Are you not entertained? Yes, we are.

January 29th, 2016Posted by Nancy

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Spurred by reading Mary Beard’s book about Rome, SPQR, and by memories of our tour of the Colosseum, we decided to rewatch Gladiator the other night.  Not withstanding my affection for men in period armor (with wolfskins),  the film still works.  Oh, parts of the plot don’t make any sense, Rome was apparently to be seen only through a blue haze and the geography and time frame is a bit … elastic.  It looks gorgeous, the music is perfect, the costumes are lovely and the acting is uniformly excellent.

Watching it again, I appreciated the little moments of acting grace. Crowe was perfectly cast as Maximus. He had a gift not only for the big moments but the small ones as well: the dismay in his eyes as the emperor asks him to become guardian of Rome, the way he turns his head away a little when faced with having to dissemble because, as Lucilla notes, he was never any good at it.  By the second part of the film, he rarely does it anymore, because he has nothing left to lose.  I admit that the duel scene in Cold Hillside owes two key moments to the match between Maximus and Tigris.  One is the moment of mercy and the other is Daen’s entrance to the arena.

“He walked into the courtyard, helmet under his arm, armoured in serviceable leather. There was grace there, but it was economical and solid, the confidence of a workman come to do a task without drama. He unhooked the sword across his back and let it fall to his hip then donned his helm, a curved shape of dull metal with no trace of ornamentation.
“It was theatre of its own sort, I realized. Every gesture, from stance to walk to armour, was calculated to define itself in opposition to the fey, to turn their grace and glamour into nothing but a showy reflection of his straightforward competence.”

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But the revelation of rewatching the film is Connie Nielsen as Lucilla. Crowe and Phoenix got most of the attention, but Nielsen creates a devastating portrayal of a woman who is arguably the bravest person in the story. When we first see her, she seems as shallow and corrupt as her brother.  Our first clue that she might be something else is her father’s observation “What a pity you were not born a man. What a Caesar you would have made.”  The praise suggests intelligence, resolve, and courage.  Coming from Marcus Aurelius, they could also suggest honor and compassion, but his own ambivalence to power hints at other things: cruelty, corruption, deceptiveness.

Gradually we realize that Lucilla’s perfect, regal composure is a mask she has perfected over years of survival in the imperial palace. With the death of her father, she needs all her skill to survive the attentions of her dangerous brother and to protect her son.  She risks everything to try to change the situation and the scene in which Commodus reveals that he knows of her schemes is chilling.

It was fascinating to watch her mask fall away and that beautiful composure become despair, clear in every shift of Nielsen’s expression.  The contrast between her pale, brittle face at the beginning of the film and her naked, drawn one, red-eyed from weeping, at the end is stunning.  Before the final resolution, Lucilla faces the hardest fate of anyone in the film. Maximus faces death for his rebellion but he has been waiting to die for half the film. She faces a lifetime of obedience to her needy, all-powerful brother, in which any perceived disloyalty on her part will mean the death of her son.  Maximus just has die – Lucilla has to endure.  I know which character I’d rather be.

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