Cabiria (1914) ***½
If you’re paying any attention at all to the things, it doesn’t take long to notice that many if not most of the old Italian adventure films often described as “Hercules movies”— and indeed quite a few of the ones that were expressly presented as such by their American distributors— are actually not about Hercules, but somebody else altogether. Some star other Greco-Roman demigods like Perseus, Theseus, or Achilles. Others concern historical figures of the ancient world who have been swallowed up by their own legends, like Spartacus, the leader of the rebel slaves in the Servile War. A few even revolve around the Semitic strongmen, Samson and Goliath. And naturally, there are a bunch of sword-and-sandal epics featuring heroes who were simply invented by some 1960’s screenwriter or other: Ursus, Taur, Kindar, and so forth. But far and away the most prolific hero of the non-Hercules Hercules movies is a guy by the name of Maciste.
I know, right? Who the hell is Maciste? You won’t find him in Pierre Grinal’s or John Zimmerman’s dictionaries of classical mythology, that’s for sure. Nor will you find him in Plutarch’s Lives, or the Epic Cycle, or the Bible— or indeed in any ancient source that might plausibly be expected to have inspired twenty-odd films about a vaguely Greco-Roman muscleman rescuing virgins from crappy rubber monsters and tossing papier-mâché boulders at handfuls of extras pretending to be a Phrygian or Halicarnassian army. Where, then, did he come from, and what made him so special that Luigi Carpentieri and Ermanno Donati (who produced Son of Samson, the first of the 1960’s Maciste films) would almost immediately find themselves facing rival producers with Macistes of their own? The answer lies not in the depths of Classical Antiquity, but in the days just before the First World War, when the Italian movie industry was enjoying a genuine, no-bullshit Golden Age.
It’s hard to believe today, but from about 1910 until shortly after the country’s entry into World War I in 1915, Italian cinema was the worldwide standard-setter for scale, spectacle, production values, and sheer visual ambition. D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance is the film people always talk about as the ultimate in movie megalomania, but it was Italian imports like Quo Vadis?, The Last Days of Pompeii, and Cabiria that inspired Griffith to such heights of excess in the first place. The conventional explanation ties Italian audiences’ pre-Great War infatuation with grandiose historical melodramas to euphoria over their country’s success in wresting Libya away from the increasingly wobbly Ottoman Empire, but the trend toward cinematic gigantism is visible even before the start of the Libyan War in 1911. It might be better to say that the war and the movies alike stemmed from the same source, for both nationalism and nostalgia for past glories (Roman glories in particular) had swept over Italy with the dawn of the 20th century. In any case, there was no shortage of either glory or nostalgia on Italian theater screens during the century’s second decade, and few if any of those nostalgia trips were more glorious than Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria. It presents a loose but relatively honest account of the Second Punic War, told mainly from the perspective of two fictional characters: a Roman patrician named Fulvius Axilla and his Nubian Slave, Maciste.
There— you see? I really wasn’t just rambling aimlessly. Cabiria’s Maciste was played (in some of the better Negrifying makeup I’ve seen, for whatever that’s worth) by a Genoese dockhand named Bartolomeo Pagano, whom Pastrone cast purely on the basis of his huge size (or at any rate, his huge size by contemporary Italian standards) and brawny physique— much as a later generation of Italian film producers would populate their mythological epics with retired bodybuilding champions, totally unconcerned for whether or not those sculpted strongmen had any acting ability. Pastrone lucked out, however, for although Pagano had neither stage nor screen experience, he proved to be fully serviceable for the purposes of a supporting role in an early silent feature. Indeed, Italian screen acting in those days was so rigidly conventionalized that it’s hard to see now where the difference between a “good” performance and a “bad” one might have lain. Furthermore, Pagano was so effortlessly charismatic a figure that he just about walked off with the whole damn film, actor or not. Both Pastrone and the bosses at Italia Film knew a good thing when they saw one, and soon Pagano was reprising variations on the role in what would amount to a total of 26 spin-off films by 1927 (including three made by a German firm, oddly enough). Needless to say, those movies were immensely popular, and Pagano’s stardom long outlived the vogue for lavish historical epics that brought him to it. Maciste (to which Pagano legally changed his name eventually, deliberately blurring the distinction between himself and his fictional alter ego) became something of a national folk hero, and with that in mind, it becomes much easier to understand why the character was resurrected when strongmen defending the ancient world’s downtrodden came back into fashion after the huge international success of Hercules and Hercules Unchained.
