Essay: Following the risorgimento which unified Italy in 1870…

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Following the risorgimento which unified Italy in 1870, the nation sought to define itself during a period of national questioning. Early Italian cinema took on this question, simultaneously acknowledging cinema’s visual and cultural past and looking to its aesthetic potential as a medium in its own right. Susan Sontag discusses how it is reductive to claim that:
The history of cinema is […] the history of its emancipation from theatrical models. First of all, from theatrical “frontally” (…), then from theatrical acting (…) then from theatrical furnishings (…). Movies are regarded as advancing from theatrical stasis to cinematic fluidity. (1966: 24)

It is indeed incorrect to state cinema emancipates itself from preceding art forms; it is my assertion that the stasis of the theatre, and how it manifests through filmic aesthetic, is linked to cinematic fluidity – a movement towards a new form of representation that builds on the foundations of the theatre whilst making use of technological advances and the aesthetic potential of cinema. Therefore, in order to better understand early Italian filmmaking, it is more pertinent to explore points where the ‘theatrical’ and the ‘cinematic’ converge; I shall do this through exploring how spectacle and narrative work together. I intend to examine the relationship between both factors and examine how ‘theatrical stasis’ and ‘cinematic fluidity’ (movement) typified Early Italian filmmaking. I shall explore my thesis chronologically, with reference to La presa di Roma (Alberini: 1905), Cabiria (Pastrone: 1914), and Maciste all’inferno (Brignone: 1925), examining how theatricality manifests itself through cinematic space, theatrical acting through movements such as divismo, and theatrical furnishings through editing, sound and lighting.

Wood defines cinematic space as constructing a ‘habitus in which […] architecture [and] interiors […] “define our way of living space”’ (2005: 186). It is this notion of ‘defining our way of living space’ that provides the ideological context for all three films under question, as the need to (re)define Italian identity, italianità, pervaded Early Italian Cinema following the unification. This can be clearly seen in La presa di Roma, in which there is a striking sense of realism through the dramatic historical reconstruction of the Capture of Rome (1870) and the operatic visual spaces. This is an example of the spectacle created by the interplay between the theatrical stasis of the set and cinematic fluidity, as the film uses immobile props to

oscillate between the static, immortalised past of Italy and the moving, unfurling central narrative action, aided by the lens, which visually guides the audience through an event that played a major part in defining modern Italy. In General Kanzler’s office, a static long-shot is used in order for the full mise-en-scène to be viewed by the audience, much like they would view a theatre piece – in which several static props on the stage set contextualised the central; moving narrative action. Here, this shot visually converges past and present temporalities and points to the ontology of the lens. In the background, we can see a static representation of the past, including the portrait of Pope Pius XI, a major figure of the Papal States, and a painting of a matronly figure, perhaps Joan of Arc, who led France to victory after the Hundred Years’ War. The stasis of the cinematic set provides spectacular narrative context to the unfurling, moving narrative action in the foreground. This underlines the power of the lens in early Italian cinema, as it was a tool that was able to simulate movement, through a reel of static shots, utilising theatrical aesthetics and new technology to create a new mode of representation. In this shot, through the cinematic space we can see a visual display of power, with the Pope occupying the highest area of visible space, as if an omniscient force that overviews every decision made by the General, who is situated between the painting of the Pope and the warfare painting, connoting that he is shaped by the pressures of war. We then have the soldiers, who are framed by the doorway, suggesting regimentation and orderly conduct. Here, cinematic space is intrinsically linked to the stasis of the theatre, not only telling a visual story, but allowing the audience to better understand the narrative through the static props of the set and how individuals inhabit, and move within, their cinematic space. Therefore, a spectacle is created through the central moving narrative action and the static theatricality of the set. This points to the wider context of Early Italian filmmaking as there was a conscious effort to reinvent the nation through a dramatic depiction of one shared; collective past. Hence, the acting and placement of the soldiers is significant as they, much like actors on a stage, act as moving pawn pieces for the director to add to enhance the mise-en-scène. The movement of cinematic bodies against a static backdrop creates cinematic depth, generating a spectacular aesthetic that creatively reinforces the film’s diegesis.

Due to the lack of intradiegetic sound in early cinema, there was a heavy emphasis on theatricality in order to ensure that the audience’s interest was maintained; as well as the spectacle of the set, this was developed through acting and costumes. The spectacle here is the ability to capture ‘history truly’ (Rhodes: 2000: 310). Through the cinematic fluidity of characters moving in their surroundings, we gauge a better narrative understanding. For example, in this long-shot (right), Alberini uses the actors to tell a visual story. Our immediate view is drawn to the central third, with a line of extras running over the rubble of the broken wall. The characterisation feels very regimented – whilst the majority of actors occupy the centre of the shot, they are framed by the bodies around them. In the mid to bottom-right third of the shot, there is a cadaver that creates a dramatic motif of death. Moreover, narrative tension is created as the camera is positioned in such a way that we cannot see what the soldiers see, and a set of hermeneutic codes ensue as we begin to wonder what fate awaits the soldiers. In this sequence, Rome itself plays a significant role in the film, as, whilst chaos erupts around the actors, it remains the one constant factor. As such, this points to Rudolph Arnheim’s notion that ‘the environment shares in the [narrative] action,’ (1957: 161). The city acts as the operatic set of the story, subjecting itself to the cinematic gaze of the viewers and provides an almost photographic, and therefore static, representation of Rome. If the city shares in the acting, then there is indeed an interplay between narrative and spectacle, as it not only forms a central part of the aesthetic, but also reinforces the narrative and the events that led to the final result of the Siege of Rome. Actors are used to develop the fluidity of the central narrative, aided by the dramatic extradiegetic music, but it is the omnipresence of Rome that reinforces questions of national identity and a shared collective past.

