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07 December 2016

I promessi sposi (1922)

Alessandro Manzoni's historical novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), first published in 1817, is one of the most famous and widely read novels of the Italian language. It was many times adapted for the cinema in Italy. In the fifth silent film version, I promessi sposi (Mario Bonnard, 1922), Emilia Vidali played the female lead of Lucia, Domenico Serra played her beloved Renzo and Mario Parpagnoli was the evil don Rodrigo.

Emilia Vidali in I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna, no. 181. Photo: U.C.I. Emilia Vidali in I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922).

Emilia Vidali in I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Emilia Vidali in I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922).

A love story jeapordised


I promessi sposi is set in northern Italy in 1628, during the oppressive years of direct Spanish rule. The two betrothed are Renzo Tramaglino and Lucia Mondella. Their love story is jeopardised by Don Rodrigo, the lord of the domain, who is infatuated with Lucia. His 'bravi' menace the local priest Don Abbondio to refuse Renzo and Luciana to marry, with some legal excuse.

On behalf of the couple, the monk Father Cristoforo visits Don Rodrigo to mediate in the affair but is brutally kicked out. When Rodrigo plots to assault the young couple, they flee over Lake Como. Lucia hides in a convent where, however, the scheming nun of Monza plots with Don Rodrigo.

Renzo searches for Lucia and while in Milan visits the fraudulent lawyer doctor Azzeccagarbugli to get his papers right. The police try to arrest him but he manages to flee again. Meanwhile Father Cristoforo is banned from the convent and the village on instigation of don Rodrigo.

A robber baron called l'Innominato or 'the unnamed' is sent by Don Rodrigo to abduct the girl and give her once and for all to Don Rodrigo. Yet, in a startling change of heart, inspired by a visit of Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, the Innominato undergoes a religious conversion and does the right thing by liberating Lucia.

This starts the downfall of the culprits. The Great Plague of Milan (1630) breaks out, imported by German mercenaries during the Thirty Years War. In Milan Renzo meets again Don Cristoforo who helps the dying masses and discovers Don Rodrigo is one of the victims. Renzo forgives him, Rodrigo dies, the Plague stops.

Father Cristoforo frees Lucia also from her vow of chastity she had made in the hope of being relinquished from the clutches of the Innominato. Renzo and Lucia return to their village, where they can finally marry, blessed by don Abbondio, who has bettered his life.

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Don Abbondio (Umberto Scalpellini) is afraid Don Rodrigo's bravi may kill him, so he prevents the mariage between Renzo and Lucia. Right of the men stands Perpetua (Olga Capri), don Abbondio's maid. Caption: Do you want me dead?

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922), starring Domenico Serra as Renzo and Emilia Vidali as Lucia, here also Umberto Scalpellini as don Abbondio. Caption: Curate, in presence of these two witnesses, this is my wife...

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Domenico Serra as Renzo, Emilia Vidali as Lucia, and Ida Carloni Talli as Agnese, Lucia's mother. Caption: Rascal! Damned one! Murderer!, Renzo shouted.

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Enzo Biliotti as Father Cristoforo. Caption: Father Cristoforo left his convent in Pescarenico, to ascend to the little house.

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922), starring Domenico Serra as Renzo and Emilia Vidali as Lucia, on this card also with Ida Carloni Talli as Agnese and Enzo Biliotti as Father Cristoforo. Caption: Father, what do you say of such a rascal?

Emilia Vidali and Ida Carloni Talli in I promessi sposi
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922), starring Emilia Vidali, here with Ida Carloni Talli as her mother Agnese.

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922), starring Domenico SerraEmilia Vidali and with Enzo Biliotti as father Cristoforo and Ida Carloni Talli as Agnese, Luciana's mother. Caption: Listen, my dear children, father Cristoforo said, today I will visit that man.

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Here we see father Cristoforo (Enzo Biliotti). Caption: The warden shows him to be obedient. It is a fierce blow to the poor monk.

Grand spectacle and richness of details


Italian filmmakers have many times adapted Alessandro Manzoni's novel I promessi sposi. The first film version was already made in 1908 by the company Comerio. In 1911 followed another short silent film adaptation by Film d'Arte Italiana.

In 1913, even two silent versions were directed by Eleuterio Rodolfi and by Eugenio Perego. About Rodolfi's version, which he filmed for the Ambrosio studio, see our blogpost I promessi sposi (1913). For the 1941 sound version, which was made by Mario Camerini, see our blogpost I promessi sposi (1941).

