Cabiria (1914)

Directed by Giovanni Pastrone

Young Cabiria is kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave in Carthage. Just as she's to be sacrificed to Moloch, Cabiria is rescued by Fulvius Axilla, a good-hearted Roman spy, and his powerful slave, Maciste. The trio are broken up as Cabiria is entrusted to a woman of noble birth. With Cabiria's fate unknown, Maciste punished for his heroism, and Fulvius sent away to fight for Rome, is there any hope of our heroes reuniting?

Any account of the singular 'greatness' of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) must convince the reader that that film's grandeur and 'innovations' had both not already been seen and that they would not have happened anyway. Caibria (1914) strikes at the heart of this: What sets! What special effects! What stunts! Indeed, 'stunt' implies some form of cinematic deception, but how on earth did those folks fall out of that balloon and not break their necks? Separate from this, the quick movement between 'epic' gestures strikes me less as a prototype of Brechtian Gestus than early cinema mimicking a familiar artform; the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century epic painting.