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.
Friday, 11 June 2010
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.