The climax of the
at the Capitol Theatre
brought forward my tears
When I watched A Woman of Paris, one of the movies mentioned in Papa's diary, I was pleasantly reminded of the artistry and maturity of 1920's silent films and noted how surprisingly subtle and persuasive many of the performances were. The White Sister, which I watched yesterday, is much more of a Hollywood extravaganza, replete with exotic locales, grand special effects and feverishly manufactured plot twists, but it does bear out Norma Desmond's great boast about silent film actors: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" In this case the face belongs to Lillian Gish, whose heartbreaking expressions and powerful charisma (apparent even in the film's abysmally poor video version) transcend the movie's contrivances and give it real emotional resonance. ("There is something about her hopeless wistfulness that squeezes sobs from the coldest heart," said Time magazine of Gish.)
Gish plays Italian countess Angela Chiaromonte, who decides to become a nun after her jealous stepsister Marchesa (Gail Kane) robs her of her inheritance and her fiancee, Govanni Severini (Ronald Colman) seemingly dies on an African military mission. Govanni has, in fact, merely been imprisoned by Arab bandits, but Angela has already taken her vows by the time he escapes his captors and returns to Italy. He tries desperately to get Angela to leave the Church, but she takes her marriage to Christ seriously and will not budge (melodramatic, yes, but Gish expresses her sorrow and resolve convincingly).
As I watched the climax to figure out what Papa could have found so moving, I was initially stumped because it overdoes the deux ex machina something fierce, with a volcano eruption and a resulting flood forcing the resolution (even the New York Times reviewer, who lavished praise on the film's grand landscapes and "serious, enthralling narrative," found the ending "dissapointing"). The ending's biggest problem is Govanni's death -- he drowns while saving people from the flood, but instead of affirming his character's nobility this episode just feels like a handy mechanism for the filmmakers, who need to dispense with Govanni somehow (we never quite stop wanting Angela to renounce her vows and marry him, and that would do at all).
The climax also finds Angela's treacherous stepsister Marchesa mortally wounded in a carriage accident. She crawls to Angela's church to seek absolution for cheating Angela out of her inheritance, and, in her delirious state, mistakes Angela for a priest and confesses to her. Here, I think, is where Papa must have taken notice: Dying in Angela's arms, Marchesa wonders aloud if Angela could ever forgive her, and Angela, mustering all her will and mastering all her pain, says:
Speaking of tears, I have to confess I find it very hard to hold back my own when I watch the movies or listen to the songs Papa mentions in his diary. To hear the things he heard and to see the things he saw allow me -- almost, almost -- to be like Papa, to be with Papa, two things I want so much. I can't not watch, I can't not listen. But it breaks my heart. The films are here. The songs are here. But he is gone. He is gone.
The White Sister
- Lillian Gish. Library of Congress #LC-USZ62-46531
- Capitol Theatre. Library of Congress #LC-USZ62-113144