Monday 5 August 2013

Cabiria (1914)

The giant statue of Moloch consumes another victim!
'Cabiria' was the first truly epic film - and I do like an epic.  It's a story of melodrama, adventure and rescue set during the second Punic War - which is to say Phoenicans, Carthaginians and Romans in the minus-second Century, with Hannibal and his elephants.  The film plays out on huge sets with a real sense of depth, and tells a story tremendous scope, with crowds engulfed in convincingly hot smoke as they flee the flaming mount Etna.   For the 1910s, it's quite a thing.  It's strange to think that people almost a hundred years ago were making movies at all, let alone movies as grand and impressive as this.

To begin with, the pictures, sets and framing reminded me of the yet earlier 'La Vie et La Passion de Jesus Christ' (1903), but this is an even more ambitious picture, less reliant on an audience's knowledge of the story being told.  Unfortunately it gets around this unfamiliarity by asking the audience to read what's happening rather than watching it, with paragraph-long intertitles of an occasionally poetic character.  Still, in terms of telling its tale clearly and presenting attractive pictures, this eclipses the other 1910s films I've seen and wouldn't seem too shabby in the mid-'20s.  It leaves 1915's 'Birth of a Nation' looking crude and ugly, a reminder that America was still a decade or two away from being coolest country.

Thanks intertitles.  Thintertitles.
Being a decade ahead of your time is quite impressive in early cinema. The only things I'd really complain about are the length (though it is an epic), the amount of off-screen politics we're expected to follow, and the dearth of mid-shots and close-ups, though of course those hadn't really been invented yet.  Watching this left me appreciating the facial closeup far more than I have before.  Without it, the main characters all seem a little too distant, like members of the crowd. Without an audible voice an actor really needs their facial expressions visible if they're to present any emotion beyond flailing-armed distress.  Still, considering how much I found to bemoan and condemn in 'Birth of a Nation' or the 1917 '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea', this really is the great triumph of the decade.

You can see the whole thing on Youtube if you fancy.  It's like looking back in time: everyone involved is surely dead.

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