Cabiria (1913)

Toronto Film Society presented Cabiria (1913) on Monday, February 11, 1963 as part of the Season 15 Monday Evening Silent Film Series, Programme 5.

Early Italian Cinema

Amor Pedestre (Italy 1914).  Directed by and starring Marcel Fabre.

The popularity of French comedies in Italy brought the French comedian Fabre to Turin to make this, one of the most famous of primitive films.  An attempt was made to suggest that the picture had actually been produced in France. – MMA Film Notes

La Donna Nuda (Excerpt) (Italy 1914).  Produced by Cines, Roma, with Lyda Borelli.

Concurrent in Italy with the production of spectacles was a long series of melodramas of “high life” in which statuesque women reacted flamboyantly to grand passions.  Borelli was one of the greatest of these divas, and her embodiment of noble but deceived womanhood here is the prototype of the heroines of the so-called “women’s pictures” of today. – MMA Film Notes

Cabiria (Italy 1913).  Directed by Piero Fosco (Giovanni Pastrone); with Almirante Manzini, Bartolomeo Pagano (Maciste).

Spectacles such as Cabiria captured the world market for Italian producers just before the First World War, led to the establishment of the feature film, and brought a new audience to the cinema.  Much less processional and rigid than earlier examples, Cabiria uses the moving camera to re-frame the shifting action, and the then-new technique of the process shot to provide even grander images than had been seen before.  Though the acting is choppy, there is a new kind of suspense here which, together with the heroic figure of Maciste, gave the film its well-deserved fame.  It remains a surprisingly lively work, of particular interest as a prelude to the study of Griffith’s work. – MMA Film Notes

Paul Rotha wrote in 1929 in The Film Till Now: “Before the war, Italian films were not infrequently presented in Britain, ranging from comedies to historical subjects.  Of the latter, the most memorable is Cabiria, a classical theme from a scenario by Gabriele d’Annunzio.  With its extensive cast and elaborate sets–such as the Temple of Moloch which anticipated the sequence of the Heart Machine in Lang’s Metropolis–this superproduction was a remarkable feat for 1913, even though its cinematic properties were not pronounced.”

Said Bardech and Brasillach in History of the Film: “The most important Italian film of the period was Cabiria.  A real document of its era, it cost $250,000 and–begun in 1912–was not finished until 1914.  Audiences stared in amazement at its statue of Moloch, 125 feet high, at the army crossing the Alps in the snow.  In imitation of Quo Vadis (1912) and Salammbo, it included all the customary spectacles–but best of all was Maciste.  For everyone who was young in 1914, Maciste as the giant furniture-mover, whom they had painstakingly taught to act a little.   He was an astounding creature, as gentle as he appeared fearsome, with unbelievable muscle.  He picked up women as though they were feathers, tore chains apart with his bare hands, threw walls down.  He instinctively translated his role as the Avenger of Wrongs into terms of the circus and variety stage; he was like some great natural force in the splendour of his unconscious strength.  Louis Delluc called him “the Guitry of the biceps”.

“The film opened in Paris in 1915 and ran for months.  The great naval battle, the burning of the fleet and other spectacular scenes combined to create a ‘masterpiece’ such as no one imagined could ever be out-rivalled.  People especially enjoyed qualities in this film which were not theatrical but visual, and consequently cinematographic.  The eruption of Etna was admired as though it were an etching or painting, and the critics ran out of adjectives in expressing their delight.  ‘M. d’Annunzio’, Le Cinema wrote, ‘seems to have laid the foundation here for a new art which is perfectly in the spirit and to the taste of our times.’  L’Opinion hailed him (for he was given all the credit, the director Pastrone quite overlooked) as ‘the early master of a new art, the Giotto of the cinema’.  No one thought it absurd when, as late as 1920, Harry Baur in describing the closing scenes of the film wrote as follows: ‘Abstract poetry has never been better made concrete, though itself has never more admirably been made tangible’.  Cabiria, that series of colossal picture-postcards, inspired much cheap but lyrical praise for years to come”.

Editor’s Note

As one who has not as yet seen Cabiria I can offer no personal comment.  Judging from the remarks of friends in New York, it may safely be said that the reactions of today’s cineastes are somewhat more restrained than those of the critics quoted by our friends above!

In any case it seemed to me that it might have some historical and also some entertainment interest for members of the Silent Series, including me.

I should add that I understand that some footage has been cut from the original length by the MMA people.

Notes compiled by George G. Patterson

Next and Final Programme:

Monday evening, March 18th.
Sergei M. Eisenstein’s The General Line (The Old and the New).

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