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It is a little known fact that the feature film was born in Italy - that
a film longer than the standard one or two reels in length -ten to twenty
minutes. It is the crop of early Italian features, all epics, birthed in
1914, that influenced America's Griffith and DeMille. The length of
is staggering - originally 2-1/2 hours in Italy and just over two hours
- considering most audiences were used to sitting and concentrating on a
plot for only twenty minutes at most.
Were there Oscars then, the extraordinary art direction and special effects would have garnered noms - they are outstanding. The cinematography is unique in using early scanning and dollying techniques heretofore unknown in film. The plot becomes very hard to follow because the title cards are history lessons of alliances and battles that have little meaning for us and often we are aware of the cut 22 minutes in the surviving USA version as symbols and relationships which have great dramatic meaning for the players leave us baffled.
The print used by Kino and Grapevine video as well as Turner Classic Movies is impeccable - crystal clear and sharp.
For all fans of epic movies and for all film historians, this is a must see.
Kidnapped by Phoenician pirates from her Sicilian home,
infant CABIRIA grows to become involved in Rome's conflict
with Carthage during the Second Punic War.
Vast, intricate in plot & completely fascinating, here is one of the great silent epics which, fortunately, lives up to its legend. Full of daring rescues & breathless escapes, the film also features innovative camerawork & lighting techniques which would greatly influence D. W. Griffith & Cecil B. DeMille. (Some viewers may also see a strong resemblance between CABIRIA and the gigantic sets & bravado action highlighted in the Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers of the 1920's.)
Prolific director Giovanni Pastrone (1883-1959), using the pseudonym Piero Fosco, wrote the script and helped design the huge, elaborate sets, wanting to make his film the biggest, most thrilling epic ever produced. A million lira was budgeted for CABIRIA, a tremendous sum then, and location shooting was extended to Tunisia, Sicily & the Alps. The result was a tremendous success and ensured Pastrone's name would be enshrined in the history of world cinema. A true Renaissance Man, Pastrone left films in 1923 to devote himself to medical research.
The acting is often rather ripe & sensationalized, but that was the prevailing style in Italian epics, which were doubtless influenced by Grand Opera's florid stage mannerisms. Special mention should be made of Umberto Mozzato as a heroic Roman spy, Bartolomeo Pagano as the muscular Maciste & Italia Almirante-Manzini playing a wicked Carthaginian queen.
Sequences remain in the viewer's mind: the destructive eruption of Mount Etna; the truly terrifying scenes in the vile Temple of Moloch, with tiny naked children being thrown into the flames; and Hannibal's march - with elephants - over the mountains. Ancient Archimedes setting fire to the Roman fleet attacking Syracuse is unexpectedly amusing, while the movie climaxes with one of the most ostentatious suicides ever filmed.
There were three Punic Wars, which kept the ancient world embroiled from 264 BC until 146 BC while Rome & Carthage engaged in a death struggle to see who would emerge as the master of the Mediterranean. Battles raged in Europe & Africa, as well as on the Sea, but the last War ultimately ended with Rome's total victory and the complete & utter destruction of Carthage. The innocents sacrificed to the hideous Moloch were finally avenged.
This is one grand looking and made movie, with plenty of mass
sequences, impressive sets and costumes and a story that just screams
It's pretty nice to see how some early film-makers got influenced by this movie. Film-makers such as Fritz Lang, D.W. Griffith, who were also all pioneers by themselves. They were obviously inspired by some of the sequences, its scale, sets and compositions, since this movie in some of its sequences show some definite similarities to some sequences in movies such as "Metropolis" and "Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages". Only in that regard you can already call this movie an innovative and important movie. Its sets, compositions and just overall way of story-telling were all quite new and innovating for its time. It's also the first ever movie to use a dolly-track system, which provides the movie with a couple of nice moments as well.
The movie its story is very epic, since it's set at many different locations, with also many different characters. It features historical well known figures such as Hannibal, Hasdrubal, Scipio, Archimede, Massinissa, which makes the movie real interesting but is also one of its weaker points, since it makes the movie and its story-telling a bit disjointed at parts.
It perhaps also makes the movie feel overlong in parts, even though the movie is only about 2 hours long (well, depending on which version you'll watch), which is actually quite short for an epic movie, especially for one that got made early in the 20th century. 4 hour epics from the same time period are no rarity. The movie just goes on for a bit too long with some of its sequences. After a while you get the point but the scene will just go on and on. It doesn't always makes this an easy but pleasant movie to watch.
But overall the movie of course is pleasant as well as impressive, not only because of its visuals but also because of its story that is actually quite adventurous, as long as it knows to focus on the movie its key players. It's adventurous in the same way as a movie like "Ben-Hur" for instance.
Also especially when you realize that this is an 1914 movie, it's a real excellent, innovative and interesting, fun movie to watch.
