• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Saturday, January 26, 2019

    Quo Vadis? (1913)


    At the time, Enrico Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? (1913) was called "The most ambitious dramatic work ever seen in cinema" (New York Times). Today it remains overshadowed by it's 1951 Hollywood remake, a product of Hollywood, though that too was shot in Rome, in the Cinecittà studios. Both films and the 1902 (Pathé) original were based on Henryk Sienkiewicz's (Polish) novel, itself dating only as far back as 1890.

    The film's creation, produced by the Rome-based company Cines, marks the coming together of a number of interconnected trends. Even at this early stage in cinema history there had been numerous adaptations of 19th century epic novels pitting Romans against early Christians from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "The Last Days of Pompeii" (1834, adapted in 1908 and again in 1913) to Lew Wallace's "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" (1880, first adapted in 1907). Then, in terms of Italian output, the epic film was very much emerging. If Arturo Ambrosio and Luigi Maggi's 1908 Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, an adaptation of Bulwer-Lytton's novel, can be seen as the first true epic film then just a year after the release of Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? (1913) was it's silent era high point - Giovanni Pastrone's still impressive Cabiria. Watch those three films back to back and suddenly much of the credit given to Griffith's Intolerance seems a little misplaced.

    But the enduring impact and impressiveness of Quo Vadis? and Cabiria masks the level of turmoil that was present in the Italian industry at the time. Despite the acclaim for Quo Vadis? Cines hit a downward spiral plagued by poor business decisions and a failure to conquer America and was sold off just a year or two later (Tomadjoglou 108). By the time Christus was released in 1916, it was very much a different company.

    The popularity of the epic film was itself part of a broader movement in Italian filmmaking around this time. Naturally there was a strong emphasis on Roman history. From Carthage (Cabiria) and Spartacus (1913's Spartaco), to the loose Shakespearean adaptations Anthony and Cleopatra (Guazzoni, 1913) and Julius Caesar (Guazzoni, 1914), through to Constantine (In hoc signo vinces, 1913), but the subjects covered were far broader, taking in subjects as diverse as Greek myths (L'Odissea,1911), the Crusades (Guazzoni's La Gerusalemme liberta, 1911) and Napolean (Guazzoni's Pro patria mori, 1912). Naturally there were no shortage of biblical titles either. Again Guazzoni was at the fore with Guiseppe ebreo (Joseph the Hebrew, 1991), I Maccabei (1911) and Quo Vadis?, but consider also Milano films' 1910 San Paolo, Luigi Maggi's Giuda (Judas, 1911), and Cines' Christus (1916).

    Having said all that, please don't gain the impression from my rather overenthusiastic listing that the Italian film industry of the early 1910s was dominated by such offerings. In fact "historical films did not make up the majority of Italian production but, rather, were considered the flagship product, geared both to the domestic and foreign markets." (Muscio 163) This ties in well with what we know of the American industry at the same time. Many saw the cinema as disreputable so companies like Vitagraph sought to provide a higher quality of output. Historical films, based upon reputable sources like the Bible and Shakespeare were a much favoured route. I guess we could debate - comparing the way cinema is regarded in comparison to other art forms today - whether or not Vitagraph and the Italian film exporters like Cines' George Kleine were successful or not, but perhaps another time.

    Nevertheless, the artistry and quality of the Italian films was what set them apart from competition abroad. According to Muscio's research "the most common traits of historical films pertained to the quality of the mise-èn-scene, which included the visual blocking of the masses, the richness of the scenographic details, frame composition, the quality of the lighting, and the use of landscape" (166).

    In Italy the historical films were also considered an important medium for those looking "for literary kinships and a strong link with traditional culture" who were typically "wanting to educate the masses by popularizing the classics" (Muscio 166). In this we perhaps find the roots of Roberto Rossellini's later historical works, which were made with very much the same intention. But at home they filled a further role. The unification of Italy had only been completed forty years previously and was still a source of tension in some quarters. Historical epics had a "capacity to glorify history as a nostalgic escape from post-Unification disenchantment and the mounting social unrest of the present" (Muscio 168).

    The film itself runs to around 100 minutes, far better paced than the 1951 remake which drags in places. Visually it's typified by the use of tinting and/or toning in almost every scene, and this technique is used to great effect, particularly as Rome burns. My favourite, though might be the way the colours change as the orgy scene progresses. Initially pink, is switches to a more sultry red as things hot up a bit. By the time we reach the last throws of the event the next morning, the colour has changed again to a pale sickly green.

    As implied above the sets are certainly impressive as is the size of the various crowds which fill so many scenes, but the fire scenes and those in the Colosseum particularly stand out. It's also noticeable how well Guazzoni uses the available space and the film's depth of field. In the Colosseum scene an unfortunate group of Christians wait in the deep background for a pride of lions who emerge at the front of the shot and prowl terrifyingly towards them

    The film opens by introducing us to each character in turn as one shots are alternated with intertitles giving us the names of each character and their actor in turn. Vincinius' arrival in the city is somewhat muted, as his attempted courtship of Lyggia is kept short. Less than nine minutes passes before she is arrested and then dragged to Nero's orgy. Once there, Vincinius' attempt to seduce Lyggia is far more uncomfortable viewing than the 1951 version. Things start off pleasant enough, but it seems like it might have ended in rape had not Ursus stepped in to whisk Lyggia away.

    It's a surprise then when Lyggia so quickly decides to marry him, and he decides to convert. The two head off to find Peter in the first of many scenes in the catacombs. Peter is seemingly much more involved with the everyday goings on in the Christian community. He is far more hands on and less remote than Finlay Currie's take in the 1951 version. Later we also meet Paul and then, of course, Jesus. Peter's vision on the Appian way occurs right at the end of the film. By this point Nero has already burned Rome, blamed the Christians and murdered them in the amphitheatre by various grisly means. The Roman "games" scene features a Ben-Hur style chariot race (not found in the novel).

    Jesus' appearance is shot using double exposure, a ghostly figure with hair that reaches down to his chest. Peter barely gets back to Rome before the legions have revolted and Galba has been declared emperor. Nero flees but dies shortly afterwards and an intertitle declares that "from the rain of strife and blood sprang a new life: the life of Christianity, in the sign of love and peace". The film's closing image, featuring a green tint, is Jesus stood in front of a glowing cross in the background, being worshipped by his followers. 

    For Bible films fans there are appearances by Peter, Paul and Jesus, quite possibly the first production to do so. It seems unlikely the original adaptation would have had time to include the Paul scenes, and whilst one of the early films about Paul might have included both the apostle's brushes with Peter and a lifelike vision of Jesus on the Damascus road it's hard to imagine they had the running time either.

    For everyone else, Quo Vadis? is rightly celebrated as a landmark film.It may not have a claim to fame for a historic first, but it's impressive sets, crowds, use of colour and set it above the films that were being made across the Atlantic and in neighbouring France.

    =========
    Muscio, Giuliana (2013) "In Hoc Signo Vinces: Historical Films", in Bertellini, Giorgio (ed.) (2013). Italian Silent Cinema: A Reader (New Barnett: John Libbey Publishing), pp. 161-70

    Tomadjoglou, Kimberly (2013) "Rome's Premiere Film Studio: Società Italiana Cines", in Bertellini, Giorgio (ed.) (2013). Italian Silent Cinema: A Reader (New Barnett: John Libbey Publishing), pp. 161-70

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