An attractive, sometimes captivating series of set-pieces, until the blowup of Vesuvius, which comes as a stagy disappointment, Gli ultimi giorni di Pompeii is an outstanding silent film from Italy.
It is based on Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s novel The Last Days of Pompeii. Mario Caserini wrote the script and co-directed, along with Eleuterio Rodolfi. The story, involving dovetailing romantic jealousies and Egyptian treachery, is neatly complicated and occasionally exhausting, and the characterizations are weak; but the film is a feast for the eyes. Scene after scene matters. Until Vesuvius blows its stack, signaling an “Ozymandias”-message, the intricate compositions and exceptional fluidity of gesture and motion ensure an irresistibly cinematic result. White birds flutter and take flight; a man, from his balcony, overlooks the sea, both appearing in the frame; a blind slave girl, we are told by a title, is walking home when she unexpectedly enters the frame and walks in our direction. We become “home” for her, a representation of what is unknown for her in her life. When she veers to frame-right to drink from an accustomed fountain, we see also what is known to her in her sightless life. In the same shot, therefore, we take in her groping in the dark of blindness and also in the light of habit and experience. This is terrific stuff.
Too bad Nidia, this blind girl, falls in love with her new master, Glaucus. Dream on, dear! In 79 A.D., class lines were rigid.
Most felicitous are two things: the film’s use of intricate shadows—and one bold use: the projection of Nidia’s blindness, which appears as a gigantic pitch-dark aura enveloping her, when she is in underground lock-up; the visual orchestration of people, including crowds, both indoors and out.
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