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Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Silent Film Marathon: Film 1

To open the marathon I've chosen the Italian Epic Cabiria directed by Giovanni Pastrone and released just before WWI.

Made in 1914, this is the earliest of the films I'll be watching as part of the marathon and additionally, the only Italian one.
I had not heard much about it, but one of my friends who is very knowledgeable in Cinema recommended it so I acquired it and went in with rather high expectations but knowing little about the actual content.

In the years preceding the First World War, Italy was one of the major figures in Cinema, releasing many Silent Epic films made on budgets that were large for their time. Few of them are remembered today and I'm sure many of them don't really deserve to be remembered, as they were more often than not full of Fascist propaganda, but Cabiria is still considered the greatest film to be produced in this period of time by Italy's film industry and one of the most innovative and spectacular Silent Epic's ever made.

Mount Etna
The film tells the tale of a child named Cabiria. She lives, along with her maid and wealthy Roman family, in Sicily. Unfortunately though it's not just anywhere in Sicily, it is on the slopes of Mount Etna.

 When the volcano eventually erupts, her relatives believe she perished is the resulting chaos, but in fact she was saved by her maid and by a series of unfortunate events whisked off to the slave markets of Carthage, who happen to be the enemy of Rome at the time. She is then selected to be sacrificed to the blood thirsty god Moloch.

But luckily she is saved by an undercover Roman agent, sent to spy on the Carthaginian's and his monstrously strong servant Maciste. But this good luck doesn't last for young Cabiria is separated from her saviours and eventually falls into the captivity on none other than the royal family, relatives of Hannibal himself who at the time is busy crossing the Alps and invading Italy.

Temple of Moloch
Many years pass, and eventually the Romans bring the war to Carthage, with Scipio Africanus at their head, and the very same Roman that previously saved Cabiria. They are all again caught up in various conflicts between various characters while a war rages around them, tragedy after tragedy strikes but will Cabiria ever be freed from her captors, will she even survive this terrible war ?
You'll have to watch to find out.

 As you can see from the screenshots, this film was shot on a scale that must have been quite extraordinary at the time. The sets are spectacular and in my opinion they complement the rather legendary storyline perfectly. I say "legendary" because it really reminded me of such Greek and Roman legends, the elements of tragedy centred around a historical conflict with bold and valiant hero's, evil villains and cunning queens. In fact this film was loosely based on Salammbo by Flaubert.

The story itself was very entertaining, I had no problem watchign this film for it's full run time of about 2 hours without getting bored in the slightest, which just goes to show that Silent films can be just as gripping as modern ones.

I was somewhat surprised by the direction which the story eventually took, I was expecting more of a focus on the title character and, although she is a very important plot point, she is little more than that, a plot point, the real hero's are Flavius (her Roman saviour) and Maciste, his servant. Not that I had a problem with this, they were very enjoyable characters, I was just surprised by the way the story was told.

The film has provoked quite a bit of controversy over the years, mainly because it was financed by Fascists. Their views can be perceived throughout the film if one cares to notice such things but I think that is besides the point. The Carthaginians were portrayed as a generally villainous people that sacrifices children (which I doubt they did in reality) whereas the Romans are basically shown in a positive light. I didn't really find this to be a problem though, all films and other works, have to choose a side they won't to portray, one side will always come off in a more positive light depending on who the author is. Isn't this only to be expected ?

That aside, it's a marvellous film. A very accomplished piece of story telling, which I might add, is something these Silent films tend to do better than many modern films, even though they lacked dialogue.At times some thought has to be given to the events and characters, as they are not exactly spelled out to the audience but all becomes clear gradually, even if the absence of close ups and not so great image quality can make recognising the characters difficult at times.
The story managed to be exciting as well as emotional while avoiding much of the melodrama that often comes with Silent films (much but not all though) and is paced in a gripping fashion. It is divided into about 8 episodes all of which are very fast paced and exciting so I was entertained far more than I expected to be!

Additionnally, from a technical point of view, it's a very well done film, one of the first to experiment with camera movements, it's a shame colour tints weren't used as I like those very much and Black and White can get tedious at times.But it definitely represents a large step forward for Cinema. Nowhere near as technically innovative and ahead of it's time as some of the films that came after, such as Gance's Napoleon, but this did provide much inspiration for Griffith's films, who in turn are credited with "creating Hollywood".

Naturally if one looks at it from a modern point of viewer there are many flaws, such as over acting, clumsy camera movements etc. But it's more appropriate to put the film in context of the times, and in that case it truly is one of the best films of it's decade.
This may be a bold claim, especially as I have yet to see some of the works of Griffith, but I feel fairly confident in saying this is one of the best.

This one comes highly recommended, it was a very pleasant surprise and a fine example of a Silent Epic packed full of action and adventure.

Next up is Griffith's controversial The Birth Of A Nation !

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