Cinecittá and Griffith: A dreamed reality
Wherever we exist we live in parallel worlds; other contexts, other lives, other families. We live our lives within given coordinates. Sometimes we get an opportunity to have a look into a completely different existence. Such meetings can be unexpected and beyond our everyday life. Like a few weeks ago, when I with my oldest daughter visited Cinecittá here in Rome.
Like everything else, Cinecittá as an origin and developed in a unique way. Accordingly, before I tell you about our visit to Cinzia Lo Fazio, let me, as you say in the theatre world, present you with a mise-en-scène, a background to and description of the place. Just as the case is with books, we can obtain a direct acquaintance with films. We may take out an old book out from the shelves, browse through it and read it, in a similar faschon we may borrow or buy a DVD to watch what people have seen and experienced years ago. During a brief solitude I watched some old movies. If I would present a black-and-white movie for a class of my students, they would be wondering why I bothered them with such old junk, though to me many antique artefacts are endowed with both charm and attraction.
Paul Auster tells us in The Book of Illusions about a university teacher, David Zimmer, who immersed in distress after the sudden death of his wife and children retreats to his house and dosed with alcohol lethargically zaps between different television programs until he gets stuck in front of a silent movie, which makes him laugh out aloud in the midst of all encompassing grief. He becomes fascinated by the director and begins to research about him. An endeavour that successively releases Zimmer from his crippling mourning.
David Zimmer writes a biography about Hector Mann, the silent film director whose movies had caught his attention. After the book has been published, he receives a letter from the wife of Hector Mann. The lady tells him that her husband liked the biography and now wants to meet the author. The strange thing about this letter is that since 1928 Hector Mann has been lost to the world. However, an attractive lady appears at Zimmer´s doorstep and under dramatic forms brings him to Hector, while she on their way to meet the mysterious man tells Zimmer the movie director´s life story. It turns out that for more than sixty years Mann has directed movies on his desolate farm in New Mexico, which thanks to his wife's fortune had been transformed into a small Hollywood. None of the movies that Hector Mann created there has ever been shown to the public. Before he dies, Mann wants to show them to David Zimmer. In his last will Mann has instructed that the films have to be destroyed twenty-four hours after his death.
In his novel, Auster expresses the pleasure of watching silent movies and tells us how David Zimmer in his empty house devours one age-old movie after another:
I was witnessing a dead art, a wholly defunct genre that would never be practiced again. And yet, for all changes that had occurred since then, their work was as fresh and invigorating as it had been when it was first shown. This was because they had understood the language they were speaking. They had invented a syntax of the eye, a grammar of pure kinesis […] They were like poems, like the renderings of dreams, like some intricate choreography of the spirit, and because they were dead, they probably spoke more deeply to us now than they had to the audiences of their time. We watched them across a great chasm of forgetfulness, and the very things that separated them from us were in fact what made them so arresting: their muteness, their absence of color, their fitful, speeded-up rhythms.
Cinecittá was inaugurated in 1937, ten years after the breakthrough of the soundtrack, but its roots are to be found much earlier later. The most influential promotor was the Fascist, Futurist and journalist Luigi Freddi. As an eighteen year old, Freddi had joined the so-called Milanese Futurist group formed around the most significant Futurists - Marinetti, Boccioni and Balla. Inspired by such mentors, Freddi had in 1914 begun to write poems and articles in Mussolini's newspaper Il Popolo d'Italia. After the war, he volunteered to join Gabriele D'Annunzio´s quite insane adventure when the famous author with an army of enthusiastic legionaries for sixteen months occupied the city of Fiume, which after the end of the War had been incorporated with newly founded state of Yugoslavia.
The fervent combination of art and politics that characterized the environment around D'Annunzio in Fiume turned Freddi, after his return to Italy, into an even more enthusiastic supporter of Mussolini and his Fascists. He participated with delight in bloody street fights, while heading the Party's student faction and the Fascist "youth magazine" Giovinezza, Freddi developed an impressive talent for using art for mobilization and propaganda.
Freddi became a friend of the Fascist party's most fashionable and admired leaders - Galeazzo Ciano, who became Mussolini's grandson and the war hero and air pioneer Italo Balbo. Luigi Freddi's futuristic past, his acquaintance with Mussolini and close friendship with Ciano and Balbo, enabled him in 1932 to organize an impressive exposition of the Fascist "revolution", together with another Fascist big shot, Dino Alfieri, who later became Minister of Culture. He also wrote and designed the lavish exhibition catalogue.
The exhibition, characterized by a combination of fascist megalomania and futuristic avant-garde, became a well-attended success and during the two years it was open it was visited by four million.
