Thoughts On: Every Year In Film #34 - Romeo e Giulietta

11/02/2018

Every Year In Film #34 - Romeo e Giulietta

Thoughts On: Romeo e Giulietta (1912) and Epic Italian Silent Cinema


An exploration of the silent Italian historical film and its impact on cinema.


Today in the Every Year Series we are going to be discussing early Italian cinema and the emergence of the epic film. This post is going to be quite an intriguing one, one that is going to see the Every Year Series move into realms that it hasn't yet. This is because Italian silent cinema represents one of the earliest explosions of the narrative film into something simultaneously new, exiting and quite recognisable to us in the modern day. So, though we have been discussing the emergence of the feature film for quite some time now and have seen examples of them from Australia in 1906, through to Denmark around 1909 and have even seen the traditional feature-length film transcended by Feuillade and his serials, all of these forms of cinema that we have so far touched on feel quite distant from classical silent and narrative films. Many mark 1915's The Birth Of A Nation as a point at which a new kind of modern cinema was born. However, today we will see that American-centric film history is not really reflective of actual history. In my opinion, it was through Danish cinema that cinema transition into this modern period. It is with Italian epic cinema, however, that this movement becomes undeniable, leaving epic American cinema, the cinema of Griffith, as a huge, important - but not singular and not the first - beat of this transition that notably trails behind the efforts made by European filmmakers.

In addition to this, through early Italian cinema we also see a focal point of one of the first film movements markered and a form of cinema that begins to reflect real world history and culture in a way that film hadn't really managed yet. We will get into this first point in greater detail as we move on, but Italian cinema continued and brought to new heights the Film D'Art movement that emerged in France around 1908. Today we could then come to the understanding that Film D'Art was one of the very first movements in cinema, one that is quite separate from the movements of the 20s, such as Surrealism, Dada and Expressionism, that all emerged from other art forms; Film D'Art came from cinema and was all (almost all) about cinema. Beyond this, Italian cinema was a little more than a representative of an art movement; it, in my view, is one of the very first kinds of cinema that appears to be a voice of a country and culture in a very specific time.

So far in the Every Year Series, we haven't put much focus on considering film as a product of history. This was partly a conscious decision on my behalf, but also a seeming reflection of reality. Whilst the birth of cinema as a technology says an awful lot about how the world was changing as it moved out of the 19th century, cinema is one entity among a plethora of inventions that marked the movement into a new industrial age. Coming out of the 1800s was the evolved printing press and typewriters, electric lights, looms, bicycles, trains, cars, advanced machinery that mechanised factory productions, microphones, sewing machines, calculators, revolvers, machine guns, telegraphs, telephones, phonographs, photographs, the moving pictures and so much more. The 1800s witnessed an Industrial Revolution that cinema was a product of, but not necessarily the face of. As we have then explored, cinema was born as a novelty of this age and so it took a while for its impact to be felt. After all, if we compare early cinema to the train, electrical/gas lighting, production machinery or revolvers, its initial impact seems quite minimal.

So, though cinema initially was a huge revelation in the hands of, for example, Muybridge, its marvels were pretty self-contained. And though cinema gained huge popularity during the first 15 years, it isn't until this period that we are now in, the 1910s, that the stories it was beginning to tell said and represented something seemingly bigger than cinema itself. If we look back, for example, to cinema's role during the Spanish-American war around the turn of the 20th century, we see it having little impact. Whilst there were numerous allusions to this event in recreated newsreels, these shorts don't seem to be profoundly impactful materials equal to news and/or propaganda as it appears in cinematic form at later points in history (WWII for example). In fact, it seems that the Spanish-American War did more for cinema than cinema did for the war as it briefly brought large audiences into theatres, allowing films to provide a visual spectacle that would probably be subservient to real news from newspapers and word of mouth. Moreover, if we consider the cinematic aesthetic as a product of its time, we can see elements of art nouveau in the cinema of Segundo de Chomón and Méliès to some degree. However, we wouldn't consider their films to be apart of that art movement as cinema wasn't really treated or seen as an art by Chomón and Méliès. Thus, we can't really grant their trick films passage into that realm; film simply didn't have much of a serious cultural impact outside of novelty.

