On the 23rd of June 2016 we presented the Italian silent Amleto at the Watershed, which featured sharp piano accompaniment from Mr Neil Brand, as well as an illuminating introduction from Dr Luke McKernan, expert film historian and Lead Curator of News & Moving Image at the British Library. As part of that we here present some background on the film from Luke:
Amleto is an overlooked gem among Shakespearean films, indeed an overlooked gem among silent films overall. Made in Italy in 1917, it was directed by Eleuterio Rodolfi and starred the great stage actor Ruggero Ruggeri, renowned for his performances in Pirandello.
Though it was based on a 1915 stage production that starred Ruggeri, Amleto is no mere stage play performed before the cameras. What most distinguishes it is its consistent cinematic sense. The camera is constantly engaged and alert to the nuances of the action. Although the acting is redolent of the theatre, there is a sense of a real place, real relationships, and a time and a reason for these things. The royal court is a credible place, in which the interrelationships integral to the drama emerge naturally and convincingly.
The film has a painterly sense of composition. This is no great surprise from a period when films of the classics frequently took paintings as their compositional guide. But with Amleto we have an artist’s eye for its own sake. Orson Welles once said that, in making a film, there is only ever one right place to put the camera. Amleto is, for the most part, a film where the camera has been put in the right place.
Regarding composition and the placing of the camera, look out for the scene where the First Player performs before Hamlet at the rehearsal. Note how the cast is arranged to catch the eye, the Player to foreground on the left, others watching standing behind, Hamlet seated in a chair to the right. Those seated behind the player, Hamlet included, in practical terms would not be able to see anything of the Player, and yet it is true from the cinema audience’s point of view, which is doing the witnessing of the acting for them. It is illogical and photographically logical at the same time. Then, most effectively, Hamlet brings the actor up close to camera, accentuating the visual conceit – all in all, it is fine use of filmic space and of the privileged position of the audience in relation to the camera.
The film shows cinematic strength in other ways. It employs some basic special effects, employing superimposition to create the Ghost, and cleverly gives us the face of the living Yorick over the skull in Hamlet’s hand. The film takes the expected advantages of the cinema in mixing interiors with natural exteriors, opening out the play, and allowing us to see scenes such as Ophelia’s drowning. There are other scenes not seen in Shakespeare’s play which the filmmakers introduce for the sake of narrative clarity, perhaps most effectively the funeral of Hamlet’s father which opens the film. Lastly among this list of cinematic strengths, the film shows one clear advantage over the stage by the intercutting in the final scene between the duel and the army of Fortinbras marching ever closer to the castle. It adds to the dramatic tension, and it reinforces the role to be played by Fortinbras that might otherwise have been lost.
In Ruggeri’s we see a combination of the classical and the modern. Not least do we see this in the simple fact that it is a film, that the traditionalist theatrical performer has accepted the camera, working with the medium and not in spite of it. Of his reputation as an actor effective in portraying facets of madness, we would expect a particularly tormented Hamlet. Indeed, Ruggeri emphasises Hamlet’s putting on of madness, and he is good at denoting changes of mood through dynamic facial expressions. It is, overall, a memorably expressive Hamlet, though to our tastes now one that is a little overplayed in places. He is also too old to convince us as being a young prince – he was forty-six, looks it, and indeed looks older than his mother. But the emotions portrayed are genuine, not merely melodramatic poses. His is a Hamlet whose inner crisis we are made to feel. And if Ruggeri was the star actor around whom a production had to be built, then this translates into his interpretation of Hamlet – an arch performer, caught up in a sea of troubles, but rather pleased with himself at how he directs the situation, even to the extent of choreographing his own death.
But what of the words? This is a difficult point, because we do not have the Italian original, and we do not know for certain whether the titles that exist in this French release print – the only copy that survives – accurately reflect the relationship the original had between Shakespeare’s text and the action of the film. Going from the print that we have, the words of Shakespeare were used wherever possible, but only where they supported the filmic narrative. Titles are kept to a minimum; they are also cut into the action, not merely preceding it, which was the style adopted in earlier Shakespeare films. Thus we get insistent drama, not a series of tableaux introduced by Shakespeare’s words. There are no quotations for their own sake – Hamlet does not give us the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, for instance.
What sort of an interpretation of Hamlet is it? Effectively, I think, it is not an interpretation at all; or, rather, that is not the way to be looking at it. We do not gain any insight into the character of Hamlet, nor any particular take on the unfolding of the tragedy – indeed, as seen here it is not really a tragedy at all, not in any sense of tragic loss. It is an idealised, simplified visualisation of the story of prince Hamlet as Shakespeare set it out, constructed as a star vehicle, and artfully organised so as to make the action and the motivation of the characters comprehensible in cinematic terms to a cinema audience. It is an exercise – a successful exercise – in demonstrating in how to film Shakespeare, in how to reimagine Hamlet for the camera. In this it is entirely successful.