The impressed Italo Balbo, who had recognized Luigi Freddi's great aptitude for effective propaganda, invited him to join La Crociera del Decennale, the Tenth Anniversary Cruise, during which an armada of twenty-four amphibian planes under Balbo´s leadership between 1 and 12 August 1933 flew from Italy to Chicago and New York.
On Balbo's request Luigi Freddi continued to travel from Chicago to Hollywood. The two friends nursed great plans for an Italian film Renaissance. Inspiration came from Sergei Eisenstein's films Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October, which throughout the world effectively had spread the myth of the greatness of the Soviet Union. Now, in turn, the Italians wanted to produce artfully exquisite cinematic masterpieces that would open the eyes of the general public to the excellence of Italian Fascism. However, instead of turning to the Soviet Union, which Communism increasingly emerged as Fascism's opposite and arch enemy, the Fascists had their aim set at Hollywood.
In their book Society as Theatre: Aesthetics and politics in the Third Reich the Swedish authors Ingemar Karlsson and Arne Ruth gave a description of how cultural life in Nazi Germany was transformed into a stage for Nazi ideology, which strived to "place art at the centre of politics". The same can be said about Italian Fascism, which largely was constructed as a multicultural spectacle around the ego-tripped Mussolini, who in contemporary media justifiably was often characterized as "a great actor", with a propensity for superficial and rhetorical melodramatics. He was especially fond of the Baroque spectacles of public devotion, which often was favoured by the Catholic Church, expressed through stately and at the same time folkloristic rites, or the extravagance that was supposed to have characterized the triumphal and official festivals of the Roman Empire. Mussolini tried to combine such "true Italian traditions" within the framework of his political and military campaigns.
Mussolini's rhetoric was based on an inflated homage to martyrdom, overheated patriotism and shared spiritual experiences. A pervasive spectacle was developed around the drainage of the Pontine Marshes
south of Rome and Mussolini´s so-called Battaglia del Grano, The Battle of the Grain, which was supposed to result in Italy's self-sufficiency when it came to agricultural products. A goal that also was used to defend the country's brutal colonial wars in North Africa and Ethiopia.
Luigi Freddi's Hollywood visit was part of such a cultural policy, a preparation for great plans to make Rome into an Italian counterpart to Hollywood's dream factory. Like many young Fascist leaders, Luigi Freddi was impressed by the power of the cinema, its ability to reach all walks of life: "This formidable social weapon that only finds its counterpart in the press."
While in Hollywood, Freddi studied in depth everything that had to do with economic and practical aspects of film production. Upon his return, he became in 1934 Director of Direzione Generale per la Cinema, a Government agency established to control and stimulate Italian film production. Movies based on selected manuscripts were paid to one hundred percent, while other film projects received generous financial support. Most cinemas were amplified and more were built throughout the country. A film school, Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, was founded and an impressive cadre of talented young directors was trained. Soon, the annual Italian film production had more than tripled and films were presented to full houses.
At the same time, the construction of the Cinecittá studios was initiated, based on those Freddi had visited and carefully documented in Hollywood. Cinecittá was equipped with the latest in film technology, as noted by admiring visitors like Frank Capra and Mary Pickford, who at the time were influential directors and producers in Hollywood.
Freddi was not only interested in the practical aspects of moviemaking, but also in aesthetic qualities. Cinecittá produced light entertainment, which due to its high society environment, was called "white phone movies". Such films were generally socially conservative and designed to promote family values, respect for authority, a rigid class hierarchy and occasionally - a healthy country life. But it happened that intentions aimed higher and most of all Freddi wanted to produce aesthetically-perfected epic movies, where technical skills coincided with powerful political messages. The ideal for both Freddi and Mussolini was D.W. Griffith, not only considered to be the "father of modern movie making", but also a prominent admirer of Fascist Italy.
Griffith had been received with open-arms when he in 1924 visited Italy. Freddi was convinced that the Italian film Renaissance had to be initiated by a spectacular, historic extravaganza, crafted with a view at Griffith's internationally admired and revolutionary The Birth of a Nation from 1915. Unfortunately, this already classical film had a vulgar and unpleasant theme – the humiliation and defamation of an entire group of individuals, namely the coloured people of the US, though the technical accomplishments of the film demonstrated that even such a dubious message could be accepted, even its opponents were willing to ignore the movie´s repulsive message and declare The Birth of a Nation to be a masterpiece, due to its pathos and aesthetic qualities.