More broadly, street scenes pre-1905 and narrative shorts post-1905 all reflect times and places; Lumière shorts put us in 1895 Paris and the shorts of Guy Blaché or Zecca seem to be a product of a particular society. These forms of cinema, however, do not say much, or reflect upon, their times and place to a degree that really grants a true analysis. This is why you will most likely not find a book on the cinema of 1900-1909 and the politics of, say, America or France. This book could be written, especially when we consider, for example, Edison shorts that deal with humans in a questionably racialised light...


... and used animals as sources of dark spectacle...


However, though there is something to be said about these films' context, I'm not sure how substantial a book about this would be. After all, how substantial and important was film at this time?

It is post-1910 than cinema starts to become more important and so its impact more significant. And it is within Italian cinema in particular that we can see traits that seemingly reflect, in a substantial light, the state of Italy as a country at the time. And books have been written about just this; about Italian cinema, its audiences and the rise of fascism. So, before we start to discuss Italian cinema, it seems important to note a few details about Italy around the early 20th century.

From around 1829 to 1871, Italy transformed from a cluster of rather individual states, many of which had their own languages and cultures, into a unified Kingdom of Italy independent of Austria, France and Prussia (Germany) through conflicts with said countries. Unification, which was a phenomena that spread throughout much of Europe in the early modern period, saw the rise of a new kind of nationalism, one tied to another developing, evolving installation: government and democracy. It is nationalism that came along with the industrial age because the world was essentially getting bigger; major cities were industrially and technologically developing and connecting to one another. Nationalism would have played a role in unifying societies that were not too long ago seen as separate states. But, as we would all know, nationalism lead to a lot of problems in the 20th century in the form of two World Wars and a plethora of other conflicts and issues.

Because I'm not a historian, I won't try to give too many more details. However, with this basic knowledge of the state of nations around the early 20th century, we can see that the cinema of the mid nineteen-teens starts to reflect this. It is then not difficult to see nationalism in something such as The Birth of a Nation. However, this is just as true for an epic Italian cinema that predates Griffith's 1915 picture.

Early 20th century Italy was under the influence of a strengthening socialist party. Whilst the country, just as Mussolini did, would transition away from socialism and towards fascism after seeing socialism as a failure and the nation ally with the German Empire for WWI, Italy's colonial aspirations remained quite consistent. Italy was not a colonial power like Britain or France were, but they certainly, just like Germany, wanted to be. An undercurrent of Italy's colonialism was their past and, of course, the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was looked back upon, romanticised, and, especially when Mussolini rose to power in the 20s, was used as a signifier of where Italy was headed; the fascist powers wanted to essentially 'make Italy great again'.

Though Italy isn't a fascist state in the 1900s or 1910s, we will see Italian cinema grow to embody a romanticisation of its history that would begin to have implications of the fascist regime to come. But, before we actually begin to look at these films as evidence for this, it must be noted that we are, of course, looking back on a time that does not know of its future. In 1905, how many people in Italy could have guessed that they were 10 years away from a World War, 20 years away from fascism and 30 years away from another World War? As a result, though there is a clear nationalist sentiment in many of the films we are about to explore, it wouldn't be sensible to label these sentiments as distinctly malevolent forces. After all, though nationalism has its very ugly sides, it is, of course, not pure evil. And this is something we will have to concede quite a bit as we move on in the Every Year Series and look at German, American, British, French and Russian cinema. All of these countries - and more - were hubs for political doctrines that lead to a lot of destruction and problems in the 20th century, but I don't believe that everything is political and that all film is propaganda or a product of politics. Thus, though it is important to recognise the context of cinema as we talk today and move on in the series, it will always be important to recognise where art splits from politics and where the line between collective and individual projections lie. That said, let us open up with the birth of Italian cinema:


It seems that not much is known or written about the first Italian films; most of which seem to be lost. Italy is, however, a neighbour to France, so, like Spain, Britain, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium, it was one of the first places that the Lumières would go to showcase their invention. Photographer Italo Pacchioni was at one of their early screenings and, like a plethora of other filmmakers who were at the first Lumière screenings, would want to buy a cinématographe. Pacchioni, like almost everyone else, was turned down and had to create his own machine based on what he saw. This is Pacchioni's camera...


... and it is with this that he likely shot the short you just saw; a staged street scene drama, The Fake Cripple, which sees a man pretend to be crippled and beg for money before being found out. Though this is somewhat interesting as a product from 1896 for the fact that it is already exploring genre - crime, drama, comedy maybe - because there are so few Italian films available from the 1800s and early 1900s, we are left to assume that this period of filmmaking was a relatively quiet one.

It wasn't until the emergence of Itala Film, Ambrosio Film and Cines in the mid 1900s that Italian film history begins to speak out to us. These companies were all founded between 1906 and 1907, but the first Italian production company is thought to be Alberini & Santoni, a precursor to Cines. It was this company that produced one of the first significant narrative films in Italy during 1905, The Taking of Rome:


Most of this film is lost with only 4 out of the original 10 minutes surviving today. Nonetheless, this is often considered to be one of the earliest prototypes of the silent Italian epic as you can certainly recognise with its allusion to history bolstered by action and explosions. More specifically, this short  recreates the 1870 Capture of Rome, which was one of the final battles between the Papal (the Pope's) States and the King's unification forces. So, embedded into what came to be a foundational film for the Italian epic blockbuster is an overt nationalist statement that celebrates the building of a united Italian kingdom.

There are other nationalist markers from this early period that indicate what was to come from the big Italian studios. Let us then take a moment to consider Alberini & Santoni's transformation into Cines...


Those who know Roman mythology may recognise the image embedded into their logo above.


This famous statue, The Capitoline Wolf, alludes to the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers of noble Greek and Latin descent who founded Rome after being ordered to death as babies, to be abandoned at a river, by a king who saw them as a threat to his reign. The babies survived, however, saved by a river God and, at one point, were cared for by the she-wolf above who suckled them. The she-wolf caring for the children has long been considered a symbol for Rome and Roman people, and so to see this on Cines' logo...


... says much about the kind of films they would make. And as we watch some more films later, keep an eye out and I'm sure you'll see this symbol again.

Before we go on, it is important to add a caveat to all we are about to discuss. The historical epics that came out of Italy between 1909 and 1914 were, by and large, the face of Italian cinema as it was perceived world wide as these were the most popular and successful pictures produced by the nation. However, Italy, just like every other major film-producing country at this time, were producing all kind of films; comedies, romances, chase films, etc. So, though we are going to be discussing this movement of epics, or colossal cinema, this is not all that Italian cinema was. That said, let us jump into one of the early epics to come out of 1909...


In 1909, the Film D'Art movement and studios that were established in France the year previous extended into Italy with the founding of Film D'Arte Italiana. Film D'Arte Italiana, or the Società Anonima Italiana per Film d'Arte (the Italian Society for Art Film), was a studio founded on behalf of Pathé - who had their own Société Cinématographique des Auteurs et des Gens de Lettres (Film Society of Auteurs and of Men of Letters) - and Le Film d'Art. As a result, we could imagine their ideas of cinema evolving through better sets, costumes and scripts migrating over to Italy.

