Although I’ve read a lot and spoken a little bit about this film, I’ve never actually sat down and watched it. So last week, I finally made the time (across two evenings – they don’t make films with that epic spread any more). It turned out to be a surprisingly appropriate film for Lent, because of the significant role played by the early Christian church in the narrative; it also finally made the chariot race in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum make sense! But I now have a better understanding of why Quo Vadis has remained one of the touchstones for classical reception in film, besides its comparatively early production date.
A couple of things about the film surprised me. Although I’d been prepared for it, the way Peter Ustinov played Nero for laughs but then moved the character into a darker and more dangerous place came as a shock. The clowning buffoonish character was sustained throughout the film, ending with a surprisingly heightened emotional scene when Nero had to rely on his spurned lover Acte to help him commit suicide before the mob who have broken into the palace find him. There are moments that are funny despite themselves – “Tigellinus! My robe of grief,” Nero utters as he is about to begin his musical performance over burning Rome, which he has had torched so he can sing convincingly about the fall of Troy. The film clearly aims to show how the spoilt and indulged emperor is abusing his authority, and thus why his fall is justified, but the pantomime aspects sit at odd with the portentous voiceover at the start of the film which labels Nero the antichrist. (I know that label forms part of the historical record and that Christian texts identify Nero in this way, but I wasn’t expecting to hear it in a 1950s introduction.)
The second thing that I was surprised by, and (if I am honest) rather annoyed by, was the relative unimportance of Seneca to the plot and the introduction of the Petronius romance subplot. I have no issues with Petronius having an important role, and with his death being a set piece – after all, it is in Tacitus. I do have issues with the joint suicide of Seneca and his wife Paulina being attributed to Petronius and a slave girl. (Yes, I know Nero’s soldiers saved Paulina from actually dying, the point stands.) It seems to me that Seneca is criminally underused, standing in for ‘template senatorial toady’ who wishes he could resist Nero as Petronius bravely does. Petronius gets to be a creative maverick who can take risks with what he says to Nero, but who unwittingly plants the idea for setting fire to Rome in his mind. Seneca could have been, well, anything – a tutor trying unsuccessfully to bring his charge back to the lessons of his youth; a cynic hardened to the inevitable outcomes of the emperor’s whims despite his philosophy; an optimist who imperils himself through trying to speak Stoicism as Petronius speaks Art. But no, he gets relegated to Standard Representative Of The Senate, thoroughly sidelined, and has parts of his story nicked and given to Petronius to boot. Colour me unimpressed.
The fact that I can complain about this, however, does indicate that the writers clearly knew their sources to be able to appropriate Seneca’s suicide in the first place. There are plenty of similar examples in the script. St. Peter is given the opportunity to repeat great chunks of the Sermon on the Mount. The famous bon mot that it would be more convenient if the Roman people only had one neck, as then they could all be killed at once, is attributed to Nero, but actually comes down to us as something said by Caligula. A slave stands behind Marcus Vinicius as he celebrates his triumph, holding his golden wreath and repeating pointedly ‘remember you are a man’. It’s a really interesting case of a film where the producers and writers have decided that historical accuracy is important, but have not been too fussed about where the snippets of historical accuracy have been fitted in.
As I said, the emphasis on Christianity came as something of a surprise, less because of the fact it was there, and more because of how it was there. I think I was expecting something more along the lines of Ben-Hur, where the narrative of corrupt Rome versus moral Christianity is played out implicitly, with Jesus’ crucifixion being a tangential event that nonetheless has a great impact on the protagonist. I certainly wasn’t expecting to see both Saint Paul and Saint Peter in person (the latter in suspiciously clean white robes at all times), and given a good amount of screen time, culminating in Peter’s crucifixion. The depiction of the underground church movement, the small households that follow Christianity, the mix of class that the religion facilitates, and the practical Christian ethics the film depicts (for instance, Lygia nursing Marcus Vinicius after a head wound despite the fact he is trying to capture her and take her home as his ‘hostage ward’), the innocent Christians in the arena singing hymns as they die – all these moments create a picture of early Christianity that is heavily idealised but also intensely appealing.
This wouldn’t be one of my reviews without a brief comment on sexuality and gender in the film, the most disturbing element of which was the way that Lygia appeared convinced that the brash and brutish Marcus does in fact have a heart of gold, and that by loving him she will be able to save him. This is exactly the sort of narrative that perpetuates abusive relationships, that if the abused person just sticks with it, the abuser’s better nature will be revealed, and it’s very much in keeping with a 1950s gender agenda. However, the film isn’t without its more subversive gender elements (besides Poppaea sensuously stroking her pet leopards). I was particularly struck by the scene where Nero is panicking after the mob have burst into the palace during the fire, and is looking for people who will die for him. The scene takes on a homoerotic tinge as his court both seek to demonstrate their love for their emperor and also avoid being thrown to the mob; the language of the scene repeatedly uses the words ‘love’ and ‘die’ in the same context, bringing to mind la petite mort. I’d like to think this is a subtle but deliberate way of further signalling Nero’s failure to grasp the seriousness of his situation, or of commenting on the erotic power relations operating within his court.
Either way, it’s a splendid film which has no shame in being outrageously lavish and spectacular (as the various scenes of Christians in the ampitheatre testify, inter alia); make time in your schedule to settle down with it.