Just one year after Mussolini's takeover, David Wark Griffith had been officially invited to Italy, where he was received with great honours. He had met with Mussolini and talked about the future of the cinema and during the intense week of Griffith´s stay he was escorted by a "Fascist honorary guard". Upon returning to the United States, Griffith declared to the waiting press:
I believe that anything may happen as a result of this fascism. I should like to put into a film the remarkable spirit of the fascism.
The Fascist respect for Griffith was also based on the fact that he had indicated that the Italian epic movie Cabiria from 1914 had made a huge impression on him, convincing him that movies were a unique art form, speaking to both connoisseurs and the broad audience, declaring that within a not too distance future movies would change people's existence and thinking.
With hisThe Birth of a Nation Griffith had created a technical chef-d'œuvre. With great skill he utilized a unique and innovative variety of close-ups, half - and waist images, combined with innovations like dimming and parallel clips he had been able to strengthen dramatic moments of action, combined with carefully planned stage solutions, based on dramatically-built stories, often with violent climaxes. His movies were a combination of advanced technology, effective narrative and a refined feeling for previously unrealized possibilities when it came to controlling an audience's feelings and reactions through visual stimulation.
When, on January 8, 1915, noticeably moved crowds streamed out of Clune's Auditorium in Los Angeles, after watching the three hours long movie The Clansman, which had been accompanied by a full-fledged symphony orchestra, most of them realized they had witnessed the birth of a new era in film making.
The Clansman? The film's original title indicated that it was a version of Thomas Dixon's popular novel with the same name - a passionate homage of Ku Klux Klan as the American Nation's rescuer. The murderous organization had, according to the bigoted, fire-and-brimstone Southern preacher-man and author Thomas Dixon, through its terrorist activities placed the released and rebellious slaves in their proper place and had thus saved the United States. All this schmaltzy bestseller writer wrote and preached focused on three themes: the ultimate importance of racialism, the wickedness of socialism and the preservation of a nuclear family built around the wife's/mother's central role. Dixon's views were shared by a large number of Americans, not least by the president of the country, Woodrow Wilson, Dixon's close friend and fellow student from John Hopkins University.
When it comes to the demonization and denigration of millions of individuals The Clansman is equivalent to the equally well-made Jud Süss. A flagrant anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda movie from 1940, which is now totally forbidden. Like The Clansman, Jud Süss played with fears of racial violence, rape and miscegenation, the threats to blond Aryan women from grotesque sub-humans and just as the roles of Jew in Jud Süss were played by "Aryans", whose race purity was stated in the film's captions, the leading roles of ”Negroes and Mulattoes” in The Clansman were executed by white actors with blackened faces.
During the eight-minute break between the two parts of the movie, a deeply moved Thomas Dixon entered the stage at the Los Angeles premiere and announced with his powerful ministerial voice: "I would have allowed none but the son of a Confederate to direct the film version of my novel!" Then he called Griffith to the stage and to standing ovations Griffith, barely audible, declared that a main task for all moviegoers was to be instrumental in "freeing motion pictures from the curb of censorship". After they had returned to their seats, the overwhelmed Dixon pointed out to his friend that the title The Clansman was far too "modest" for Griffith´s masterpiece and suggested that a more proper name would be The Birth of a Nation and so it became.
The first part of the film concludes with dazzling and highly skilled staged scenes from the American Civil War and a tragic aftermath when defeated Southern soldiers returned to their impoverished and devastated homes. As an impressive final, Griffith presents a detailed depiction of Lincoln's murder, with dynamic shifts between close-ups, bird's eye views and dramatic lighting. After the break and Dixon's speech, the audience was thus prepared for an exciting continuation. It is launched with a text box quoting the influential History of the American People, written by no-less than the country's peace-loving president - Woodrow Wilson:
The policy of the congressional leaders wrought a veritable overthrow of civilization in the South in their determination to ´put the white South under the heel of the black South´. The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation… until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.
Then Griffith's cinematic masterpiece gorges in grotesque racist clichés. We are presented to Austin Stoneman, leader of the radical defeaters of the “Gallant South”, who, according to the text boxes wish to "hang the Southern leaders and treat their states as conquered provinces." With his ill-fitting wig and club foot "The Great Radical" Stoneman is a grotesque cartoon of the liberal senator Thaddeus Stevens. Stoneman's "lover" and evil genius, the demonical "Mulatto" Lydia Brown, who habitually and provocatively places her hand on her bosom and throws horny glances at the males surrounding her, is a caricature of Steven's quite decent housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Brown. On the other hand, Stoneman's daughter Elsie is presented as a lovely and "Aryan" beauty, after whom the senator's friend and confidant, the "Mulatto" Silas Lynch throws furtive looks. Elsie is engaged with the dashing Ben Cameron, one of the "gentle South´s" true gentlemen.