In 1922 former actor turned director Mario Bonnard shot his version of I promessi sposi. Bonnard had been Lyda Borelli's film partner in her sensational debut Ma l'amor mio non muore/Love Everlasting (Mario Caserini, 1913). Since that huge success he had spread his wings in the Italian silent cinema, both as an actor and a director.

Bonnard's film was produced by his own company Bonnard Film but distributed by the trust UCI (Unione Cinematografica Italiana) which company is credited for the photos at the postcards. Sets were by the renowned Italian painter Camillo Innocenti, who had specialised in set design for historical films. Cinematography was by Giuseppe-Paolo Vitrotti, the younger brother of the better known Italian cinematographer Giovanni Vitrotti. He already worked for Ambrosio since 1908 as a camera operator, but became director of cinematography around the time of I promessi sposi.

Star of the film is Italian silent film actress and opera singer Emilia Vidali. As an opera singer, she performed in international opera houses all over the world and was very popular in South America. Her co-star Domenico Serra was an Italian actor who starred in the Italian silent cinema and continued to play in Italian films for well over four decades. At the set of I promessi sposi, Vidali met her future husband Mario Parpagnoli, who played the evil Don Rodrigo. After one more film, Amore e destino (1923), directed by Parpagnoli, she left the Italian screen. Because of the crisis in the Italian cinema, the couple moved to Argentine.

I promessi sposi was censured in November 1922 but the film only had its first night in Rome more than a year after, on 27 December 1923, so just after Christmas. While Italian film critics complained about the lack of fidelity to the concept and the historical details in the novel, they also had to admit that the cinema audiences loved it, and took the deviations and historically incorrect details for granted. La vita cinematografica wrote that the cinema audience wanted to be emotionally involved by dramatic and comic scenes, grand spectacle, and the richness of details, and got it all. The film was awarded a golden medal at a film festival in Turin in 1923. I promessi sposi remained so popular in the following decade that a sound version of the film was released in 1934.

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Lucia (Emilia Vidali) and fra Canziano. Caption: Lucia reappeared with her apron full of nuts (Ch. III).

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Renzo has no clue a police spy is sitting next to him, dealing with the innkeeper to have him arrested. Caption: What shall I do?, the innkeeper asks, looking at that stranger who was not really one to him...

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Renzo at the lying and cheating lawyer Azzeccagarbugli. Caption: To the lawyer we need to set things straight, so that we can mess them up.

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Renzo (Domenico Serra) is sent away by the corrupt lawyer Azzeccagarbugli (actor unknown). On the left stands Luciana's mother Agnese (Ida Carloni Talli). Caption: Go, go; you don't know what you are talking about: I don't mess with children...

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Rodolfo Badaloni as L'Innominato kisses the hand of the Cardinal Federico Borromeo (actor unknown). Caption: As soon as the Innominato was introduced, Federico came forward to him.

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Lucia's kidnapping by Nibbio, the bravo of the Innominato, with the help of Gertrude, the nun of Monza (Niní Dinelli). Caption: Come, my child, come with me, as I have orders to treat you well and give you courage.

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). L'Innominato (Rodolfo Badaloni) and his aid Nibbio (actor unknown), who repents his kidnapping of Lucia. Caption: Compassion! What do you know of compassion? What is compassion? (Ch. XXI).

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). During the Milan plague corpses are collected. Caption: She descended from the threshold of one of those exits and came towards the convoy.

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Renzo in the plague ridden Milan. Caption: He did a step back, lifting a knotty stick.

Mario Parpagnoli as Don Rodrigo in I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Caption: "Let me kill that infamous traitor!" Milan is in the grip of the plague. After Don Rodrigo (Mario Parpagnoli) has confessed his aid Griso (Raimondo Van Riel) he is ill, the latter betrays him, He calls for the 'monatti' who will carry his master away to the 'Lazzaretto' and robs the wealth of Don Rodrigo. He won't enjoy his riches for long, as he too will be struck by the plague.

I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Renzo (Domenico Serra) and padre Cristoforo (Enzo Biliotti) in plague ridden Milan. Caption: You ask for a living person at a lazaret!...

Ida Carloni Talli, Domenico Serra and Emilia Vidali in I promessi sposi (1922)
Italian postcard by G. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: U.C.I. Publicity still for I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed (Mario Bonnard, 1922). Caption: If you want me to marry you, I'm here. The scene depicts the final scene of the story with Ida Carloni Talli (Agnese), Domenico Serra (Renzo), Emilia Vidali (Lucia) and Umberto Scalpellini (Don Abbondio).

Sources: Vittorio Martinelli (Il cinema muto italiano, 1921-1922), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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