• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Friday, October 27, 2017

    La Sacra Bibbia/After Six Days (1920)


    With so many silent films lost to the ages, we should be grateful even for those where the remains are only part of what was originally projected. Nevertheless, it's hard not to be a little aggrieved that the print of La Sacra Bibbia (also known as just La Bibbia) that remains is a butchered version edited down for a re-issue. Indeed Sacra Bibbia was reissued at least twice, once in 1929 (as After Six Days) at the advent of the sound era, and once as late a 1946, for which a trailer was put together boasting of a $3 million and promising a cast of 10,000. The film's publicists also made much of the film being shot at the "exact locations" though the artefacts that are shown seem more like modern re-creations than the famous landmarks themselves.

    The version that remains is the 1929 version, edited down from the original and replacing the original (reference free) title cards with an earnest, but dull narration. According to Campbell and Pitts La Bibbia was released as a series of one reelers (1981: 12) and a copy of the original Joseph reel found it's way into the Joye collection and survives in the BFI's archive. The fragment (which I reviewed here) indicates some of what was lost. In addition to the intertitles, the re-issue also cropped the image, disastrously on more than a few occasions.

    What remains, however, is still a testament to what was the strength of the Italian silent epic. It was in Italy that the historical epic was born (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, 1908) and for all the attention given to Griffith's Birth of a Nation it was Cabiria that took the epic film to a whole new level. Indeed Griffith is reputed to have admitted Cabiria inspired him to make Intolerance what it was. La Bibbia retains much of the grandeur and spectacle of those films and in its own right contains numerous shots for which it deserves to be remembered.

    The film was directed by Armando Vay and Dr Piero Antonio Gariazzo. These days Gariazzo is better remembered for his commentary than his filmmaking. Bertilini only mentions him for his 1919 book Il Teatro Muto and his expression of a sentiment more widely connected with Alfred Hitchcock, "Whether they are skilled or not, film actors and actresses are like puppets" (Bertilini 2013: 259).

    Unsurprisingly the acting is not particularly memorable, but the compositions and imagery are what really stand out. The earliest scenes give a sense of creation and must have inspired Huston and Dino De Laurentiis' sort-of remake in 1966. Eve appears for the first time as smoke rises from Adam's sleeping body. The two frolic in the garden before embracing and taking a bit out of the forbidden fruit almost simultaneously. Moments later a furtive Cain, dominating the foreground and shooting furious looks directly at the camera forlornly pokes his sacrifice knowing it will fail whilst in the rear of the shot, almost off camera, his brother contentedly carries on.

    The brief scenes of the Ark and are unspectacular, but nevertheless the curve of the unfinished boat's hull and the struts that support it form a pleasing backdrop to shots of Noah and his family. Once the rains come in earnest, however, the images are far more disturbing. First Doré's "The Deluge" is evoked as people desperately climb on a rock hoping for salvation; then a wider shot of dead bodies piled up just above the rising waters as the rains continue to lash down; then finally a double exposure brings the camera closer to some of these, now ghostly, corpses floating away whilst the camera ploughs on in the opposite direction.

    However it's the Tower of Babel that lives longest in the memory. Here's it's depicted as a towering ziggurat, so colossal that it's top disappears into the clouds off the top of even an ultra-wide shot. It both reflects and emboldens Bruegel's famous painting (1563) and Doré's engraving (1865) amongst others, soaring above the seemingly minute people milling about below. Another highlight of these opening scenes is the spectacular destruction of Sodom, as the disastrous angelic visit to Lot ends in brimstone raining down on the city in a whirl of sparks and smoke.

    In contrast to these more eye-catching, spectacular scenes, the Joseph episode neatly emphasises Mrs Potiphar's obsession with him, notably the voyeuristic pleasure she finds secretly watching him. In a darkened foreground she watches him silently through a grill, briefly facing the camera as she bites her bottom lip in ecstasy. The theme of the audience watching someone watching someone else has been replayed numerous times since, another reminder of Hitchcock. When Pharaoh remembers his dreams a matte shot shows cows running above his head, before animated stalks of wheat appear. The section's use of low and high angles to reinforce the power dynamics of the courtroom scene.

    Moses' appearance on the big screen here was possibly the last time before DeMille made his indelible mark two or three years later. The differences are striking. For example rather than carrying around a mighty staff, Moses' rod is more reminiscent of a magic wand. Suddenly it feels like DeMille might have been compensating for something. Moses also has horns in the style of Michelangelo's statue (1513-1515) - just one of a number of ways in which the film's portrayal resembles the famous sculpture, something DeMille made much of when promoting his 1956 remake with Charlton Heston. That said, the crossing of the Red Sea - here portrayed using a rather clumsy matte shot - is not a patch on DeMille's first attempt just a few years later.

    Indeed after such a striking first half the second part of the film is less impressive. Once Moses has installed Joshua as his successor and wandered up the mountain to meet his maker, the remaining footage skips to the story of Solomon, perhaps suggesting that a scenario or two are missing here. Solomon shows his wisdom, threatens to cut a baby in half before being wowed by the Queen of Sheba in a scene full of over-the-top headdresses. Eventually he ends up a pagan orgy with her in scenes strongly reminiscent of the later Solomon and Sheba (1959).

    By then, the film, or this cut of it at least, has rather lost its way and like the Hebrew Bible itself, the narrative thread rather trails off. Nevertheless, there is so much to be appreciated in the rest of the film it is a shame that it has had so little attention,  neither amongst silent cinema fans, nor amongst academics. Even if what we have is only a pale reflection of what once was, La Sacra Bibbia deserves to be better remembered.

    ==========================
    - Bertilini, Giogio (ed.) Silent Italian Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
    - Campbell, Richard C. and Pitts, Michael R. (1981) The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897–1980, Metuchen, NJ, and London: Scarecrow Press.
    - Gariazzo, Piero Antonio (1919) Il Teatro Muto Turin: Lattes, cited in Pitassio, Francesco (2013) Famous Actors, Famous |Actresses: Notes on Acting Style in Italian Silent Films" cited in Bertilini, Giogio (ed.) Silent Italian Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p.259

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