(7/10) A milestone between two cinematic eras, Marcel Perez’ 1913 adventure epic is a loving pastiche on Jules Verne and George Méliès. Based on Albert Robida’s novel, it anticipates the retro-futuristic work of Karel Zeman and Terry Gilliam. A forerunner in feminism, but problematic in its laissez-faire racism, it is Italy’s first feature-length film with sci-fi trappings.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola. (Le avventure straordinarissime di Saturnino Farandola). 1913, Italy. Directed by Marcel Perez & Luigi Maggi. Written by Guido Volante. Based on a novel by Albert Robida. Starring: Marcel Perez, Nilde Baracchi. Produced by Arturo Ambrosio. IMDb score: 6.3. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
There’s hardly any better film to describe the developments in the film scene in 1913 than The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola (Le avventure straordinarissime di Saturnino Farandola). 1913 was the year that the grand wizard of the early screen, Georges Méliès left the movies, never to return. Méliès, whose films had set the standard for international movie production for 15 years borrowed his sets from the féerie theatre stage, his acting from the pantomime, his characters from the commedia dell’arte and his stories from fairy-tales. On the back of his burlesque fantasies and revolutionary trick films, French cinema had risen to absolute world domination. But now, in the 1910’s, a new master had arisen: Italian cinema.
With an emphasis on epic realism, Italian filmmakers were pioneering the feature film, seeking inspiration in the likes of Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare and historical novelists. Working their way up with The Last Days of Pompeii (1908) and L’Inferno (1911), the Italians in 1913 made Quo Vadis, arguably the first blockbuster in the history of cinema, with 5 000 extras, lavish sets, and a running time of two hours, setting the standard for “superspectacles” for decades to come. 1913 also saw the release of Danish Atlantis, based on the sinking of Titanic, Swedish Ingeborg Holm, described as the “first realistic film” and French Fantômas, an urban mystery drama serial, and the forerunner of the modern mystery and detective films.
And squarely in the middle of these two tradition stands The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola, directed and starred by Marcel Perez, under the moniker Marcel Fabre.
The film is based on a comical adventure novel by French by French author, publisher, illustrator and lithographer Albert Robida from 1879, with the rather unwieldy title of Voyages très extraordinaires de Saturnin Farandoul dans les 5 ou 6 parties du monde et dans tous les pays connus et même inconnus de M. Jules Verne, or “The very extraordinary voyages of Saturnin Farandoul to 5 or 6 parts of the world and to all the placed known by Mr. Jules Verne and to some even unknown to him”. Translator Brian Stableford has settled on the more manageable title of The Adventures of Saturnin Farandoul. As can be gleaned from the original title, the novel is a well-meant pastiche on the Extraordinary Voyages by Robida’s contemporary Jules Verne. The book is divided into 18 chapters, each portraying a different adventure. The films gives us four of those, as the movie is divided into four acts (however reading a plot description of the book, I surmise that the main part of the book has been condensed into these four acts).
In the first act the newborn Saturnino Farandola (Marcel Perez) is lost at sea when the ship his parents are travelling with sinks in a storm, and is left adrift in a wooden box, much like Moses (not like Noah, as one reviewer with a rather patchy knowledge of the bible would have it). He drifts ashore an uninhabited (by humans) island, where he is brought up by apes (thus perhaps serving as an inspiration for Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan, published in 1912, or even Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli, published in 1893). But as he turns 17, his status in the ape community has become unbearable, as his tail hasn’t developed properly. He is seen as a second-class citizen and decides to leave his friends behind, and uses a palm tree as a raft, exploring new worlds. He is picked up by a merchant vessel, and is taken under the wings of the captain, who teaches him the ways of the sea and of civilisation. Farandola eventually becomes captain himself, and shows courage in fighting pirates, whales and marine biologists. The first kills his captain, the second eats his wife (whole and unharmed in a diving suit), and the third captures the whale and puts it in his aquarium, and figures that anything that the whale might regurgitate (say, the wife of a sea captain in a diving suit) is part of the bargain.
