Thursday, 18 April 2013

Epic tableau… The Last Days of Pompeii (1913)

Let's be honest, some pre-war films can be a touch… challenging. You don’t always get whisked away by the magic and forget that you’re watching a hundred-year-old film and one that might, actually, just be bad.
It’s supremely condescending to not expect a film of any vintage to entertain and to move you: the techniques may have changed but people haven’t and neither has the drama.

Ultimi giorni di Pompeii, Gli  was directed by Eleuterio Rodolfi and Mario Caserini, who also wrote the screenplay based on the famous novel by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. It is one of the last great “tableau” films, so called as they consisted of a series of, often quite intricate, single takes using a largely static camera.

Fernanda Negri Pouget, Ubaldo Stefani and Vitale Di Stefano
Caserini and Rodolfi’s stretch the possibilities of this form to the limit with supreme invention and clever direction that makes the most of elaborate mis-en-scene along with some huge outdoor set pieces. Needless to say, there’s also an actual cast of thousands… gladiators, lions and horses and an exploding mountain.

It is not the breakthrough of the following year’s Cabiria but it must have been one of the pinnacles of this particular form, three years after the stunning L’Inferno raised Italian film's level of ambition many notches higher.

Eugenia Tettoni Fior
Rather than the relatively static camera giving rise to only surface involvement from the viewer, the depth of field and character choreography sucks you into this world of masters, slaves, witches and bad haircuts…

The story revolves around Glaucus (Ubaldo Stefani) – one of Pompeii’s most eligible, who opens the film walking down the main street with his friend Claudius (Vitale Di Stefano). They are chatted to by a couple of young ladies but Glaucus only has eyes for Jone (Eugenia Tettoni Fior) one of the city’s great beauties.

We are shown exterior shots of the two lovers enjoying a picnic in the lagoon but they are observed from the shore by Arbace, Egyptian High Priest (Antonio Grisanti) who, when not plotting to increase the popularity of Isis and other “new” Egyptian gods, is trying to force Jone into his arms… by foul means or fair.

Against this upper-class backdrop is introduced, a poor blind girl, Nidia (Fernanda Negri Pouget, who maintains her eyes in an excruciating upward tilt for the whole film… method miming!). She sells flowers when she isn’t slaving away at one of the local taverns.

More jealousy...
Glaucus, appalled at her miss-treatment, rescues her and buys her from the landlord. He sets her up as a handmaiden in his splendid villa... a very mixed blessing as it turns out.

Nidia falls very quickly for her rescuer but she’s quickly in misery following a visit from his true love… and we see her agonising against the curtains while Glaucus and Jone make love down stage.

We know who Jone would rather be with...
But all is not clear in love and Arbace summons Jone to pay homage to Isis at the temple. He tries to force her obedience and a striking split screen shows her torment as Arbace stands over her convinced he’s won whilst she imagines her happy day on the boat with Glaucus.

But Jone is saved by the intervention of Apoecides (Cesare Gani Carini), a Disciple of Arbace who doubts his master’s sincerity. Arabace swears revenge…

Nidia follows Jone and Glaucus
Back at Glaucus’ villa, the lovers re-unite and walk through the dusk pursued by a forlorn Nidia – great camerawork here as the directors shoot against the setting sun.

Nidia goes to Arabace for help – surely a love potion can help win her the heart of her master? Seeing a way of killing two birds with one stone, the priest makes plans…

Caught in the storm
Glaucus and Jone go walking on the slopes of Vesuvius and are forced to seek shelter with a mountain witch after a fierce storm breaks. The old crone is helpful until Glaucus kills her pet lizard mistakenly thinking it was about to bite Jone…no mammals were harmed in the making of this film but the reptile wasn't so fortunate.

After they have left, Arabace arrives looking for that love potion and the aggrieved witch concocts a brew that will rob Glaucus of all reason…

The scene of the crime...
Nidia duly delivers the potion but is appalled to see how it drives Glaucus mad… he runs off in terror and is framed by Arabace for the murder of his troublesome sceptic, Apoecides. Unable to think straight, Glaucus cannot defend himself against the charges and as Arabace has locked up Nidia, the only witness who “saw” what actually happened, he looks doomed.

He is duly sentenced to death in the Coliseum whilst Nidia rots away in her dark cell… is all hope lost?

A cast of thousands....
Rodolfi and Caserini make great play of the Coliseum and really show how inadequate the term “tableau” is for this film as a casts of thousands teams around a convincing replica stadium, welcoming gladiators and horsemen. Arabace is shown in the VIP area, celebrating his impending victory…

It's never over till the final whistle...
Spoilers ahead… As you’d expect, things are about to be interrupted by an unavoidable geological event. Before the volcano goes off though, the resourceful Nidia is able to trick her way to freedom and enlist Claudius to clear his friend’s name. But, just as he points the finger at Arabace… the sky turns red and priorities shift.

Nidia imprisoned
Here again, the directors, belie the limitations of their form by cutting quickly from scenes of escalating chaos on set to actual volcanic hillsides. Convincing scale models erupt over head as the cast run wild.
Amongst it all justice is done and our heroes are lead to a sea-borne escape by the blind girl who can see just as well in the volcanic gloom as in daylight…

Chaos erupts
I enjoyed this film far more than I expected and was impressed with the way Rodolfi and Caserini made the absolute most of what was possible. Within a year there was Cabiria and the camera has never stopped moving since, but this film was a significant step forward in terms of movement within the field of focus as well as the ability to translate an epic novel onto screen.

Eugenia Tettoni Fior menaced by Antonio Grisanti
The actors perform well if not as naturalistically as say contemporary Danish performers (or Gish and Pickford for that matter…) with only Antonio Grisanti taking the villainy a bit over the top. Otherwise Ubaldo Stefani makes for a likable hero (in spite of his challenging haircut), Eugenia Tettoni Fior has Romanesque elegance and Fernanda Negri Pouget convinces as the blind heroin who's love transcends her own needs.

I watched the Kino DVD which is available direct as well as Rakuten and, yes from those tax-avoiding Amazonians.

The End

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