In the end, it is all about the penguins – but we can get to that in due course.
Raggio di Sole – released in the UK as Sunbeam – is a 1912 Italian short film. It is a silent film of course, given its age, but its black and white photography was hand-tinted on the print to give each scene a different orange or green hue. It was produced by Ambrosio Film, one of the very first film production companies in Italy.
A miserable prince (Mario Voller-Buzzi) cannot be roused from his ongoing melancholy. While his father, the king (Cesare Zocchi), discusses possible methods of recovery with his advisors, a beam of sunlight breaks through to the prince’s chambers and shines upon him. He ventures outside to set up his sled and to pursue the source of this warm light – a magical sunbeam personified as a beautiful woman (Signora Schneider).
Raggio di Sole is a simple story, shot almost entirely inside a studio, and it expresses itself with remarkable charm. The costumes are richly detailed. The performances are broad, as suits the format, and it tells a compact fairy tale in the space of seven minutes. The film was produced very early in the history of narrative cinema, and there is still a delightful sense of novelty about seeing the adventure unfold on screen. The coloured tinting is a wonderful touch, creating a more stimulating picture than simple shades of grey.
Then there are the penguins. There is no reason given, or excuse made, but the melancholic prince’s sled is pulled through the snow by a small waddle of penguins. They are not portrayed by actual penguins, of course, but by adult actors in large and wonderfully naïve costumes. It is a bizarrely pleasant touch, one that lifts Raggio di Sole from a simple children’s film to a genuinely weird little distraction.
In many ways, short films such as this are the best way to begin experiencing silent cinema. The time commitment is short, many of the extant productions are available online for free, and they are brief enough to avoid risking the fatigue some modern-day viewers get trying to watch an entire silent feature. If nothing else, you need to stream it for the penguins.
A fully restored copy of Raggio di Sole is available to watch on Vimeo thanks to Cineteca MNC. Click here for more information.