Act two brings Saturnino Farandola, his wife, the very capable scuba diver, pirate hunter and action woman Mysora (Nilde Baracchi), and the crew of the Bella Leocadia to Asia, where they go hunting for the stolen white elephant of the king of Siam. The third brings them to Africa, where Saturnino and Mysora explore the Nile, and stumble upon a feud between two warring kingdoms and save a couple of queens.
The fourth act is the one that qualifies the film for this science fiction blog, as Farandola is drawn into the America civil war, where he must fight a most fearsome adversary: none other than the ruthless Phileas Fogg, he of Jules Verne fame. To beat the opposing army Farandola devises of a number of creative weapons like chloroform bombs and a “pneumatic aspirator”, a giant vacuum cleaner built into the wall of his fort, which literally sucks up the enemy soldiers. The films is particularly remembered for its final part, which involves a fantastic war in the air, using hot-air balloons outfitted with cannons. (Oh, and those old ape friends of Farandola’s come in quite handy in fight, once trained in combat.)
The film is to a large part filmed outdoors and uses both real animals like elephants and tigers. But there also studio-bound segments with pretty decent sets and giant puppets, such as the whale and a large squid, not to mention the superb sequence with the balloon battle, which is unlike anything seen on film up til that point in movie history, with soldiers on top of balloons, air crafts with grappling hooks and armies boarding each other’s vessels like in a maritime swashbuckler film. There’s some fantastic stunts and action scenes, as the movie apparently uses circus artists soldiers and as Farandola’s crew, and a thrilling scene where Farandola wrestles with what looks like a real lion.
The film is a slightly odd mix between ambitious outdoor filming and obvious indoor sets and props, sometimes reminding of Méliès’ theatrical féerie style. Juxtaposed with the real animals, the puppets seem oddly out of place, and the film has what must be the worst ape suits ever put on screen. It’s literally just black leotards with face make-up, and the apes tend to walk on their knees, rather than their feet, in ape-like fashion. However, the charming fairy-tale quality of the film, which has something of Baron Munchausen over it, makes you accept this strange mix of reality and theatricality and just enjoy the ride.
One thing that might throw a modern viewer off is the casual imperialism and racism of the movie. Farandola sails across the world visiting “primitive” countries rescuing natives and bringing science and civilisation to the dark continents. Especially jarring to modern eyes is the extremely racist portrayal of the Asians, defeated in battle by giving them opium to smoke. On the other hand, a modern viewer might find refreshing the strong female lead – wherever Farandola goes, so does Mysora, who constantly refuses to be left out of the action, and whom Farandola seems to view as just as good a swashbuckler as his men, if not better. Mysora gets a gun and sword, and is actually the real hero of a number of escapades.
The movie was co-directed by Marcel Fabre, a Spanish-born actor/director/writer whose real name was Marcel Perez, and whom we’ve seen on this blog before in Police in the Year 2000 (1912, review). Perez entered the film business in the late 1900’s, when the short, physical slapstick comedies of Italian former circus artist André Deed, under the moniker Cretinetti, were becoming increasingly popular all over the world, including the US, and French film companies tried to emulate his success. Perez was at the time working at a circus in Paris, and acted in a few films for Pathé, Gaumont and Eclair in France, but soon after Police in the Year 2000, he was snatched up by Italian film company Ambrosio Film. Studio head Arturo Ambrosio was looking for someone to rival the genius of Andre Deed over at Itala Film. Under the name Marcel Farbe, Perez started directing and starring in a series of short films featuring the character Robinet, which became an instant success. Richard Abel writes in Encyclopedia of Early Cinema that Perez, along with comedians Ernesto Vaser and Gigetta Morano “formed a virtual school of film comedy that enabled directors to experiment with film language, special effects, and editing, and with marketing and branding.” Perez made over 150 Robinet films, and became synonymous with his creation, adopting Robinet for his stage name.
