Per E.M.A. Un artista di talento e amica.
Original Poster for the film
The American director D.W. Griffith is often credited as being the creator of the feature-length film. It was actually the Australians who made the first feature film in 1906 which was called The Story Of The Kelly Gang.
But in 1911 with the release of L’Inferno, the Italian industry created not only the first epic film but the first international blockbuster as well.
Taking over three years to make, the film took in over 2 million dollars in the United States alone. As its extended length meant there could be less screenings per day, it gave the theater owners an excuse to raise the normal prices of admission. It remains the oldest feature film to still exist.
Credited to three different directors, the film is a live action adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The sets and visuals were closely based on Gustave Dorè’s engravings from his 1857 edition of the poets work which was, and still is, the most iconic representation of the title. Using fantastical, extravagant sets and special effects, the film must have been as terrifying to audiences in 1911 as any horror film of present day. Winged devils, brimstone hail, choking fires, it’s likely there were at least a few trips to the hospital by cast members who spent much time on the production. L’Inferno remains the oldest feature film to still exist.
Left, one of Dorè’s illustrations, on the right, Lucifer’s depiction in the film.
It would be the feature Cabiria five years later that would be the most influential silent Italian film of the period. Directed by Giovanne Pastrone, the film was shot in Torino (Turin) and featured massive period sets as well as elaborate and imaginative miniatures which recreated the eruptions of Mt Etna in Sicily. It follows the story of a young girl, Cabiria, who is saved from the disaster caused by the eruption only to be captured by Phoenicians and sold into slavery in Carthage.
Foreground miniature of the eruption of Mt. Etna
The sets include a massive exterior and interior of the Temple of Moloch which includes a huge bronze statue of the god. During the sacrifice scene, the chest of the statue opens and dozens of children are thrown into its fiery belly one at a time, it’s mouth belching fire as the door swings shut on each sacrifice.
The exterior set of the Temple of Moloch
In one scene, the Roman navy assaults the city of Syracuse, a massive set and staged battle that would presage the scenes of the siege of Babylon years later in D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance. While Pastrone’s film doesn’t have the same intercutting as Griffith’s, many of the lighting effects are much more dramatic than Grifffith’s.
Pastrone would be the first to put a camera on a dolly and execute the long, slow tracking shots throughout the film that would be so influential to every feature afterwards. In fact for many years any dolly shot or one involving movement was known as a ‘Cabiria shot’. The film was also the first to incorporate flashbacks as a story device.
The film’s elephants made a huge visual impact on Griffith, and he would insist there be plaster elephant sculptures in the Babylon sets for Intolerance, despite the art department’s insistence that elephants did not exist in ancient Babylonia.
French poster for the film
Cabiria would be the first film to be screened at the White House by then President Woodrow Wilson in 1914.
While the films may be be very dated to our 21st century eyes, you can’t help but be impressed with the scale of the sets of these pre-computer age features.