Well, Austin Stoneman sends Silas Lynch to South Carolina where he, through electoral fraud and by barring Whites from voting, rigs the state parliament to the advantage of the “Negroes”. According to the film South Carolina's parliament becomes controlled by ridiculously-attired Afro-Americans, who during a grotesque scene attends a parliament session while eating grilled chickens, taking sips from pocket flasks, putting their naked feet on the tables and vote for the right of Black men to marry White women, this while the white representatives are abased and humiliated.
Ben Cameron's sweet and innocent little sister is later surprised by a forest spring by a black soldier - Gus (portrayed by black-faced, white actor). "I'm Capt´n now," he declares "and want to marry you". Flora Cameron pushes the urgent soldier aside and flees in terror, pursued by Gus, who quickly got on his feet and shouts "I don´t want to hurt you, Missus!" Now follows a series of dramatic parallel clips, which in shorter and shorter sequences depict how Ben Cameron desperately searches after his little sister in the woods, while she in utter terror rushes along between the trees. Flora ends up on a high cliff and while the horny Gus approaches her she throws herself towards death and is found by his brother. Ben Cameron gathers the Klan and make them swear an oath to revenge the death of Flora and purge the State from the black usurpers by putting their hands on an American banner dipped in Flora's blood. Gus is lynched by the masked Ku Klux Klan and his corpse is thrown on the porch of Silas Lynch's residence.
Now the pace of the film is increasing even further. Lynch orders his black troops to eradicate the Klan. South Carolina's white citizens are terrorized. Among other abuses, Ben Cameron's father is arrested after his son's Ku Klux Klan regalia is found in his residence. The old man manages to flee together with the terrified women of his household, but they are in a log cabin, inhabited by Yankee war veterans, surrounded by black troops. Together, the former enemies fight desperately against their attackers, while the text frame declares that "former enemies from North and South unite in a common defence of their Aryan birth right."
Meanwhile, the lascivious Mulatto Silas Lynch has locked in Ben Cameron's fiancé, the beautiful daughter of his mentor Stoneman, in a desperate attempt to make her marry him. An attempt that eventually comes dangerously close to rape. Griffith is now cutting quickly between the Aryan heroes in the log cabin, assaulted by excited Blacks whose main purpose appears to be raping the white women, Elsie who is chased around by the agitated Lynch and Ben Cameron, who in full Ku Klux Klan regalia, assembles the Klan members, who in streaming white mantles, sitting on caparison draped horses, in full career to the tones of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries rush to safeguard the chastity of the beleaguered white women.
First we see two riders in full gallop, afterwards they are joined by other advancing Klan members, who like streams join an ever-widening river of masked men, who soon become a powerful army. Griffith cuts quickly, the camera shifts from remote distances, to half-pictures of riding clan members, to track shots – meaning that the frantic riders are filmed from a car moving in front of them. The spectators are whipped forward by the steady rhythm of the images, the fiery music and fast clips - we ride along with the clan members. At the same time, in quick snapshots, we witness how desperate women are close to falling into the hands of menacing Blacks. However, the White people are finally rescued from the lingering abuse of "crazed negroes".
The end of this unpleasant brew becomes an explanation to why the movie is called The Birth of a Nation – it is a racially segregated nation, ruled by white masters, which is hailed. The final scenes depict how drunk “Negroes” stumble away to vote, but at the sight of masked riders sitting on their white caparison draped horses, they choose to return to their slave huts. The text asks:
Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead – the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace.
The wish is followed by a dream scene where a pale rider sweeps a claymore above the heads of a host of terrified white people, who huddles beside a vast heap of corpses. Then we witness how mantle clad, white people happily dance in the glow from a towering, blond Christ, a scene which slowly merges into the sight of a blissfully united Ben Cameron and Elsie Stoneman sitting on a sea shore, followed by the text:
Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever!
A New Nation, but a paradise for white people where "coloured" people knew their place and never again try to steel power from their white masters or lay hands on their women. No wonder that The Birth of a Nation still may be presented to enthusiastic accolades at White Supremacy meetings worldwide.
Obviously, such an unpleasant and racist film could not avoid to raise vocal protests, even in a nation whose president applauded the Ku Klux Klan, tried to clear his management from all presence of "coloured races", limited immigration and at all costs maintained racial segregation within the US army, treasury, and other Federal offices, declaring to Afro-American leaders that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen”. At the same time Wilson sent troops to Europe to "vindicate principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power", was praised as a peacekeeper and in 1919 rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize.