As we have explored recently, the Film D'Art movement was essentially saying that cinema was equal to other arts, such as painting and writing. And so let it not be overlooked that one of the earliest film theorist was the Italian writer, Ricciotto Canudo, who, in 1911, argued that cinema was the Sixth Art. Italian Film D'Art was then not a minor phenomena; it was ingrained into the Italian films, the culture around Italian cinema, and it spread across the world as the popular Film D'Art Italian epics did.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like any of Film D'Arte Italiana's early films are available online. Nonetheless, when looking at Nero, or The Fall Of Rome, it seems clear that we're seeing the products of a movement that existed outside of the one studio. Ambrosio's The Fall Of Rome is very clearly Film D'Art for the quality of its sets and costumes and the ambitious scope of its story and destruction. So, this again echoes the idea that Film D'Art was deeply embedded into epic Italian cinema, which leaves the peplum (costume drama; historical epic; sword-and-sandal film) synonymous with the 1910 conception of art film.

Before pushing deeper into the peplum as an art film, we should also take a moment to recognise that Italian cinema was incredibly popular within the nation before, during and after certain epics were met with much international success. In what we may refer to as Italy's first Golden Age (most critics consider the Neorealist period to be Italian cinema's Golden Age, but their epic cinema period is arguably just as critical and historically significant) thousands of cinemas were spread around Italy with it being estimated that, at the height of this era around 1913, over a million people were going to the pictures every day. Cinema was then a huge part of Italy's economy and is often considered to have been integrated into an Italian identity of the times for the manner in which it played with nationalism and Italy's history. Notably, a similar thing could be said of French cinema at this time - it was deeply embedded into the culture and has remained so ever since. Hollywood hasn't yet come to be, but in America, too, film was becoming a cultural force.

As Italian cinema became more popular, it did have to evolve. This is then where we see Italian filmmakers push the Film D'Art movement. With three examples of the Italian peplum, we can then trace the form's evolution between 1911 and 1912 in regards to story, aesthetics, cinematic language and special effects. To do this, we start with our 1912 subject for today, Romeo e Giulietta:


Romeo e Giulietta is a film from Film D'Arte Italiana, one that brilliantly projects the movement's idea of film art through tremendous work with costumes and sets that is, in this restored print, supported incredibly well with tinting and precise mise en scène.


What strikes you about this movement is its ties to theatre, novels and painting - which leaves epic Italian cinema a few steps out and away from American cinema. Italian cinema of this period at its finest never told its own stories; everything was an adaptation of a novel, play or book recounting history. With Romeo e Giulietta, we are seeing an adaptation of one story with many sources. As most will recognise immediately, this is the story of Romeo and Juliet. However, Shakespeare adapted this story from translations of the original Italian tale by Matteo Bandello. With this short, Film D'Arte Italiana are seemingly re-appropriating the English play and re-situating it in a distinctly Italian context; the act of reclamation may have bid well in times of growing nationalism, helping to bolster the Italian identity by letting Italian audiences feel ownership over the classical story. If such a sentiment didn't resonate, Film D'Arte Italiana were at the least bringing a great work to cinema, which is a practice that is over a decade old by now (figures such as Méliès would be adapting tales such as Cinderella before even 1900), at scales that few have so far achieved.

There is a debate that could be had over the importance of adaptations and original stories in this time. Looking back to Italian epics, especially Romeo e Giulietta, which is a story we would have seen many times before, I find myself far less engaged in the story than I would with original Griffith stories such as The Lonedale Operator. This is, of course, because Griffith's original narratives were new for the times, and so new for anyone who looks back on them for the first time now. However, if we try to imagine the audience's mentality at the times, we may suggest that they saw the adaptations to be just as new as the original films. After all, though they probably knew the story of, for example, Romeo e Giulietta, they would have never seen it on film before. It is then difficult to know how much the adapted story helped cinema in the 1910s. It certainly brought in an awful lot of money world wide, but it also set a president in many countries of the adaptation being more important than the original work - which I'm sure we all have our personal opinions on - and this idea would exist for decades with its weight still on modern cinema.

