Gladiator 

It is A.D. 180 Germania refuses to accept the rule of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of the Roman Empire. As soldiers await their orders in the cold, blue morning, General Maximus surveys them in their formations; the respect felt by the soldiers for Maximus is palpable, and their loyalties are as fierce as the general's tenderness for his men. Moments before the initial battle scene in director Ridley Scott's (G.I. Jane) latest effort, Maximus eases the tensions of his men: "Imagine where you will be and it will be so." After the war campaign, Maximus plans to return to his wife and son waiting at his farm. It's a poetic and prophetic line, especially in light of the magnificently shot carnage that follows.

Of course, since Gladiator is an epic film decrying the spoils of Rome on the cusp of its days of bread and circuses, Maximus will fall a long way before he gets home. But in the remarkable story by David Franzoni (Amistad), who traded off scribe duties with John Logan (Any Given Sunday) and William Nicholson (Shadowlands), the fall of Maximus raises an empire and its people. The script bears resemblance to the influences of its three rather disparate contributors, but the result is far from incoherent or unbalanced. Rather, their individual stamps are felt in various levels of intensity via the sharply realized conflict between Maximus (Russell Crowe, The Insider) and the man-child, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, Clay Pigeons), who tries to destroy him.

At the heart of Gladiator is the struggle of Maximus, a simple man of vast stores of integrity. His strongest traits -- "wisdom, justice, fortitude, temperance" -- are listed by the sneering Commodus when his father, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) announces that he is handing the throne to Maximus, not Commodus, the heir apparent. Aurelius, a man who knows he is dying, is an emperor who questions the time during his rule that he spent warring and, faced with his mortality, worries about the future of Rome. It is no accident that Commodus' chief virtue is ambition. What else can drive a man who would smother his father to death in an embrace?

None of the emotional exposition given for Commodus is extraneous. Rather, his actions define the obstacles he constructs for Maximus, who keeps overcoming them. Commodus' every act of brutality is the plea to be loved. His fate, however, is to be shunned or misunderstood by those he needs most: his distant father, who never loved him as much as he loved Maximus; his sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), once romantically involved with Maximus; and the masses of Rome, whose deafening cheers for Maximus in the Colosseum command that Commodus give his thumbs up to spare his tenacious and courageous adversary.

Without an actor of Crowe's forceful precision, Maximus would be ordinary. Crowe, who only recently was seen as Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, is among that echelon of actors who transform from the inside out in every role. In each role he's been seen, Crowe has defined his speech, demeanor, and physicality so honestly as to create a pulsing being. His Maximus is a great man, and even his one flaw -- honesty -- is great. His honesty accounts for his sarcastic acceptance of the cheers he receives after his first gladiator fight and for his mistrust of Lucilla, who tries to win his friendship after his fallen station.

Gladiator is the kind of film that commands our respect and close attention. This is not an extravaganza being called an epic to justify a budget. Every element pulls up the film. The story and dialogue are compelling by psychological accuracy. The visual beauty reins in our awe at capturing what illustrations in history books can't. Long though Gladiator may be, no static moment exists that is not written as a scene to catch the narrative breath, as it were, from the raw kinetics that propel a lion's share of the film.

Scenes of striking visual symbolism make seeing the film in a theater imperative. A climactic fight scene between Maximus and Commodus not only foreshadows the outcome but also reveals the inherent difference between the two men. Commodus, a petulant man, kills out of sport and entertainment (his father had banned the gladiator fights that he reintroduces to the masses); Maximus, a wise man, kills out of necessity. Even as a gladiator he is able to lead his fellow men to do what is right. So imagine the beauty of a scene in which the sand of the arena is strewn with red rose petals resembling blood drops. From beneath a shell of soldiers' shields that suggest a coffin, a white-dressed Commodus and a dark-attired Maximus rise ready to finish each other's stories. (R) Rating: 9

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