17 July 2002 | Ron Oliver
Early Epic Still Grand
An evil Egyptian priest menaces a young Roman maiden while a blind slave girl shows great courage in attempting to rescue her beloved master, during THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII.
Produced less than two decades after the birth of cinema, this silent film is considered to be the first important historical epic filmed on a truly grand scale. It also heralded the arrival of the Italian movie industry as a force to be reckoned with, however briefly, in the halcyon days before World War One.
Produced by prolific director Mario Caserini (1874-1920), it features a completely static camera which has the effect of turning each shot into a living tableau. (The only exceptions are a few pan shots of flowing lava which were inserted in the film's final moments.) Caserini manages his early crowd scenes very nicely, in which everyone looks like they're actually doing something and have a reason to be in the shot. The use of light & shadow on the large sets is also most commendable.
The final twenty minutes, when Vesuvius blows her top and destroys Pompeii, features special effects which are still quite impressive. After more than an hour of silver toned film, the abrupt switch to red tints at the instant of the eruption is a definite attention grabber.
Much of the acting is very theatrical & overripe, but that was the style back then and was probably much affected by grand opera. Two performers should be noted - Fernanda Negri Pouget is quite touching as the tragic blind girl, and Ubaldo Stefani, as the hero, is unintentionally hilarious in the scene in which he drinks a witch's poisoned brew.
The film's final moments embrace a mature sensitivity and highlight the latent power of the cinematic image.