Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 © Jeff Matthews   entry Nov.  2012              

  Gustavo Lombardo & Elvira Notari

—Two Contributors to the Early Italian Film Industry

This is NOT
about the aesthetics and philosophy of film, film theory, criticism, or the semiotics and/or deconstruction of early Italian film. (Whew! I hope you are as happy as I am about that!) There are a number of books that deal with such things. Particularly interesting are Italian Film by Marcia Landy, Cambridge University Press, 2000; and The History of Italian Cinema by Gian Pietro Brunetta, original Italian 2003, Einaudi; English translation by Jeremy Parzen, 2009, Princeton University Press. Particularly essential to a discussion of Elvira Notari is the book mentioned in the last paragraph of this entry. My aim here is merely to present brief summaries of the careers of two persons from the area who contributed greatly to the film industry, itself, either as producers or directors or both.

Gustavo Lombardo. There were early film companies in various places in Italy in the first decade of the 20th century. One of the largest of these was Itala Film in Torino, founded in 1908. Gustavo Lombardo got in on the ground floor. He was born in Naples in 1885, started out to study law, quit that and by 1908 had gone into film distribution. He became the representative in southern Italy for Carlo Rossi & Co., the founders of Itala Film as well as for some foreign film companies, such as the French company, Gaumont ed Eclair. Lombardo also founded a cinema journal, Lux, in 1909. He expanded his distribution activities into other parts of Italy and in 1915 founded Monopolio Lombardo, the largest film distributor in Italy. He acquired the earlier Polifilms company that had premises in the Vomero section of Naples and in 1916 turned his attention to producing films there by founding Teatro-Lombardo Film, which then became Lombardo Film in 1919.

In the 1920s, the Fascist government mandated the establishment of centralized film production, to be located in Rome, and, like other film producers in Italy, Lombardo moved to the capital in the late 1920s. He changed the name of his company to Titanus (logo, above); it remained extremely important in the Italian film industry until well after WWII, making hundreds of popular films. Among his many credits, Lombardo launched the film career of Antonio De Curtis, known as Totò, the best-loved comic in Italy. (The film was from 1937 and entitled Fermo con le Mani—roughly, Keep Your Hands to Yourself—directed by Gero Zambuti.) Lombardo died in 1951 in Rome. Titanus, itself, ceased production in 1964 due to financial difficulties. It came back after a reorganization and is active in Italian television productions.

Elvira & Nicola Notari      
Elvira Notari was born Elvira Coda in 1875 in Salerno; she died in 1946 in Cava de' Tirreni, near Salerno. She was Italy's earliest woman filmmaker, making over 60 feature films and about 100 documentaries.

Elvira moved to Naples in 1900, married Nicola Notari, and together they founded the Dora Film company. She directed; he ran the camera. (He was also known as a highly skilled "colorizer" of motion picture film, laboriously using tiny brushes to add color to films, frame by frame!) Her films are now regarded by critics as somewhat the forerunner of the later movement called Neo-Realism in that she used mostly non-professional actors, filmed on the streets of Naples, and dealt with the uncomfortable and often crude lives of those who live on the margins of society. Her favorite Neapolitan "realist" authors of the day included Francesco Mastriani (she made a film version of his novel Medea di Porta Medina in 1918) and Matilde Serao (who, unfortunately for Notari, preferred to assign filming rights to companies in Rome). Notari was the first to produce films comparable to the Neapolitan staged melodrama, the Sceneggiata. As such, it was Notari's films, through a Dora Film subsidiary in New York City, that captured the allegiance of the Italian immigrant population much more than the spectacular "Sword and Sandal" films of early Italian film making such as Quo Vadis? (1913, Cines Film, Rome, directed by F. Alberini) or The Last Days of Pompei (1913, Ambrosio Film, Torino, dir. by M. Caserini and E. Rodolfi). Notari also made documentaries about the "old country" for the Italian-American immigrant population. Her film output went from 1906 to 1929. Most of her films appear to have been lost over the years, though some remain.

Her films dealt not only with the seamy side of life but often portrayed passion and sexual desire both male and female. This led to the general public perception that her films were actually the work of her husband since women certainly couldn't (or at least wouldn't) make films about such things! In reality, Notari not only directed the films but was very much involved in writing the screenplays and editing the finished product. In any event, such subject matter did not fare well under the censorship of Fascist Italy. The Notaris closed Dora Film in 1930 and moved to Salerno to retire. Elvira and her husband opened a photography equipment store. Her decision to retire almost certainly had nothing to do with any lack of desire or ability to deal with the change to sound motion pictures. Most likely she just couldn't take the censorship. (Government censors, in an attempt to encourage one national language, even objected to any sub-titles in Neapolitan dialect. That held over into sound films and dubbing; see this link.) Two, she probably did not want to relocate to Rome, a must for film makers in Italy in the 1920s as the government sought to move all Italian film production facilities to the capital (as noted, above, in the item on Lombardo).

Elvira Notari's name and reputation languished for a long time even among the ranks of film historians. She has enjoyed a bit of a comeback recently with the appearance of critical commentary such as Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari by Giuliana Bruno (a Neapolitan and currently a professor at Harvard's Dept. of Visual and Environmental Studies), Princeton University Press, 1993. As well, the Venice Film Festival has named one of its various prizes after Elvira Notari. It's about time.

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