Cabiria (1914) Director: Giovanni Pastrone
Martin Scorsese once claimed that the true seed of epic film-making springs forth not from D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille as one might suspect, but rather from Giovanni Pastrone, an Italian director whose string of huge-scale silent films left an indelible mark on the craft. Generally speaking, Cabiria is regarded as his finest film. Shot during the years following the Italian War with Libya, and released on the heels of the First World War, Cabiria laid the foundations for all future epics. In Cabiria, Pastrone freed the audience from static single-shot scenes, thus allowing for mobile cameras to take the audience along for a ride, a technical achievement which opened all manner of new methods of visual story-telling. In many respects, Cabiria was the film that effectively put Italian cinema on the map.
The story is borrowed from Livy’s History of Rome, taking place during the events of the Second Punic War. The characters are also, apparently, based on stories from Flaubert and Salgari. Some of the most beautiful scenes of the whole film occur at the beginning, as Batto, a Sicilian gentleman, governs his household which sits in the peaceful shadow of Mount Etna. Suddenly, the idyllic nature of his life is upturned when Mount Etna erupts sending chaos throughout Sicily. His servants venture below his house and start stealing treasure. His daughter, Cabiria and her nurse Croessa, flees to the countryside. Batto and his wife mourn their loss –they believe young Cabiria has died.
Croessa and Cabiria are then abducted by Phoenician pirates. They are taken to Carthage and Cabiria is sold into slavery for the High Priest to be sacrificed along with other young children to the god Moloch. However, at the last second, she is rescued by Fulvius Axilla, a Roman patrician alongside his huge slave, Maciste (the slave character of Maciste went on to be featured in many other Italian historic epics). However, in the scuffle Croessa is killed. Meanwhile, the film cuts to Hannibal crossing the alps. Hannibal’s brother is coincidentally staying nearby when Fulvius discovers that Hannibal has decided to return to Rome, but Fulvius is betrayed and forced to flee by leaping off a cliff into the ocean. Meanwhile Cabiria is concealed and Maciste is captured, tortured, and enslaved. Fulvius is cast adrift and recognized only by a ring he wears which once belonged to Cabiria. He is brought to the house of Batto who is relieved to learn that his daughter is still alive. Fulvius vows to find her. First, he frees Maciste from slavery and they escape to the desert together. Then they become immersed in the story of Scipio, only to eventually rescue Cabiria. En route back to Rome, Fulvius pledges his love for Cabiria.
The film is told in five parts and lasts over 2 hours. As a sign of its technical prowess Cabiria was the first film to use the tracking shot on a dolly. Without Cabiria, D.W. Griffith would likely never have completed his 1916 epic, Intolerance (originally entitled “the mother and the law”), and Italian cinema may have never fully developed –would we still have all those wonderful Spaghetti Westerns without Cabiria? It can be a challenge for the modern audience to sit through an epic like this, however Cabiria is an extraordinary film and I for one am glad it made it onto my viewing list.