In order to avoid censorship against such inflamed films as The Birth of a Nation, Dixon and Griffith showed it privately to Wilson, who apparently declared that:
It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.
However, Dixon and Griffith also had to obtain a blessing from the Supreme Court and to that end invited the Chief Justice to a private presentation of the movie. However, the elderly Edward D. White turned out to be entirely unwilling to deal with something as insignificant as a movie, but when he heard about its message he became enthusiastic and proudly declared:
I was a member of Clan, Sir … Through many a dark night I walked the sentinel´s beat through the ugliest streets in New Orleans with a rifle on my shoulder … I´ll be there.
Consequently, the film was not censored, but shows led to violent riots in several cities. Another result was mass association to the Ku Klux Klan, which in the mid-1920s could count on more than four million members. Obviously, Griffith was troubled by well-founded claims that he was an unreformed racist. At one point he cut out all scenes that celebrated the Klan, but of course this meant that he also cut away all the drama of his masterpiece.
In 1919, Griffith made the film Broken Blossoms, an "interracial" love story which generally has been considered as an act of atonement for the rampant racism in The Birth of the Nation. However, Broken Blossoms dealt with the relationship between a white woman and a highly-educated Chinese immigrant who preached the love message of Buddhism. Another attempt to free himself from the racist stamp was Griffith's Intolerance from 1916, in which he not only presented parallel scenes with actions in the present, but also between historical events. All the time stressing human compassion as a contrast to intolerance - the struggle between religious fundamentalists in ancient Babylon, Jesus' struggle for marginalized women and his death in Palestine, the massacre of Protestants in sixteenth century Paris, as well as labour conflicts and the struggle of a single mother for the custody of her child in contemporary USA.
The main inspiration for Intolerance was Giovanni Pastroni´s Cabiria from 1914. Griffith watched the Italian epic while working with The Clansman and the movies have several technical features in common. They are both three hours long and consist of short effective scenes, with dramatic lighting and an effective interaction between dramatic close-ups and scenes filmed from a distance.
Pastroni, like Griffith, understood the importance of light in the staging of each single scene. Both directors used electric light, which they amplified and focused by using spotlights and mirrors. This is particularly evident in Griffith's staging of the murder of Lincoln and Pastroni's depictions of sacrifices in Moloch´s temple and how Archimedes puts the Roman fleet on fire.
The films are also characterized by effective transitions between scenes, which are filmed in both the studio and outdoors, in addition they were very expensive productions. Cabiria was the first movie to be shown privately in the White House, like The Clansman was to be done a year later. Like The Clansman, Cabiria's premier was also preceded by a very comprehensive and effective advertising campaign, and both films brought a profit that far exceeded the elevated production costs. Like the American film, the Italian is a historical picture, but it is taking place far back in time, during the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, 218 to 201 BC. The film was not like Griffith's film based on a best-selling novel, but it was launched in Gabriele D'Annunzio's name. However, the world-renowned author had not written the script, but acted as a consultant and wrote the captions. Initially, D´Annunzio was not at all attracted by the project and made everything possible to avoid any commitment, but Pastroni knew the worth of the name of an eminent cultural and political icon and was relentless in his chase after D´Annunzio, who finally gave in to the most effective bait of all – money.
The battle scenes in both films are effectively done and realistic. Without the help of trick-shooting, the stuntmen perform in a dare-devil manner, fighting realistically and falling down from high walls and rocks. In Cabiria elephants were even brought up to the snow covered Alps and it was shot both in Italy and in Tunisia, at the actual sites where the Punic War had been fought.
However, it cannot be denied that The Birth of a Nation is both narratively and technologically superior to Cabiria. The camera moves with greater freedom, the story flows smoother and Griffith's cross-cutting between scenes is done with a proficiency that Pastroni does not achieve. When it comes to the race issue the films are completely different. Cabiria´s hero is the stalwart slave Maciste, interpreted with bravura by a black-painted former pack handler, Bartolomeo Pagano. Maciste has been called the movies´ first action hero and during the fourteen years that followed Cabiria, Pagano played him in no less than 26 silent films before he married and returned to form a family in his hometown of Genoa.
It is said that Mussolini staged his official appearance with the popular Bartolomeo Pagano as a model. This strong-man often posed with shaved head, crossed arms and protruding chin. A peculiar detail is that it was Vincenzo Leone, the father of Sergio Leone, master director of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly who met Pagano in Genoa's harbour and told Giovanni Pastrone that the powerful stevedore was cut for the role of Maciste. During that time, Vicenzo Leone worked as director assistant to Pastroni, he later directed no less than thirty-three films, of which thirty were silent movies.
