In Italy, the spectacle reigned supreme, as producers vied to outdo each other in presenting historical re-creations on a vast scale. In 1910, Mario Caserini’s Lucrezia Borgia and Enrico Guazzoni’s Brutus offered the public thrills and decadent delights, with lavish costumes and sets that made up in excess what they lacked in historical accuracy. Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), at a length of 123 minutes, was an even more ambitious spectacle and influenced D. W. Griffiths Intolerance two years later with its impressive sets and epic scale.
The Italian cinema also gave the world one of film’s true pioneers, director Elvira Notari. Notari is the unheralded inventor of Neorealist cinema. Between 1906 and 1930, she directed over sixty feature films and hundreds of documentaries and shorts for her own production company, Dora Film. In addition, she usually served as writer and co-producer, working with her husband, Nicola, a cameraman, and her son, Eduardo, an actor. The rediscovery of Notari’s work throws into question a number of traditional notions of Italian cinema. Her early films were almost completely oppositional to the slick super-spectacles of the North. Dora films were shot on location, using the lower-to-middle-class streets of Naples, often with nonprofessional actors. Notari loved to show the crude living conditions of real people and the politics of the underclass.
Notari’s films were noteworthy for being hand-colored in a rainbow of hues frame by frame or colored in dye-tinting machines that gave a uniform color to the images (deep blue, perhaps, for scenes of melancholy; red tints for anger) and synchronized with live singing and music. The results are exceptionally erotic, visceral, and often violent. Her work focuses on the plight of the underprivileged, especially women who refuse to conform to societal codes of behavior. È Piccerella (1922) is a melodrama about a woman named Margaretella who is courted by two men; she is attracted to the sinister Car-luccio instead of the “good” Tore and meets her demise in the end. À Santa-notte (On Christmas Eve, 1922) is similarly downbeat, violent, and highly effective.
Just as the silent Italian cinema truly began to flourish, the twin exigencies of World War I and changing audience taste brought about a rapid shift in the country’s filmmaking. The war caused producers to create more patriotic films that supported the propaganda efforts of the government. Such transparently jingoistic productions as André Deed’s La Paura degli aeromobili nemici (Fear of Enemy Flying Machines, 1915) and Segundo de Chomón’s animated children’s film La Guerra e il sogno di Momi (The War and Momi’s Dream, 1917) contributed to the war effort, but with the end of the conflict, a new genre that might be called “Diva” cinema came into prominence.
The figure of the actress as diva had been introduced before the war, in such films as Mario Caserini’s Ma l’amor mio mon muore (Love Everlasting, 1913), but after the war a whole group of players, including Pina Menichelli, Lyda Borelli, and Soava Gallone, flooded the screens with tales of decadent romance in which men were invariably lured to their doom through the machinations of sexual enticement and the promise of forbidden love. Nino Oxilia’s Rapsodia Satanica (Satanic Rhapsody, 1915), Pastrone’s Il Fuoco (The Flame, 1916), and Lucio D’Ambra’s La tragedia su tre carte (Tragedy on Three Cards, 1922) are emblematic of this cycle. But the demand for spectacles and “vamp” romances eventually collapsed under the strain of ceaseless repetition, and the Italian cinema began to cannibalize itself, remaking a number of films several times over, including a new version of Quo Vadis? in 1925 (directed by Gabriellino D’Annunzio and Georg Jacoby) and of Gli Ultimi giorni di Pompeii in 1926 (The Last Days of Pompeii, directed by Carmine Gallone and Amleto Palermi).
In the final days of the Italian silent cinema, a series of “muscle man” films came into play, revolving around the character of Maciste, a slave possessed of seemingly superhuman strength. First seen in Luigi Romano Borgnetto and Vincenzo Denizot’s Maciste (1915), this strongman character was quickly recycled in an endless series of sequels from Maciste alpino (Maciste in the Alpine Regiment, a k a The Warrior, 1916) to Guido Brignone’s Maciste all’ inferno (Maciste in Hell, 1925). What is perhaps most interesting about this initial period of Italian cinema is that it rapidly codified the two central genres that would define it throughout the twentieth century: the historical spectacle of Roman decadence, and the Maciste, or Hercules, films, which would become staples of the industry in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s in newer remakes, in color and CinemaScope (and other wide-screen processes). Until this later cycle again exhausted itself through ceaseless recapitulation, the Italian cinema consisted largely of huge costume-bin historical pageants, endless strongman films, and, in the 1960s, a new genre, the horror film, which had not been a major genre in the silent Italian era.