On 11 November 1895, Filoteo Alberini (1865–1937) applied for a patent on an early device, the Alberini Kinetograph, and between 1909 and 1916, the Italian silent cinema represented a major force in world cinema before the hegemony of Hollywood was firmly established, with major production centers in Turin, Rome, Naples, and Milan. Alberini produced the first feature film with a complex plot— La Presa di Roma ( The Taking of Rome , 1905)—which was based on a patriotic theme, the annexation of the Eternal City in 1870 to the new Italian republic. The next year, CINES, a major production company, was founded, and it rapidly allowed Italian silent films to capture an enormous international market share for a brief period. While Italian silent films reflected a variety of genres, including Roman costume dramas, adventure films, comedies, filmed drama, even experimental or avant-garde works by the Futurists, there is little question that the success of the costumed film set in classical antiquity was responsible for much of the industry's early success. Italy's Roman past, the wealth of classic ruins and grandiose monuments all over Italy, the favorable climate and natural light of the peninsula, plus the relatively low labor costs for huge crowd scenes, all encouraged on-location shooting of costume dramas and interior scenes with lavish neoclassical decors. Important works in this epic vein include Gli Ultimi giorni di Pompeii ( The Last Days of Pompeii , 1908) by Luigi Maggi, Quo Vadis? (1913) by Enrico Guazzoni, and the silent cinema's most famous epic by Giovanni Pastrone (1883–1959), Cabiria (1914), whose majestic treatment of the Second Punic War introduced the use of the dolly into cinematic practice, influenced D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), and subsequently inspired many neomythological or peplum films, a staple export item of the Italian industry in the 1950s and 1960s.
In addition to historical epics and filmed versions of themes taken from drama, opera, and history, the Italian cinema quickly developed the star system (the diva ), a development that naturally led to an increased use of close-ups to convey passionate emotions. Italian femme fatales such as Lyda Borelli in Ma l'amor mio non muore ( But My Love Won't Die! , 1913) by Mario Caserini, Maria Carmi in Sperduti nel buio ( Lost in the Dark , 1914) by Nino Martoglio, and Francesca Bertini in Assunta Spina (1915) by Gustavo Serena, set an international standard for melodramatic passion. The most memorable male lead was the muscular former dockworker and taciturn protagonist of Cabiria , Bartolomeo Pagano (1878–1947), whose character in that film, Maciste, spawned numerous subsequent imitations that often changed Cabiria 's classical setting. For example, Maciste became an Italian soldier during World War I in Maciste alpino ( Maciste the Alpine Soldier , 1916), a modern tourist in Maciste in vacanza ( Maciste on Vacation , 1920), a detective in Maciste policioho ( Maciste the Detective , 1917), and even a visitor to Dante's Inferno in Maciste all'inferno ( Maciste in Hell , 1926) by Guido Brignone, which included memorable special effects and tinted colors to represent the punishments of Hell.
During the silent period, the cinema also attracted the critical attention of key Italian intellectuals. The avant-garde Futurist movement devoted a Futurist manifesto to cinema in 1916, calling for this new art form to avoid the slavish imitation of other art forms and to concentrate on its novel and innovative visual effects (exactly the opposite of what the industry actually did, since it privileged literary adaptations). Some Futurist short films were produced. Other popular writers, such as Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863–1938), who provided the intertitles for Cabiria , or Nobel Laureate and playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936), who wrote a famous novel about a movie camera operator and worked to film a number of his successful plays, helped to bring respectability to this upstart art form that had only recently emerged from the atmosphere of the circus and vaudeville show. After World War I, American and European competition almost destroyed the Italian industry completely, forcing production to drop from 220 films in 1920 to less than a dozen works in 1927, just before the introduction of the talkies.