Keeping in mind the role of epic Italian cinema in the founding of this trend in cinema, we can move on to one of the early huge blockbuster successes of the times, The Fall of Troy:


This is an important film for a few reasons, but, the main two are its impact on the studio Itala Film and the career of Giovanni Pastrone. With The Fall of Troy as a huge success that was seen across the world, Itala Film would have become an even bigger power in the industry. Thus, successes such as The Fall Of Troy would keep the industry churning and evolving. What's more, it would force filmmakers to try and top themselves. And so, with The Fall of Troy as Giovanni Pastrone's biggest work of the time, it would have seen him given the chance to make Cabiria. Cabiria, as we explore later, came out in 1914 and followed other blockbuster successes such as Quo Vadis? that, themselves, were topping what The Fall Of Troy managed in 1911. Cabiria is, arguably, one of the first truly great works of feature film production thanks to the reputation and stature that was built with the likes of The Fall of Troy.

If we take a minute to analyse this film, we will find that it is functioning on a higher technical level than anything we have so far seen. In such, just look at the pure magnitude of shots such as this:


Not only is this sequence indicative of the huge scale that this film assumes, but it also shows the development of film language through depth of field. In recognising and utilising the cinematic space as a 3-dimensional one, Pastrone opens up the possibilities of mise en scène. In the above shot, he uses a deep depth of field to construct a powerful shot with the Trojan horse far in the distance. However, there are more minor moments where the depth of field is used to tell a story...


It is very difficult to make out because of the quality of the image, but, behind the fountain and under the statue is a spy who plays a significant part in the plot of the film...


This piece of film language is also present in Romeo e Giulietta and other films of the time as, not only were sets being emphasised through a greater depth of field, but it improved mise en scène and was making cinema as dynamic as, if not, more so than, high quality theatre or opera. However, distinguishing cinema from the play or opera, we also have special effects playing a part in the telling of this story:


We will see special effects play an even bigger role in the next film we touch on, but, scenes like this are quite the revelation as special effects rarely found their way into bigger productions of the time. If you look to Danish, French or American dramas around 1910, you will then be tasked to find special effects like those dazzling the screens in Italy. Following in the footsteps of earlier biblical films, Italian epics then told stories through special effects, they didn't just put on a show like all the trick filmmakers were. And this is a profoundly important detail to realise as, without special effects and technical trickery, cinema wouldn't be too far from theatre at all.

Before jumping into the final film for today, we will look at one more pre-Cabiria film. This is the first known Italian feature film and one of the earliest surviving feature films we have with us today, Dante's Inferno.


Though Cines, Itala Film and Ambrossio Film were the three big Italian studios in 1907/8, a fourth studio emerged in 1908 and shook up the market in 1911: Milano film. Going a step further than any studio had yet, Milano film were the first Italian studio to make a film that lasted almost 70 minutes. This picture was more ambitious than almost every single Italian silent film ever made as it was going adapt what is, and was, considered one of the greatest Italian literary works of all time: the Inferno canticle (song/hymn) from Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Moreover, this was to be aesthetically inspired by an incredibly popular artist of the time: Gustave Doré. Doré's most famous works are illustrations of scenes from various books written by Milton, Balzac, Lord Byron, tales such as Red Riding Hood and even sequences from the Bible. Doré, in the late 1800s, also created illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy.

  

Using these as an aesthetic blueprint, the directors (of which there were three; Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe De Liguoro) would create a series of cinematic tableau vivants that essentially hop from space to space, through the circles of Hell, allowing title cards to visually exposit the series of poetically judicial punishments that Dante originally constructed in his extended poem. There is a question we could lean into concerning this subject: How successful is Inferno in regards to Doré's work?

