Cabiria

(1914)
   Silent film. The most financially successful and critically acclaimed of all the Greco-Roman superspectacles that characterized Italian cinema during the silent period, Cabiria was not only a masterpiece of silent filmmaking (realistic three-dimensional sets, use of tracking shots, artificial lighting, and external sequences shot on location) but also a masterstroke of entrepreneurship and marketing.
   Set in the third century BC against the backdrop of the Second Punic War, Cabiria tells the story of a young Roman girl and her nurse who are kidnapped by pirates and taken to Carthage, where the girl is destined to be sacrificed to the fire god Moloch. Fulvio Axilla, a Roman spy in Carthage, responds to the pleas of Cabiria's nurse and, with the help of his powerful and faithful African slave Maciste, attempts to liberate the girl. The attempt only half succeeds; Cabiria is left with Queen Sofinisba and Maciste is eventually overpowered and chained to a millstone, but Fulvio Axilla escapes to help Rome fight the war against Carthage. Years later he returns to liberate Maciste and, with his help, Cabiria, who in the meantime has grown into a beautiful young woman who now falls in love with her rescuer.
   The script was, for the most part, a loose adaptation of a pulp novel by Italian adventure writer Emilio Salgari, but the head of Itala Film, Giovanni Pastrone, who had already directed the hugely popular La caduta di Troia (The Fall of Troy, 1910), had meticulously researched the historical details, hired the remarkable Segundo de Chomon as cinematographer, and clearly planned the most spectacular historical epic to date. With the film already well into production, Pastrone traveled to Paris to meet with the leading Italian writer at the time, Gabriele D'Annunzio, and engage his collaboration. In essence D'Annunzio was offered, and gladly accepted, 50,000 lira to rewrite the intertitles, revise the title of the film and the names of the characters, and to publicly assume paternity of the work, which then would be "realized" by Piero Fosco, the pseudonym Pastrone proposed for himself. The film (whose name D'Annunzio changed from Il romanzo delle fiamme to Cabiria), was thus explicitly marketed as an excursion into the seventh art by the illustrious writer himself.
   Described in the publicity as a "cinematographic opera," with the intertitles sold as "libretti" in the theater foyers, the film was premiered in Turin at the prestigious Teatro Vittorio Emmanuele on 18 April 1914. Its screening was accompanied by a specially written musical score by Ildebrando Pizzetti, which was performed by an orchestra of 80 and a choir of 70. Its premiere in Rome four days later was equally grandiose, with the added element of an airplane dropping flyers over the center of the city on the afternoon of the opening to advertise the event. The film was an instant and overwhelming success, not only in Italy, where it was hailed as the fruit of D'Annunzio's genius, but also in the United States, where it screened in all the major cities for many months on end. It also must have impressed D. W. Griffith, since the Babylonian episode of Intolerance seems to bear all the signs of direct influence. In the 21st century perhaps more talked about than seen, Cabiria nevertheless continues, justifiably, to be regarded as the highest point reached by the Italian silent cinema in its golden age.
   Historical Dictionary of Italian Cinema by Alberto Mira

Guide to cinema. . 2011.

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