Another "black" hero in Cabiria was Masinissa, the noble Numidic king who fell in love with the proud Sophonisba, daughter of the Carthaginian king Hasdrubal, and his love was obviously reciprocal.
Cabiria's strength lies in its craftsmanship. The scenes are ingeniously created and performed, especially strong is the recreation of the horrifying child sacrifices performed in Moloch's temple, where terror-stricken naked children wrangle in the hands of serious priests who feed them into fire spurting bronze monstrosity.
Giovanni Pastroni was originally a violinist from Piedemonte and had also worked as a maker of violins and cellos. A vigilant attention to detail characterizes each scene in his expertly fashioned movie and he also introduced several technical inventions, like il cararello, a wagon on which the camera was mounted to follow the movements of the actors, both siedways and in depth. For the first time in film history, the camera became involved in the story. Pastroni also arranged his shootings by using deep-focus much more efficiently than Griffith.
In spite of being such a significant pioneer in film history, Giovanni Pastroni remains a rather unknown person. He retired early from film production to devote himself to "medical research".
Cinecitta's first production was an unsuccessful attempt to combine Griffith's action-packed, technically efficient and political driving force with Cabiria's aesthetically pleasing and large-scale reconstruction of Roman monumentality. However, the mastodon movie Scipione l´africano, “Scipio Africanus: The Defeat of Hannibal”, which engaged 32 848 extras, 1 000 horses and 50 elephants, was fatally infected by Mussolini's megalomania. The Dictator had placed the cornerstone to Cinecittá in front of an enormous placard, depicting himself behind a camera and the slogan ”Film is the mightiest weapon”, a catchphrase he had stolen from Lenin. Afterwards, Mussolini made several visits to inspect the huge sets constructed for Scipione l’africano and with his entourage he witnessed the cinematic reconstruction of the battle of Zama, which was re-enacted on a vast field uncovered through the drainage of the Pontine Marshes.
Scipione l’africano plagiarized Cabiria by playing on the same theme. That the emphasis was on the battle of Zama was no coincidence. The film premiered one year after Italy's conquest of Ethiopia, a war which was considered as a revenge for Italy's embarrassing defeat against the Abyssinian forces in the Battle of Adua in 1896. The parallel was evident - the battle at Zama was the vengeance of the Romans for their defeat against the Carthaginians at Cannae (216 BC). That the film was shot on the dry-laid Pontine Marshes was at the same time a tribute to the Fascist drainage of them.
When the battle was filmed, Mussolini watched it all from a custom-built tower from which he, on a documentary movie film, leans towards a camera as if it was he who filmed it all. We also witness how a squad of, according to the voice-over, "mounted Roman legionaries, who in fact have fascist hearts enclosed by ancient armour" break ranks to ride up to Mussolini´s tower to pay homage to the Great Leader.
Scipione l’africano is a film entirely in accordance with such spectacles. Its mass scenes and exaggerated rhetoric make the intended general human dimension, through the depiction of the sufferings of a Roman family enslaved by Carthaginians, appear as belonging to a completely different spectacle. Likewise, the battle of Zama turns into a distasteful slaughter while several elephants are battered and killed in front of the cameras, including "Scipio" throwing a spear straight into the eye of an elephant. These actual incidents affected cinema audiences in an undesired manner, making them protest violently against the cruel mishandling of such profoundly loved beasts as elephants.
Large-scale initiatives were not at all Cinecitta's strength, it was much later that the shooting of epic movies like Quo Vadis, Barabbas, Ben Hur, Cleopatra and the TV series Rome became one of the trademarks of Cinecittá. Instead it was the young directors who had been educated at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia and who wrote artices in the uncensored magazine Cinema, edited by Mussolini's film-interested son Vittorio, who transformed Italian cinema and making Cinecittá world-renowned. As a protest against the white phone films and mastodon projects like Scipione l’africano, they developed a style that initially came to be called calligrafia realistically capturing the lives and striving of individual human beings, both historical and contemporary. After Mussolini's fall in 1943, the calligrafia genre developed into neorealism, with names like Visconti, Rosellini, De Sica and De Santis, as well as the young Fellini.
Elephants also appear by Griffith, but in a different context than big combat scenes. The craftsmanship of Cabiria caught Griffith's attention and when he planned the Babylonian scenes of his spectacular Intolerance, he insisted on using Italian craftsmen. Fortunately, several of them had been active in the construction of a vast world exhibition held in San Francisco in 1915 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and the restoration of the city after the devastating earthquake of 1906. Griffith wanted to have huge sculptures of elephants, even though it was uncertain if such creatures ever had been present in Babylon. It was the elephant sculptures in Cabiria that made Griffith wanting to have similar props in his movie.
