Natural Selection


There’s more wind than light in the thunderous hokum that is Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. This gusty sub-Hong Kong action flick has been as rapturously received by some reviewers as Titanic was three years ago (“A truly great movie” per Talk magazine) and the projects are not dissimilar.

Like Titanic, Gladiator is a fearfully expensive, relentlessly high-tech revival of deeply retro material—in this case, the ancient-world epics invented by Italian filmmakers before World War I. Gladiator also comes complete with sentimental love story and otherworldly palaver. But the presence of Russell Crowe in a loincloth does not a billion-dollar triumph make. Scott misses the boat by not contriving to have his titular hero—the general-reduced-to-slave-redeemed-as-gladiator Maximus—fight his final match in old Pompeii the day Vesuvius blew its stack.

Gladiator opens well, as Roman legions mass in Germania and the great Maximus (Crowe) sets the barbarian woods on fire with a barrage of flaming arrows. The general wins the battle but loses the war, a victim of the monstrous sibling rivalry of the emperor Marcus Aurelius’s son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Thus, Gladiator picks up the spectacle of antiquity where the genre collapsed 35 years ago, with The Fall of the Roman Empire, by spinning a similar fiction around the death of the philosopher-king and the tyranny of his ignoble successor. Gladiator borrows from Spartacus as well, although the conflict here is less a matter of collective injustice than individual payback.

Marcus Aurelius, a haggard Richard Harris sounding a bit like the legendary king he played in Camelot, muses that “there once was a dream that was Rome.” Maximus agrees, even though this stalwart son of Iberia has never actually seen the seat of the empire. Marcus (who, in reality, advocated acceptance that all is change) wants the incorruptible Max to restore power to the people, but these hopes are smothered by the rejected Commodus, who sentences the general to death and for good measure massacres his family.

Taking a leisurely two and a half hours to recount the tale of Max’s betrayal, martyrdom, and vengeance, Gladiator is not the bore it might have been. But self-proclaimed “world-creator” Scott only intermittently obliterates the turgid narrative and mediocre dialogue. This revenge tragedy echoes Shakespeare and Sergio Leone but without their dramaturgy. Having killed six armed men and then passed out on his plantation, Max awakes on the other side of the Mediterranean (and seemingly several centuries in the future). Arab slave traders put him on the block and he is bought, along with his African pal (Djimon Hounsou), by Proximo (an irrepressibly hammy Oliver Reed, who died before the shooting was completed).

Scarcely more expressive than Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West, Crowe plays Max as a glowering loner. Given his uncanny ability to single-handedly dispatch half a dozen heavily armed bruisers—not to mention the odd tiger—in less than a minute without losing his breath, he might have been more entertainingly embodied by Jet Li. But then, Gladiator might have been more fun if Scott’s screenwriters had followed Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog in making their warrior a follower of the Way, meditating on such Aurelius-isms as “blot out vain pomp” and “all is ephemeral.” Max’s real guru is the sly Proximo, who coaches him in showmanship: “Win the crowd, and you will win freedom.” Thus the gladiator is ready for his close-up when Commodus reopens the Colosseum that his father shut down.

The movie’s secret producer, Commodus decrees that Rome will be entertained by nonstop death games. (It was Scott’s idea that these be punctuated by scenes of clouds streaming across the sky toward a sunburst vortex.) Phoenix plays Commodus as a flaming neurotic looking for approval even as he slavers in tongue-wagging excitement over the historical battles he’s restaging. This resident tyrant has the best lines. “My history’s a little hazy, but shouldn’t the barbarians lose the battle of Carthage?” he waspishly asks a flunky after Max scores yet another upset victory. Discovering just who this mock Carthaginian is, he petulantly whines, “Why is he still alive? It vexes me!” To add to his villainy, the naughty boy wants to have his sister Lucilla. As the sex interest in this least licentious of Roman spectaculars, stately Connie Nielsen looks properly agonized, wincing from an overapplication of glycerin to her eyes.

