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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

Fashion in Film Festival: Dreams of Darkness and Colour

In the last of our reviews from the Fashion in Film Festival, here's the lavish Rapsodia Satanica - a classic from the Italian silent movie era, accompanied by live music…

Written by Matt Bramford


Illustration by Gareth A Hopkins

So the next stop on my fashion film list (after almost having a seizure at the Pink Narcissus screening) was Dreams of Darkness and Colour.

On a very cold Saturday afternoon, I headed to the Barbican where an eclectic line up was to be shown alongside Rapsodia Satanica – a glorious black/white movie from 1915. It was so cold outside that, at first, it was a huge relief to step inside the Barbican with its roaring heating, but this (alongside the huge, comfy seats in Cinema 1) was soon to prove to be a recipe for a snooze…

Running a little late, the series was first introduced by the lovely Marketa Uhlirova, director of the Fashion in Film Festival, who gave a litte background to each of the films. Next up, Anna Battista – fashion journalist and lecturer – gave an hilarious introduction to each in the series. A gorgeous Italian woman wearing what looked like a post-bag, she leaped around the stage with such vigour that it was hard not to get excited about the forthcoming flicks.

This wasn’t any ordinary screening, mind. The five films we were about to watch were all of the silent era – and they were to be accompanied Lily Henley, tinkling the ivories in dramatic fashion. I’ve heard great things about these kind of screenings – where films from the silent era are accompanied by live music – but I’m embarrassed to say I’d never experienced one until now. I wasn’t disappointed.


Illustration by Avril Kelly

The first screenings were the shorts, which included Méliès’ La Danse du feu (The Pillar of Fire) – an extraordinary hand-coloured film where a demon conjures a woman wearing a voluminous white dress, who then dances; Le Farfalle (The Butterflies) by a unknown director, where Geishas dance and play with a butterfly-like creature who they have imprisoned in a cage; and my favourite, Le Spectre Rouge (The Red Spectre), where in a dark cavern a very creepy devil performs incredible tricks to conjure up women and then make them disappear.

The beauty of these shorts is that, while there isn’t much of a narrative, visually they are stunning. There are only so many times you can watch a woman in a white sheet flap around, I have to say, but at the time the effect of committing these illusions to film must have been magical. They’re still extremely powerful today – even the effetti speciali were enchanting when I expected them to be a little bogus.

Henley, on the piano, never faulted once as she accompanied each of the films. The music matched every dramatic scene perfectly, and I had to continually remind myself that it was actually live music I could hear as every note seamlessly married the film footage.


Illustration by Rukmunal Hakim

So, on to the main event. Rapsodia Satanica was the last film directed by Nino Oxilia, and is generally regarded as one of the finest achievements of Italian cinema during the silent era. A variation of the Faustian plot, our protagonist Alba d’Oltrevita (Lyda Borelli) signs a deal with the devil to regain her youth and beauty – minus the ability to fall in love. The film itself combines elements of horror, expressionism and, of course, the glitz, glamour and extravagance we’d expect from such an epic – Alba’s costumes were created by the Spanish couturier Mariano Fortuny, no less. Battista discussed the topic of the cloth that covers Borelli’s face in the most iconic scenes and the symbolism of the effect it creates – obscuring imperfections and bringing a ghost-like image with it. A flick through recent fashion magazines would reveal that the image of a woman with her face obscured by cloth/net or any translucent material is a reoccurring concept in fashion.

The clothes, typical of the aspirations of the early century, where about as lavish as you get. Set amongst the decadent backdrops of aristocratic mansions, our lead character goes from scene to scene wearing more embellishments than you can shake a stick at.

Huge thanks go to the Fashion in Film Festival for bringing these forgotten wonders to the screens of London. In a world where every visual effect is possible and unique costume design is rare, thank heavens for these enduring works with magic that never fades.

See our reviews of Pink Narcissus and Moulin Rouge (1928) from the Fashion in Film Festival.

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