Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Ancient Rome, around 64 AD. A Roman commander, Marcus Vinicius, returns after the campaign in Britain, and falls in love with a slave girl, Lygia, who was adopted by a Roman couple. However, Lygia is a Christian, and Marcus is frustrated by her religion. When he wants to take her by force, she disappears, and he spots her during a mass in the open, When emperor Nero burns Rome, Marcus runs to help Lygia and Christians from the fire. In order to find a scapegoat, Nero blames Christians for the fire, and has them arrested and killed in the area by lions, whereas Peter is crucified upside down. Marcus, now converted to Christianity, manages to save Lygia and turn the mob against Nero, who flees and commits suicide. Now married, Marcus and Lygia leave Rome.
Hollywood films about Ancient Rome around the time of early Christianity were a dime a dozen in the 50s, and a good deal of them feels stiff and dated by today's standards. Among those which fare a little better is Mervyn LeRoy's "Quo Vadis", the adaptation of eponymous Polish novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, that managed to find a good balance despite its obvious pro-Christian bias and historical inaccuracies. The (Christian) characters are rather stiff, bland and rigid, since their religion was too forcefully imposed as something theatrically idealistic and perfect, including the main hero, Marcus, who undergoes a transition from a Roman commander to a Christian convert after falling in love with a Christian girl, and thus the majority of the wit (inadvertently) comes from the undisputable highlight of the film, emperor Nero, played by brilliant Peter Ustinov, since his comic antics and dialogues with his servant Petronius still feel fresh and alive today, including several great moments where he has a field day (one of the highlights is when Petronius cynically lies that Nero's awful verses are "worthy of Virgil, Ovid and Homer, but not fo Nero"; the scene where Nero is trying to squeeze a tear from his eyes to put them in a glass as "proof" that he mourned after Petronius).
Ustinov's performance was so effective that Nero widely stayed remembered as a madman and arsonist for decades after the film, even though historical records show the opposite, that he probably did not start the fire of Rome, and used his own guards to help the wounded. Several details manage to lift up the film from its predictable, standard construction (one of them is a slave who is shaving Marcus' back with a sickle in the bath scene) and the stunts in the arena are impressive and dangerous, since they displayed lions interacting with real people and a man holding a bull by his horns. Also, a couple of famous actors have a cameo of only a couple of seconds (Bud Spencer, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor). "Quo Vadis" seems rather pompous today, yet still managed to ensure a rather universal message of little people surviving during the times of troubles thanks to their sprituality and devotion.