At the outbreak of WWI, Perez moved to Hollywood (immigration records set his arrival in 1915), where four of his first films were comedy shorts called the Bungles films, which he co-directed and co-starred in alongside a young Oliver Hardy. He repeated his Robinet success with a new series about Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, many of which co-starred Nilde Baracchi, who plays Mysora in The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola. After having leg surgery for cancer he more or less quit acting and focused on writing, directing and on creating gags for other comedians. He kept on working up until his death in 1929.
While Perez could be trusted to handle the direction of the comedy bits, he wasn’t exactly a director of lavish adventures, which is where his co-director Luigi Maggi comes in. Maggi was one of the real pioneers of the Italian epic, as he basically started the ball rolling in 1908 with The Last Days of Pompeii, and followed of with international successes like Nero (1909), Galileo Galilei (1909) and The Fall of Troy (1911). By 1913 he was already starting to take a back seat to directors like Giovanni Pastrone, who in 1914 would release the ultimate Italian silent film spectacle, Cabiria.
Maggi’s sure hand with camera setups, crowd scenes and animal handling is on display in this film, as is his rather static cinematographic style. There are occasional pans and tilts, but we don’t really get any tracking shots or other camera movement, and most of the film is done with wide and medium shots. However, Maggi does do a number of rather interesting camera setups, such as often mounting the camera out to sea, filming in toward the shore, and he makes good use of diagonals and depth in the film, releasing it from the stagy two-dimensionality seen in so many films of the era (still). This is naturally helped by the numerous outdoor scenes.
One of the joys of the film is Nilde Baracchi, a forgotten star of early comedy. Baracchi was born in 1889 in Italy as Leonilde Baracchi, which suggests that she and Perez met after he had been picked up by Ambrosio. Her charisma and loud comedic acting, as well as her beautiful smile, seems to have caught the eye of Perez, and she quickly started appearing as Robinet’s on-screen wife Robinette, and they appeared in a number of films together. While Perez is incredibly good and funny as Saturnino Farandola, it really is Baracchi that gives The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola life and soul.
Very little seems to be known about Baracchi, as she mostly appears as a footnote to Marcel Perez in the books and websites I have available. An inkling of hope is given by a an essay written by Katherine Frances Nagels at University of California. She starts off her essay in feminist media history by bemoaning the fact that that while the male comedians working in early Italian cinema have been rightly praised, less attention has been paid to early Italian comediennes like Lea Giunchi, Nilde Baracchi, Valentina Frascaroli and Gigetta Morano. She then continues her entire text by paying absolutely no attention to Lea Giunchi, Nilde Baracchi, Valentina Frascaroli or Gigetta Morano.
Nilde Baracchi is commonly referred to as Perez’ wife, although this may be due to confusion with her characters, as she often appeared on screen as his wife. She is not listed as arriving with Perez when he arrived in the US in 1915, and the records give his marital status as single. However, as she did appear in a number of US films with him, starting in 1916, as “Babette Perez” and later “Nilde Babette”, it is possible they got married when she arrived in America. She is sometimes confused with American actress Dorothy Earl, but that was another actress who appeared in some of Perez’ films, most notably perhaps his directorial effort Pioneers of the West (1927). (To make the confusion worse, Earl is sometimes also picked out, probably erroneously, as Perez’ wife.). Baracchi seems to have moved back to Italy in 1919, where she is listed as having appeared in two films (IMDb) before quitting film acting, which means that she probably separated from whatever relation she had with Perez, marriage or other.
As stated, The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola is based on a novel by Frenchman Albert Robida. Robida (1848-1926) was perhaps best known for his lithographs and illustrations. He was the founder and editor of a caricature magazine for twelve years, and illustrated tour guides, works of popular history and literary classics by authors such as Shakespeare, Rabelais, Swift, Cervantes, etc. But he was also a productive writer in his own right, and quite a popular one at that. Especially The Adventures of Saturnin Farandoul was highly regarded and very popular upon its release, and has since been turned into a 15-part television drama, again in Italy for some reason, in 1977-1978. The Italian offshoot of Disney’s Donald Duck comics adapted the story for a Donald Duck adventure in 1959, called Le straordinarie avventure di Paperino Girandola (Paperino being the Italian name of Donald Duck, and Girandola meaning Katherine wheel). The story was also published in Greece, Spain, Germany and Finland.
