Entering the Classical World through Silent Cinema
Saturday 6 July 2019
At the UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, 7.30pm to 10.00pm
A live screening of four rarely seen but remarkable films about ancient Greece and Rome.
Two of the films document the ruins of the Acropolis and Pompeii as they appeared to travellers in the early twentieth century. Two are aesthetically rich and immersive feature films concerning the sculptor Phydias and the emperor Caligula. Through their enticing use of gesture and look, exotic sets and extravagant costumes, music and movement, these latter films offer their spectators the opportunity to enter into the classical past and experience it as if they were there.
The screening of Caligula will be the UK premiere of a beautifully restored print from Italy. The other prints were obtained especially from archives in Austria, the USA, and the UK. They will be introduced briefly by Maria Wyke (UCL) and Pantelis Michelakis (University of Bristol). The professional pianist (Stephen Horne, http://www.stephenhorne.co.uk/) will improvise throughout, thus replicating the means by which music once engaged audiences emotionally with cinema’s classical worlds. The venue is a newly refurbished 500-seater theatre owned by UCL.
From Filmarchiv Austria:
* An excursion in ancient Greece (1913, Pathé, c. 8 mins)
Arriving at Athens along the Corinthian canal, we see various monumental ruins of ancient Greece on and around the Athenian Acropolis as they looked in 1913.
From the Library of Congress (Washington):
* Pompeii and Vesuvius (1906, probably Cines, Italy, c. 4 mins)
Scenes of the damage caused to Southern Italian communities by the eruption of Vesuvius in 1906 are juxtaposed with shots of Pompeii, the ancient city of the long-since dead.
From the British National Film Archive:
* Slave of Phydias (dir. Léonce Perret, Gaumont, France, 1916/17, c. 36 mins)
The film’s careful composition and deep-space tableaux recall the glamorous nineteenth-century antiquity paintings of Alma-Tadema and bring them to life. Most of the film is shot on location by the coastline of southern France, among the cedars and cypresses of an ornate neo-classical villa. Characters appear dappled in sunlight, reflected in pools of shimmering water, or silhouetted against the sparkling sea, to great emotive effect. For this is not a grand historical narrative of the sculptor Phydias and the colossal works he created to celebrate the power of the Athenian state. What matters is the creativity of the sculptor’s model – the poor slave girl who gives the film its title. While Phydias attempts to chisel a statue of the goddess of love that remains off-screen and unfinished throughout the film, his slave-girl creates in him a real, passionate love stirred by the beauty of her flesh and, most importantly, of her lyre-playing. By the end of the film the lovers face oblivion, forced to say goodbye to a tranquil ‘land of beauty and of love’ that is both ancient Greece and contemporary France. Suffering, loss and exile are key concerns suited to the film’s period of production during the First World War.
From the Cineteca di Bologna:
* The Tragic End of the Emperor Caligula (dir. Ugo Falena, Film d’arte Italiana, Italy, 1917, c. 1hr)
The original reviewers praised this film for displaying all the richness of an art work: ‘marvellous landscapes, powerful effects of light and shadow, all the beauty of the Roman countryside and its ancient monuments, all the spirituality of the catacombs and, what’s more, a faithful reconstruction of the imperial palace after the most recent excavations on the Palatine. But above all it is a tragedy.’ Set around 40-41 CE, the film is happy to bestow on Caligula aspects of the Church legends about Nero’s persecution of the Christians. They gather outside Rome to hear the apostle Peter preach. Meanwhile, in the palace, Caligula’s son dies and the emperor descends into madness – thinking he is surrounded by the ghosts of those he has murdered and turning his hatred onto the innocent Christians. At a banquet, he forces an innocent girl to dance for him – or see her companions slaughtered. The girl breaks out of the ancient moment into the modern when her shoes are removed and the celebrated performer who plays her, Stacia Napierkowska, begins to swirl barefoot as if possessed by terror. The Christians are rescued, Caligula assassinated, and his body thrown into the Tiber.