Saturday Silents: Cabiria (1914)

All Cabiria images are from this source (French).

All Cabiria images, except as noted, are from this source (French).

The pioneering Italian film maker Giovanni Pastrone made this impressive movie about a stolen child and various goings on in Carthage and parts of what we today call Italy during the Second Punic War, two centuries before the Christian era.

I agree with Roger Ebert’s review in every way, but still had to think about the appropriateness of this for a while.


There are many title cards, and they seem quite impenetrable, especially in the latter parts of the movie. However, more seriously, there is some disturbing stuff in Cabiria.

Knowing what came afterwards in Italy and elsewhere, it is unsettling to see the fascist salutes the proto-Italians routinely greet each other with. This, combined with the way two of the main protagonists terrorize a Jewish shopkeeper and ultimately frighten him to death, and the dismissive way the film handles this horror, is very off-putting.

There is political controversy as well.

That’s not all. Some characters, most notably Bartolomeo Pagano as Maciste, are supposed to be black, but the actors are white and go around in blackface all the time, while actual black actors are used for menial background positions.

The child actors are also treated rather roughly, as seems to have been the case in most of these old movies. Carolina Catena, as the child MacGuffin Cabiria, gets manhandled at times as she’s hauled around, and I feel very sorry for children who play sacrifices to Moloch. They appear terrified for real in their scenes.

Even adults might find the whole Temple of Moloch sequence a little intense.



And yet …


An argument can well be made that Cabiria was the first epic film (see Ebert’s review).

There is also that Fellini homage in his film title.

At least Steve Reeves didn't go around in blackface.  Source.

At least Steve Reeves didn’t go around in blackface. Source.

Maciste eventually evolved into the Hercules of more modern sword-and-sandals movies.

It is the first movie ever to move the camera on a dolly.

It was the first feature to be shown on White House grounds. Although over 2-1/2 hours long, this movie was a massive box-office success in Europe and America, and maybe it doesn’t hurt to be reminded today that in 1914 everybody was dazzled enough to overlook that small-scale horror inside the Jewish shopkeeper’s shop. I’m not saying that if people had protested, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened, just that you never know. Very small things do change the world.

Cabiria inspired D. W. Griffith to make Intolerance.

There is lots of good story-telling. Though you will lose track of all but a few of the characters and will never be able to follow every little plot detail, it doesn’t matter. Like Spielberg today, Pastrone knew how to engage the viewer’s imagination.

He gives us plenty of fast-paced action, credible eruptions of Mount Etna, earthquakes, battle scenes, Archimedes building and using a solar death ray, Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants and an army, and much more. It’s pretty exciting.

Fulvius Axilla

Fulvius Axilla looks like my half-brother. You will make it just fine through the movie’s sometimes confusing twists and turns if you understand that Fulvius (sometimes called Fulvio) is actually the central plot character.

And if Fulvius is the Sun in this movie, then Sophonisba, daughter of Hasdrubal and niece of Hannibal, is its Moon. Don’t ever lose track of her!

In fact, what finally decided me to post Cabiria today was the performance of Italia Almirante (link is in Italian) as Sophonisba. We wouldn’t call it great by today’s standards, and while it’s heavy on the melodramatic excess that some mock in the silents, here’s how she impressed me.

During one of her introductory scenes, at around 37:40, a leopard – of course there’s a leopard – is apparently confused by a fan someone is waving. The big cat rears up and strikes the back of the chair Almirante is moping around in, its paws landing just inches from her head. That doesn’t look staged, and the leopard immediately is exited stage left (not to be seen again).

Almirante stays totally in character (after moving very quickly out of the way) and straightens up the cushions with a big smile on her face. Then she gets back to moping (what Sophonisba is supposed to be doing).

While it’s true that, for a modern audience, her acting, especially her last scene, is so far over the top it exists in an entirely different universe, the business with the leopard shows that Italia Almirante is the most metal actress of the silent era. 

I love her last scene, too, and hope you will enjoy it. Almirante isn’t very well known in this country, and she should be.


Today’s Feature

Without more ado, ladies and gentlemen, here is today’s feature film Cabiria! This version is totally silent, and that’s okay – the manic piano soundtrack on the Kino version actually detracts from the experience.

Categories: Saturday Silents, Silent movies

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