Tim here, asking the most burning question of them all: who’s ready to talk about Italian silent film?!?!
(Blogging pro-tip: italics and interrobangs make people excited to discuss things that they are not, in fact, excited to talk about).
But actually, we do need to talk about Italian silent film a little bit. Because this weekend marks the centennial anniversary of one of the greatest milestones in film history: Cabiria, a massive historical epic produced and directed by Giovanni Pastrone, and written by literary celebrity Gabriele D’Annunzio. It’s a film in which the title character, played by Lidia Quaranta as a young woman and Carolina Catena as a child, escapes the eruption of Mt. Etna, is captured by Carthaginian pirates, is rescued by a great Roman warrior Fulvio Axilla (Umberto Mozzato) and his muscular slave Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano), who are themselves then caught up in the Second Punic War as Hannibal (Emilio Vardannes) attempts to conquer Rome. And this involves naval and land battles, and of course the elephants for which Hannibal is famous.
In short, it’s a sprawling, insanely overstuffed spectacle of a sort that puts even the costliest CGI epics to shame: a relic of a bygone age when filmmakers were absolute dictators of small armies rather as much as they were artists. Giant sets, huge casts, every incident that could imaginably take place within in the same setting: Cabiria is indulgent and grandiose like nothing else that had ever been made and like very few movies ever since. It’s a movie whose sheer scale impressed no less a showman than the American D.W. Griffith, whose 1916 Intolerance is generally agreed to be a deliberate attempt to out-Cabiria Cabiria. In this he was not completely successful: Intolerance has its share of insanely oversized ambition, but there’s enough human-scaled domestic drama that it has quiet moments. Nothing in Cabiria is ever quiet.
Viewed historically, the film’s main claim to importance is not its unprecedented size, though this is surely impressive even after a century. What matters is the way that this was presented, in the form of a brand-new technique that most of us, if not pushed to think about it, probably wouldn’t even imagine was something that, at some point, somebody invented: camera movement.
The history of the moving camera is, like everything else from that early, a matter of debate; Cabiria is almost certainly not the first movie where the camera was brought from one part of the set to another during the shot. There’s a good chance that it was the first movie to do this by setting the camera on a wheeled cart for maximum smoothness, what was called in the immediate aftermath a “Cabiria shot” and we now call a “dolly shot”. More to the point, whether Cabiria was the first film in history where this technique was used, it’s the first film that made other filmmakers, like Griffith, take notice of this crazy new way of making the sets seem bigger and deeper and more full of life by moving the perspective through and into the action.
Like most extraordinary new techniques in filmmaking, the dollies in this film are more interesting because of their influence than because the film itself is so captivating and great. I will honestly confess that, having watched Cabiria twice now, I still find it more of a fascinating curio than a movie of strong importance in and of itself (though if the hour-longer restoration from 2006 ever sees the light of day on home video, I’d be first in line); while something like Intolerance is vivid and exciting to watch on its own, Cabiria is awfully flat and stagey in many of its images, and the narrative content is entirely subordinate to the flash and dazzle onscreen, and once history marches beyond the newness of that flash, it’s a lot harder to be completely wowed by it (the “will we still care about Avatar in 2109?” argument).
As far as the characters go, it’s not the plaster Fulvio nor the wilting Cabiria who absorbs the most of the film’s attention, but the strongman Maciste, making his first appearance in a career spanning dozens of movies and several different actors: the big lunk had some kind lightning-in-a-bottle appeal for Italian filmgoers of multiple generations, though that popularity has never translated to any other culture. He’s just a big burly guy with no personality besides “strong”, and for him to serve as the de facto anchor for Cabiria’s human story showcases just how much the drama in this film isn’t there.
Still, when you have sets and shots like this one, a lot of flaccid drama can be forgiven:
Cabiria is a much harder sit for modern viewers than a lot of the silent epics it inspired directly or indirectly, but it has its moments of pure movie awe. And even at its most strained moments, it’s always so robustly physical and present that one can’t help be amazed by the knowledge that this was actually made, in defiance of all humility, sanity, and restraint. A as a sprawling mess of grandeur and ambition, it’s impossible to beat it, a hundred years later or ever.