Typically when people talk about the movie changed how movies are made, The Birth of a Nation (1915, dir. D.W. Griffith) is the movie that is brought up. Yet for all of its technical achievement, Cabiria, made the year before and on the other side of the world, has all the technical marvel of Griffith’s civil war film, but with more splendor, fun, and excitement. I wasn’t shy about sharing my distaste for Griffith’s film, and although I respect and admire the technical achievements he made, I found the movie quite boring and unmoving. On the other hand, Cabiria is not only the more moving and exciting film, it is also a technically better made film. It features one of the same period specific pit falls of The Birth of a Nation: blackface, but even here it just seems different. Whereas The Birth of a Nation used blackface to demonize its characters, Cabiria makes an Ethiopian man, Maciste, its main hero. In this instance, since I cannot find anything to the contrary, I want to give the director, Giovanni Pastrone, the benefit of the doubt and assume that were he able he would have cast an actual black man, but I don’t know for certain.
Cabiria shares it title with the name of its main character, a girl separated from her royal family during an attack. She is only a very small child when the attack takes place, and her nursemaid does everything in her power to protect the child. Eventually they are taken captive by Phoenician pirates and sold as slaves. The nursemaid escapes, and Cabiria is purchased and taken to a temple to the pagan god Moloch where she is to be used as a child sacrifice. The scene in which children are “put through the fire” to the pagan god are very familiar to a similar scene from Metropolis (1927, dir. Fritz Lang). It’s very clear that Fritz Lang had scene Cabiria, and decided to use a similar visual motif in his film. In Pastrone’s film the Moloch imagery is literal: the children in the story are being fed to a giant oven in honor of the pagan god. In Lang’s film it is metaphorical: the Moloch oven is not real, but instead represents the way industrialization dehumanizes people by “feeding them to a machine” so that the machine can continue operating. I bring up the Metropolis comparison because I see that it has far more in common with Cabiria than it does The Birth of a Nation, but I’ll return to this.
The nursemaid finds two men,a Roman man named Fulvio and his servant and friend Maciste, and begs them for their help. They agree to help and save Cabiria right before she is sacrificed. In the ensuring pursuit the nursemaid is killed and Cabiria is handed over to an Egyptian queen for protection. Cabiria remains in the household of this Queen of Egypt for many years until she is an adult. Without going too much farther, after many years she is eventually rescued by Fulvio and Maciste. But I would rather continue our discussion of the film’s technical aspects than simply repeat the plot..
D.W. Griffith, either because of a lack of vision or lack of resources, tended to suggest things more than actually show them. The battle scenes are usually filmed in wide shots with smoke obscuring portions of the battlefield where nothing is actually happening. When he does go in close it usually features on a single character and their drama. For Griffith spectacle was a wide-shot and drama was a close-up. Pastrone seems to approach things different however. He seems to much prefer medium shots and putting the audience as close to the action as possible. From memory I can recall only a few wide shots and typically they were used to show off the lavishness of the sets and their eventual, catastrophic destruction. Griffith would sometimes pan his camera left and right, but Pastrone dollies his camera forward and backward. In one of the opening scenes the camera sits for the longest time in a wide shot of a large room but then slowly begins to dolly forward into a medium shot of two characters. I remember that my wife and I both gasped at this. We had only watched The Birth of a Nation the week before, and neither of us could remember it doing anything similar. Also, The Birth of a Nation is usually credited with the invention of cross-cutting multiple stories, and yet Cabiria makes frantic use of cross-cutting throughout the whole of its runtime. All of this, coupled with the fact that Cabiria is actually a fun movie to watch, left me scratching my head a bit.
Why does Cabiria so often get overlooked, meanwhile The Birth of a Nation receive all of the praise for inventing modern cinema? Not only did Cabiria come first, but it did it better. Part of me wonders if Griffith was aware of Cabiria before he made The Birth of a Nation, but I can find nothing that suggests that to be so. I’ve found information that suggests Cabiria might have inspired his film Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916, dir. D.W. Griffith), but that’s it. A large part of the problem may be the terrible shape Cabiria is in, with over a third of its runtime missing from current home video releases. The nearly complete, 190-minute version has been shown at festivals before but has never been released on home video, which is a travesty. Were this film better known, I think it would likely be considered the grandfather of modern cinema. Going back to the previous discussion of Metropolis, I find that Lang’s film has far more in common with Cabiria than it does The Birth of a Nation, which is likely because Metropolis and Cabiria were both European films, so Lang was probably more familiar with the Italian Cabiria than he was the American The Birth of a Nation.
I suspect that most will say Cabiria and The Birth of a Nation are another example of similar things being developed independently but around the same time. A couple of years ago I read a wonderful book titled Capturing the Light that told the story of two men who invented similar photographic processes around the same time but in different places. But I can’t help but think that this situation is a bit different. Cabiria has a full year on The Birth of a Nation, so perhaps word of its technical achievements had made their way to Griffith’s ears. I don’t know. It’s unlikely that we will ever know. Yet, in my mind, Cabiria is one of the greatest losses in cinematic history. The fact that a nearly complete and restored version of the film is floating around in the world somewhere, but that it has never been released for the public, is infuriating. In the debate of what film pushed cinema forward, I will never again be one of the people that say, “Well, for all of its faults, The Birth of a Nation changed everything.”
From now on I will proudly say, “Cabiria. Cabiria is the silent film that changed everything.”
This movie has everything in it: action, war, history, drama, friendship, and fun. Cabiria is not only a wonderfully made film, it’s simply a joy to watch. My wife and I enjoyed this film immensely. It’s one of the finest epics ever made, and I hope that one day it is not only more widely known and appreciated, but that it finally takes the position it deserves in the history of cinema.