The titular Cabiria (Carolina Catena) is the little daughter of a wealthy Roman planter named Batto. She is much doted upon by her parents, by her nurse, Croessa (Gina Marangoni), and indeed by just about all of the numerous household servants, but she’d better not get too accustomed to that. Catania, where Batto and his family live, is at the foot of Mount Etna, and naturally it’s only a matter of time before the volcano decides to remind the puny humans dwelling in its shadow what a stupid place that is to make their homes. Sure, it’s a relatively small eruption— the kind you can realistically hope to rebuild from, anyway— but there’s more than enough destruction, chaos, and confusion to scatter the residents all over. Batto and his wife flee one way; Croessa flees another with Cabiria; the rest of the servants loot Batto’s villa on their way out the door; and by the time the volcanic ash stops raining down, everybody is pretty much assuming that everyone else is dead. Croessa and Cabiria fall in with the larcenous servants, and it’s their bad luck that the boat they eventually find in a cove along the seashore belongs to a crew of Carthaginian pirates. Most of the servants are killed for the stolen loot they’re carrying, but the pirates think Croessa and Cabiria would net them a much better profit in the slave market back home.
The pair are quickly bought by Karthalo (Dante Testa), high priest of the temple of Moloch. Croessa doesn’t seem to realize this at first, but the only reason the temple maintains that orphanage where Cabiria is so well-treated is because Moloch demands periodic human sacrifices— and Moloch’s a big fan of veal, if you follow me. Cabiria gets picked for the next round of offerings to the god, and Croessa is both flogged and tossed out on her ass when she tries to stop Karthalo and his men from hauling the girl away. Luckily for both captives, however, there’s another Roman in Carthage just now, living incognito at the Inn of the Striped Monkey and acting as a spy for the Republic. Croessa hears Fulvius Axilla (Umberto Mozzato) conversing in Latin with his slave, Maciste, and immediately introduces herself. Axilla is initially disinclined to do anything that might draw official attention to himself, but he— and Maciste even more so— eventually takes pity on the nurse and her doomed dependent. Accepting Batto’s signet ring from Croessa as a token of the pact, the men agree to help rescue Cabiria, even though it means swiping her from the very altar and then fighting their way out of the temple. Croessa is caught and subjected to a surely horrible offscreen execution, but Axilla and Maciste escape with Cabiria from the crowd of furious worshippers, and the Nubian’s gigantic strength proves most effective in persuading Bodastoret (Raffaele di Napoli), the innkeeper at the Striped Monkey, to plead ignorance when the temple guards come around on the hunt for two fugitives and a stolen sacrificial victim.
