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Cinema, Literature, Music

‘I promessi sposi’ (The Betrothed) (1922)

with live accompaniment by jazz quartet feat. Art Hirahara

Friday, December 9, 2022
6:00 pm


On the occasion of the publication of The Betrothed
A new translation by Michael F. Moore of Alessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi

I promessi sposi (The Betrothed)
(1922, Silent with Italian intertitles subtitled in English, 130 min.)

Directed by
Mario Bonnard

Adapted from the novel by
Alessandro Manzoni

Domenico Serra as Renzo
Emilia Vidali as Lucia

In a new restored version by the
Fondazione Cineteca Italiana (Cineteca di Milano)

With a new soundtrack commissioned by
NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò
Composed by
Art Hirahara
Performed live by:
Paul Bollenback – guitar
Art Hirahara – programming, piano, keyboards
Mas Koga – flute, saxophones
Jennifer Vincent – 5 string cello
Performing an original live score to the silent film, the quartet will bring its
background in improvised music to create a unique musical experience for the viewer


Followed by a festive reception featuring the legendary
Zabaglione del Direttore

The great Italian novel par excellence, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) was the subject of several silent film versions. The first, produced by Luca Comerio in 1908, is now unfortunately considered lost. Manzoni’s famous masterwork has always attracted filmmakers. A literary connoisseur like Mario Bonnard cannot have been immune to the fascination that its characters, settings, and adventures could bring to the big screen. In late 1921 he was already preparing the production of I promessi sposi, and shooting began in early 1922 at the Cines studios in Rome. Bonnard’s production company was linked to Cines, which soon after was completely absorbed by Unione Cinematografica Italiana (U.C.I). This was a detail of some importance, as in autumn 1922 U.C.I. reacted to the crisis engulfing it by stopping work and putting “the negatives of four big films under lock and key”, including I promessi sposi. This did not prevent Bonnard from submitting the film to the censorship commission on 12 November 1922. It was first shown in 1923, at the Esposizione Internazionale di Fotografia, Ottica e Cinematografia in Turin, where it was awarded the Gold Medal for Italian films, and Mario Bonnard and Giuseppe Vitrotti each received certificates, as artistic director and technical director respectively.
Contemporary documents reveal that the version shown at this first screening was 4,016 metres long and lasted four and a half hours – too long for that period, and it was decided that it should be cut to go easier on audiences. However, the censor’s permit, already applied for earlier, specifies a total length of 3,816 metres, with the film divided into two parts, indicating a second version. Judging by the length and running time of the restored version of the film being presented today, there was a third version, possibly the one that shown at the first public screenings in Turin in December 1923, which was enthusiastically received by an audience of “almost two hundred thousand spectators”.
The tangled process of production and distribution have not made it easy to trace the film’s history. But it is interesting to note, thanks to additional film sources, that between 1923 and 1925 I promessi sposi was shown in a number of Italian cities, including Florence and Milan, pleasing critics and audiences alike. Watching the film, it is easy to see why. Its crowd scenes, long battle sequences, psychological characterizations – rendered largely through telling close-ups – and deftly unconventional direction make it a successful and visually striking work. One memorable moment is the overhead tracking shot of Don Rodrigo’s long dining table. The scenes alternate between action sequences and situations grouped in linear narrative episodes, with several interesting usages of cross-cutting, transitions, and subdivision of the frame into different planes of action and tempo. Art director and costume designer Camillo Innocenti’s clever reconstruction of interiors and management of extensive outdoor locations earned praise, noting that he “had brought to life [17th-century] Milan under the times of Spanish rule”. The naturalistic acting, never excessive, alternates melodrama with comedy, in a finished product which is pleasing and never “over the top”.
The film was digitally restored in 2K at the Cineteca Italiana in Milan, starting with the original nitrate negative and a comparison with the tinted 35mm nitrate print held by the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome, which also provided the intertitles.