An engrossing historical melodrama with all the trimmings, "Cabiria"
would be rather impressive if it had been made in the mid- or late-
1920's, and the fact that it was made in 1914 is astounding. While it
was widely known in its time, and apparently was once given full credit
for its influence on other film-makers, it has been largely forgotten
today, for no good reason. The story is involved and ambitious, the
settings and scale are lavish and creative, and the historical scenario
comes from the fascinating (if today little-known) period of the Punic
Wars between Rome and Carthage. It's all very good in its own right,
and it's even more of a success when you consider the new ground they
had to break in bringing it all together so well.
The story blends together several fictional and several historical characters, centering on the adventures and misfortunes of the girl Cabiria. As in any melodrama, there are some implausible developments, yet it rarely seems overly forced. The historical setting is used creatively, both to drive the action and to provide interesting settings and characters. While it is clearly fiction, it takes fewer liberties with history than do many other movies with historical settings, since it is designed for entertainment rather than to promote a particular viewpoint.
And as entertainment, it delivers handsomely. This is well worth the trouble to find for anyone who enjoys watching silent movies. It is also worth seeing if you have even a passing interest in the development of cinema, because few movies have ever been so creative in using and improving upon the means available in their own era.
Silent films don't have much of an audience these days. Be that as it may, I would like to recommend this film as a hugely influential costume epic that had great influence over the likes of D.W. Griffith (who did Intolerence right after!), Cecil B. DeMille, and even Fritz Lang (when he did Metropolis). Sure, it's long and it's got one of those convuluted plotlines typical of the period and historically it's crap, but the sets and costumes have to be seen to be believed! The scale of things is just fantastic, with giant temples and houses, all sorts of huge rooms and decoration all over anything, and hundreds and hundreds of extras with fabulous costumes, all done in pastiche of styles that range from Egyptian to Babylonian to this whole weird Indian look, although it's all set in North Africa. Then there's the melodramatic acting, which really can't be judged by today's standards, as there are few subtitles of dialogue, only very grand and wordy intertitles summarzing the plot and offering odes to gods and goddesses. This movie is a must-see if you're studying the history of epic films, early full-length movie, Griffith, etc., and even if you're not, it's a hoot (at least until half-way through, at which point you may decide you've had enough of the plot and can guess the rest.)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Everyone says the plot is convoluted, impossible to follow and boring,
and that the only reason to watch this is for the costumes and set
pieces. but I think they're missing something.
The plot moves forward on two levels - the personal and the political, so the real theme behind this movie is how the political affects the personal, and vice versa. Especially by the end of the film, shifting political alliances, military victories and defeats are clearly and dramatically affecting the fates of our heroes. And then, ultimately, Cabiria is freed because of the personal effect of a political move: Scipio takes Sophonisba away from Massinissa to eliminate the threat of rebellion, and in doing so, takes away the queen's reason to live.
Curiously, Cabiria, the center of the movie, is the most passive and perhaps least developed character in the film. She might as well be buried treasure. And yet she is the center of the movie, and sometimes we are reminded of her because the camera seems to forget her. Take the garden scene, when it is not at all clear what happens to her, and then we don't know for a good long time: she does not appear again literally for ten years, and then when she does reappear, it is with a different name, and we are not told it is her. She is there because she is not there; the fact that her fate is unresolved remains the central tension and dramatic force of the movie.
Ultimately, I think this form of storytelling - both the "big world/little world" plot development and the "unresolved character" issue work better in literature/theater than on film, and that's probably why, in retrospect, we watch this movie mostly for the costumes. But what I see is the developing language of cinema, and an experiment tried by a director and screenwriter in 1914 that would never be considered today.
Which adds up to a fascinating movie worth watching, in my book.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This one caught me off guard. I stayed up past midnight to watch "Cabiria"
on TCM, mainly because of my interest in film history, figuring I'd watch it
out of "academic" interest, but never expected to be so completely engrossed
by a film 90 years old. Yes, the plot is jerky, the coincidences a big
stretch for a modern audience, and for Americans hard to follow if you don't
know the history of the Punic Wars, but set those issues aside and just
simply enjoy the feast.
I was truly caught up in the story. Not to offer a spoiler here, but the Temple of Moloch sequence blew me away. Its actually rather frightful and creepy. I wonder how many of the little kid actors who were being offered up as sacrifices, (and hard to believe that if alive today they'd all be near a hundred years old), wound up in therapy afterwards! There's even shades of Indiana Jones here with the rescue and I found myself cheering the heroes on. The siege, the special effects, even the closing scene are a treat and stand up amazingly well to modern eyes. An interesting social history point. The actress who played the evil princess undoubtedly was the definition of feminine beauty in 1914. . .things have indeed changed (for the better in my opinion!)
