Monday, December 29, 2008

Cabiria: the movie with built-in spoilers

Back in the mid 19-teens, Italian filmmakers began pioneering the long form cinema we know today as "feature film".

Cabiria is regarded as the most successful of the lot. It's only borderline watchable today; it suffers from a persistent habit of early silent films in which they would put up a title card explaining what you were about to see:

and then follow that with a scene in which you see exactly what you were already told you were going to see:

It's like a movie with built-in spoilers. Another:

followed by:

But you can see the elaborate production values they put into this toga pic. The sets and costumes are great:

It also has some good stunt work like this scene where you see Roman soldiers scale a high wall by methodically building a human pyramid...

... with each layer of men standing on the shields of the men below:

And yes, they really do get a man up to the top of that wall. I don't know if that's a historically accurate maneuver, but they convinced me it could work.

Audiences of the time were also struck by something called "the Cabiria effect". In numerous shots they slowly moved the camera's vantage point into, out of or across the scene. It's a very subtle shifting of perspective that undoes the inherent flatness of a stationary camera. Today we know this as a "dolly shot" and it's not at all uncommon, but it makes Cabiria look about ten years more advanced than other movies from this period.

Still, for all this awareness of how to use the camera there are some moments of excruciatingly bad framing:

The object of that scene is a man on a bed just off the left edge of the frame. We saw them lay him on the bed in a previous shot but for some reason now we just see their butts as they lean over him.

And what is "Cabiria"? It's a girl. She may be the original "McGuffin", as Hitchcock would say. Rather unimportant in the film except as a foil to involve all these other people you see who are trying to capture her, protect her, sacrifice her, deflower her, rescue her...


Andy Mulia said...

We can learn alot from those old films. I think the simple and crude executions make it easier to point out what works and what doesn't.

Robert said...

True. I'll keep watchig them.