Griffith´s elephants inspired the directors and brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviano to make their first English-language film Good Morning, Babylon. The film is a fictional story about two brothers, sons of a restaurateur of churches, who when their adored father's company goes bankrupt leave for the United States. After harsh tribulations they end up at Griffith´s studios making the famous elephants. In one scene, the brothers are harassed by a supervisor working for Griffith:
- No, here is no work for people like you. I know the Italians well; liars, good at words, nifty, but without perseverance. A bench in the sun and hands on the stomach.
Offended one of the brothers raises the hands of the other brother stating:
- These hands have restored the cathedrals of Pisa, Lucca and Florence!
When no one reacts, the other brother breaks out in a verbal attack on the supervisor:
- And you? Whose son are you? We are the sons of the sons of Michelangelo and Leonardo's sons. Whose son are you?
Later, when the brothers have made their elephants and Griffith has invited them, their American brides and their Italian family to a wedding party among Babylon's scenery, the brothers' father, the old craftsman Bonanni, accuses his sons of neglecting the family's centuries-old traditions, abandoning their craftsmanship by selling themselves to the Americans. Griffith raises from his chair, apologizes for being neither a son nor a relative, but declares that he is a sincere man and therefore he cannot refrain himself from paying homage to the sons of Master Bonanni:
- I do not know if our work, your sons and mine, might be considered as stately as your magnificent Roman Cathedrals. What I believe, on the other hand, is that these ancient works of art were born in a similar manner as those born here today, from the same common dream. I am convinced that your sons, Mr. Bonanni, resemble those unknown masons who created the magnificent cathedrals that you honour. They made them famous by their work and thus they also helped people to believe and to live better lives. This said because I really love the movie and also because I respect you, Master Bonanni.
This finally leads me back to Janna´s and my visit to Cinzia Lo Fazio in Cinecittá. Janna had worked with Cinzia on a film production in Prague. Cinizia, who is a very lively lady, became very happy when Janna called her and wondered if she could not visit her in Cinecittá to show her newborn daughter and since I drove my daughter I was also welcome there.
Cinzia welcomed us by Cinecittà's staff entrance and then led us through a strangely abandoned studio area, with decayed scenery and quiet workshops. She offered coffee and cornettos in Cinecittà's nice cafe, where we had a view of a lawn with statues from Fellini's and Visconti's films, then she took us to her studio.
The slender Cinzia, who once had been a member of Italy's national team of high jumpers, was the daughter of a farmer who also had been a craftsman and inventor. She told us that she had always been fascinated by film and model building and as young woman she dreamed of becoming part of Cinecittá´s famous theme of set designers.
Initially, Cinzia survived in Rome by giving occasional lessons in gymnastics for priests in the Vatican. She lived in a trailer without water and electricity. One day she sneaked into Cinecittá by pretending to be a journalist. She met a scenographer she had previously encountered in the town and took the opportunity to present him with her drawings. He promised to contact her if something would come up. Cinzia had no address, but gave him the address of a bar not far from her trailer. The bar had no phone and to her great surprise the bar owner did a few days later give her a telegram that announced that Valerio de Paolis, one of Italy's leading film producers, immediately needed a set decorator. Since then Cinzia have been part of Cinecittá´s staff, although she has also worked with movies outside of Italy, as well as with theatre and opera and theatre productions all over the world.
We passed by several worn-down backdrops, with flaking rapping and flapping fabrics, before we reached a small metal door, just behind a lush lemon tree. Cinzia asked us in and we ended up in a huge room, with a high ceiling and desks covered with magazines, sketches and models. One wall was entirely covered by a wooden structure with rows of small arches, behind which piles of books were stored, a strong aroma of cigar smoke floated in the air.
A small, compact and square man with a jovial smile, a well-kept white moustache and a fleshy handshake came forward and greeted us. It was Luciano Ricceri, who until the famous director´s death last January had been Ettore Scola's chief designer and it was in this legendary director's studio we had ended up. Luciano and Cinizia had for more than twenty years worked together on the design of Scola's films.
It was like Ali Baba's treasure cave. On the walls there were drawings for various movie and theatre sets. Amongst other things, I was impressed by sketches Luciano had made for a presentation of Turandot in Verona's arena. Exquisite, detailed drawings that gave the impression to be a blend of Italian Baroque and Chinese ink and wash paintings.