Scott imagines Rome as a place of sinister, Nazi-like pomp combined with suitably mad street life. It’s easy to marvel at his multimillion-dollar computer-generated aerial pans over the digital landscape. Still, Gladiator wages a lunkhead struggle against the excesses of its mise-en-scène. (The golden interiors, bluish haze, and overall lack of visual definition might have seemed bold in 1960, but, in the Scott oeuvre, the movie is far closer to 1492 or Legend than Blade Runner.) The filmmaker wants to show he can do action, but repetitively predicated on a mix of slow motion and fast cutting, the big slugfests keep Gladiator marching in place.

Will the world buy it? Some might reasonably consider Gladiator an inferior Star Wars without the cute critters. The digital animation is far more evident here than in The Phantom Menace—the fights often seem lifted from a Mack Sennett two-reeler, undercranked for comic effect. At least the scenario is self-reflexive. Proximo might be speaking for James Cameron when he explains to Max that “the power to amuse a mob” is power. Although Proximo tries to excuse himself from the final uprising, protesting that he is only an entertainer, showbiz does rule—forcing Commodus into a final fatal image war.

** From the Dream that was Rome to a Dream of Light: Nearly as long as Gladiator and almost as extravagantly praised, Victor Erice’s 1992 feature is another sort of Mediterranean epic. This is a movie about the making of a static image, an unscripted (if staged) documentary in which artist Antonio López Garcia tries to paint the quince tree in his backyard—and fails.

Recently voted the best film of the past decade by the Cinematheque Ontario’s international panel of 60 programmers and archivists, Dream of Light is an autumnal tale that marks the passing of a single season. It begins in Madrid on September 29, 1990, with López’s preparations—making a frame, stretching his canvas, setting up an easel, studying and sniffing around the quince tree. Whether or not the artist is acting, this fastidious method seems appropriate to a filmmaker like Erice, who has made but three features in as many decades.

Nothing rushes the wonderfully alert and capable López. He creates precise spatial coordinates, first in the yard and then on his canvas. He uses white paint-marks to place the tree and its fruit. Other work goes on around him—some Polish laborers are renovating the apartment building. (At one point, they help the artist construct a shelter around his setup.) A colleague, the loquacious Enrique Gran, drops by to reminisce with López about their art-school days. The weather changes. Occasionally, Erice’s camera tilts up to reveal a larger world. Meanwhile, the radio reveals historic doings in the Soviet Union and Persian Gulf. Throughout, López (a sort of painterly postimpressionist) keeps his eyes on the tree, working until he abruptly switches medium. He can no longer paint the tree but only draw it. The October light has become too erratic.

Sketching now in a chilly wind, López tells some foreign visitors that “the best part is being close to the tree.” Whatever the artist’s motivations, Erice is illustrating the notion articulated in André Bazin’s “Ontology of the Photographic Image” that the visual arts are an atavistic desire to arrest nature’s flux. Hence the film’s many references to copies. The old painters keep returning to the subject of a snapshot taken of them 40 years before; López has a room full of busts and life masks; his studio is dominated by a model of the Venus de Milo.

By December, the quinces have begun to fall. In the movie’s supreme gesture, López picks one and then another. Time has prevailed. He disassembles his easel, brings his drawing inside, and dismantles the shelter. Erice doesn’t end here, though. He provides a coda in which the artist’s wife, Maria Moreno—credited as the movie’s producer—poses him on a cot for her painting. (Although he might be on his deathbed, she’s painting him as a young man.) López falls asleep and Erice provides him with a dream as the camera, seemingly alone in the garden, continues to film the tree and its decomposing fruit.

More analytical than contemplative, never less than straightforward, Dream of Light makes no showy bid for the sublime. This philosophical film blots out vain pomp in suggesting that art is the imitation of nature. Marcus Aurelius would have approved.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 2, 2000

Archive Highlights