August 18, 2010

Aphrodite, Goddess of Love

1958 film
directed by Mario Bonnard
written by Alberto Manca, Mario Bonnard, Sergio Leone, Mario di Nardo, Ugo Moretti

I was only able to find a crappy VHS print with so-so subtitles, so let me see if I've got this right.... The unseen Emperor Nero wants to build a new canal in Corinth, so he outsources the job to an equally erratic regent named Antigono (Ivo Garrani), who decides the best way to do the job is to evacuate and burn down a stretch of farmlands. His soldiers pull the people out of their rightful homes and "compensate" them with some loose change, all the while raising their taxes and enslaving anyone who complains. Some things happen and it all leads to a famine and plague which cuts through the class divisions, all of which is blamed on the token targets of Roman persecution: the Christians. In other words, it's a token B knockoff of previous successes like FABIOLA and QUO VADIS, with your star-crossed romance, depraved dictator, soldiers up and down the streets, big crowds, and Christians being burned on stakes that the poorly aligned trick shots fully reveal are actually about 10 feet behind the flaming pyres.

What sets this apart is that it's largely told through the point of view of two women. Lerna (Isabelle Corey), the daughter of a priest, is captured and enslaved when her town of uprooted farmers launches a brutally suppressed riot. While in the slave quarters, she befriends the striking Diala (Irene Tunc), a daughter of lavish wealth who was sold into slavery when her father was screwed out of everything he owned. As time goes by and circumstances change, they stick together. Lerna stays quiet and hidden, dividing time between her daily duties and evening trips to the hidden caves where her people hold their ceremonies. Diala, the ultimate femme fatale, uses her beauty, shrewd intelligence, and a seductive dance (check out the obvious ballet double when they cut to the wide shots) to charm her way up the political food chain, becoming the favorite of one slave master after another, and then the concubine and eventual second wife of Antigono himself. Even then, Lerna is by her side as her most trusted servant.

Ah, but where would we be without conflict as the inevitable man comes between them. Demetrio (Anthony Steffen) is a master sculptor prized by both the people and their rulers. Commissioned to make a sculpture of the primary local goddess, Aphrodite, Demetrio finds his model in the form of Diala. But even as his skilled hands shape the luscious curves of her body in stone, he finds his attention drawn elsewhere for the face ... to the innocent and soulful gaze of Lerna. Diala is spurned, Lerna faces a choice, Demetrio begins the process of conversion, Antigono doesn't like any of this, yada yada. You can see where it goes from here.

This is not a bad movie, but nor is it a good one. The story is cliched up the wazoo, but decently executed with bonus points for a bit of a different approach. And there's solid moments in there, like Lerna's father being pelted with stones by the people he's trying to save from a massacre of their own making, or the reveal of the divide within Demetrio's sculpture, or the quiet way the plague works up the food chain, or the rise and fall of Nero taking place entirely off screen as we see how it affected peripheral territories, or the great character of Tomoro (John Kitzmiller), a warrior slave who gradually becomes a big brother of sorts to both women, leaving him with a tough choice by the time the climax rolls around.

But it's just so "been there, done that". FABIOLA hit theaters in 1949, and this was only one of countless toga epics which followed, and there's nothing there to set it apart. The story? As I said, the approach is interesting, but it constantly drops into the same old beats. The acting? There wasn't a bad performance in the flick, but nothing jumped off the screen. I've never seen any of these actors before and I can't say any of them were memorable enough that I'd recognize them a second time around. The direction? Basic workman style, with flat shots and tired staging. Visuals? The stock studio costumes and sets are as impressive as ever, as are a few quick crowds, but it's just so lifelessly filmed. The music? Rousing at the right time and romantic when needed, but forgettable.

I think that's the best word right there: forgettable. Though the writing has a decent flourish now and then, this is nothing more than a B effort to capitalize on the toga fever that was sweeping the A marquees. In the end, everything in this film has been done better elsewhere and not a single element rises above the average. No need to bother.


(internet movie database)

1 comment:

Anthony Williams said...

As you said there were no shortage of these toga flicks during the era. What film was responsible for launching the fad?