H. G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895, simultaneous with the birth of the movies. By sending out their cadre of globetrotting cameramen, the Lumière brothers quickly opened up the world of the present (replete with all its regional oddities and exoticism) to film audiences. Wells mastered the speculative future in the tradition of Jules Verne, but perhaps even more intriguing for filmgoers was the possibility film offered to travel back in time and retrieve the distant past.
D. W. Griffith had dabbled in this (with his In Prehistoric Days, 1913, for example), but the real heavy lifting was done by the Italians. This is appropriate, since the thousand-year history of the Roman Republic and Empire was unrivaled in its impact on the contemporary world; Italy practically owned history. This was accentuated for visual artists by the poignant beauty of surviving ruins and statuary, both in Rome and spread over three continents. Italy’s heritage contributed mightily to the seeming authenticity of its celluloid spectacles.
Enrico Guazzoni (1876–1949) stunned the film world with his spectacular 1912 adaptation of Henry Sienkiewicz’s novel Quo Vadis? Although the film lacked much of Griffith’s and Victor Sjöström’s sophisticated use of close-ups and restrained performances, audiences’ sheer wonder at the burning of Rome, chariot races, massive scenes of extras, and lions eating Christians cannot be overestimated. It was all staged on lavish, authentic-looking sets, and the film went on for two hours at a time when thirty minutes was the norm. (Guazzoni remained active through the Fascist period, and excerpts from some of his other films are included in Anthology of Italian Cinema, which we will screen at the end of the year.)
Giovanni Pastrone (aka Piero Fosco) (1883–1959) became the key figure in Italy’s dominance of the European film scene in the brief period prior to World War I, and Cabiria is the high point of his career. As Griffith would later do with the Babylonian sequence in Intolerance, Pastrone painstakingly researched the look of the Second Punic War. As film historian Liam O’Leary, put it, “Compared to the other colossal Italian spectacles of its time, it had an integrity and sense of purpose.” The use of cinematographer Segundo de Chomon’s moving camera was revolutionary. Cabiria achieved a level of prestige and recognition for its artistry that other filmmakers craved. It opened with an eighty-piece orchestra and a choir of seventy in Turin in April, 1914—barely four months before Europe went up in flames, seemingly intent on following Carthage down the road to oblivion. Aside from the excesses of its performers, Cabiria looked like a real glimpse into the past, and the cinema began to fulfill part of its destiny as a virtual time machine. Italy reclaimed some of this spectacle under Mussolini in the films of Carmine Gallone, Alessandro Blasetti, and Mario Camerini, but ironically the country did not return to cinema’s center stage until after the Second World War. Then, it was the antithesis of sword-and-sandal epics—the nitty-gritty Neorealist masterpieces of Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, and Vittorio De Sica—that commanded attention.
Once again this week, there are films in the series To Save and Project that we might otherwise have shown in this series: On November 11 and 15, I recommend Lotte Reiniger’s extraordinary animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed; you have one last chance to catch Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages on November 13; and Marcel L’Herbier’s very rare L’Argent screens on November 14 and 15. For truly devoted devotees of silent film, there is a marvelous series of screenings at Yale University, December 3–5: After the Great War: European Film in 1919. Interspersed with talks and panel discussions, the series includes many films that MoMA doesn’t have, including Louis Feuillade’s Tih Minh, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, and films by other major directors.