First SECA Award in Film   SF MOMA



BEATRICE CENCI is taken from footage shot for the Washington Opera’s world premier of Alberto Ginestera’s opera, which opened the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1971. It was shot on location in Rome during the fall of 1970 under highly unusual circumstances.  Chase had visited in the spring to make arrangements for the filming, but he needed a great deal of help. Almost ten years before, when he spent time at the MacDowell Colony, a friend, novelist Mary Lee Settle, had given him a list of names for his tour of the Southern states.  One of the names was Eugene Walter who had received him as a guest in Georgia in 1958.  Fast foward to Rome of 1970 --now Eugene Walter was the reigning American expatriate, having his finger in all pots--friend to the Italian film directors, set designers, writers and actors.  He found Chase an assistant director (Pier Luigi Farri), a production manager and a hotel.  That summer Roma was still basking in its reputation as the center of the European film world.  The twelve day shoot fell into place by a series of fortunate accidents.

Central to the difficulties of filming was a small budget which meant the lack of locations and actors.  Almost all the locations Chase had wanted to film belonged to the Vatican, and permits took months.  Almost 20 actors were needed for a series of murders happening in the street.  Eugene Walter had the perfect answer..." beg your actors to volunteer, and simply steal your sets."   So the day's schedule went as follows: every evening Chase and his assistants would wander the streets after dinner. The streets were teeming with actors, or at least ones that looked like they fit a film set in the Renaissance.  Most of the cast when approached, thought acting was a great idea and agreed to film (for a day only).  The next morning they would converge at Rome's most exotic costume house. Here all the costumes for an array of the finest Italian period films could be found.  The "actors" were now beautifully dressed.  Next, crew and actors would drive to a authentic location. The scene would be talked through in the car.  Stealthily the camera would be set on a tripod, and actors in place.  Out would come the custodian forbidding the shoot. Out would come some money to placate the custodian for "only 15 minutes".  Shooting would begin. Custodian would appear after 15 minutes. Out comes more money, etc.  Scene finished.

The actors turned out to be a very good reflection of the later European Union.  They were Polish, German, Swedish, English, French, Spanish & Italian. Of the 20 actors found in the street for this film, 13 of them appeared in Fellini's Roma the next year!   These were the unusual circumstances surrounding this production.




It is astonishing that this true story would attract so much literary interest through time. It is thought to have been discovered in the Roman archives by Percy Bysshe Shelly, the romantic poet, who turned it into a play in verse. In the 2oth century, Antonin Artaud created a modern version as did the Italian writer, Alberto Morovia. Ginestera’s opera and this film are the latest incarnations.

By the time Chase began work on this short film, he had refined camera movement and inter-cutting as major elements in his fragmented narratives. In Rome he was struck by so many carved faces rapt in fear or horror that showed up on buildings, or tucked away in alleyways or on fountains that were always showing up. They seemed like witnesses to violent acts. In contrast to the art and enlightened ideas in the Renaissance, Rome, he learned, was also the center of constant turmoil ––fear, assassination and rage. The real story of Beatrice Cenci reflected this atmosphere of violence, panic and terror.

He began by collecting visual building blocks that would surround the central action in the film, which is the murder of Count Cenci. But as in Fragments, Chameleon & Clown the central action is never seen in total, only the anxiety leading up to it, or the emotional toll after the fact. By creating the film to suggest Beatrice’s dreams allows it to morph into a nightmare.

Count Cenci is only seen twice in the film––in a troubled sleep and waking at the moment of his murder—- but he is surrounded by images of his sons in various stages of anxiety or fear, as their lives were constantly full of his threats, his intimidation and eventually his murders. Movement is used in constant and repetitive inter-cutting techniques, building rhythmic patterns. The characters are forever retracting from or racing toward terrible events that are never literally shown except for one moment when the sounds of Cenci’s screams are made vivid, before the stake was driven into his head.




In 2003 Chase had been directing his SF Film Workshop since 1998. He suggested that his students that year edit their own version of Beatrice using the original footage from the film. The results became ON A PAINTING BY CARAVAGGIO (2003)