Franziska Peschel on Cabiria (1915)
The demonization of fire
The behaviour of the Carthaginian people demonstrated in the crucial sequence of the sacrifice is barbarous, cruel. Quickly, the Carthaginian are exposed as the evil player. Not least because they use fire for their ritual, which has already a bad reputation at this point of the movie (and of course because they sacrifice helpless kids, but back to the fire).
It is a key element driving the story towards its turning points. But other than dramaturgic, it has also a highly symbolic value. It serves as an instrument for polarisation and as a bridge from the historical era depicted in the movie to the contemporary political climate in Italy in the 1910s.
While the barbarous Carthaginian are fascinated by the flames, they have another notion in the harmonious life of Sicilia. The first sequence of the movie establishes the civilized and harmonious life in the house of Batto in Catania, Sicilia: people moving slowly and illustriously, the costumes show wealth and elegancy.
The girl Cabiria is filled with joy and kindness as is the relationship to her father and her servant. It is only due to the eruption of Mount Etna and the following fire that the sequence is resolved in destruction. Everyone is suddenly scared and fleeing. In this confusion the servants try to escape. The fire allows them to get to the secret treasury of their master Batto and to steel his coins. This unmoral behaviour is only made possible by the destructive force of the fire. It allows the tragic kidnapping to happen which is the foundation of the plot. After the presumed loss of their child Batto and his wife show a strong emotional attachment.
While in Sicilia the fire is the dark force that destroys civilized society, in Carthage it is part of culture. This polarisation is in fact a highly politic message considering the political climate in Italy in the 1910s and 20s. The rising nationalist ideologies in the frame of colonisation efforts in Libya gave the issue of Cabiriaa value for contemporary debates. Considering the role Gabriele D’Annunzio took in the fascist Italian movement after 1919, this politic orientation seems likely.
Even in the depiction of the battle between Hannibal and the Romans it’s easily distinguishable who are the evil ones. Archimedes, the creator of the crucial weapon is insanely attracted by the power of the fire that destroys the Roman ships.
At this point of the movie it is yet clear that the protagonists who are attracted by fire must be enemies of the Romans alias the god ones. Maybe it is due to this political notion, that the movie was successful, even after the great cinematic developments in the following decades.