Saturday, March 22, 2008

QUO VADIS (1951)

In the year 67, with Nero (Peter Ustinov) as Emperor of the Roman Empire, great commander Marcus Viniciuis (Robert Taylor) returns triumphantly to Rome from the wars. While staying temporarily with retired general Plautius, he gets the hots for the family's adopted daughter (and former slave girl) Lygia (Deborah Kerr). When Paul of Tarses arrives, supposedly as a philosophy teacher, we know he's really a Christian and that Plautius' entire family has converted to the outlaw religion. As a favor to Marcus, Nero has Lygia forcibly taken away and put in Nero's "House of Women," then given as a gift to Marcus. For some reason, Lygia resents this treatment and her Christian friends help her escape. Soon Marcus and Lygia meet up again and though her faith freaks him out, they wind up in love. In his insanity, Nero, who has a habit of singing his own irritating songs constantly, has Rome put to the torch in order to build a new city (Neropolis, he proposes). When the teeming homeless mob invades his palace grounds, he has word spread that it was the Christians who burned the city. He takes as many of them as he can prisoner (including Lygia, Marcus, Plautius, and the apostle Peter) and throws them to the lions in a giant Coliseum show to entertain the masses. Marcus, who has converted and gone through a marriage ceremony to Lygia, manages to have word sent to General Galba to come to take over for the nutcase Nero. Soon the Praetorian Guard has revolted and Nero is left to kill himself, though it takes the will of a slave girl, who loves Nero, to get him through this final act.

Based on a popular novel (which had previously been made into a silent film), the plotline is very similar to that of DeMille's SIGN OF THE CROSS. I had always assumed that Charles Laughton in that film was the definitive Nero, but Peter Ustinov is better. He plays the emperor as a gaping, addled, man-child and, though the performance almost goes over the top at times, he is always fun to watch, and in the end, unable to deliver a final suicidal blow without assistance, he almost seems tragic. British actor Leo Genn is just as good as Ustinov in the less showy role of the poet Petronius, Nero's closest advisor, who clearly holds Nero in great contempt, but can manipulate him with his wit and wordplay. A highlight of the film is listening to Petronius, who knows it's just a matter of time before Nero has him killed, compose a letter telling Nero how bad his songs and poems are. Boxer Buddy Baer is Ursus, a Christan strongman who battles a bull in the arena to save Lygia. Patricia Laffan is quite good as Nero's wife who lusts after Marcus and threatens Lygia with torture. The sets are spectacular (it was filmed at the famous Cinecitta Studios in Rome, where the recent HBO series "Rome" was filmed) as are the costumes, and some of the effects, such as the burning of Rome and the upside-down crucifixion of Peter, are quite well done.

Unfortunately, the main narrative thread, the romance of Marcus and Lygia, is tedious, Kerr is bland, and Taylor is terrible. He's not so much wooden as pedestrian or even amateurish. He pronounces "pleasures" as "play-shures" and "lashes" as "lay-shus." He overacts sometimes and underacts other times. He is sturdy and good looking, but never becomes anything but a Hollywood prettyboy uncomfortably stuffed into a period piece. This does not ruin the movie, as there is a lot more happening besides this plotline, but it does make the picture's running time of almost three hours feel like three hours. The title ("Where are you going?") comes from a line during an odd scene when Peter and his twelve-year-old assistant (?) are on the road; Peter asks God for guidance and God speaks through the boy, telling Peter to go back to Rome--where, of course, he winds up crucified! It looks like a DeMille film, but it makes me appreciate DeMille's sense of pomp and commercial artistry. See it for Genn and Ustinov. [TCM]

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