  

  

  

I think it is quite fair to say that Inferno finds varying degrees of success in taking Doré's illustrations as inspiration. Never are the drawings surpassed in quality, and whilst some comparisons reveal the technical limitations of film at the time, cinema seems to hold its own with the boat shot in particular. And it's in mentioning that sequence that it must be noted that Inferno is often seen as the first silent film to showcase nudity. Whilst we could reference pre-filmic 'filmmakers' such as Marey and Muybridge, this idea seems to hold strong. Interestingly, however, some of the first nudity put to screen is not pornographic. Rather, taking traditions from classical painting and fine art, the naked form is used as an expression of shape, world and tone; the nude bodies of the dammed emphasise their position as almost tortured animals. This, which can be seen quite directly as an expression of Film D'Art, is yet another powerful revelation for cinema in this period, but, and some may say unfortunately, this perspective of the naked body is not as historically significant for cinema as work with special effects and classical works from other art forms was and came to be. In such, though European cinema has often embraced nudity and sexuality, film has never really been known to represent sex and the human body like painting and sculpture historically has.

With all the films we have so far discussed being building blocks of Italian epic cinema - they signify its cultural importance, its link with nationalism and Italian history, the development of film language, genre conventions and aesthetic traditions - we can essentially see them as steps towards Cabiria.


Cabiria is the quintessential Italian epic of the silent era, and one of the most iconic silent films ever made. This then takes the Film D'Art movement and blows it up to absurd scales, sitting at the pinnacle of a mountain; its foundations are The Taking Of Rome (1905), above that is the likes of The Fall Of Rome (1909), above that Inferno (1911) and above that Quo Vadis? (1913), and at the very top is Cabiria (1914). Epic Italian cinema did not stop in 1914; it struggled on as WWI raged and transformed through the 20s, dying down, and even pushed on into Italy's sound era, which is characterised by revivification and the Fascist government-run Cinecittà studios. The peplum during this time was never as popular or as significant as it was in pre-war times, though, it did rise to prominence again in the 50s and 60s where it was more popular than ever with countless serials and films about Hercules, Maciste, gladiators, sandals and swords being produced for film and T.V before the genre gave way to Spaghetti Westerns and spy films. After Conan The Barbarian in the 80s, there was another short spark of popularity given to the peplum, though it wasn't too significant for Italian cinema. Nonetheless, whilst Italian film history and epic cinema did not disappear after 1914, Cabiria is often seen as the height of this genre and phenomena.

Cabiria's impact would be felt across the world, but, of course, most resonantly in America. The film played widely, reaching New York and was even reviewed by the New York Times - a rarity for any picture in those days. Cabiria also became the first film to have been played on the grounds of the White House for President Wilson.

Griffith, who would be aware of Italian epic cinema, would be pushing, from the 1910s onwards, to rival European silent film with a bigger, better American cinema. He began to get this around 1913 with The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, but would have to leave Biograph if he was to continue to experiment with epic cinema in the form of The Birth Of A Nation. Now, if you were to compare The Birth Of A Nation with Cabiria, you will see two slightly similar films with different strengths, and so it is hard to suggest which is better - in my view, Cabiria has greater spectacle and The Birth Of A Nation, stronger drama. Both films are bound, however, by a good dose of controversy due to their rather distasteful politics - which we will return to momentarily. If we were to still compare The Birth Of A Nation to Cabiria, I think the most telling fact of the topic is that Griffith would be inspired to make Intolerance, which I believe easily overshadows The Birth Of A Nation as a cinematic achievement, after seeing Pastrone's film.

