Friday, April 26, 2013


Around the year 300, the emperor Maximium, in the midst of a crackdown on Christians, surrounds himself with African protectors rather than the traditional Praetorian guards, who might be too sympathetic to the Christians to trust completely.  The slave Vibio attacks one of the Africans in the streets after witnessing an escaped slave get his hands cut off as punishment. Before Vibio can be harmed, he is bought by Claudius, a Roman patrician. He has a daughter, the saucy Fabiola, and a niece, the more demure Agnes. Agnes is "dating" Valerio but seems to be sweet on Sebastian, so the jealous Valerio has Corvino, head of the Emperor's secret police, spy on her. One night, posing as a cripple, Corvino follows her to a mass meeting at a villa and finds out that she and Sebastian are secret Christians, as is Vibio. Against her better judgment, Fabiola helps Agnes and the others hide, and begins to fall for Vibio. Soon, however, most of the Christians are exposed and rounded up to be slaughtered in the arena, forced to run across the arena to provide practice for gladiators with spears. Vibio leads some men in an attempt to break into the arena from the catacombs beneath, but will they make it time?

Though marketed as a sword-and-sandal beefcake epic, this Italian film is actually an unofficial remake of DeMille's SIGN OF THE CROSS—officially it's a version of a novel called Fabiola—and not a bad one at that. It's well filmed and has spectacular sets, good use of color, and a compelling (if familiar) narrative. The only name star here is Rhonda Fleming (as Fabiola) and, though she's a smidge too old for the part, she still shows some star power. Though the film is definitely not in the Hercules/Goliath/Machiste mold of Italian action movies of the era, there is still a fair amount of male pulchritude on display, especially from the handsome Lang Jeffries (pictured at right, at the time married to Fleming) as Vibio and Burt Nelson as the muscled Christian Catulo. There is also whipping and torture and some bloody spearing. Serge Gainsbourg, better known in Europe as a singer, songwriter, and father of Charlotte Gainsbourg, is fine as Corvino. The events of the movie are based loosely on actual events during the reign of Diocletian—the African guards, the martyrdoms of Sebastian (with arrows) and Agnes—and I'm not sure why they used a fictitious name for the Emperor. Overall, I quite liked this, despite 1) the fact that everyone's dialogue is post-dubbed; and 2) the occasional bizarre line, as when Fleming, upon seeing her father's new mechanical clock, says, "This is the limit!" See it in widescreen. [Netflix streaming]

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