Cinzia brought us from room to room, where shelves rose three meters high, crowded with boxes containing film and art magazines in different languages, as well as sketches for sets used in movies by Scola and other master directors. All neatly labelled.
Finally Cinzia took us to the room where Ettore Scola had been working, there was a hackneyed sofa and shelves with hats and models for wagons, towns and apartments. Cinzia produced a folder of drawings she had made for a TV series based on Quo Vadis. They were beautiful and I regretted that I had nor brought a camera with me. I have searched for Cinzia´s sets online, but from Quo Vadis I just found a picture that did not give any justice to Cinza's detailed and elegant sketches, which reminded me of neoclassical drawings by Karl Friedrich Schinkel that I once had seen in Berlin.
Cinzia works in a variety of styles and she showed us sketches for sets she had made for Concorrenza Sleale, Unfair Competition, a movie about how Mussolin's race laws destroys the friendship between old comrades. On our way to the studio we had passed the decaying sets for a street in that movie. They had remained because after Cinzia in 2001 had designed the street it had been reused several times, including in Scorsese's Gangs of New York.
Cinzia also showed us, among other things, a bold modernist sketch of a staircase used in a to me entirely unknown movie called SMS.
In 2013, Cinzia had in the Moroccan desert constructed the huge scenery for a mini-series called Tut, dealing with the short life of Tutankhamon. She proudly stated that set building was not just about designing, it was also important to make the backdrops as functional as possible. This meant adapting them to the environment. Accordingly, she had worked hard to find the best way to anchor her Egyptian temples and palaces in the desert sand.
- My father used to tell me that quality work always pays off. This also applies to something as volatile as movie sets. You have to do your best and it is not just a matter of art and aesthetics, but also of technology and engineering.
With a smile, Cinzia told us that the backdrops for another production that Americans constructed nearby her set had blown away in a desert storm, while her temple walls had remained unharmed.
I looked around. In the room there was a dark, expressionist painting with a theatre wagon crossing a bridge during a storm. Underneath this painting was a sturdy, wooden model of the same carriage that had been placed on a shelf and surrounded by a pair of hats with multi-coloured feathers. Cinzia told us:
-That is the wagon from The Voyage of Captain Fracassa, which Ettore Scola made in 1990. He was especially fond of that movie. I made the carriage and a village. I like that movie, it depicts another reality. It´s magic realism.
Janna, Little Liv and Rose have all left Rome and I am alone in our apartment. I recently watched The Voyage of Captain Fracassa. It is based on a novel by Théohpile Gautier and has been filmed several times. It deals with a poor theatre company that sometime during the sixteenth century is heading for Paris to give a performance for the king. On their way they pick up a poor, young and naive nobleman, who falls in love with two of the young ladies of the company. We follow them on their journey, during which they present magical performances in starving, rural villages, or as temporary guests in castles. They struggle to move their carriage through wind or rain, mud and snow. They are attacked by bandits. One of the actors commits suicide, the young nobleman is almost killed in a duel, while one of the young ladies is abducted by a count. When the film ends, they have not yet reached Paris.
The Voyage of Captain Fracassa reminded me of other road movies about circus and theatre. Like the deeply tragic masterpieces Fellini´s La Strada, the present pope's favourite movie and Ingmar Bergman´s The Naked Night/Sawdust and Tinsel, which was inspired by La Strada. Both of them are, in my opinion, perfect movies, with scenes that have got stuck in my memory. Compared to them, The Voyage of Captain Fracassa is a lightweight story, though it is a magical piece of work.
While I watched The Voyage of Captain Fracassa, which in its entirety unfolds in an artificial world, I understood what Griffith's character implied in Good morning Babylon - that Italian film is an art form with roots far back in time, picture follows upon picture in a magnificent visual tradition. For centuries Italy has continuously produced by magnificent movies, art, theatre and opera.
Ettore Scola has explained that his idea about making The Voyage of Captain Fracassa originated when he as a nine-year-old read the book of Gautier and inwardly created images from which he could not free himself since. For several years he imagined how a poor theatre company with a wagon travels through autumn, winter, snow, fog and storm. In his imagination, the story unfolded in a closed, theatrical world, even though it at the same time was part of the entire universe, “all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Scola realized that he could realize his dream by using cardboard, wood and fabrics. It was only in his studio in Cinecittá that his parallel reality could be realized.
Now, I, Janna and Liv had been there, in this other world, in an alchemist laboratory where Luciano Ricceri, Cinzia Lo Fazio and Ettore Scola together had created their own magical reality.
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