Cabiria was, in some respects, a celebration and product of the Italo-Turkish War fought between 1911 and 1912. The war was essentially a conflict for land - what is now modern day Libya - that had much to do with nationalist aspirations and ancient history. The Turkish, or Ottoman, Empire was the force that essentially ended the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire was what the East Roman empire became after the West empire fell. For Italy to come to conflict with the Turkish over land seems to speak to this historical conflict around the Mediterranean as a symbolic gesture from Italy as pseudo-Rome wanting to rehabilitate a Roman Empire. Cabiria as a reaction to Italy winning the Libyan War turns the subtext of this conflict quite literal as this film essentially sees the Romans come into conflict with the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War. The ancient Carthaginian civilization resides around modern day Tunisia, which is just north of Libya. The Carthaginian are demonised in Cabiria - and quite possibly as a subtextual poke at North Africa under non-Roman rule. This is all whilst the Romans are sold as stoic nobleman, which leaves Cabiria an obvious attempt to build a nationalist identity in opposition to other Mediterranean/Balkan regions - which is where, of course, WWI was sparked a year after Cabiria's release. As a result, Cabiria was received with some controversy - much like Inferno, which features Muhammad...



... and another serious poke at, not just the Ottoman's who were predominantly Islamic, but Muslims in general. Let it be noted that this anti-Islamic sentiment was in Dante's original Divine Comedy also, and is likely there because Dante was a Catholic and so wouldn't want to present a prophet from another religion (that is Abrahamic nonetheless) in divine lights. However, 1911's Inferno stands as one of the very few films that has ever depicted Muhammad, which, as most will know, is prohibited by certain hadiths (supplements to the Quran) and so is a highly controversial act.

The final point that we will make on Cabiria and its politics concerns what we now call the Nazi, or Hitler, Salute. We see this gesture throughout Cabiria:



This gesture had no affiliation at all with Nazis in 1914 as the Nazi party was not born until 1918 and would not be using the salute until 1923. However, the salute, in 1914, was still heavily linked to nationalistic views of the Roman Empire - which, as most will know, were adopted by the Nazis. Interestingly, however, there is no evidence for the Roman Salute being an actual Roman custom as there are no depictions of it in paintings or texts from those times. The earliest depiction of the Roman Salute is thought to have come from the 18th century and the neoclassical 1784 painting, Oath of the Horatii:


This salute would have likely been turned into a nationalist symbol as it was integrated into popular arts of the 19th and 20th century. Cabiria would have then played a significant part of this as the silent film clearly appears as a nationalist document and was written by a prominent ultra-nationalist war hero and artist who was apart of the Italian Nationalist Association from 1910 to 1923, Gabriele D'Annunzio. D'Annunzio's work as political figure is seen as a precursor to Fascism and as inspiration to Mussolini and Hitler despite D'Annunzio disagreeing and coming into ideological conflict with both of these figures. So, among other things that Cabiria is seen to have played a role in pioneering, developing and integrating into cultures, is, in an around about way, the nationalist salute. Though, as we touched on earlier, those making this film obviously weren't working for, nor intentionally designing this gesture for, Hitler, or even Mussolini, and their regimes.

Moving away from politics, let us touch on the film's technical achievements - which, arguably, had the biggest impact on the world. Cabiria pioneered, as they came to be called for many years after 1914, the 'Cabira shot' or 'Cabiria movement': the tracking shot. Now, we know from many posts ago in the Every Year series that camera movement isn't new in 1914 - not at all. Far back in 1896 we saw some of the first camera movement from Lumière operators such as Promio:


With various camera movements pre-dating even the dissolve, it would be a huge blunder to suggest that Cabiria invented the tracking shot. Cabiria rather adapted the kind of camera movement you have just seen. The camera movement displayed in this short is a way for a space to be explored and an impression of perspective to be projected; Promio is showing us what you would see from, and what it would be like to be on, a boat travelling down the Canal Grande in Venice. Other kinds of camera movements that we would see in trick films were just spectacle, but the likes of Zecca would integrate spectacle into film language in a shot you will see at the 3:10 mark:


With the drunk figure climbing up the face of a building and the camera tracking his movement, we are seeing a difficult transition between spaces - a street and a roof - managed in one of the most impressive ways. This is from a 1905 film. And take a minute to look at a shot from a 1912 film by Segundo de Chomón. Jump to 1:10...


