The movie ‘Cenere’ with Eleonora Duse shown for the first time in Hong Kong.

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The movie ‘Cenere’ with Eleonora Duse was inspired by Grazia Deledda’s book having the same title. It has been shown for the first time in Hong Kong on 2nd of April, 2014.

This was the second ‘Deleddian’ event after  the presentation at the Ferrari’s showroom in January. The next step  is scheduled for the end of May, with two experts from Sardinia coming to Hong Kong and Macau. There will be also the staging of a play written by Juan Morales. Finally, at the beginning of October, a delegation of professors and students from Hong Kong City University will travel to Sardinia for a writing retreat, there they will visit places appearing in Grazia Deledda’s novels.

Cenere was shot in 1916 with the script freely adapted by Duse and Febo Mari. This film is often quoted in the history of silent movies, because of Eleonara Duse’s extraordinary performance. At the inception of silent movies history, all actors tended to over-emphasize their actions and expressions to compensate the fact that they could not speak and there was no music.

Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo

This trend became exaggerated until a new wave of restrained gestures took old. Duse was credited with the invention of the elimination of self on theatrical stage, this concept of transforming yourself into the character was not the case before her. She then took her technique into this film. Eleonora Duse’s performance was one of the first steps in the right direction, and her acting style was followed by Janet Gaynor, Priscilla Dean and Greta Garbo. This film deserves to be digitally cleaned and mended, well knowing that about 80% of silent movies are lost and the remaining 20% are in bad condition, Cenere, unfortunately, is no exception to this sad rule.

Grazia Deledda – the author of the book ‘Cenere’ – was born on 27 September 1871, in Nuoro, Sardinia and lived there until she was 29. She received only an elementary school education, class 4, because her family barred her from going to high school and university being a girl she built her impressive writing skill by reading, writing and taking sort of private tuition in Nuoro, given by a teacher. Deledda by the age of 14 begun writing for several ladies magazines. Deledda’s mother was a pious lady of Spanish descent. Her father was well off but died when she was only 16.Her favorite authors were Victor Hugo, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Balzac. Deledda married in 1900 Palmiro Madesani, a civil servant from Lombardy, she had met him in Cagliari and then they moved to Rome. Will power and hard work were Deledda’s strong points. Deledda wrote every day, 2/3 hours in the afternoon, seven days a week, always by hand. She always thought in the Nuorese dialect and had to translate it into Italian while writing.

Deledda's House in Nuoro
Deledda’s House in Nuoro


Unlike other writers she was not looking for linguistic and fashionable effects, perhaps this explains why her writings remain fresh and clear. She only wanted to convey meaning, colours and emotions. They described her as the Italian George Sand. Her fame became well established internationally with the Nobel Prize which she won in 1926.  The second woman after the Swedish Selma Lagerlof receiving the Nobel for Literature; the second Italian after the poet Giosuè Carducci. All her books can be called long love letters to her native land. At the end of her life she had written 35 novels and hundreds of short stories.  She died of breast cancer in Rome on 15 august 1936 at 65.

The book ‘Cenere’ was first printed in 1903 (the same year of Elias Portolu) in 3 installments on the magazine NUOVA ANTOLOGIA by Maggiorino Ferraris and the following year, in 1904, it came out in book form. It was one of her most successful books and was soon translated into several languages. It is a very dramatic story where we feel the influence of Nietzsche and Victor Hugo.



A married man from Nuoro deceives and then abandons a young girl he had taken as his lover. The girl is called Rosalia. When Rosalia gets pregnant she is thrown out by her family and abandoned by her lover. With the newly born boy, called Anania, first she goes to stay with the wife of a bandit in the village of Fonni, after a few years she is forced to abandon him and leave Sardinia. Before sending him out at around 5 she put on his neck a rezetta, a talisman. A wealthy benefactor will take care of the boy’s upbringing and the man’s daughter, Margherita, will fall in love of him. Anania will be successful in the legal profession but he is obsessed by the idea of finding his lost mother. He found her in Rome, working as a prostitute, surrounded by thieves and beggars. Margherita, his fiancée, could not accept such a mother in law and Rosalia, realizing that public knowledge of her life will jeopardize her son’s impending marriage and professional success, makes the ultimate maternal sacrifice to ensure his future.  She suicides. After her death, Anania opens the amulet her mother gave him, and found that it contained only ashes, a presage of what life is.

Eleonora Duse
Eleonora Duse


There is a lot of crude bitterness in this book, reminding of Gorki but also a wonderful psychological interpretation of the characters as well as deep description of the Sardinian landscape. It created a storm of criticism because of his crudity.

Eleonora Duse was born in Vigevano in 1858. Her parents were professional actors but they went hungry several times. Her first success in Verona when she was 14 and did play Juliet.

She had been one of  the most famous actresses of her time with Sarah Bernhard. Chekov, George Bernard Show, Joyce, Rilke, John Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo all adored her.

They thought she was a saint being so deeply moved by her magic, supernatural way of acting. In fact  she never used complicated costumes, or jewels or even make up. She was able not only to cry and smile but also to blush and pale by will command.

She was famous for her voice, deep and full of passion, but we don’t have a record.



First woman on Time Magazine's cover.
First woman on Time Magazine’s cover.

Duse became famous for her passions and affairs, she toured America several times. Between 1887 and 1894 she was the lover of the poet Arrrigo Boito, who had written several librettos for Verdi. In 1895 she met Gabriele D’Annunzio, 5 years younger than her and they become lovers.

In 1896 Edison convinced her to record her voice, the last ACT of Dumas’s ‘The Lady of the Camellias.’ Such recording was unfortunately burn with most of Edison recordings so we do not know how her famed voice was. There are no other recordings or other moving images apart from this film. She was so popular that in 1923 was the first woman on the cover of TIME magazine. When she toured the USA  president of President Cleveland’s wife threw a party in her honour at the White House, never done before for an actress. It was a scandal. Duse loved the book Cenere, like the character she was made pregnant, like Rosalia when young by a Neapolitan journalist who later abandoned her. Duse married an actor had a daughter but they separated because Duse did fall in love of another man.

Boito and Verdi
Boito and Verdi
Febo Mari
Febo Mari

This movie was not well received and had negative criticism. Critics said that the book was not well suited to be transformed in a movie but Duse felt the character so much that several times had to stop to let her stop crying. The film was assembled in Turin. She was pushing the director with these words: “Keep me in the shadows and don’t, don’t show my hands, because hands reveal the face…’

This film was shot in Val di Lanzo, near Turin, not in Sardinia or in Versilia, or Lazio as some said. Duse decided not to shoot other movies after ‘Cenere’ also because she had a car crash few months after the release of the film, in Alassio, injuring her face. The script was written by Duse and by Febo Mari (a Sicilian greatly appreciated by D’Annunzio) ho also plays the part of the grown up son of Rosalia and was also the film director. 1921, and in 1923 Duse toured London, Vienna, United States, dyeing of tuberculosis in Pittsburgh, in a hotel room in 1926, like Violetta Valery, in the Opera La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi.



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