Friday, September 14, 2012

CABIRIA (1914)

During the Second Punic War (ca. 200 BC), the wealthy Batto and his family, including his very young daughter Cabiria, live in the shadow of Mt. Etna. When it erupts, the servants discover secret passages that lead to Batto's hoarded riches; they leave with some of it, and the nurse Croessa takes Cabiria with her, though Batto assumes his beloved daughter is dead. In Carthage, a high priest buys the little girl, intending to sacrifice her to the demonic god Moloch, but Croessa talks Roman spy Fulvius and his slave Maciste into tracking her down and saving her. Eventually, they are all separated, with Maciste sentenced to be chained to a millstone for the rest of his life. We follow the adventures of the characters, including Queen Sophonisba, who winds up with Cabiria, over the next few years until finally a happy ending reunites Cabiria with her saviors.

This silent Italian epic is perhaps the first film in the sword-and-sandal adventure genre that the Italians would become famous for in the 1960s. Despite its age, it holds attention due to elaborate sets and setpieces, and a strong narrative. It's also the movie that introduces the heroic character of Maciste who would be the focus of many of those 60s films, though in America, he was usually renamed Hercules or Sampson or Atlas. Interestingly in this film, Maciste is African (played by a white actor, Bartolomeo Pagano, in blackface—really more like duskyface, pictured at right), though in later movies, he would be white. The acting here is of the typical early silent type, all grimaces and hands in the air, but the adventure scenes are lots of fun, even if I lost track of who was fighting whom, and who we were supposed to be rooting for—not to mention that the title character vanishes for long stretches of the movie. Among the best scenes: the Moloch sequence which looks as if it may have been an inspiration for some scenes in D.W. Griffith's INTOLERANCE; a scene of soldiers making a human ladder with their shields so Fulvius can scale a castle wall; a nightmare scene with Sophonisba tortured by gigantic figures (pictured above); the final shot of a fairy ring of lovers and revelers circling our surviving trio out at sea. There is some interesting use of camera movement throughout, with many leisurely takes, especially in a scene in which the camera pans very slowly in to reveal Cabiria hiding behind a curtain. Worth seeing, and a must for silent film fans. [DVD]


Steve said...

It's been a while since I've seen this one, but I was also left impressed by the spectacle (and in 1914, no less). Fine job on the summary, by the way - I tried to write a review of it for one of the groups and finally gave up after repeated attempts to describe the elaborate plot.
You mentioned Intolerance, and as I recall, Brownlow's 13-part silent film documentary Hollywood does indeed mention Cabiria as an influence on Griffith.

Michael said...

Steve, I take notes as I watch any movie that I might want to review for my blog, but when I read my notes for the last half of the movie, they didn't make sense, so I just stopped summarizing!