Meanwhile, Hasdrubal Gisco (Edoardo Davesnes), for practical purposes the ruler of Carthage, is hard at work making sure his side doesn’t lose the Second Punic War the way they did the first one. While Hannibal (Emilio Vardannes, from The Polish Jew and Maciste Saved from the Waters) slogs his way over the Alps to hit Rome from behind, Hasdrubal negotiates an alliance with Massinissa (Vitale di Stefano, of Satan, or the Drama of Humanity and the 1912 Italian version of Siegfried), king of the Numidians. Hasdrubal’s most valuable bargaining chip with Massinissa is his notoriously beautiful daughter, Sophronisba (Italia Almirante-Manzini, from Maciste the Detective and Maciste the Clairvoyant), whom he proposes to give to the Numidian in marriage. Now, Massinissa has never actually seen Sophronisba, since that would be contrary to the customs of Oriental despotism, but he’s too shrewd a man to buy a pig in a poke. Massinissa arranges on the sly to send the princess a note via one of her slaves, asking her to meet him in the palace’s exterior garden one night. That night happens to be the one on which Bodastoret finally works up the nerve to sneak off to Karthalo with an ostensibly anonymous tip regarding the fugitives the priest wants so badly, as well as the one on which Axilla and Maciste are planning to leave Carthage with Cabiria. Karthalo sets up an ambush down the block from the Striped Monkey, and soon Axilla and Maciste are once again fighting for their and Cabiria’s lives. The men claw their way free (trying to fight Maciste is just a really bad idea), and manage to keep far enough ahead of Karthalo’s pursuing soldiers to reach the palace garden, where they attempt to hide among the lush greenery. Inevitably, that’s the same lush greenery that Massinissa and Sophronisba were counting on to keep their tryst a secret, and the two royals suddenly find themselves having as much to lose from discovery as the interlopers. In the interest of keeping everything as quiet as possible, Sophronisba agrees to take Cabiria with her to her apartment in the palace, while the three men attempt to sneak off in their separate ways. Massinissa and Axilla are successful in that endeavor, but the hulking and conspicuous Maciste is not. He is sentenced to life at hard labor, chained to the stones of a grinding mill, but considering the ancients’ vast ingenuity at devising really sucky ways to die, I’d call that getting off easy.
The next time we see Axilla, he’s serving as a marine with the invasion fleet laying siege to Syracuse, which has thrown in its lot with Carthage. Pastrone and his co-writer, Gabriele D’Annunzio, take at face value the legend about Archimedes (Enrico Gemelli) setting fire to the Roman fleet with a huge parabolic mirror that turns the light of the harsh Mediterranean sun into a death ray, and Axilla’s ship is among those destroyed thusly. He drifts all the way up the coast to Catania on a piece of timber, where he washes ashore and is discovered by three fishermen whose first impulse is to rifle his purse and pockets for anything valuable. One of them sees the ring he got from Croessa, though, and recognizes the emblem on it as Batto’s seal. So instead of robbing the unconscious castaway, the fishermen bring him to Batto’s villa, where he is nursed back to health in the hope of getting some explanations out of him. Axilla tells Batto and his wife all about his adventures overseas, including the vital point that the daughter the couple have been mourning all this time was still alive the last time he saw her. The shipwrecked soldier then demonstrates his gratitude by vowing to look for Cabiria should his travels ever take him back to Carthage.
Ten years pass, and with them many reversals of fortune. Hannibal has been defeated. His brother, Hasdrubal Barca, has lost control of the Carthaginian stronghold in southern Iberia. Syracuse has fallen. Massinissa has lost his kingdom to Syphax of Cirta (Alessandro Bernard, from Maciste of the Alps), and with it his usefulness to Hasdrubal Gisco. Sophronisba is now betrothed to Syphax instead, as Carthage has greater need than ever of powerful allies. Massinissa has gone over to the Romans, who have promised to help him get his domains back in return for his military aid to Consul Scipio (Luigi Chellini) and his invasion of North Africa. But three things remain unchanged from before: Bodastoret still runs the Inn of the Striped Monkey; Cabiria (now played by Lidia Quaranta) is still a member of Sophronisba’s household, although she’s going by “Elissa” now; and Maciste is still chained to that millstone. Scipio has brought Axilla with him to North Africa, correctly recognizing the value of his familiarity with downtown Carthage, so it looks like Fulvius will indeed have a chance to make good his vow to Batto. But before that, he means to track down Maciste, so it’s off to the Striped Monkey to throw another scare into Bodastoret, and to extract from him whatever news he can of the Nubian’s whereabouts. Maciste’s joy at seeing his master again after all these years is so great that it gives him the strength to snap his chains, and Cabiria spends the rest of its running time intertwining their efforts to smuggle Batto’s daughter out of captivity with the larger story of Scipio’s North African campaign.