In this spectacular shot, we see camera movement used solely as filmic language; it shows that we are moving into a character's imagination. Unfortunately, Cabiria doesn't feature shots that are as sophisticated as this one from Chomón, nor does Cabiria really capture shots as impressive as that from the 1905 film by Zecca, nor, for example, that in the final episode of Fantômas, also made in 1914:







The vast majority of shots in Cabiria either reveal parts of the set, follow characters or simply give the film energy. So, when we say 'Cabiria shot' or 'Cabiria movement', we are often talking about impressive movement that endows a scene with a sense of the colossal and the dynamically cinematic. The camera movement in Cabiria then does do something unique, and that is build a fluid cinematic space across an entire narrative. If we consider all of the examples of camera movement that we have so far seen, we are only seeing small moments in longer films--or short films built around one moving shot. If you watch Cabiria for 3 or 4 minutes you are almost guaranteed to notice camera movement combined with rather brisk editing; it is apart of the film's style, and that is something new.

Other technical achievements of Cabira concern its lighting that illuminates the massive sets, its special effects, models and even a few snippets of surreal or abstract montage. These techniques are all encapsulated by the iconic Moloch sequence that would be referenced by Lang in his 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis.







Little needs to be said about this sequence, but, even with still images, it is clear that there is huge experimentation going on inside of a film of impossible scale and incredibly rich detail. Let it be noted that, whilst the scale of the film remains consistent, the experimentation does not. Nonetheless, this sequence is a spectacular example of Pastrone at his best.

The final topic that we shall touch on in regards to Cabiria is its story and characters. Starting with story, though Cabiria's narrative is a little confusing at times, it is intricately complex and multilayered. Split into 5 episodes, Cabiria interweaves a plethora of character journeys and plots into one huge movement through many years that recounts the disposition of a Roman princess from her home in Sicily and into slavery, from which she is eventually rescued from by a Roman nobleman and his slave, Maciste. And it is in fact Maciste that is, arguably, the most iconic element of Cabiria as he became an archetypal 'strong man' of Italian cinema.


Bartolomeo Pagano, who played Maciste, was discovered in Genoa (North-West coast of Italy). He was a stevedore, a manual labourer at a dock, with an impressive physique that would go on to capture audiences' imagination, become a star over night, assume the name Maciste as his stage identity and continue to play the character for 14 years after Cabiria's release. Maciste thus became an icon of Italian cinema, and some even suggest that his image was one with ties to nationalism as it promoted the Italian man as powerful and superior to other races. Whilst evidence for this can be seen in other Maciste films, in Cabiria, this claim is not so clear as Maciste is depicted as a heroic dark-skinned slave. This, however, raises the problem of black face and in turn racism.

There is so much more that could be said about Cabiria, about its different cuts, its huge budget - a significant portion of which was given to D'Annunzio, who wrote the intertitles, but only played a small role in the production and so was probably paid so much just so his name would go on the poster - the elephants that are put up mountains, its affiliation with Film D'Art, etc. However, I will leave things as such and you with the film itself.


To bring things towards a close, I'd have to say that I hope this rather long post (with many really long videos embedded into it) provides a satisfactory overview of epic Italian cinema. This is a cinema that really pushed the bounds of what cinema could achieve by spearheading, and even transcending, the Film D'Art movement and developing a new mode of narrative expression by integrating developing film language into cinematic spectacle. If you'd like to know more about this period of filmmaking, there are numerous resources online, including a large pool of films from this time. I also found chapters of the books Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present by Bondanella, The History of Italian Cinema by Brunetta and Cinema & Fascism: Italian Film and Society, 1922-1943 by Ricci incredibly helpful, so, if you can, pick those up and give them a read.

We shall likely be returning to Italian cinema soon in the series, so also keep in mind that there is much more from the Italian silent era than what we've covered today. That said, thanks for reading and keep an eye out for the next post in the series.

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