June 20, 1914 [Cabiria]

I have willed cinema into an art, more or less, on a number of occasions—moments, at least, short stretches of aesthetic-thematic confluence. The little entertainments of the nickelodeon—industrious, sometimes earnest in their ambitions—have played their part; but an eruption has occurred—literally: Mt. Etna, in the explosive (such figures of speech are unavoidable) opening scene of one Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria, a film unashamed to toss Shakespeare, Homer/Aeneas, and Grand Opera like a monumental salad, and serve it with Italian flourishes to a stunned clientele. And while certain elements remain familiar—the stage-bound floridness of the actors, as they turn more to the audience than each other, the comic relief, sentimental attachments, last-minute rescues—the overall impact is at once exhilarating and deeply moving.

I want to fill these pages with painstaking detail and minutiae—but will satisfy myself with glimpses and stupefactions:

Again, Mt. Etna: rising in the dark, spitting beautiful arcs of fiery destruction, while the fleeing populace wind along the bottom of the frame, tiny and helpless.

The interplay of shadows and light as supplicants gather around braziers, the moon passes behind clouds, Archimedes lit in demonic glee from beneath as he stands above his disk of mirrors reflecting deadly sun-rays toward the Roman fleet—which burns into the night, the dark water swallowing the flaming bits of sail as they fall—and Moloch belches smoke and the glow of its sacrificial inferno.

—and yes, Moloch: giant stone god, "incensed" at all times, and hungry for the naked children his worshippers tumble into his maw.
The unstoppable athleticism of our heroes, Fulvius and his block-of-bronze servant, Maciste, as they plummet into the sea and dodge all comers, heave mightily and race from Rome to Carthage and back again, at once comical and epic.

Hannibal and his elephants—and what must be the actual Alps, long lines of soldiers, their breath visible, the peaks leaning.

The poetry of even the captions, sometimes long and beautiful, verses amid the battlefield slaughters, human pyramids, and hungry stares of Sophonisba, her desires and virtues at the heart of a convoluted plot.

And yes, the plot, spinning us like tops from one end of the Empire to another, a tale both personal and political, military and romantic. It is as if Pastrone had been told he could make one film only, and be done with it—so he pours from his cask a wild vintage, dizzying my family and me in the Knickerbocker, even the children, all of us stepping out of the theater suddenly understanding why Dad maintains his cinematic vigil: waiting for prayers to be answered, and the "deep heart's core" to be sounded at last.


Popular Posts