Saturday, July 06, 2013

Quo vadis? (1913) (1969 Milan / Amsterdam restoration)

IT 1913. D: Enrico Guazzoni. Dal romanzo Quo vadis. Powieść z czasów Nerona (1895) di Henryk Sienkiewicz. SC: Enrico Guazzoni. C: Amleto Novelli, Gustavo Serena, Carlo Cattaneo. AD: Enrico Guazzoni. P: Cines. 35 mm. 1944 m. 94' a 18 f/s. Col. English intertitles. Milano print Da: Fondazione Cineteca Italiana e EYE - Film Institute Netherlands per concessione di Ripley's Film. Cinema Lumière - Sala Officinema/Mastroianni Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, earphone commentary in Italian, grand piano: Donald Sosin, 6 July 2013

Giovanni Lasi: "Quo vadis? revolutionized all former notions of the scope and power of the motion picture", declared George Kleine, the American distributor for Cines Films. Quo vadis? marked a radical turning point in the history of Italian and international cinema. The film by Guazzoni, paving the way for a season of historical-mythological "colossals", affirmed Italy's place in the international world of cinema. Besides reaching epic levels of commercial success, Quo vadis? immediately became the definitive model of the genre: lavish sets, thousands of extras, the management of vast locations, the spectacular nature of the action scenes all became trademarks for successive Italian productions of the "sword-and-sandal" genre, which would have reached its pinnacle the following year with Cabiria." Giovanni Lasi

Giovanni Lasi: "From the late 19th century, as neoclassical currents held sway in art and literature, Greek and Roman history also grew in popularity, but it was viewed through the aesthetic and philosophical lens of mythology and tinged with romanticism. The ancient world was seen as some kind of paradise lost, a golden age, tantalizing but irretrievable: a world we yearn for but which, by its very nature, can be revisited exclusively in the realm of fantasy. It is no wonder, then, that this distant era, remote and legendary, persisted as one of the main subjects of mainstream, popular literature even into the beginning of the 20th century, with tales set in ancient Greece or Rome being published, graced with il­lustrations inspired by the vast production of 19th century neo-classical painting. The same visual and narrative model was soon adopted by the new medium of cinema, where its potential could be further expanded. A filmmaker does more than just reproduce reality on the screen; he also needs to be able to bring history to life, bridging the gap across space and time. Even more: thanks to the medium's ability immerse the spectator fully in the events taking place on the big screen, the members of a cinema audience have the miraculous opportunity to lose themselves, body and soul, in the splendors of antiquity. If it is true that cinema has been, since its inception, nurturing a biding interest in the archeological past, it is equally true that the canons which determined the success of the mythological/historical genre were set in the 1910s: lavish sets and costumes, spectacular action scenes filmed on vast studio lots with thousands of extras. While certainly the entire internation­al film industry caught the Epic Classics bug, Italy surely dominated the scene with such films as Quo vadis?, Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, Cajus Julius Caesar, Cabiria, all produced between 1913 and 1914, which were destined to become milestones in the history of silent film. The measure of the success of these films is evident in the effect they had on other genres: from the proliferation of dal vero made at archeological sites around the world, to the irreverent comedies set in ancient Greek or Roman times. The road from Quo vadis? to Kri Kri gladiatore is very brief." Giovanni Lasi

Mariann Lewinsky: "Alongside the Italian epics Quo Vadis? and Spartaco, the programme includes a selection of shorter (and in some cases earlier) films. When and how did the ancient world make its first appearance in the cinema? Even before 1900, Pathé was offering risqué scenes, their Greek setting legitimising the nudity, then there were scènes bibliques, ambitious quests for "historical truth, local colour and richness in costumes and sets" (Pathé catalogues of 1900 and 1902) and in 1901 the first film version of Quo Vadis? appeared, a three minutes scène à grand spectacle. The French antiquity films of the following years are all conspicuous for their mag­nificent stencil-colouring. Around 1913 the ideal of antique beauty and sensuality took everyday fashion by storm and this is documented in many films: at home the ladies wear Fortuny pleated negligés, and at soirées creations by Poiret, Doucet and Drécoll, with high-girdled tunics over the finest fabrics draped in plentiful folds, all topped off with coiffures à la grècque." Mariann Lewinsky

AA notes: In her introduction Mariann Lewinsky told about: rightholder and material problems which is why there is no newer restoration than this one, made in collaboration by the Amsterdam and Milan film archives in 1969. The best source was Dutch, with German and French intertitles. A hybrid was created with English intertitles. Lewinsky stated that Quo vadis? is the finest historical novel, and Henryk Sienkiewicz was deservedly awarded with the Nobel Prize of literature in 1905. It has inspired adaptations at the opera, and in the music hall.