Honestly, Cabiria could have done a slightly better job of that intertwining, and it could have done a much better job of doing any fucking thing at all with its title character. Cabiria is literally nothing but a plot device in what is theoretically her own movie. We never get to know her in any meaningful way, she vanishes completely from sight for much of the running time, and the only honest assessment of her role is that she exists solely to provide a hook for a human-scale story to set in the shadow of the Second Punic War. I give Cabiria a pass for that, though, for the simple reason that movies on this scale had only just been invented. As little as four years earlier, the phrase “full-length film” meant merely the full length of a single reel. Cabiria originally filled fifteen reels, although the version you’ll find on home video today is cut down significantly from that at just over two hours. Italian filmmakers of this era were engaged in an ongoing experiment aimed at expanding the scope of the motion picture, not in the incremental way that one sees elsewhere in the last century’s teen years, but to a degree that looks nearly insane when you take a moment to think about it in context. Inevitably they were going to get some stuff seriously wrong, and the easiest mistakes for them to make would have been the ones concerning how to keep these massive, unwieldy new movies of theirs in a workable balance. Cabiria’s non-characterization was perfectly acceptable by previous standards, and Pastrone and D’Annunzio can be forgiven for not noticing how completely their own work was rendering those standards obsolete. And of course it’s also possible that the missing footage (which might amount to as much as an hour, depending on frame rate) made the adult Cabiria more of a tangible presence. Hell, it might even have done something to earn the romantic hookup that finally occurs between her and Axilla, although I confess that I’d be a little surprised by that.
How successful, then, is Cabiria at its main business of putting unprecedented and inspirational grandeur up on the screen? Well, let me put it to you this way: you know those great, big elephant statues all over the famous set for Intolerance’s Babylon street scenes? They’re there because of the elephants in this movie’s Moloch temple. There’s no elephant iconography anywhere in Babylonian art or architecture, for the entirely sensible reason that there weren’t any elephants in 19th-century-B.C. Mesopotamia. But Cabiria had elephants, and if elephants were good enough for Giovanni Pastrone, then they were fucking well good enough for D. W. Griffith. It’s possible to quibble with that reasoning (in fact, I encourage it), but the point is that it’s hard not to come away from Cabiria with the feeling that this is what the ancient Middle East ought to have looked like, regardless of whether or not it actually did. It’s not merely an impressive film, but an immersive one— a film that creates its own reality and temporarily substitutes it for ours wherever the two come into conflict. Even Archimedes showing up briefly to act as a distant forerunner to the Crimson Ghost seems somehow plausible in the context of Pastrone’s version of the late 3rd century B.C. Nor is it just the towering, lavish, obsessively detailed production design that achieves the effect, for Cabiria has a trick up its sleeve that would revolutionize the art of cinematography once a critical mass of filmmakers had figured out how to duplicate it. Watch enough movies from before about the middle of the 1920’s, and you quickly learn to expect fixed, stagey camera setups. Familiarity with the first 30 years’ worth of silent movies tends to readjust one’s conception of camera mobility to focus on the number of different perspectives cut together to form a given scene, rather than on movements undertaken while the film is actually rolling. In Cabiria, however, the camera is indeed mobile in the modern sense, for so far as can be determined today, it was the first film ever to use a system of dolly tracks behind the scenes. The innovation really makes its presence felt immediately upon the introduction of Fulivus Axilla, when the camera follows him first laterally out the door of the Striped Monkey, and then down the street into what had been the background of the image. Suddenly it’s as if we’re no longer observing the action from afar, but have instead become physically present on the streets of Carthage. I can only imagine how breathtaking it must have been for those who saw Cabiria in 1914; it comes as a big enough shock just on the basis of an artificially cultivated acclimation to the era’s cinematic norms. It’s perhaps the most tangible of several subtle ways in which Cabiria meets a modern audience halfway, overcoming to some extent the usual obstacles that a pre-World War I movie presents to appreciation by subsequent generations.