfish rich kid who finds the pain of others to be somewhat ridiculous even though he is the one inflicting it. Nelly was not his first and she will not be the last woman he harms.
Mario Bonnard as Alfredo is the only actor who falls into the pop culture silent movie acting cliches. He flings his arm over his face and gazes heavenward. But then again, give the character’s dramatic ending and the short runtime of the film, such dramatics were likely considered necessary to set everything up.
In general, in an apples to apples comparison to acclaimed acting in American productions of 1912, I would say that Caserini’s team comes out on top. While it is a melodrama with a moral at the end, Caserini still takes care to maintain the audience’s sympathy for Nelly as she realizes her error and we root for her to see the light and leave Wilhelm. Her hesitation at the end, while a fatal mistake, feels natural and not a mere mechanical tool to ensure a tragic ending.
In fact, the screenplay by Arrigo Frusta is another reason to like Nelly la domatrice. While the story hits the expected beats in a melodrama of this type, it does not always follow the obvious path. The use of lions in the story, for example, never goes where you think it will. There have been a decent number of tragedies with lions (an ad for Nelly la domatrice’s American release as Love Amongst the Lions even says “a really great lion picture”) they usually involve someone being at least threatened with becoming lion kibble.
Instead, Nelly la domatrice uses lions to symbolize the marriage of Nelly and Alfredo. Wilhelm only wins Nelly’s hand after he successfully retrieves the flower from Sultan’s cage, Alfredo goes to Sultan to mourn the loss when it is clear that his wife is gone and when Nelly finally realizes that she needs to return to Alfredo, she first makes peace with Sultan. It works extremely well in this context and is more satisfying than something obvious like a mauling.
Mario Caserini’s direction doesn’t have the fireworks of, say, Lois Weber but his work with his actors and his willingness to draw out emotions is more than satisfactory. The cinematography and editing are simple and matter-of-fact but they do the job nicely. There are some nice flourishes, such as Nelly and Alfredo’s flat being lit more brightly while they were happy and then subtly dimmed as Nelly’s adultery becomes apparent. The effect is enhanced by different tinting for each scene. The attention to symbols and mood should not be ignored simply because Caserini was not throwing triptychs and cross-cut rescues onto the screen.
Nelly la domatrice is an excellent example of a 1910s melodrama done right and I really cannot heap enough praise on the cast. If you’re interested in seeing the more modern side of pre-WWI Italian film, this is a nice place to start.
Where can I see it?
Watch it for free on YouTube courtesy of EYE. Several character names were changed in the translation to Dutch. In the USA, Nelly was renamed Lina and the film was called Love Amongst the Lions.
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