11 November 2006 | Lechuguilla
A Window Into Cinema History
A young blind woman and her general misery provide the focus for this 1913 silent film. Her story is set against everyday life in Pompeii, just before the eruption of the famous volcano.
Visually, the film consists of staged sets, rather like modern stage plays. There is no camera movement. Actors mouth words we can't hear. The only sound is the music of a piano, provided on behalf of DVD viewers. The music varies in tone with tonal variations in the story. Alternating with the play and to assist the visuals, title cards convey a verbal sense of what will happen in the next scene.
Acting is very, very theatrical. When they move, the players don't walk, so much as they tiptoe across the stage, in a self-conscious and stagy manner. When there's conflict, the players overact, exaggerating both body movements and facial expressions. But that was how it was done back then. Costumes are elaborate, and at times ornate.
Vesuvius erupts in the final few minutes of the film. Lots of smoke, some soot, a change in the film's tint to reddish, falling pillars, and predictable histrionics of the players comprise the special effects.
Even aside from the simplicity of the special effects and the absence of sound, the film is not likely to appeal to modern audiences, if their purpose in watching films is to be entertained. For one thing, the film's pacing is very slow. Also, there's lots of filler material, like scenes wherein characters sit around feeding pigeons. And I found it hard to identify with any of the characters. They seem too thinly drawn and remote.
In its time, "The Last Days Of Pompeii" must have seemed like a grand spectacle. We are fortunate to have the film now, as a benchmark from which to compare contemporary films. Ergo, for those interested in the history of the cinema, and for those who want some perspective on modern film-making, this film is a fine choice.