Giovanni Pastrone's 150-minute 1914 historical spectacle "Cabiria" (tonight and Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. in LACMA's Bing Theater) is both one of the most influential films ever made and one of the most rarely shown. Those who haven't seen it should think of this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
It's been said that D.W. Griffith was so overwhelmed by "Cabiria" that he decided to turn "The Mother and the Law," which he was then shooting, into one of four intercut stories in his classic 1916 "Intolerance."
Written and directed by Pastrone (Gabriele D'Annunzio received a writing credit, but he contributed little more than his name), "Cabiria" is set in the third century BC and takes its title from a little girl who is believed killed in the volcanic destruction of her family's palace. It is a timeless odyssey of separation and survival, set against the Punic Wars, in which Cabiria (played by Little Catena as a child and by Letizia Quaranta as an adult) is sold into slavery by the Carthaginians.
At the last possible moment Cabiria is rescued from being sacrificed to Moloch by the strong but gentle Roman slave Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano, a muscular, illiterate Genoa dockworker who proved to be a natural actor). The vicissitudes of Cabiria's life then recede for long periods of time to allow for the staging of the campaigns of Hannibal, of Archimedes setting fire to Roman ships by harnessing the power of the sun with magnifying glasses, and the destruction of Carthage and Syracuse.
The interweaving of individual stories and great historical upheavals is sometimes loose and hard to follow, but "Cabiria" is nonetheless filled with stunning revelations. The acting is amazingly restrained both for the time and for the Italian passion for histrionics. Pastrone was very proud of this himself, lamenting only that Italia Almirante Manzini, cast as Queen Sofonisba, the enslaved adult Cabiria's master, flung herself about in tribute to her idol, Sarah Bernhardt. (Manzini is actually much closer in style and appearance to Theda Bara.)
"Cabiria" is visually dazzling, especially since its pristine restoration--including Pastrone's trend-setting tinting--five years ago by the National Cinema Museum in Turin. Its stupendous sets and elegant costumes, in their meticulousness and grandeur, could have been inspired by the paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. A text could be written about the impact of Pastrone's experiments in lighting and camera movement, decisive in freeing the movies from the proscenium.
Surely, D.W. Griffith wasn't the only major director whom Pastrone influenced. Michael Curtiz's "Sodom and Gomorrah," made nearly a decade later, is a kitschy variation, and the Moloch sequence is similar to that of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." Above all, you have to wonder whether "Cabiria" didn't shape De Mille's biblicals and his other historic pageants.
Pastrone directed Pagano in a series of Maciste movies, and Maciste resurfaced in the Italian sword-and-sandal cycle of the '60s, when he was played by American bodybuilder Mark Forest. Born in 1883, Pastrone was still alive when Fellini paid tribute to him by titling one of his own masterpieces "Nights of Cabiria" (1957). However, this great, still largely forgotten pioneer retired from films in 1923, reportedly to devote himself to medical studies.
Meanwhile, time has proven critic W. Stephen Bush correct. Writing in "The Motion Picture World" for May 23, 1914, Bush declared that "Cabiria" "ranks in the very first flight of the cinematographic art."
Robert Israel will play on the piano an adaptation of the original score for a full orchestra, and Anneliese Goldman will recite Lucia Re's English translation of the Italian intertitles. The two screenings are being presented in cooperation with the Italian Cultural Institute, Los Angeles; Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Turin, and the Italian Heritage Culture Foundation, Los Angeles. For more information: (213) 857-6010.
An Italia Film production. Producer Giovanni Pastrone. Director Piero Fosco (Giovanni Pastrone). Screenplay Pastrone. Intertitles Pastrone and Gabriele D'Annunzio. Camera Segundo de Choman. Music Manilo Massa, except "Symphony of Fire" by Ildebrando Pizzetti. With Letizia Quaranta, Gina Marangoni, Dante Testa, Umberto Mozzato, Bartolomeo Pagano, Raffaele Di Napoli, Emilio Vardannes, Edouardo Davesnes, Italia Almirante Manzini, Little Cadena. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.