Concluding our short series of silent Italian epics with the mother of them all, CABIRIA.
“It had everything but a plot.” ~ camera assistant Karl Brown’s double-edged review isn’t quite accurate: Gabriele D’Annunzio and Giovanni Pastrone’s script fairly creaks with plot, but it lacks an obvious throughline, since the plight of Cabiria, separated from her rich Roman parents, isn’t the central focus of all the action, and we keep switching to new characters whose importance hasn’t been established. The bit everybody remembers, Cabiria’s rescue by muscleman Maciste from sacrifice to a pagan god, occurs about an hour in and is followed by a whole bunch of new characters appearing and wresting the storyline right off the tracks.
Meanwhile ~ which intertitle do you prefer? I have to deplore the tendency to throw away beautiful old intertitles like the one at top, while adding bland and anachronistic-looking translations. Is subtitling that difficult? The marvelous hand-crafted titles of CABIRIA are part of its overall design. And good design is particularly important here since D’Annunzio’s titles are so damn wordy.
The design also includes things like the spectacular (and uncredited) sets, which inspired Griffith’s INTOLERANCE and its Hollywood Babylon, the special effects by Eugenio Bava (Mario’s dad), including a furiously erupting Mt. Etna, and the gliding camerawork, made possible by Segundo de Chomon’s custom-built dolly, the first of its kind.
The previous Italian super-productions we’ve examined have been both much shorter and much more static, from a camera placement point of view. THE FALL OF TROY provides us with a slow pan, sweeping this way and that to more-or-less follow the action, but Pastrone here attempts something quite new. The purpose of his tracking shots was to explore the sets, which were so big they utterly dwarfed the actors. If you began with an establishing shot, the human figures were practically dots, but a shot framed for the cast would exclude the magnificent backdrops. Pastrone’s goal was to somehow combine an extreme long shot with a more conventional head-to-toe framing (he rarely goes as close as a medium shot).
The effect of the moves is interesting. The settings come alive as three-dimensional constructions (no matte paintings here, just the occasional volcanic miniature) which we can move through, almost like players in a big vidgame. Dramatically, on the other hand, the slow steady drift inwards at the start of almost every scene/shot, and the rhyming drift out at the end, have a slightly flattening effect, making everything seem calm and stately. Even though the plot is three hours of war, torture (much of it censored in most extant copies) and frenetic running around, the mood conjured by Chomon’s steady trundle is one of tranquility.
It was a lesson learned by Griffith, whose chase scenes had often been followed by a car-mounted camera as breathless as the action. Perhaps the Italians didn’t notice that this had the effect of intensifying the mood, since the primary aim was obviously to simply keep the subjects in frame as they motored along. When Griffith made his own ancient world epic, with elephant statues cribbed from Pastrone, he shot Belshazzar’s feast celebrations with two cameras mounted on an elevator, mounted on a track. This prototype of the camera crane allowed him to move in on a single figure amid the cavorting multitude, while dropping from a bird’s eye perspective to one of human level. And the effect has sweep and grandeur, perfectly matched to the emotional mood of the scene.
Nevertheless, CABIRIA was there first, and there’s something interesting and soothing about the way the camera movement reduces the sense of danger that the rest of the film is working to attain. It’s a little like being thrust into CONAN THE BARBARIAN after necking a 10 mg of valium.* And this leads to me to a couple of sweeping generalizations: while American films moved the camera to follow the action and European ones used it to explore space, American films used the emotional power of the movement to emphasize the mood of the scene, while European ones used it to complicate, to add something new. But don’t take that idea too seriously!
*Maciste is at one point tethered to a giant millstone, just like Arnie in the John Milius loincloth extravaganza.