Cabiria (1914)

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*. I guess I should start off by saying that I’ll be talking about the Kino restoration of the 123-minute version, not the fully-restored 181-minute version that premiered at Cannes in 2006, or any of the other versions floating around out there (of which there are several).
*. I have a hard time imagining this film at 181 minutes. I wonder what was cut.
*. Aristotle considered opsis or spectacle to be one of the constituent elements of drama. This is usually taken as meaning, very broadly, everything you see on stage (or mise-en-scène), but I like to interpret spectacle as implying something big or marvelous. And it’s this meaning that, I think, applies especially to film. One of the things that made film a totally new art form was the sheer size of it. The images thrown up on the screen are (or at least were) larger than life. Spectacle was a part of film’s DNA from the beginning.
*. This kind of spectacle is probably what Cabiria is best known for today, father to later Biblical and quasi-Biblical Hollywood epics identified with armies of extras, XXL sets, and supersized heroes (the giant Bartolomeo Pagano here). And yet this movie isn’t carried away by its scale. It knew what Tolkien later knew: while all the big stuff is going on, keep your focus on the little things (an orphan girl, a lucky ring).
*. Given the large backdrops, the exaggerated gestures and dramatic posing common to silent film don’t seem out of place. The characters, so often introduced in shots that present them as sculptural icons (the noble slave, the general, the haughty queen, the scientist), register as both types and individuals.

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*. Roger Ebert: “The movie feels old, and by that I mean older than 1914.” I think what Ebert is getting at here is the ancient kind of story Cabiria tells. Pirates, battles, nobles being sold into slavery, frustrated love affairs happily resolved: these were the standard fare for the literature of the Hellenistic Age.
*. Note how the innkeeper dies of fright. Our heroes are not guilty of murder.
*. Was this a political film? It was co-written by Gabriele D’Annunzio, a noted proto-fascist. And yet this isn’t a tale of the Roman Empire but its Republic.
*. The Carthaginians were a Semitic people, so does that make the movie anti-Semitic? The high priests of Moloch’s temple are a recognizable type.
*. Pastrone is often credited for inventing the tracking shot (which was in fact initially known as a Cabiria shot). At times it’s effectively done here, though it’s associated with only a couple of sets. But this is one of those things that you have to appreciate for the achievement it was at the time. Today it doesn’t seem very impressive at all. Like most technical developments it is now interesting only as a historical footnote.

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