The blind poet Homer, of whom little is known, wrote The Odyssey and The Iliad in archaic Greek. His two fundamental works, because they the foundations of all Western narrative, still seduce screenwriters and filmmakers today. Through the images, in general with little success, they reconstruct a dark age. The origins of the so-called Western civilization, our civilization, our culture, especially the Mediterranean culture.

The first adventure novel

It is widely known that The Odyssey is the first adventure novel and that its protagonist, Odysseus (Ulises for Latins), is the first adventurer, with admirable astuteness and inexhaustible energy. Ulysses travels the Mediterranean Sea, overcoming the dangers with which he runs into, or in which he falls hopelessly, when he tries to return after the Trojan War to his island. To his lands, of which he is the king and to his family who left long ago.

A 15th century manuscript of the Odyssey, British Museum.

In Ulysses, in The Odyssey, they were inspired, or rather copied piece by piece, were the screenwriters of the 1954 Italo Franco Americana cinematographic co-production, Ulises, under the direction of Mario Camerini. A producer who was more than experienced, neither before nor after, would direct another such outstanding work. And his film caused a sensation among the public around the world.

In Italy it was the highest grossing film of the season. Not only because Kirk Douglas, already a well-known actor, played the character of Ulysses; or because Penelope, his faithful and patient wife, was the famous Silvana Mangano, who unfolded in the character of the captivating Circe. Nor because the emerging actress, Rossana Podestà, in the role of Nausicaa, dazed us with her beauty, or because the role of her father, Antinoo, was of Anthony Quinn, always solid in appearance and interpretation. But it was because the genius of the old Homer. The adventures of the old Odysseus, at least evolve from the book and through the magic of cinema, they reached the general public.

Whether due to the demands of the narrative summary, or to avoid the production budget increasing, the fact is that the writers changed the order of the original story. They suppressed some episodes, modified others, of course keeping, the essence of the epic and genuine struggle of the character Ulysses. Overcoming the successive dangers that the gods sent him again and again, they were determined that he never reach Ithaca, his island.

Cinecittà Studios

In other words, the film does not begin with the meeting held by the gods of Olympus at the end of the Trojan War, as narrated by Homer’s First Song, but with the sequence of the wife of Ulysses and his son Telemachus. They lament the long absence of a husband and father of whom they know nothing since he left for that war with the army of Menelaus. It is an interior scene, to use cinematographic terminology, shot in the Cinecittà studios, in Rome, where the rest of the scenes that did not require being in the open air would be filmed.

The use of the great film studios of Rome were established to film the films that would be known under the generic name of “peplum“, referring to those set in Classical, Greek or Roman times, intended for the general public.

Sets at Cinecittà. Photographies by Carole Raddato and Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

In a second sequence outdoors, the princess Nausícaa, who lives far from Ithaca, on the island now known as Corfu, will find Ulysses unconscious, lying on sand on the beach. He is a castaway and has lost the companions with whom he sailed. He has lost his memory, and he does not know what his name is. But soon after, already in the arms of the princess and with his eyes on the Mediterranean Sea, he will begin to remember the adventures lived.

The first to be told and that we will see will be the confrontation with Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant. He will deceive him to save himself and also his companions after getting drunk with the wine they have just distilled. He blinds it with the tip of a stick hardened by fire.

Vestibolo del Polifemo in the Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily.

So the film goes from flash-back to flash-back, developing the most entertaining episodes of the Homeric work. Deliberately stopping in some of them, as in the case of the passionate love between Ulysses and the magician Circe who live on the island Eea. It is located more or less in the western Mediterranean, on the shore of the Italian Lazio region, or so those who know about mythology say.

Our sea appears again and again throughout the film, in the calm of the luminous blue and in the threatening greys of the furious waves, becoming one more protagonist

Ulysses and his friends will also be seen sailing in the middle of the storm. He is tied to the mast to bear the sound of the evil and yet charming songs of the sirens while his companions, tied to the oars, cover their ears with wax so as not to steer the boat towards the pointed rocks of the coast.

Our sea appears again and again throughout the film, in the calm of the luminous blue and in the threatening greys of the furious waves, becoming one more protagonist, because it provides and protects attracting mythology of men and women, of demigods and great gods and goddesses, live through all the first mumblings of the narrative, transformed into Cinema.