Directed by Giovanni Pastrone
123 minutes; Italy; Black and White; Silent
In 1914 Italy was the world's third largest exporter of movies. The films fueling Italy's drive toward the top of the international film markets at that time were historical epics: grand spectacles of Rome's glorious past portrayed by a cast of thousands on massive sets. Italian cinema's predilection for historical films had been apparent since nearly the advent of cinema production in Italy. Early productions like La presa di Roma (1905), Gli Ultimi giorni di Pompeii (1908), and La Caduta di Troia (1910) led the way. As the scope of historical narratives broadened so the length and scale of the pictures increased as well. Costume pictures like L'Inferno (1911) were also steps on the path toward feature length historical superproductions. Finally, in 1913, Italy's feature length historical epic was truly realized with Quo Vadis?. That film was enormously successful at home and captured the attention of world markets generating interest for something more grandiose and spectacular. A year later even Quo Vadis? was overshadowed by an even more ambitious picture: the crowning achievement of Italian historical extravanganzas, Cabiria (1914).
Produced by Italia Film over the course of two years with locations in Italy, Sicily, Spain, Switzerland and Egypt, and featuring some 6,000 extras, Cabiria reportedly cost $250,000 to make (an extravagant sum in those days). The film premiered in Turin, Italy on April 18, 1914 to great success, and the news of the cinematic masterpiece spread across Europe and the United States. Cabiria was the greatest spectacle anyone had ever seen, and Italian cinema was poised to dominate anything else being produced around the world. Only a world war would get in the way and prevent Italian cinema from realizing this potential.
In the film a Sicilian girl named Cabiria (Carolina Catena) is separated from her parents when Mount Etna erupts and causes widespread destruction. She and her servant are kidnapped and sold as slaves in Carthage where a horrible fate awaits Cabiria: she is to be burned alive as a sacrifice to Moloch, god of bronze. A brave young Roman named Fulvio (Umberto Mozzato) and his herculean slave Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano) race to her rescue. Maciste is the standout role of film; he's brave, heroic, and adds some refreshing comedy when he uses his strength to convince others to do the right thing (Pagano became a star in his own right, a sort of proto-Schwarzenegger, in Italian strongman films like Marvelous Maciste (1915) and Maciste Alpino (1916)). The story of Cabiria's rescue, and the picture's many subplots, are less woven than absorbed into a larger historical narrative of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Though maybe that's just the history buff in me focusing on what interests me most.
Cabiria (1914) was written, produced and directed by Giovanni Pastrone. However, a 1914 review in the New York Times is confusingly titled "D'Annunzio's Photoplay Cabiria." Gabriele D'Annunzio was an esteemed poet in Italy at the time and was hired to write the film's title cards. Pastrone seems to have preferred to remain in the background and let the famous writer take the credit for his film. But why? If Pastrone envisioned his film as the culmination of Italian cinema's rise from mere amusement to serious artform perhaps he wanted audiences to connect it with a well-known author. The association with a respected poet would have contributed to the legitimization of the film as a serious work comparable to the finest theatre production. Exaggerating D'Annunzio's contribution then appears to have been a means to effectively promote the film to its intended audience.
These lofty ideas about Cabiria's status as a serious work of art were carried across the Atlantic where the film opened the Spring season (and was screened twice a day all summer for a dollar a ticket) at a legitimate theatre, the Knickerbocker Theatre in New York, on June 2, 1914. A fifty piece symphony orchestra and a chorus of forty voices performed an accompaniment especially prepared for the film. The New York premiere was presented by Ernesto Nathan, former Mayor of Rome. After some 200 performances it moved on from the Knickerbocker to other legitimate theatres like the Globe and Weber's. The New York Times estimated that by October 18, 1914 half a million people had seen the film.
True believers file into the yawning mouth of Moloch to watch a hundred children be sacrficed to the god.
Unlike the personal dramas in Traffic in Souls (1913) or The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), which are tightly focused on individual characters, Cabiria is all about scale - the devastation wrought by the eruption of Mount Etna, a ritual sacrifice attended by hundreds of fanatical worshippers in a massive temple complex, a battle-royale between whole squadrons of ships on the sea, hundreds of troops and elephants crossing the Alps with Hannibal to invade Rome, etc. I notice that in this superspectacle the individual characters are swallowed up in the wide sweeping perspective of the narrative which encompasses competing groups (Romans vs. Carthaginians, etc.) and larger events. The story of Cabiria's kidnapping, near-sacrifice to Moloch, and final fate is incidental to the extra-personal forces driving the broader historical narrative of the film.
If we assume massive sets, thousands of extras, and a grand sweeping narrative are inherent to almost any spectacle film then the most outstanding technical achievement of Cabiria is Pastrone's deft use of tracking shots. Though moving the camera was tried as far back as the Lumiere scenic films when in Panorama du Grand Canal vu d'un bateau (1896) Eugéne Promio put a Cinematograph on a boat and cranked away while the craft moved downstream, a static camera is quite characteristic of early silent cinema. But, Pastrone and cinematographer Segundo de Chomon aren't merely following motion in Cabiria's tracking shots; they create the motion. The lateral tracking of the camera in Cabiria catches us off guard—we expect to see static images in early silent films—and engages our unconscious expectations about moving through space. Pastrone is inviting us into the picture to explore the depth of the image on-screen instead of passively viewing it. Cabiria's tracking shots, which reestablish cinema as separate and distinct from still photography and stage productions wherein such movements are impossible, influenced filmmakers over the following few years, and in fact these tracking shots became known as "Cabiria movements" for a time.
The ambitious scale, length and extravagance of Cabiria is said to have influenced D.W. Griffith to produce Intolerance (1916). In fact, a 1915 advertisement for Griffith's Birth of a Nation in the New York Times includes a quote from the New York World that says a lot about the impact of Pastrone's film, "Mr. Griffith's representation makes Cabiria insignificant by comparison." A bit of provincial ballyhoo for sure but nonetheless it reveals that Cabiria had set the highest standard by which the work of the finest filmmakers would now be measured.
In 1921, the New York Times reviewed Cabiria for a revival that year and claimed that the film had risen "like a cinematographic sun on the motion picture world." But back in 1914 the greatest historical spectacle of the early silent era was eclipsed by an even greater spectacle: World War I. Because of the war there would be no more grandiose historical epics coming out of Italy. The war robbed Italy of its lucrative export markets, drained the talent and manpower integral to the creation of such ambitious historic spectacles, and wartime restrictions caused a sharp decline in the total number of productions. In the years following the war Italy's previously successful production companies failed to recapture their former gains and faced fierce competition as American film interests flooded the markets with product and withheld raw film stock. Cabiria marks a high point for the influence of Italian cinema on the world, but The Great War blasted away Italy's attempts to regain its preeminent position in the years that followed.