directed by Alessandro Blasetti
based on the novel by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman
written by Alessandro Blasetti, Mario Chiari, Diego Fabbri, Jean-Georges Auriol, Antonio Pietrangeli, Cesare Zavattini, Emilio Cecchi, Vitaliano Brancati, Corrado Pavolini, Lionello De Felice, Alberto Vecchietti, Umberto Barbaro, Suso Checchi d'Amico, Renato Castellani
(my review of the 1854 novel, from which this is based)
Things have changed in Rome under the rule of Constantine. Laws have already been put in place outlawing the persecution of any foreign religions and word is starting to spread that the emperor is now considering a personal conversion to Christianity and will outlaw slavery itself. Some see this as the light of a new day, or as empty politics, or as something that won't have much of a profound effect at all, but many feel it's a genuine threat. Why change things? Why stir the pot? Why was the way of their fathers' day so bad?
In the middle of these events are two men. One is Senator Fabius, a wealthy patron who embraces his Christian servants and proudly dreams of a future of liberty and peace. The other is Fulvius, a prelate left in charge during an extended (and unexplained) foreign trip on Constantine's part. He wants things to stay as they were and feels the best way to change the emperor's mind is to lead a public uprising against the blooming religion. So he hatches a plan ...
Before you know it, Fabius is struck dead and Christians are not only blamed for that crime, but for further profaning the gods of Rome by using a statue as a weapon. Charges rise on both sides, and it all builds to a mass persecution culminating in the bloody arena.
This was one of, if not the, first big studio period epics made in Italy following the devastation of the war and, thanks to joint funding (and a handful of headlining stars) from France and a director already famous for epics made under Mussolini's reign, they came out of the gate hard and strong. The open air studio lots and richly textured costumes are fantastic and lively, far more so than they'd be over the years as hundreds of cheaper knockoffs would reuse them. From Fabius's gallant party, to the public streets, to a horrific arena draped with dozens of dead or dying people, everything feels both theatrical and real, as though it truly had been lived in since ancient times.
And the direction. Wow. Though his career was somewhat marred by his propagandist efforts, Blasetti is a genuinely gifted filmmaker who creates lyrical, flowing scenes. Take, for instance, the introduction of Fabiola, the title character and daughter of Fabius who I'll explore in a moment. First glimpsed while sleeping freely on a beach, almost like a gift the heavens just birthed to us, Fabiola (played by the instantly captivating Michèle Morgan), is next seen in a garden, standing so perfectly amongst statues that it's not until she moves that we know she's not one of them.
And he sure doesn't skimp on the action. As I've mentioned, the big climax in the arena is an absolute carnival of carnage. People nailed to beams, burned or flayed alive, screaming as packs of lions set in. It's brutal, it's shocking, it's perfectly photographed, but what's most important is that it's meaningful. This isn't violence that's supposed to make us smile in glee as we hand over our bucks for a ticket to exploitation, it's something that genuinely makes us cringe, makes us question in anger how it's come to this, makes us wince for the people we've come to know over the last hour. And as heroes take up the weapons of gladiators for a final fight, the well-choreographed struggle feels like a real last proud act of desperation instead of the trope it would become.
As I've stated on this site before, I'm not a fan of Cardinal Wiseman's original novel, which I found to be naive, generalistic, and just plain stupid in its views. Here, Blasetti and his squadron of writers, among whom were the top talents of the time, really made the material sing. While it does establish many Swords & Sandals tropes and it veers even farther from the historical record than Wiseman's misinterpretation, it makes for an altogether stronger story. Here, it's not a world where all Christians are good and all Pagans are bad, it's all about genuine humans and politics and resources and the personal threat one feels when they're told what they believe is wrong.
Let's look at a pair of characters that make things more ambiguous. In the book, Fulvius was a loving father, but his drunken partying and Pagan ways made him lazy and thoughtless. Here (ably played by Michel Simon), he still throws back many a drink and stages one hell of a party, but his robust speeches against greed and tyranny are in interesting, colorful, real contrast against his own appearance as a well-fed man lounging on a throne with a rich little dog in his arms. Another is Sira, played by Elisa Cegani. While the Fabiola of the books had two opposing servants, one a kind and penitent Christian, the other a backstabbing occultist, here they're masterfully combined into a single individual. Sira starts as a soothsaying Egyptian who casts bad fortunes and accusations at people she simply doesn't like, but she later starts doubting herself when she's confronted by the genuine innocents her words have condemned. Though she largely disappears in the second half, it's a great setup and fully represents the more complex and mature take these people have on the material.
Which then brings us to Fabiola. As in the book, she starts out a bit of a rich snob who eventually comes to understand and care for the repressed minority. The interesting change is that she no longer converts just to be closer to a Christ she suddenly believes in. No, it's more that her youthful naivete is crushed by her father's death and she finds herself questioning the intentions of the people she thought were her father's friends, especially when they start using his murder as a symbol for ideas the man would valiantly oppose in life.
Even then, the characters who do fully represent the opposing dynamics of the book are really nicely handled. Sebastian (the handsome but largely forgettable Massimo Girotti) is a public leader in the army and a private leader in the church, who eventually martyrs himself when ordered to persecute his own people. There, he was a largely empty character painted with such glory that he became ridiculous, but here he's been trimmed down to a supporting role, showing up just enough to make an initial presence, then going out in a genuinely moving and inspiring way that has less to do with accepting Christ as it does promoting peace and liberty.
On the other side is Fulvius, the conniving prelate left in charge of an Empire he's increasingly at odds with. We know he'll eventually suffer upon Contantine's return, but one can relate to his desire to manipulate, to work back the kingdom he now finds himself at the reins of. As played by the deliciously severe Louis Salou, what could have been a typical sneering villain is instead a man who sees the catastrophic effects such sweeping changes will have on an empire he's entirely comfortable with.
The biggest problem with the film is that they felt the need to invent a completely new character and actually make him the lead. A gladiator sent to Rome on a secret mission from Constantine (we never really find out for what), the oddly named Rual initially hides his Christianity in an attempt to get ingrained amongst Fulvius's posse. But that plot thread never really goes anywhere, so he eventually rises up as a lunkheaded leader of the Christians following Sebastian's demise. Dropping an everyman into events isn't a bad idea, but he's just so poorly glued in here and pushes all the major players back into secondary positions. Much of this plot could easily have been reworked to headline Sebastian and Fabiola without compromising their historical traditions.
And Henri Vidal's performance doesn't help. He's certainly got an impressive physique and charismatic leading man looks, but he just won't stop moving. Approaching the character of Rual as a hyperactive spaz, he's constantly flexing and bounding his way through what should be thoughtful scenes, and even kisses with the rapid smack of a woodpecker.
Probably the biggest strike against the movie, and it's genuine, is that the only version available is an English dub that's been cut by over an hour. I actually found the dub itself (written by Marc Connelly, Fred Pressberger, and Forrest Izard) to be of a much higher quality than many of the era, but hacking an entire hour out of a film is never a benefit. They struggle so hard to cover the gaps with sporadic narration, but it's not only delivered by a voice that should be accompanied by a "gee whiz" kid named Timmy who asks obvious questions, but there's a lot of obvious gaps it never even tries to cover as characters like Sira just totally drop out of the narrative or Rual goes from imprisoned to free to imprisoned to free.
The lead is a stapled-on lunkhead and the only available cut has lost an hour, but it's a rousing and watchable predecessor to the Swords & Sandals movement that's still much more thoughtful, intelligent, and just plain well made than a good majority of what followed.
(internet movie database)