Friday, 11 June 2010

1905 - La Presa Di Roma (The Taking of Rome) - Filoteo Alberini




This film is worth remembering for a number of reasons. It marked a major step forward from the brief short film designed to entertain audiences during intermissions of musical concerts or theatrical productions towards the longer, more complex feature film. The film’s subject, the breaching of the Porta Pia by Italian troops in 1870, resulting in the annexation of Rome to the fledgling unified Italian state, connects the Italian Risorgimento, the national drive to independence and the formation of a single Italian nation throughout the peninsula. (Italian cinema would continue to play a civic function in society, especially during the neorealist period and afterward.) The Taking of Rome also set the stage for the rise of what would eventually become Italy’s most successful silent film genre: the historical epic.

The above is Peter Bondanella’s description of La Presa di Roma from his excellent book A History of Italian Cinema (a reading list post is in the pipeline...). It makes clear the importance of Filoteo Alberini’s film. Alberini was the Italian equivalent of the Lumiere Brothers; on 11 November 1895 he applied for a patent for his device, the Alberini Kinetograph.

La Presa Di Roma is a film which requires a certain amount of background reading. I always attempt to watch a film ‘blind’ first, i.e. without reading any information on it so that I do not enter the viewing of the film with any preconceptions, but on this occasion I was at a complete loss as to the events of the film, which was compounded by the fact that a couple of the scenes of the movie have been lost.

Bondanella refers to the breaching of the Porta Pia by Italian troops, which was the final act of the Second Italian War of Independence and lead to the unification of the Italian state. The events of the film sees the General of the Italian Army escorted under blindfold from Ponte Milvio to the General of the Papal Army, where the latter General issues an ultimatum to the General of the Papal Army to surrender. The ultimatum is refused, and the final scene of the film sees the Italian troops breach through the wall of the Porta Pia.

This scene provides us with our first ‘battle’ scene; there is no Méliès esque  visual trickery on show but it is not needed, the image of the soldiers storming through the wall is compelling but also prophetic of the century’s coming events.

When we think of the origins of political cinema, we tend to think of the likes of Eisenstein and Riefenstahl. Yet this film predates not only those directors, but also the First World War and its recriminations. La Presa Di Roma, depicting a key moment in Italy’s recent history, was produced in co-operation with the Italian Ministry of War. This makes clear that as early as 1905, governments were aware of the potential power of the moving image.



Much is made of the audience’s immediate reactions to The Great Train Robbery and L'Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat, but it would be of greater interest to learn what effect La Presa Di Roma had on its contemporary audience and their feelings of national pride. It would be extremely useful to uncover accounts of these reactions as I think it is hard for a modern viewer to measure the effect viewing a key historic moment would have had on the contemporary audience.

The influence of the Lumiere Brothers and Méliès is not visible in La Presa Di Roma. The film is distinctively Italian and the visual language is of a different nature to what we have seen in other films. For example, the lavish, opulent set of the scene (see below) where the blindfolded general is brought to the Papal Army’s general will become typical of Italian films of the next decade. The hand gestures and movement of the two generals is of a unique nature and emphasised the Italian inflections of the film.



La Presa di Roma is an incredibly important film that requires far more academic and general interest. A film requiring as much context as La Presa Di Roma does needs more information about the contemporary audience response was as well as to what extent the Italian Ministry of War influenced the film’s direction. If you are interested in either political or Italian cinema it is a must see film.

6 comments:

  1. Hm - get the impression quite a lot of the film is missing? The stills and explanatory cards remind me of the DVD of Metropolis (prior to the recent rediscovery of the 'whole' thing).

    As for what's left, I love the opening title card - very Tarantino. (Probably dates from the restoration, though...!!). The scene with General Carchidio giving his ultimatum is absurdly 'talky' for a silent film, isn't it. Definitely need a primer in Italian history to make head and tail of this one.

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  2. @ Rob - yes, unfortunately quite a lot of this film is missing - and the parallel you draw with Metropolis highlights the depressing fact that substantial parts of key silent films remain missing. I was recently researching the 1906 film The Story of the Kelly Gang, and its historical relevance is dented by the fact that large portions of the films remain lost.

    Haha - good cross reference in regards to the title card, I had not thought of that!

    The scene with the Generals is too 'talky' - you wonder if the contemporary audience would have been aware of what their conversation consisted of and therefore the director felt its conclusion was justified - or whether it was just a bit too long...

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  3. Very interesting film. What came to mind for me when watching was the genre of historical recreation as a whole. I have seen similar films of the period that have the same visual style - wide, static shots with action orchestrated within them - and also you see the painted sets of the interiors quite often. Likely it was filmed in a studio with a glass roof since it would have all been lit with daylight. 

    I like the fact that you mention in your post that you find it difficult to understand what was going on, and it's actually a really good point. You're highlighting one of the most important points of watching old movies, and silents in particular, which is looking for the context to understand the film. How can we judge a film without being a contemporary audience member? It's really difficult. Through your post the film is actually illuminated and you have a greater understanding of the action than you did after the first watch.

    It's clearly a film for a national audience, and they would instantly recognise the history much like we would if it was a British event. For years earlier there would have been magic lantern shows depicting events of military and other history to audiences in Italy, and this is a natural progression of that. War reporting was always limited to text and then to the slow emergence of photography as a tool for reporting war. Still cameras were burdensome and it never captured the action like a snapshot would since they required a long exposure. Similarly when film cameras appeared  it couldn't actually be in on the action (no zoom, burdensome equipment) so war creation became a staple of cinema. There's quite a lot of Boer war footage at the end of the late 19h Century, some of which was staged and made to look real. Similarly we have elements of war reportage here with the troops marching, and elements of dramatic fiction with the opening couple of scenes.

    I'm really interested in your ideas of what the film becomes if it is missing footage. Is it still the film it was or is it now something else entirely? There are many examples but even the major studio film A Star Is Born from 1954 has the very same problem - still images take the place of missing scenes. There are actually films from as recently as the 70s that are missing.

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  4. The question of what a film becomes if it is missing footage may be the most important question you can ask when trying to resuscitate films from this particular period. I will go into this question in a lot more detail in my post on The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) - which is the first ever feature film - but a film of which we have only 15 or so minutes of footage of. I had no idea that films from as late as the 70s have missing footage. Is there any particular reason why that was the case - it seems unfathomable and unjustifiable as to why that would be the case at such a recent stage in film history.

    Thank you for providing a background on magic lantern shows and a brief history of how national audiences viewed/received news of their nation's military campaigns. Reading this information deepened my understanding of the contemporary audiences expectations of such a film.

    I think you have to understand that as a modern viewer, you have to accept and relish the challenge of trying to 'read' texts which at first viewing can seem indecipherable. More often than not, the result is extremely rewarding - and with the mainstream access that a site like Youtube provides for early silent film - I feel that one of the main responsibilities of bloggers/critics from this period is to both inform and enthuse their readers of the films being created during this exciting period.

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