Italy: The Cradle of Cinema Masterpieces

by Leonard Donaldson

Italy’s high position in the Cinematograph world shows no signs of waning, in spite of the great upheaval. While although rumors have reached this country that several of the leading producing films have been compelled to discontinue business owing to the war, the writer is able to assure the English trade that there is absolutely no truth in these statements, and that up to the present, in any case, the output of the Italian studios is quite normal. The export trade has certainly decreased owing to the difficulties of transport, but is believed that this trouble will soon removed.

Moreover, Italy’s import trade has been steadily increasing, during the past few years. Although the amount of British films sento to Italy has never represented a high figure, I am given to understand this is increasing annually. Whilst in 1913 only 84.145 ft. of film were obtained from Great Britain, statics go to show that this figure was doubled in recent returns.

Unlike her sister Ally France, Italy has not utilized the cinematograph to any extent for military purposes. Other than a few films depicting the mobilizing of the Italian forces, no war pictures of any note are screened at the cinemas. Moreover, I hear on the best authority that the Italian Government have issued an order prohibiting the use of cinematograph cinemas on the whole of the frontier where there are important military positions, and that no camera operators are allowed in the field.

Now a word as to the position of the Italian exhibitor. For a considerable time past he has been bearing the burden of a particularly severe taxation, particulars of which were made known to the British trade in the latter part of last year.

This taxation, as originally introduced by the Italian Minister of Finance, was so exorbitant as to be almost incredible. For the purpose of the tax , it may be remembered, the cinemas were to be divided into three groups according to this seating capacity. Thus:

Theaters of the first-class (accommodating 1.100 persons) were to be taxed L. 2 10s. per show.
Theaters of the second class, accommodating 700 persons) were to be taxed L. 1 1s per show.
Theaters of the third class (accommodating 350 persons) were to be taxed 12s 4d. per show.

Now estimating that each theatre gave nine performances a day, a theatre of the first class would be paying the unheard of tax of L. 22 10s a day!

So keenly did the Italian producers realize the danger of this movement that a commission headed by Signor Pasquali (Chevalier of the Crown) waited upon the Minister of Finance, and pleaded with him to hesitate before advocating such an extreme measure. As a result of the conference the tax was substantially modified and certain classes of cinemas are now exempt. Even by the new arrangement the tax yields 6.500.000 lire per annum — instead of 7.500.000 lire as formerly drawn up.

So it will be seen that in spite of this modification the exhibitor is still having to bear a very heavy burden. From these facts it would appear that the producers are the most prosperous class in the Italian cinema industry as, in fact, they are. Uncle Sam is, perhaps, their best customer, claiming , as he does, on an average of 2.000.000 ft. of film per annum.

Comment upon the quality and class of film that is produced in Italy does not come within the scope of this article, and would be invidious in view of the facts being so familiar to us.

Such pictorial gems as Quo Vadis?, Anthony and Cleopatra and Cabiria have borne convincing testimony of the incomparable Italian genius responsible for their conception. Alla that is greatest and best in Roman classics and history has found expression through the medium of the cinematograph. The glorious story of The Eternal City will never lose its charm so long as Italian talent is employed in its telling.

Mr. G. I. Fabbri, proprietor of La Cinematografia Italiana ed Estera, gives me an interesting account of the present position of the Italian trade under war conditions:

“When Italy first declared war to Austria, he said, “there was something of a panic in cinema circles, and many of the producing films suspended business. This, however, was only temporary, and the present conditions are almost normal. Cines, Ambrosio, Corona, Latium, Itala, Gloria, Caesar, Milano, Bonnard and several smaller firms re still busy. New Companies have been floated since the outbreak of war, amongst which are The Victoria Film Company, a concern having a Spanish directorate, and another producing firm which has recently been established by the celebrated metteur en scène Mario Caserini (of Ambrosio and Gloria fame). This company will shortly produce some very pretentious subjects of high artistic value. Furthermore, the Photo-Drama Company will be producing at an early date.”

Mr. Fabbri, moreover, informs me that at the outbreak of hostilities a number of companies were formed having small capitals. The promoters were, in most cases, artistes who had lost their connection during the panic already referred to.

Count B. Negroni (of Rome), associated with the famous star Hesperia, is responsible for an excellent production of The Lady with the Camelias, and The Alba Films (also of Rome), have recently filmed a great patriotic subject, entitled Silvio Pellico.

Films od the Allied Countries are extremely popular throughout Italy, and those of a patriotic character are eagerly sought after. I am assured that hirers of exclusive films and manufactures agents generally have not been seriously affected by the war.

The Italian trade press continues its business more or less as usual. There is La Cinematografia Italiana ed Estera; La Vita Cinematografica (which is now published by-monthly instead of weekly); Film (of Naples); La Illustrazione Cinematografica (of Milan) which, however, appears somewhat irregularly; Il Tirso al Cinematografo (of Rome) and La Cine-Fono (of Naples).

I understand from Mr. Fabbri that several new publications have appeared, but are not being well supported.

In conclusion, I am asked to give this message to the English trade:

The War has not seriously affected the cinematograph business in Italy, and each and every member of the Italian film industry is confident that the War will be brought to a victorious conclusion by the Allies.

(The Bioscope – Ciò che si dice all’estero dell’Italia. La Cinematografia Italiana ed Estera, Torino 15 december 1915)