Saturday, 17 May 2014

Scale and sentiment… Quo Vadis? (1912)

"Terrifying and inspiring - exquisitely religious - stupendous." - Chicago News (1913)

This film is sometimes described as being the first feature film yet I believe that honour officially goes to the 70 minute Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)… Yet, there’s no denying that Quo Vadis? was one of the first true international blockbusters, not just in terms of production scale but also cross-border success – although again co-ordinated global marketing frenzy had already been evidenced with L’Inferno (1911).

In the USA Quo Vadis? generated $150,000 billings and played for 306 consecutive performances at Broadway’s Astor Theatre, in Paris is played at the huge Gaumont Palace, whilst in London it was shown at the Royal Albert Hall: 'kolossal' indeed!

Another full house at the colosseum
Director, designer, writer Enrico Guazzoni was certainly at the forefront of Italian cinematic development as shown by his earlier shorts such as Agrippina (1911). Here there are a number of innovations in a production which feels like a creative bridge between say, L’Inferno and Cabiria. There are some surprisingly smooth camera pans, a cast of thousands and intricate sets designed to make the most of the space within the frame. There are also a number of scenes shot on location bringing the Romans back to their ruins, in one case to be eaten by lions (you probably know the legend of the missing extra...).

Amleto Novelli and his pal Gustavo Serena
But perhaps the main thing you notice is the people… The intertitles are a step away from the wordy descriptive accompaniments to “tableau” film plays and here there is more work for the actors to do in order to develop the story. AS a consequence, there are some fine, expressive, performances from a cast that mostly look like they could have stepped out of the fifties remake.

Marcia Landy in her book Italian Film (CUP 2000) talks about the “fusion of spectacle and narrative” in this film and others as the focus shifted away from dazzling images to a more engaging and character-driven medium. There are still no close-ups but medium range shots that clearly show the actors’ emotional transitions: pantomime with an ever-expanding range of meaning.

Amleto Novelli listens to Augusto Mastripietri
Landy quotes A. Nicholas Vardac regarding the almost “impersonal” acting of early cinema: “Screen character had become a symbol of certain elements of action, melodrama and spectacle.” In Quo Vadis? the actors still sequence themselves around the sets but you can start to interpret their thoughts and there’s much love, despair, devotion and sacrifice to pull you in: you care.

Lea Giunchi
Originally over two hours long, the restored version I watched is some hour and forty two minutes long and complete with original/restored tints - there is the occasional narrative gap but overwhelmingly it’s still an engaging story and obviously a fascinating artefact: a key moment from a period of so much cremated celluloid.

Italian’s had been making films about their own history from almost the get-go but it’s perhaps surprising that Quo Vaids? was based on a 1895 novel by a Pole, Henryk Sienkiewicz and one which had already been adapted into a shorter film in France back in ’02.

St Peter preaches to an underground meeting
Director Guazzoni wrote an adaptation or at least an outline and the scale of his subsequent achievement is staggering when you consider the improvisational working methods of the day. To manage a production on this scale must have involved incredible organisation and leadership skills: how do you get thousands of extras to behave and a hundred to face off against two dozen lions (without losing one or three)?

The story is one that carries many traces of the biblical blockbuster to follow: good and bad Romans, nutty Nero, slave girls in love and the religious persecution that ultimately allowed brave Christianity to triumph and change a culture of such destructive force.

Amleto Novelli and Lea Giunchi
Amleto Novelli stars as Vinicius, a noble officer who falls in love with a girl not of his station, Lygia (Lea Giunchi). He’s not so brave with the ladies and so he enlists the help of his best friend, Petronius (Gustavo Serena) in arranging for the girl’s arrest, on Nero’s orders. She is taken away from her family but her faithful slave, the mighty Ursus (the aptly-named Bruto Castellani) insists on going with her.

Carlo Cattaneo
Emperor Nero (Carlo Cattaneo… surely Charles Laughton was taking notes!?), is a malicious musician … finding inspiration in the suffering of others and his city in general. His General, Tigellinus (Cesare Moltini) is a nasty piece of work who will do anything his master wills whilst the inner court is completed by Nero’s wife, Poppaea (Olga Brandini) who nurses the resentment of un-reciprocated love for the (mostly) virtuous Vinicius.

Petronius has an intriguing home life as well being the subject of adoration from one of his slave girls Eunice (Amelia Cattaneo) who in surreal frustration lovingly caresses his statue. This is going to get very complicated…

Eunice and the statue
And then there are the Christians let by St Peter himself (Giovanni Gizzi, cutting a suitably imposing figure) amongst whose number are Lygia’s parents. What starts as a rough-edged Roman romance ends as a tale of religious persecution and industrial-scale barbarism in the Colosseum.

Guazzoni’s actors succeed in taking the viewer through the journey and, in a number of cases, we see people grow through the power of love and Christianity. Vinicius’s rather forceful approach to courtship hides a deep affection for Lygia. He tries to woo her at one of Nero’s lavish banquets – a set piece so well done that it was to influence DW Griffith for Intolerance. Lygia clearly likes the cut of his jib but is perhaps put off by his manners… only later, as he sacrifices his old life and begins to take risks in the name of their love does she fully reciprocate. He ends up being christened by St Peter and supporting the Christian cause.

Similarly Pertronius goes from having poor, faithful Eunice flogged for impudence, comes to appreciate the purity of her loyalty and the two endure one of the most emotional and poignant denouements imaginable. Perhaps the most surprising turn-around is for a disreputable older man named Chilo (Augusto Mastripietri) who spies for his masters with little care for the damage to either side. Ultimately even he is won over by not just Christian bravery but by the tragedy he helps cause.

As you’d expect from an adaptation of this (and other) vintages, there is a lot crammed into the narrative but Guazzoni and his troop do well to hold the meaning together..

Eunice and Petronius
There are a great number of gorgeous tableaux - both interior and exterior. Standouts include a scene in which one of the characters pulls back the curtain to reveal the greater depth of the house in question and then a shot that tracks Petronius as he stands up, moves across the room to reveal his new love, Eunice, who is then tracked across back to meet Vinicius.

Then there are the location scenes including an horrific garden of “Roman Candles” – Christians burned alive to provide illumination (genuinely the case) as well as the burning of Rome (Nero plays a lyre… maybe his fiddle was being re-furbed?) and the grand brutality of the Colosseum. The Christian’s are moved further and further away from camera until a trap door opens to let dozens of lions escape into the arena: it appears to happen in a single take but perhaps the lions didn’t get quite as close as the foreshortening might suggest…

Rome's burning so Nero's playing...
One of the wonders of the age, it’s frustrating that Quo Vadis? isn’t currently available on DVD. The tinted restoration is viewable online at YouTube and in better quality at Vimeo at the moment but surely this prime example of the uniquely Italian mix of neo-classical scale and sentiment should be commercially available. A “kolossal” waste as it stands.

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