Albert Robida was more or less forgotten after WWI, but was later rediscovered thanks to his futuristic novel trilogy Le Vingtième Siècle (“The Twentieth Century”), published between 1883 and 1890, anticipating life in the future, from everyday life to science and warfare. In this has often been compared to Jules Verne, although Verne wasn’t really a futurist (H.G. Wells would probably be a better comparison). Verne drew upon contemporary science and mostly used his fantastical inventions in order to get the reader to where he wanted them, up in the air, underwater or to the moon. Robida instead tried to accurately predict what life would be like in the future, and how technology would evolve. His prediction of future warfare, including tanks, airplanes, poison gas and robotic missiles has been hailed as stunningly accurate. He also predicted, more or less, the flat-screen TV with 24 hour news broadcasts and video communication, home shopping service and a range of entertainment choices. This device he called “the telephonoscope”, and in his future world (1952 and 1953) it would be the centre of people’s lives. What he basically did was predict personal computing and the internet, without having the faintest idea of how the damn thing would work. “Electricity” was enough of a answer.
Like Verne, Robida didn’t have a scientific background, but instead took on his topics with the enthusiasm of the amateur, and his explanations on how the technical gadgetry he created worked was by default rather vague. And like most futurists, he often tended to get as much wrong as he got right. For example he, as most of his contemporaries, had a fascination with aviation, and eagerly anticipated the flying car, which has been a staple or futurism since the 19th century.
But more than just anticipate technology, Robida in his novels also imagine how society would have changed socially, culturally and politically. As he predicts the swift automation of society, he also predicts unfettered capitalism and its problems. One of the more interesting aspects of his books is his focus on the liberation of women and the growing equality between genders. One can perhaps forgive him for still operating in a strictly heteronormative space. One of his three books futuristic books has as its protagonist a young woman, and he describes how women in the 1950’s have broken the chains of domesticity thanks to the automation of household chores, much like the washing machine revolution in real life. Universities are open to women, as are all professions and even the military. Women have cast off their long dresses of yesteryear and are now wearing mini skirts or trousers, and they are seen walking about unchaperoned, smoking, debating and interacting in society.
Of course much of Robida’s writing was still badly stuck in a Victorian age, and for every far-seeing extrapolation, there is a quaint throwback to the 19th century. Armies charge battles on bicycles and there are still knights in armour on the battlefield. Duelling is still a thing in society, and is carried out with sword and rapier (even if women are now the duellers). There’s also the ever-present 19th century optimism of what something like electricity will be able to accomplish. In Robida’s future scientists are controlling the weather, building artificial continents and even moving planets around.
This futurism is on display in The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola mainly in regards to the standing of women in society: the general of the army of Siam is a woman, and the army has female soldier – although in the film this is regarded as an anomaly and is the cause for some mirth among Farandola’s men. However, even as the smirk over the female soldiers, no-one questions Mysora’s standing as an unofficial leader and hero among Farandola’s crew. Otherwise the film is firmly rooted in its late 18th century origins, which is why the odd bits of technology here and there gives it that distinct retro-futuristic feel we associate so strongly with Jules Verne.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola. (Le avventure straordinarissime di Saturnino Farandola). 1913, Italy. Directed by Marcel Perez & Luigi Maggi. Written by Guido Volante. Based on a novel by Albert Robida. Starring: Marcel Perez, Nilde Baracchi, Alfredo Bertone, Filippo Castamagna, Oreste Grandi, Luciano Manara, Felice Minotti, Armando Pilotti, Norina Rasero, Dario Silvestri, Luigi Stinchi, Vittorio Tettoni. Cinematography: Ottavio de Matteis. Art direction: Decoroso Bonifanti, Enrico Lupi. Produced by Arturo Ambrosio for Società Anonima Ambrosio.