Monday, June 16, 2014
Roman-Punic Wars, 3rd Century BC. The eruption of Mount Etna volcano causes destruction of the city of Catania, which in turn separates Batto from his little daughter, Cabiria, who is found by Phoenician pirates and abducted to Carthage. Two Roman spies, Fulvius Axilla and his strong slave Maciste, find out that Cabiria, a Roman girl, is supposed to be sacrifised to the god Moloch in a temple. The two save her, but are separated while running away: Cabiria is hidden by Masinissa, the Numidian King, and Sophonisba; Maciste is captured and put into dungeon while Fulvius escapes by leaping into the sea from a cliff. 10 years later, Fulvius is again sent to Carthage and enters the city wall thanks to a human pyramid. He frees Maciste from the dungeon and they escape into the desert, only to be captured again by Cirtans. There they meet Cabiria again, who is called "Elissa" and is a slave of Sophonisba. As the Romans conquer the city of Cirta, Sophonisba poisons herself rather than to become a Roman triumph. Cabiria is saved from her prison and heads back home in a ship with Fulvius.
Giovanni Pastrone's "Cabiria" is considered one of the classics of early cinema that made huge progress for movie as an art form: among them, critics commend it for being one of the first feature length films (with a running time of over two and half hours); one of the first films that used not one, but two parallel storylines; the first example of a film spectacle and a strong influence on other future films (apparently, it inspired D.W. Griffith to create the Babylon segment in his more famous "Intolerance"; or at the very least, it came two years before it). Even though "Cabiria" has its flaws that undermine and whiffle several layers (the title heroine, Cabiria, is actually a supporting character and is too often overshadowed by the two Romans who are searching for her; a couple of subplots, though opulent, lead nowhere and could have been easily cut to not distract from the main tangle, like Hannibal's crossing of the Alps that lacks its main highlight anyway, namely the charge towards Rome, and the siege of Syracuse; the overlong running time...) it still holds up surprisingly well and has inventive directing techniques for its time, which makes it even more agile than numerous stiff monumental films from the 50s and 60s.
The most astonishing feature is the dynamic camera that occasionally "drives" through the scenery, managing to avoid the static shots of the silent movie era typical at that time. Even more precious are other examples of a visual style, especially Sophonisba's dream sequence (she is shown sleeping in her bed, while the transparent images of her dream - a hand that reaches towards her and Moloch's temple - are screened above her, over a black wall). The set designs, though elaborate, do not stand out that much today as much as several expressionistic images that stay in your mind (the wide shot of people descending a hill while the eruption of Mount Etna is seen in the background; Maciste sitting near an unconscious Fulvius at the bottom of the image of the screen, while the smoke is seen at the upper side of the screen, in the background of the desert; a human pyramid/stairs at the walls). All these virtues lift "Cabiria" into an ambitious and quality achievement, helping us understand that, even though it is too overstretched for a masterwork, it has an enduring legacy that deserves respect, a legacy that is stronger than its weaknesses.