Cabiria (1914)

brooke This movie. It was long, it was crazy, and it was epic but not really in the slang way.

casey I thought I had a decent grasp on Roman history, but Cabiria has a bewildering amount of of ancient names and cities that years of casual podcast listening did not prepare me for. Still, at its heart this Italian silent movie tells a simple story: a young Roman girl separated from her parents, raised as a slave to a Carthaginian noblewoman, and eventually rescued by a heroic Roman soldier Fulvius Axilla and his loyal, uh, “servant,” Maciste.
All this takes place amidst the events of the Second Punic War, in which Rome’s mortal enemy Hannibal invaded Italy and raised hell for nearly a decade until Roman general Scipio Africanus led a counter-invasion of northern Africa that turned the war’s tide. Cabiria’s story  crisscrosses historical events, with numerous minor characters representing various allies and factions of Rome and Carthage, all of which is explained by lengthy and not necessarily helpful title cards.

brooke It’s definitely a complicated web. It’s probably like someone from the USA watching a World War II movie that doesn’t bother to explain who Hitler is. We don’t need it explained, we all know the context. Director Giovanni Pastrone probably makes similar assumptions about his audience, and some elements felt completely out of place, but in their context I’m sure it makes more sense.

casey So, Cabiria is apparently one of the original historical epics, and what I like best is the obvious amount of effort that went into it. Some of the sets are enormous and very lavish, and the stunk work looks legitimately impressive. In one scene, a band of Roman soldiers use their shields to form a literal human pyramid to scale a city wall about 40 feet high, all of which is filmed in a single take. Another scene–not even a plot-critical one!– shows Hannibal’s famous crossing of the alps, and I’m pretty sure they actually filmed it with a few hundred dudes and some elements in the mountains. So on a technical level, it’s cool precisely because of the limitations technology.
Now, the movie’s paeans to Roman glory and Carthaginian savagery are a bit uncomfortable with the knowledge that it was made by a right wing director a few years before the ascendance of Italian fascism. And then there are the racial politics…

brooke Hoo boy, so much blackface. Perhaps the most egregious example is Maciste, Fulvius Axilla’s slave. Maciste is played by the Italian Bartolomeo Pagano, who continued to play the role in some 20+ other films and even legally changed his named to Maciste. Apparently in some iterations of the role the blackface was less prominent, but according to Ebert, never went away. In Cabiria, it is very obvious.
There is a lot of Roman superiority going on in this movie. It’s all about how bad the Carthaginians are–they worship Moloch, sacrifice children, enslave other people’s slaves (that actually happens), and punish anyone loyal to Rome.

casey As we all know, Rome never engaged in any morally questionable behavior.

brooke A lot of detail was put into the film, which is great in some moments, like a scene where the young Cabiria is set to be sacrificed to Moloch. There are a lot of fantastic elements that make that scene mesmerizing, like the massive statue of the god with a fiery chest cavity that opens to consume the child sacrifices and closes once the children have been dumped inside. Then you have other moments where I felt like, “Oh… I see, the director thought this scene would be cooler scene with a leopard in it, so they got a leopard. Okay.”
I was pleasantly surprised by the special effects. There are a couple of scenes that appear to overlay two film strips, in one case resulting in a believable shot of people running from a volcano, and another where two characters falling in love see angels flying around them. I was not so pleased with the fact that Cabiria, the titular heroine, is little more than a plot device. She doesn’t even pass the sexy lamp test. She has no actions, she is only acted upon from her happy Roman childhood to her eventual freedom.

casey She doesn’t get much to do or say. But her owner, the Carthaginian Queen Sophonisba, gets some great melodramatic scenes of the kind you only get in silent cinema, with some killer longing gazes and physical acting.She and Maciste steal the show, and God help us if the tumblr shipping community ever sees this movie. Overall though, I liked Cabiria. It doesn’t have the resonance of something like Broken Blossoms, but it’s fun for what it is.

brooke I think it was worth seeing, and I’m glad we’re expanding our film knowledge, but I’ll never watch it again. It’s long, complicated, and exhausting. Beautiful to look at though.


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