1916 Religious Epic Film Is Resurrected

«Christus» Had a Cast of Thousands — and Latin Subtitles

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ROME, MARCH 26, 2002 (Zenit.org).- A copy of «Christus,» considered to be the first important religious film production, has been rediscovered and restored by parallel research teams.

Giulio Cesare Antamoro, its Roman author with a hobby for making films, had accomplished a true feat in the era of silent movies: He spent three years filming in Palestine and Egypt, with thousands of extras. Three Roman aristocrats went into debt to finance the 1916 production.

The solid, highly cultured two-hour film even had some subtitles in Latin and quotations from Dante. The scenes were inspired in the great masterpieces of Italian painting, such as Blessed Angelico´s Annunciation.

Until recently, Antamoro´s «Christus» was thought to be lost. However, the Italian newspaper Avvenire revealed Sunday that two cinematographic-research teams have restored two copies that can now be viewed.

Film historians say the original film «Christus» was last shown in 1928. It was projected on the wall of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and watched by kneeling spectators.

Then, all traces of the movie were lost. Two years ago, the Italian producer Titanus, whose director general Goffredo Lombardo is the son of the producer of the original film and of the actress in the masterpiece, succeeded in reconstructing it. He spliced several sections of copies dispersed in film museums around the world. That enormous restoration effort was presented, digitalized, in Venice.

Now, from various film archives around Italy, emerges an unpublished and uncensored rendition of «Christus.» It is the version adapted for the popular Spanish market by the well-known Parisian production firm Pathé Frères. In fact, it is a synthesis of the original.

Attilio Mina, professor of cinema at the Art Institute of Giussano, found the film and was able to restore it with the help of his students, who with a computer revised every frame of the archive material that they had previously digitalized.

They reconstructed the frames in a digital video, which was presented on Monday. «The rediscovered copy has only 37 minutes of Antamoro´s film, because the film editor, with a decidedly modern inclination, eliminated scenes,» Mina explained.

The work «is considered to be the most complete of all religious films,» movie historian Lionello Ghirardini writes.

The cast was of the highest order: Leda Gys, one of the best actresses of silent films, is the Virgin; Alberto Pasquali plays Christ, full of feeling; Aurelia Cattaneo plays Mary Magdalene. For the impressive crowd scenes, the troops of the English protectorate in Palestine were used.

Some scenes are masterful even today, such as the one of the temptation of the devil, who seems to emerge from the desert rocks.

The Last Supper is one of the first scenes in history filmed with electric light. The crucifixion had to be repeated in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy because the original film became irremediably moldy during the return trip from Palestine.

The first cinematographic passion of Christ was made in 1896. It is a brief film recorded by someone named Kirchner, known as Lear, for the French Catholic publishers «La Bonne Presse.»

A more complete Passion — 10 minutes long — was recorded in Bohemia in 1897 by an assistant of the Lumiere, using peasants and painted scenes.

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