Marry Tran on Cabiria (1915)
Full of over-exaggerated actions, intense music, and informative intertitles, the film fulfills its role as a historic epic in its retelling of Rome’s victory against Carthage, thus evoking nationalist feelings from its Italian audience in the context of a recently won war in Libya.
Cabiriawas Pastrone’s attempt to create a historical epic film that was much more than its counterparts in all aspects. It can be argued that this film was a multi-faceted fusion between tradition and innovation in regard to Italian cinema. The film was the most ambitious and costly of its time, and after Cabiria, the production company, Itala Film, didn’t produce another similar project of that scale. Despite this, the film is still seen as a success.
However, with the inventive movements of the camera, the designs of the massive sets, detailed costumes, and the creativity in the special effects and risky stunts, Cabiriabecame a product of its own genre.
The movement of the camera is a technique that is noteworthy in Pastrone’s film, as it was done in a way that showed depth in the set and implied the existence of space beyond the frame. The viewer is mainly brought closer to the subject being observed, as opposed to an artificial close-up often found in monstrative attractions. Even in the opening sequence, the camera displays the greatness in the set of Batto’s home in Sicily, slowly focusing on him as he walks into a different section of the house to his wife. Additionally, the characters enter the frame from various angles, usually from the side or from directly afar, further providing depth to the set of the film while showing the decadence in the set design.
The superimposition of photograms provided many great special effects throughout the film, including that of the eruption of Mt. Etna, the burning of the Roman fleet, and the final shot of the film. Arguably the most notable was that of where the images from Sophonisba’s dreams were superimposed directly above the resting Carthaginian noblewoman, as Elissa (Cabiria) the slave was working beside her.
In addition to the layering of photograms, the stunts seen in the film were very impressive. From Fulvio jumping off a huge cliff to escape the Carthaginians to the creation of a pyramid of Roman soldiers supported by their strength and shields, Pastrone succeeded in making his film filled with spectacular attractions.
As a film, Cabiria was unmatched by its predecessors in length, narrative qualities, set design, costumes, and special effects. Italy’s historical context at the time as well as the development of Italian cinema, particularly that of Italo Film, inspired the creation and success of the film. As such, it walked the line between past and present, tradition and innovation when it was released in 1914 and continues to be seen as such by scholars. For modern tastes, the film may seem too outdated in its over dramatic acting and intertitles as it was created before the introduction of sound in cinema. However, it can be seen why Cabiriais still discussed and studied in European cinema today