One serious question and if there is a reader who is a historian with an answer let me know. There's a powerful scene in the Temple of Moloch where large golden hands appear above the priests, looking very much like the Hitlerian salute. Very similiar to the hand atop the helmet of one of the Tuetonic Nights in "Alexander Nevsky." Is there, just possibily a connection to the adoption of the salute twenty years later?
I never knew about the actor "Maciste." I realized that here is the prototype for all the Italian "Hercules" of the 1950s that I use to love at the Saturday matinees of my childhood. The actor is truly dynamic, an Arnold Schwarznegger presence of the silent screen and in my opinion stole the entire movie.
From the film history side you can see so many influences, on all that would come afterwards. While watching, its hard to believe that you are looking at images filmed before World War I, and all involved are long since gone. You see, as well, the promise of a new born art form that has become such a central part of our lives.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
CABIRIA is perhaps the first huge spectacular movie epic and the title
of the film is derived from the name of a small girl. The film begins
with her miraculous survival from a very realistic eruption of a
volcano and takes her on a boat ride to Carthage--Rome's arch-rival
during the years of the Republic. Here, she is sold into slavery and is
slated to be sacrificed to the evil god, Moloch. The scene of Moloch's
temple and the baby-eating idol is truly amazing and horrifying. It
must have cost a small fortune to construct. Cabiria is rescued by a
Roman spy. However, while she is not killed, she remained a slave for a
decade. Eventually, when Rome gained the upper hand in the Punic Wars
(with Carthage), Cabiria was saved and everyone lived happily ever
Now as to why the movie was made in Italy at that particular time, this film came just after Italy successfully attacked North Africa and seized colonies. This film, then, is a sort of justification for this action--as it paints the Carthaginians as baby-sacrificing and evil. Only after the good Romans conquer them is peace and justice restored! This means that this film was one of the earlier propaganda pieces ever put on film and it came out just before the First World War.
When you watch CABIRIA, you need to understand the context of when it was made to truly appreciate the film. While the acting might seem over-the-top at times, for 1914 it was a truly amazing film. Never before had a film been so dramatic or had sets to equal this. In fact, the spectacular nature of this Italian film had a strong impact on the films of D. W. Griffith, as it wasn't until 1915 that his huge epic BIRTH OF A NATION and 1916 when INTOLERANCE were released---and they were obviously strongly inspired by CABIRIA. While INTOLERANCE is quite similar to CABIRIA in spots, INTOLERANCE has even grander sets and special effects though the story itself was neither as involving nor as interesting--being muddled quite a bit by having four stories overlapping and the over-the-top moralizing Griffith was known for in many of his films. Instead, CABIRIA is much more straight-forward and interesting storytelling and compares very well to later epics--even some of the sound epics. Sure, by later standards it might seem hokey in spots, but for 1914 it was a huge leap forward in entertainment and is a must-see for all serious film historians.
By the way, this review is based on the recent Kino Video restoration. Shorter versions do exist and the Kino version is apparently the closest to the original you can find.
This film must have taken a big pile of lire to produce. Check out those huge sets with people walking on them and within them. The Temple of Moloch is a good example, being able to accommodate large crowds and plenty of action. Watch Batto's house (another towering set) collapse on the hapless people inside. See Mount Etna erupt very realistically, ultimately bringing down Batto's home. This plus the other special effects are brilliant. Even the props (notably the pottery) are designed and made very creatively. The acting, however, is a bit overdone, but that was the norm in film and on stage in 1913-1914. It doesn't detract from the film at all. (Sophonisba is about the worst offender, but I still love her!) The direction of the picture, with crowds and all types of terrain and sets is extremely good. The story is very well paced. I highly recommend this remarkable achievement. It is a guarantee that you will enjoy it.
1914 was quite a year. Charlie Chaplin made his film debut, WWI began
-- and set the stage for a lot of what happened in the 20th century --
and my great-grandparents immigrated to the United States (sorry, I
couldn't resist adding that last one).
But that year also saw the release of Giovanni Pastrone's "Cabiria". This epic depicts the kidnapping of a Sicilian girl following an eruption of Mt. Etna, her sale into slavery in Carthage, and a Roman nobleman's quest to rescue her. It's like nothing that you've ever seen before.
The movie has drawn controversy due to its depiction of the Romans as pure and the Carthaginians as monstrous (thereby glorifying the idea of Italian supremacy). To be certain, producer Gabriele d'Annunzio's ideology influenced Benito Mussolini, although d'Annunzio had no actual association with Il Duce.
Regardless of that, the movie is still a fun -- and visually breathtaking -- romp. Maciste got his own series of movies. The ones immediately after "Cabiria" starred Bartolomeo Pagano, and then there was a new series in the 1960s.
Anyway, really cool!
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