ROME — In 1914 Italy’s silent blockbuster “Cabiria” became the first motion picture ever to unspool at the White House.
Now a freshly restored print of the landmark ancient Rome epic by Giovanni Pastrone — who is credited as the first helmer to use a tracking shot — will give film buffs drawn to the Cannes Classic section the opportunity to revisit the inventive early days of filmmaking.
Martin Scorsese has called “Cabiria” “one of the films that started it all,” praising its pioneering camerawork and cinematography, as well as its “epic ambition.”
“It marked the first time a studio-shot picture aimed for such a high degree of sophistication and believability,” says former Venice fest chief Alberto Barbera, who is now topper of Italy’s National Film Museum in Turin, the institution behind the restoration.
Loosely based on Gustave Flaubert’s novel “Salambo,” “Cabiria” is about a Roman girl who is abducted during the Punic Wars, sold into slavery, and then saved by a Roman nobleman and his slave Maciste, played by muscular thesp Bartolomeo Pagano, who went on to become a matinee idol.
Released all over the world, this forerunner of the epic is believed to have inspired the Babylonian scenes in D.W. Griffith’s 1916 “Intolerance” and influenced the work of Cecil B. DeMille and Fritz Lang, among others.
Fresh print has been meticulously reconstructed from reels, thought to be lost, found in a Turin basement by the city’s National Cinema Museum, in collaboration with London’s Prestech Film Laboratories, making use of Pastrone’s original notes and storyboards.
Prestech’s restoration wizard Joao S. de Oliveira says he was drawn to the painstaking “Cabiria” project for a personal reason.
After devising the tracking shot, Pastrone ventured from movies into the medical field, eventually becoming an inventor of medical equipment, including the precursor to today’s radiation-therapy gear. It’s a machine that de Oliveira believes cured his grandmother of cancer.