Andrea Mariani | Irene Signorelli on Cabiria (1915)
Cinema, storia, media
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Irene Signorelli on Cabiria (1915)

Giovanni Pastrone’s “Cabiria”, produced in 1914, was set to become a colossal from the beginning.

The profusion of money invested, the collaboration with Giovanni D’Annunzio, the use of innovative filming techniques and machines, the attention to every detail, destined the movie to reach a wider appreciation of the public.

However, a great part of its success, at least inside national borders, can be traced to the movie’s nationalistic message laying underneath it, that represented a unifying element crossing all Italian public, both from the north and the south, wealthy and bread-winners.

The movie is set during the Second Punic War, when the glory of the Roman Empire touched its peak by defeating the rival Carthage. The ultimate victory of Rome over the Punic city, that has historically led to the definitive Latin conquest of the region in the 3rdcentury, is metaphorically linked to the Italian acquisition of Libya in 1912. This connection between present Italians and their ancestors inflamed the public’s hearts with proudness of both their past and present.

As reported by a critic after having attended to the movie’s screening:

The commotion won over me over when I saw, shining on spectator’s faces and trough their eyes, Italian’s passionate love for how our marvellous past inspire lesson and new conquests.” (Reich; 2013, p.39)


However, if in Pastrone mind the reference was probably a mere tool for assuring a wide resonance to the movie through the audience, it is impossible to pass by the colonial logic embedded inside Cabiria.

Firstly, Rome’s glory and power seems to provide to the new-born Italian nation an ancestral right of conquest over the Mediterranean area. And second, in the movie is highly visible a clear distinction between Carthaginians and Romans, the first depicted as primitives, dedicated to human sacrifices, while Rome on the other side is represented as noble, civilized and magnanimous. (Aletto 2016). Let’s analyse the scene of the “human sacrifices”, when the High Priest of Carthage try to sacrifice the little Cabiria to the god Moloch.

The scene is introduced by a moment of high suspense where the hand of the God Moloch slowly open, highlighted by the skilful game of shadows.



The sapient use of lightening transpose the sense of perils and mystic fear, immediately followed by a long shot depicting the frenetic dances of the disciples caught by diabolic delirium (Reich,2013).    

D’Annunzio captions of the High Priest words invoking Moloch, underline the bloodthirsty and brutality of the

religion by using words like “voracious and “insatiable”, while the flames coming out by its gigantic statue convey the idea of pure evil.



This combination aims to create a feeling of disconcert and dismay inside the public, overwhelmed by the painful sight of innocent child eaten by the flames of the God statues. Probably, on Pastrone ‘s mind this sequence aimed to attract the public, to win their stupor or/and to underline by contrast the braveness of the two heroes who rescued Cabiria. However, this peculiar depiction of the characters, Carthaginians and Romans, reveal a clear colonial logic.


he barbarous ritual, indeed, came as an obvious justification for the conquest of Rome of such tedious population. The glory of Rome is linked to its civilization, while Cartage deserve to be defeated and conquered once seen its barbaric religion and society. As during the Third century the innately superiority of Rome made it conquer the known world, in the XX century Italians, direct descendants of Romans, have the duty to reconquer their ancestors land and to bring civilization where is needed.


As we can see, Cabiria underlines and supports two main strands on which Italian colonialism was based on: the direct link to Rome’s power and the duty to civilize African barbaric people, making of the film a not so little propagandistic tool.



Aletto G., Cabiria: Gabriele D’Annunzio e il kolossal all’italiana, 2016, retrived from:

Reich J., The Metamorphosis of Maciste in Italian Silent Cinema, 2013, Indiana University Press