- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

Among the motivations that prompted D.W. Griffith to undertake the large-scale productions that became “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 and “Intolerance” a year later was professional jealousy. Still confined to one-reel (approximately 10-minute) melodramas, Mr. Griffith had to watch as a cycle of Italian imports with much longer running times, mostly ambitious romances and evocations of antiquity, were rewarded with prestige theatrical bookings in major cities — and international success.

The National Gallery of Art will facilitate cinematic time-traveling this afternoon by hosting a rare screening of one of those productions, a 1914 historical spectacle titled “Cabiria,” which remains one of the most respected and durably impressive movie epics of its generation — the founding generation of movies as a popular art form.

This presentation begins the latest edition of the gallery’s annual retrospective series, “From Vault to Screen,” which showcases preservation work from film archives around the world. The print of “Cabiria” is on loan from the Museo del Cinema in Turin, the most venerable archive in Italy.

Turin also was the home city of the production company, Itala, that backed “Cabiria,” which began filming in 1912. Ultimately, it employed a cast of thousands while also shooting on locations in Tunisia, Sicily and the Swiss Alps. The principal standing sets were constructed in Turin. Circus elephants were recruited to help simulate Carthaginian armies on the march during the Second Punic War.

Contemporary audiences and filmmaking professionals were united in admiration of the scenic sweep and pictorial finesse of the Italian epics. The producers didn’t seem to stint when constructing mock-ups of ancient edifices or staging mass spectacles. The principal set pieces in “Cabiria” depict land and naval battles (the incineration of a Roman fleet approaching Syracuse by a system of high-powered mirrors invented by Archimedes) and a barbaric sacrificial rite at the temple of Moloch.

The director of the film, Giovanni Pastrone (1883-1959), had been on the ground floor of the trend toward costume spectacles. Evidently a skilled technician and one of the founders of Itala, he had enjoyed career-altering success with “The Fall of Troy” in 1910. “Cabiria” was such a hit that he made three sequels revolving around its strongman hero, Maciste, a slave of North African origin who comes to the rescue of his master, a Roman nobleman named Fulvio, destined to wed a Sicilian slave girl named Cabiria.

The casting of the Maciste role, which has been revived frequently by the Italian movie industry, helped set a pattern for the emerging star system. A nonprofessional named Bartolomeo Pagano, a Genoese dockworker, got the part and became a prototype for heroic gentle giants. The character was echoed in the Babylonian sequences of “Intolerance” by Elmo Lincoln (a future Tarzan) as the paragon called the Mighty Man of Valor.

Mr. Pastrone, whose film career faded at the end of the decade, enhanced the publicity allure of “Cabiria” with a selfless brainstorm. His own identity was obscured behind the alias Piero Fosco. While remaining out of the limelight, he persuaded a national literary idol, the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, to front as the screenwriter and presiding artistic eminence of the film.

Handsomely recompensed, Mr. D’Annunzio agreed to rewrite the intertitles and evidently contributed the names of several characters, including the still resonant Cabiria and Maciste. His participation, evidently most distinctive in the flamboyant idiom of the Italian titles, generated a fascination and cachet that translated into substantial social and commercial value. Reputed to be the first $1 million production, “Cabiria” demonstrated that it could pay off to budget a generous amount for literary celebrity.

An original symphonic score was commissioned for live orchestral accompaniment in major metropolitan bookings. The current print is augmented by a new piano score, composed and performed by Philip Carli. The running time ?162 minutes ? appears to approximate the longest release prints of 90 years ago. The feature film as we understand it was still a novelty and an extravagance at the time, so engagements of flexible lengths were authorized by Itala during the movie’s international distribution. It remained famous enough after the demise of the silent-film era to justify an abridged revival in 1932, a version augmented by a soundtrack.

TITLE: “Cabiria”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter ? an Italian spectacle originally released in 1914)

CREDITS: Directed by Giovanni Pastrone (under the alias Piero Fosco). Scenario by Mr. Pastrone and Gabriele D’Annunzio. Photography by Segundo de Chomon, Giovanni Tomatis, Augusto Battagliotti and Natale Chiusano. Original score by Ildebrando Pizzeti. Modern piano score by Philip Carli

RUNNING TIME: 162 minutes

WHERE: East Building auditorium of the National Gallery of Art. Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: Today at 2:30 p.m.


PHONE: 202/847-6799.

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