The way that the film is edited serves to highlight the synergy between narrative and spectacle: the parsing of the chapters simultaneously heightens the theatricality of the narrative, providing a visual movement towards the denouement of the film. This visual division of the chapters into distinct ‘acts’ is evocative of the theatre in that it both sets up the viewing experience and corresponds to the gradual change of pace in the extradiegetic music. If this film were to take place in the theatre, it would be much longer, given the need for constant set changes. Cinema allowed early filmmakers to collate every aspect of the theatre in a fluid; succinct way through making use of continuity editing, which tells a visual story, using static theatrical influences, such as interludes, along with the cinema’s technical; fluid aspects to create something truly new. In sequence one (below), a long-shot of the Ponte Milvio is used, and as a carriage rides off-scene, the music begins to change – from dramatic, reverberating piano chords to the use of a dramatic drum beat, which is an audial signifier of the army and warfare, signalling what is to follow. This is reinforced by the visual parsing of the chapters, and viewers are moved from observing cinematic movement to a static sequence of dramatic titles, and a still image, that momentarily move us out of the visual narrative, whilst simultaneously serving to reinforce it by providing further explanation. After this shot, we are then taken into sequence two, comprised of static titles and images. The dramatic music slowly fades out as the national anthem of Italy enters, giving a very nationalist sentiment to the denouement of the film, highlighting how intradiegetic experience reinforced national sentiments. Under this specific light, the stasis of dramatic images works together with the audial movement towards the narrative ‘apoteosi’ – moving us from tense music to the joyous tones in the Italian national anthem. Here, a narrative resolution is established through the spectacle of fluid audial and visual editing and the theatrical stasis of the images and on-screen text; both factors help to leave the viewer with a lasting image of the film’s narrative sequence.

It is this notion of defining national identity during a period of national questioning that is the focus of the historical epic film Cabiria, looking outwards at the observances of the ‘Other’ (Said: 1978), in order to reflect on Italy’s national identity. The film features an erupting volcano, conflagrations, kidnapping and sieges that take place against the backdrop of the film’s extravagant, cinematic space. This space is intrinsically theatrical, and it tells a spectacular visual story that works alongside the narrative of the film. The left still exhibits a very clear theatrical influence, with the high-priest figure commandeering the sacrifice of young girls; here the camera is static to illustrate the spectacular stage-like set design. This sequence is then cut to a long take of the temple, in which we can see a spectacular, theatrical set design and an incredible depth of focus. The fluidity of continuity editing works together with static shots of the operatic mise-en-scène to establish a narrative sequence that consciously builds tension and distresses the audience. Further, although the camera is static, the interior of the temple is rife with movement, and the lower-third of the shot’s composition is crowded with ‘savages’ that applaud as young girls are sacrificed. It is this simultaneous emotional investment with the narrative and appreciation of the set design that highlights how theatrical and narrative aspects work together, aligning the cinematic and colonialist gaze, as the films aesthetic encourages us to partake in the narrative of siege and conquest, much like La Presa di Roma, underlining how ‘the injustice and cruelty of a city that sacrifices little girls […] sets up dramatic oppositions, law/disorder, justice/injustice. From quite early in the film, the connotations of good […] stack up on the Roman side; Africans and Orientals are bad.’ (Wood: 2005: 68)

Via theatrical acting, evocative of commedia dell’arte, we can understand the role of the ‘diva’. Indeed, the phenomenon of divismo ‘emerged in Italy in the 1910s, predominantly with the female stars who came to epitomize much of Italian silent cinema. The diva, here Italia Almirante Manzini, became a distinguished feature of Early Italian cinematic iconography. The diva’ was highly sexualised and subjected to the Male Gaze (Mulvey: 1975: 12), and engendered the filmic version of a femme fatale. This type of characterisation illustrates how theatrical stasis was taken to a new level by means of early cinematic representation; as technology began to move forward, a distinguished star system developed, the camera providing a filmic form of scopophilia. An interesting depiction of how narrative and spectacle work together to inform the representation of divismo can be observed in the sequence entitled ‘Queen Sophonisba’s dream’. Here, we see her dreaming of being eaten by the statue of Kronos, whilst a maid operates the lowest part of the shot. The bifurcation of the composition is interesting – whilst the top half of the shot acts as the dramatic materialisation of her dream, we see her in real life below – allowing us to see her fear materialised against the backdrop of a static black background, suspending it in time and space, creating both a visual spectacle and justifying her unrest in the lower-third of the shot. Moreover, her positioning and her draped clothing sexualises her; she is the decadent spectacle of this shot, and her beauty is foregrounded against the theatrical apparition of her nightmare. Here, both factors work together to illustrate her qualms, and reality operates on two distinct levels – whilst we are rooted in narrative ‘reality’, we see the materialisation of the supernatural. The ability of early cinema to create a fantastical, dream-like world highlights how theatrical acting was used to engross viewers in a spectacular diegesis, where a synergy was created between the scripted; static nature of the acting and the movement of these characters within the confines of their cinematic space.

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