"The 1913 film adaptation by Enrico Guazzoni was so spectacularly successful that it was continuously in distribution until the 1925 film adaptation. It always filled the house." AA notes of the Mariann Lewinsky introduction.

- Quo vadis, Domine?
- Romam vado iterum crucifigi.

AA: I had never seen this impressive adaptation before. The story is familiar since I read the Henryk Sienkiewicz novel as a schoolboy, and most recently I have seen the MGM 1951 Quo vadis adaptation directed by Mervyn LeRoy in the "ultimate collector's dvd edition" of 2008, starring Robert Taylor (Vinicius), Deborah Kerr (Lygia), and Peter Ustinov (Nero).

In 1913 D.W. Griffith was already making sophisticated films such as The Mothering Heart, but this Quo vadis? adaptation is still in the early cinema mode with long shots, long takes, and intertitles announcing the action in advance. There are instances of overacting and gestures being telegraphed in an exaggerated way, but as a rule the performances are often rather sober. There are impressive instances of deep focus composition in Quo vadis?

It is interesting to think that Adolf Hitler may have seen this movie with its Roman salutes (copied as Nazi salutes), sadistic persecutions of a religious minority, and delirium over violence and destruction. Nero burns Rome in order to built Neropolis (qf. Hitler's plan to destroy Berlin and replace it with Germania). An epic conflagration is needed to inspire the tyrant to finish his poem. The poem will be composed to render Nero immortal. - On the other hand, the 1951 Quo vadis (shot in Cinecittà) can be seen as an indirect reflection of the Holocaust which was still a topic too overwhelming to be discussed directly in Hollywood (the change came first in 1959 with The Diary of Anne Frank).

Vinicius and Lygia try to survive in the circumstances dominated by the tyrant's whims with banquets, orgies, and atrocities.

In the catacombs Peter spreads the word of Christianity: love and forgiveness. Peter gives his blessing to Vinicius and Lygia.

At Poppea's suggestion Nero tries to put the blame on the burning of Rome on the Christians, and Chilo the traitor helps him track down the Christian martyrs. After the chariot race the Christians are thrown to the lions. Nero asks Petronius what he thinks of the spectacle. "Oh, the show is worthy of you". In the royal gardens Nero watches the final torture of the Christians: the human torches. But Chilo looks at them in horror, detecting among the martyrs Glaucus whose family he had ruined yet who had forgiven him in the name of the Christ. This is a turning-point for Chilo who now exposes Nero. Paul baptizes Chilo.

A creation of Henryk Sienkiewicz, Ursus, who became an Ur-muscleman hero of the cinema, appears impressively in this movie. He is more impressive than Spartacus in the 1913 feature film. Both are predecessors of Maciste who appeared next year in Cabiria (1914). A climax is the arena sequence: after the lions have devoured Christians a bull is released on the arena with Lygia on its back. Ursus defeats the raging bull with his bare hands. The audience shouts to Nero: "Arsonist! Murderer! Clemency!"

Memorable features and scenes: - The actors are introduced in portrait shots in the opening credit sequence. - Lygia flees the declarations of the patrician's love. - St. Peter in the catacombs. - Chilo the traitor elevated and carried around on a pallet. - The Liebestod double suicide of Petronius and his wife, the doctor assisting them by cutting their wrists. - The suicide of Nero: he fails at first but is eagerly assisted.

Peter and Nazarius are leaving Rome and Nero's atrocities, but on Via Appia they meet the spirit of Jesus Christ. - "Where are you going, Lord?" - "If you leave Rome, I'll go there to be crucified again".

An interpretation of the foundation story of Christian Rome, resonating in much of the history of art and cinema, including Roma città aperta (seen here this week in its latest restoration) with its conclusion facing St. Peter's Basilica.

Told in an engaging way by Enrico Guazzoni, leading to a robust, gripping conclusion. It is still quite effective.

One of the memorable finishes to the A Hundred Years Ago project. One of the culminating achievements of early cinema. The title is evocative for world history on the eve of the First World War. And for the cinema on the eve of the reign of the feature film.

The visual quality: this is as a whole a beautiful print and a well-made restoration. The opening has been restored from a battered source, but it gets better. I like the subtle toning and tinting in this version.

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