Reviewed by Barbara Matul-Kalamar

(US 2000) Rated R

Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed

Directed by Ridley Scott
Writing credits: David H. Franzoni

Dreamworks * 154 minutes

Back in the fifties and the sixties, movies about the Roman Empire were of a grand genre, always presented on an epic scale, with famous stars, majestic sets and thousands of extras - so much so that they still retain a certain charm decades later and always bring back nostalgic memories of the "great age of the movies".Yet when the genre is revived after forty years, one does expect more – not just to see another "true epic", but perhaps, to see it redefined/reinvented the way Clint Eastwood had done with Western in UNFORGIVEN. Otherwise, why not just re-release BEN-HUR or SPARTACUS?

GLADIATOR offers precious little reinvention. The themes of Roman movies had always been as grand as glory, honor and loyalty to ideas, and it is no different here. Unfortunately, these noble themes seem terribly archaic and outdated in our age, one that is has been increasingly oriented towards the material and individual, and placed against so historic a scenery, they do not make this brilliantly executed epic any more engaging.

Ihe cinematography is stunning, and the atmosphere is true to the subject, as is the case with most of Ridley Scott's movies: THE DUELISTS' visuals were a series of landscapes and still lifeS reminiscent of the early 19the century paintings, ALIEN was all claustrophobic dark interiors, BLADE RUNNER the ultimate film noir of perpetual rain and darkness.

GLADIATOR, as expected, has sweeping grand scale sequences, occasionally interrupted with the bleak colorless imagery of dream visions that seems to overflow into reality of Rome, all supported by a remarkable musical score that shifts perfectly between sweeping universal grandeur and lyrical ethnic themes. The movie opens with a cold, dreary setting of the fast-paced, elaborately staged battle in Germania, with snow that seems to fall upward and a victory that is made hollow as much by the setting as by the disillusionment of those who win. Just a cliche, perhaps, but isn't that what movies thrive on these days? A skillful array of cliches that has worked in the past, and we buy it, every time.

Indeed, most of what follows gives us the feeling of deja vu over and over again. Perhaps this is the reason, or it could be the fact the pace of the plot seems truly erratic at times, but one just isn't that captivated by the story. The hero, Roman general Maximus, is betrayed and nearly killed due to his loyalty to his emperor, his family is slaughtered, he is enslaved, become a gladiator, and ultimately rises against the man who is not only his personal nemesis but an evil opressive tyrant; and by settling his personal score Maxiumus saves the people/world/civilization as well; all in series of scenes reminiscent not only several Roman empire movies, but, it seems, most hero movies from IVANHOE to MAD MAX.

A significant (and predictable) difference between GLADIATOR and its fifties predecessors is the amount, or rather the depiction of, violence. From the staccato, barely seen shots combined with blurry slow motion of the opening battle ( obviously representing the "excusable" (sic) violence of war it escalates to the very graphic and at times gratuitous shots of severed limbs, slashed bodies and bashed skulls in the excessive "senseless" violence of the arena. The arena, however, is the only time this overly serious movie does reveal some wit: in the skillfully choreographed Battle of Carthage, Maximus and his gladiators not only rewrite history by winning a true David-Vs-Goliath battle, but pay a clever reverse tribute to the chariot race from BEN HUR.

All in all, our hero, Maximus, is as close to perfect as it gets. His image of the invincible long-time professional soldier is successfully underlined by Russell Crowe's expressionless face, a face, perhaps, of a man who has seen too much but nevertheless, goes on fighting because that is what is expected to do. His perfect qualities, honor and loyalty to an idea that very few apart from him still seem to believe in, are counterbalanced by his motivation: not some obvious need for personal glory , but a very human wish to finally return home to his family, his wheat fields and the sun – a wish he is nevertheless prepared to forestall when duty calls.

Maximus is a difficult character to identify with. It could be his perfection, his outdated ideals, or the fact that after this introduction the character seems to lose much of his drive. His need to revenge seems to emerge somewhat belatedly and mildly, and his final decision to stand again for the foggy "idea of Rome."

The leading (and only) female character, Lucilla, played by Connie Nielsen, a face of classic beauty somewhat reminiscent of the late Romy Schneider, seems to suffer the same fate of interesting introduction and not much development afterwards. There is of course, the obligatory romantic tension/past/interest between her and Maximus, but apart from that, she just seems to prove that there have always been strong capable women behind male figures of power, no matter how unwilling their part was. She also models a large selection of splendid Roman wardrobe.

As is often the case with too perfect a hero, the villain proves to be, if not exactly more attractive, at least more fascinating. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent, if a bit too theatrical, as the unstable, devious and cruel Commodus with an obvious self-destructing note, and who, indeed, offers an oh-so-contemporary excuse for all his wrongdoings at the very start - namely that his father had never loved him. His personal decline is brought to the extreme in his final confrontation with Maximus, where he appears in a white, seemingly decaying dust-covered armor that appears to cast reflections on his face, as if he were a statue of false purity – both a man already dead, and death itself.

But it is the performance of the charismatic movie veterans, Richard Harris and the late Oliver Reed, that simply eclipses all others, even the usually excellent Derek Jacobi (perhaps due to the weak delineation of his character, senator Gracchus). Both Harris's Marcus Aurelius and Reed's Proximo are charismatic characters per se – disillusioned, knowing that the world around them is crumbling. Marcus Aurelius is a tragic figure who questions his own motives, knowing that all the work of his life may come to nothing, and the resolute Proximo is given a second chance late in life – first at fortune and ultimately, to prove his valor.

The backdrop against which all this is played, is of course, as imposing as can be expected of old Rome, with some truly spectacular views of the Colisseum . But apart from the visual splendor, it is made clear that this is a civilization in decline. While historic facts are certainly embellished and simplified for the plot's sake, we do get a glimpse into the world of jaded corrupt politicians, an inadequate ruler and at least a mention the masses described as "mob" who will stay content and obedient as long as they are fed and entertained.

This is perhaps one of the moments in this story that makes one wonder how much the civilization has really changed for the better in the last 1500 years. Romans had "panem et circenes" in which they reveled, and we have R-rated movies on TV and shopping malls. And except for the reassuring fact that "no people are harmed during the making of the movies", I'm not really sure that it is such an improvemen.

During his gladiator days, our hero Maximus discovers over and over how easy it is to manipulate crowds when they cheer you, and still (apart form the small matter of personal revenge) he only fights for the good of the people as every true hero should. Many real life "heroes: have claimed just that, yet it ultimately turned out they were always just after power. In light of this, Maximus's death at the end is not as large a breach with movie rules as one would think: the tender-hearted may see it as a final reunion with is family in the Great Beyond, and the rest can leave the theatre assured he had no personal gain from his victory which makes him an impeccable and ultimate true hero. Only in the movies, folks. Only in the movies.

© All rights reserved, Barbara Matul-Kalamar 2000

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti except where indicated as copyright of the author. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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