Standing out from all the stumbling efforts toward a new expression of cinema, Giovanni Pastrone’s story of the Second Punic War, Cabiria , demands special attention. Compared to the other colossal Italian spectacles of its time, it had an integrity and sense of purpose. From the beginning it was regarded as something special, and its premiere at the Teatro Vittorio Emmanuele, Turin, on 18 April 1914 was a great occasion. The film’s accompanying score by Ildebrando Pizzetti, performed by an orchestra of 80 and a choir of 70, added to the excitement. Viewed today, the film has lost little of its epic poetry to the zeitgeist, though the acting performances may seem dated.
This story of a young girl lost amidst the clashes of two great nations retains its human interest as well as its power to amaze and astonish. The association of Gabriele d’Annunzio’s name with the film reminds us of his dictum, “The Cinema should give spectators fantastic visions, lyric catastrophes and marvels born of the most audacious imagination,” though, in fact, d’Annunzio’s actual contribution to this film was very small. He was paid a large sum for the use of his name in promotion. What does bear his mark are the highly poeticized inter-titles which are a part of the film’s continuity, as they harmonize in style and feeling with the images. The film is consistently and stylishly in the grand manner. When the servant describes Massinissa to her mistress Sophonisba she says, “He is like a wind from the desert bringing the scent of dust and lions and the message of Astarte.” Few film heroes have had such a build-up.
Apart from the magnificence of the sets and the pulsating action of the story, the film is important for the patient research that produced such striking results and gave conviction to the historical setting. The great Temple of Moloch must have been one of the largest structures for a film up to that time. It and the Carthaginian palaces certainly influenced Griffith’s Babylon in Intolerance. Infinite pains were taken with details which fitted effectively into the vast canvas.
Technically the film is also remarkable for its photography by the Spaniard Segundo de Chomon. The use of the moving camera has never been so effective in its almost imperceptible transitions. Every device of camera craft is used to produce a smoothly flowing narrative.
There is so much richness in this film: the great scenes of Hannibal crossing the Alps with his army and elephants; the eruption of Etna, and the destruction of the Roman fleet at Syracuse by means of the sun-reflectors of Archimedes. Most of these effects were achieved by multiple exposure. The acting is fairly theatrical, but the performances of Italia Almirante Manzini as Sophonisba and Vitale de Stefano as Massinissa are moving and impressive, while Bartolomeo Pagano, as Maciste the strong man, adds a new figure to the mythology of the movies. Cabiria therefore stands as a major filmic achievement at a time when the cinema was fighting for its place among the other arts.