Before Richard Burton was Mark Antony or Alexander the Great, he was Marcellus Gallio, who crucifies an troublesome Jewish public speaker only to be guilted into dying for the aforementioned person by his holier-than-thou slave. Gallio's slave, that is, not Jesus'. Except metaphorically.
Slavery is, obviously, a pretty big theme in this film. It resists the urge openly to declare that Christianity brought about the downfall of slavery (which it didn't, at least not until the 19th century) but it does insist in the prologue that there were more slaves than free men in Rome, which is daft (the usual estimate is around 35% of the population I think).
The prologue also introduces some of the ancient gods with, unsurprisingly, a rather disapproving tone. The gods selected are Love (represented by a statue of two people kissing), War (Ares/Mars, the statue looks Greek to me), Drunkenness (Dionysus/Bacchus) and 'huntresses' (Diana). The inclusion of 'huntresses' doesn't say much for the filmmaker's opinion of strong women, but on the other hand, the lead female character is called 'Diana' and the lead couple spend half their time on screen together kissing each other, so all in all it's sending out a bit of a mixed message there.
The opening of the film in a slave market has a rather nice, fairly realistic feel to it. A slave market is always a good place to open a story set in ancient Rome, because it highlights the similarities (salespeople sound the same everywhere) and the differences between our own world/1950s America and ancient Rome. Unfortunately, this tone is not maintained all the way through, and when the story gets to the crucifixion, the down to earth tone is completely lost. The crucifixion scene is filmed in a way that is reverent to the point of ridiculous, and it's rather jarring compared to the approachable feel of the rest of the film.
This determination to make the scenes relating directly to Jesus look somehow - churchy? spiritual? portentous? - carries through into the dialogue. This is, sad to say, completely terrible throughout, with special awfulness points going to Marcellus' anguished cry of 'I'm mad!', but whenever anyone needs to speak about Jesus or pray, they suddenly slip into the language of the King James Bible, which sounds utterly ridiculous.
Fortunately there are still some nice, more human, touches, which pulls it back from the daftness. I rather like the suggestion that Roman soldiers might be a little bit squeamish about crucifying someone for the first time, and fortify themselves with alcohol - after all, no matter how hardened you are, that's a nasty thing to have to do. Pilate's sigh that 'even my wife had an opinion' on Jesus is quite funny, and sexist in a plausibly Roman way.
I also quite like the way Tiberius' two advisers, a doctor and a soothsayer/priest, are set up as complete opposites, and in the end neither is quite right (the film obviously embraces Christian beliefs including Jesus' resurrection, the various phenomena accompanying his crucifixion and his mysterious hold over people's emotions, but at the same time it is made absolutely clear that the robe itself is not exactly magical, more symbolic - Marcellus' problems stemmed from his own guilt).
Tiberius himself is depicted as a rather benevolent old man who's exasperated by his (still living) wife and amused by extispicy. It's quite nice to see a positive portrayal of Tiberius and his concern over the political stability of the empire in the face of fanaticism is nicely drawn. But he is also at the centre of the film's determination to completely re-write Roman history, sometimes for no good reason.
Some of the historical inaccuracies are understandable - Caligula did not persecute Christians in particular, he was far too busy antagonizing the Jews, and Tiberius dies rather too soon after Jesus, but these changes keep the story moving along and ensure that Marcellus is still a young man when he goes off to matyr himself.
Augustus kicked Julia out. The film obviously didn't want to acknowledge that, as it would get in the way of the positive portrayal of Tiberius, but there seems no reason to include her at all, other than to depict her as an annoying wife who wants Caligula married to Diana.
Caligula himself is an interesting mix. The reference to him as Tiberius' heir and regent is an interesting idea and quite plausible, with Tiberius on Capri and Sejanus gone, though Caligula should be behaving better in his early scenes rather than being cross and tyrannical, as everyone liked him before he became emperor; thanks in part to his famous father, he was very popular. Although Diana calls him insane at the end, throughout the film Caligula comes across as slimy, unpleasant and high on power but not actually mad (that would require him to call himself a god, which might complicate things). This is a bit of a shame, as a story that set up the spiritual madness of a Christian holy fool (OK, a concept not popularized until the Middle Ages, but that's beside the point) and the apparent madness of the emperor would be really interesting. Instead, Marcellus stops acting mad as soon as he converts and Caligula just seems a bit like a poor man's Nero, only more sane, as he lacks any pyromania or absolute conviction of his own artistic brilliance.
There are some nice ideas here, but they're often not quite delivered convincingly. I rather like the idea of Marcellus being sent to Jerusalem as a punishment (rather like the way Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister lived in fear of being sent to Northern Ireland), though suggesting it's a death sentence is going a bit far. The idea of stories about Jesus being passed among Christians through songs and ballads is rather good, but the execution of it is not so good - the scene showing Mariam playing and singing is cheesy and vaguely nauseating to watch. I like the lack of music in the fight scene between Marcellus and Quintus, which makes it seem that much more brutal (within reason) and real, but later the film gives into temptation and produces fight music worthy of The Adventures of Robin Hood (which works fine for an adventure story, less well for something supposedly serious).
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