The Earliest Italian Features Invented the Epic Scale on Film

Tristan Ettleman
6 min readMar 4, 2018
L’ODISSEA (1911) — Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe de Liguoro

Note: This is the sixty-second in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my second favorite 1911 film, L’ODISSEA, directed by Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe de Liguoro.

There are a few schools of thought when it comes to critical analysis of what is “good” or “bad.” I’m talking about reviews, whether it be of film, television, music, video games, whatever. The two that I’ve seen most often are: (i) a work of art is successful if it accomplishes what it set out to do and (ii) a work of art is successful if it appeals to my tastes and presumptions. Of course, there’s no “right” way to approach reviews of art, but in my mind, the way that fits me best lies somewhere between the two. That being said, I call these essays because I’m hesitant to truly approach the conundrum of shooting straight and “reviewing” the films I write about. Of course, much of my pieces address the quality, justifying my reasons for including them in my canon of the best and/or most important films since the invention of the medium.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) — D.W. Griffith

In fact, calling them “critical essays” may very well be my way to avoid comparing these films to, quite frankly, the styles of filmmaking I’m used and partial to. But therein lies the trouble in reviewing; it’s hard to isolate the experience from everything that came before and what will come after. And perhaps it’s wrong to do so. But I want to provide as much historical context for these films as possible, and I find it a questionable pursuit to bring a lot of metanarrative baggage into a truly thorough critical dredging. This is a long-winded, unsure way of coming to the point that L’ODISSEA (1911) is kind of boring, even less entertaining than films from the same year lower on the list. But it’s so incredibly important that I can’t help but appreciate what it set out to do.

If I were to lean towards one of the approaches to reviewing I outlined earlier, it’s certainly to the latter. I, usually, would give a good review to something I enjoyed. It sounds simple, but when evaluating something like, say, THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), what do you say? I hated watching this film but it achieved and did a lot for the art form? What kind of score do you affix to something like that (which is probably a totally different conversation entirely)? Some would say the answer is quite simple, in both directions. But I’m, unfortunately, less sure. There is no sure formula to critical analysis, however, and for something like THE BIRTH OF A NATION, which I have not included on my list of “The 5 Best Films of Every Year Ever,” I decided to take the approach that there were other films from 1915 that I truly enjoyed more, even if they weren’t incredibly important landmarks. But I think L’ODISSEA is the second best film of 1911 not because I had more fun with or was more emotionally impacted by it than, say, LITTLE NEMO (1911), but because it stands as a towering achievement in a way that its peers could not achieve.

L’INFERNO (1911) — Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe De Liguoro

L’ODISSEA was the second feature length film the Italian studio Milano Films and directorial trio Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe De Liguoro released in 1911. The first was L’INFERNO, which was my favorite film of the year; you can read all about it here. The group reteamed for another epic literary adaptation; L’INFERNO was an adaptation of the first part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Inferno.

As you might be able to guess, L’ODISSEA tells the tale of Homer’s Odyssey, another notoriously dense, ancient epic poem that would be hard to translate to early silent film. And yet the three did it anyways, bringing L’ODISSEA to just over feature length, at about 43 minutes, in the process. L’INFERNO ran over 70, but it was a wise decision to make L’ODISSEA on a smaller scale; it lags at even the bare minimum of feature length.

Poster

Even at the source material level, Inferno has always been infinitely more interesting to me than Odyssey. And L’INFERNO was so visually sharp that it was able to bear the tremendous morbidity of its inspiration. L’ODISSEA, on the other hand, found ways to render Odyssey’s fantastical moments a little bit more mundane. But what it may have lacked in individual, shining moments, it made up with its structure and ability to weave a tale on such a large scale at a time when very few others were even attempting to do so.

As I said in my essay on L’INFERNO, this pair of feature films were not the first, but they were the most significant ones since THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG (1906) five years earlier. They fulfilled the promise of the best movies of Georges Méliès, who I believe was the most effective at packing large scale production into short film form. This pair of Italian features didn’t invent the epic film, but they truly rendered it into a form we recognize today. And, of course, they were quickly iterated upon, and before, yes, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, that iteration was mostly concentrated within Italy. Films like QUO VADIS (1913) and CABIRIA (1914) are immediately, clearly part of the tradition L’INFERNO and L’ODISSEA set forth.

Full film

And so I can forgive L’ODISSEA’s slow pace and its over-reliance on actors exaggeratedly conversing. I can appreciate its ability to weave a globe-trotting story, with locations and sets that are impressive in their depth and size. I, therefore, can also look past how underwhelming they are in the wake of L’INFERNO, and how samey they can be to each other in spite of their legitimacy. But they do serve to highlight the convincing costumes and great creature effects, in particular the massive cyclops and his detailed mask, and to a lesser extent, the sirens Odysseus and his crew encounter. I ignore the tendency of the intertitles to explain what the film is about to show because I am fascinated by the ocean scenes and the authentic boats that carry our hero in his journey. The journey’s length cannot be understated. Even the film’s prodigious run time is a tremendous artistic statement. L’ODISSEA is a complicated film for me, one that I found myself drifting away from while I watched it, but also one that I find I have a substantial soft spot for as I write these words. If that doesn’t sum up the value of the movie, and the experience of film in general, then I guess I don’t know what else would.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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