The Italian Almanac

a shot from Cabiria

Italian Movies - July 22

The National Gallery of Art will facilitate cinematic time-traveling this afternoon by hosting a rare screening of one of those productions, a 1914 historical spectacle titled "Cabiria," which remains one of the most respected and durably impressive movie epics of its generation -- the founding generation of movies as a popular art form.

This presentation begins the latest edition of the gallery's annual retrospective series, "From Vault to Screen," which showcases preservation work from film archives around the world. The print of "Cabiria" is on loan from the Museo del Cinema in Turin, the most venerable archive in Italy.

Turin also was the home city of the production company, Itala, that backed "Cabiria," which began filming in 1912. Ultimately, it employed a cast of thousands while also shooting on locations in Tunisia, Sicily and the Swiss Alps. The principal standing sets were constructed in Turin. Circus elephants were recruited to help simulate Carthaginian armies on the march during the Second Punic War.

Contemporary audiences and filmmaking professionals were united in admiration of the scenic sweep and pictorial finesse of the Italian epics. The producers didn't seem to stint when constructing mock-ups of ancient edifices or staging mass spectacles. The principal set pieces in "Cabiria" depict land and naval battles (the incineration of a Roman fleet approaching Syracuse by a system of high-powered mirrors invented by Archimedes) and a barbaric sacrificial rite at the temple of Moloch.

The director of the film, Giovanni Pastrone (1883-1959), had been on the ground floor of the trend toward costume spectacles. Evidently a skilled technician and one of the founders of Itala, he had enjoyed career-altering success with "The Fall of Troy" in 1910. "Cabiria" was such a hit that he made three sequels revolving around its strongman hero, Maciste, a slave of North African origin who comes to the rescue of his master, a Roman nobleman named Fulvio, destined to wed a Sicilian slave girl named Cabiria.

The casting of the Maciste role, which has been revived frequently by the Italian movie industry, helped set a pattern for the emerging star system. A nonprofessional named Bartolomeo Pagano, a Genoese dockworker, got the part and became a prototype for heroic gentle giants. The character was echoed in the Babylonian sequences of "Intolerance" by Elmo Lincoln (a future Tarzan) as the paragon called the Mighty Man of Valor.