There’s something terrible in Rome and he’s sitting on the throne. The nasty Emperor Nero is having trouble with his love life and the clear answer is a bit of arson. This Italian film is an intriguing epic in miniature.
This is my contribution to the Sword and Sandal Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini. Be sure to read all the other posts!
Burn, baby, burn!
Well, this is going to be fun. This is the first Italian silent film I have reviewed on this site so we are breaking new ground today.
Nero was released in 1909, around the start of what is now considered a golden age of Italian cinema. Italian filmmakers worked in a variety of genres but the nation’s cinema was most famous abroad for its detailed and awe-inspiring historical epics. Nero was directed by Luigi Maggi, who was one of the pioneering talents of this type of filmmaking.
Before we get started, I think I should mention that I am not going to be combing through the picture and mentioning every time it diverges from the historical record. I am far more concerned about how Nero works as entertainment, how it compares to other films of the period and whether or not modern audiences will enjoy it. I think we can all agree that anyone hoping to get a nuanced look at the reign of Nero by means of a one-reel short is going to be disappointed and they deserve to be.
The reign of Emperor Nero was a famously bloody one and it would be impossible to cover every intrigue and murder in a miniseries let alone a short film. The filmmakers choose to focus on two of Nero’s more infamous acts: his dumping Octavia in favor of Poppaea and the burning of Rome.
Nero uses a narrative structure that was common in the pre-feature era: the vignette. Basically, the filmmakers would assume a certain amount of viewer familiarity with the source material, be it a book, play or historical event. They would then construct a “good parts” version of that material, sacrificing a cohesive narrative in favor of stuffing in all the highlights. This was a tidy way of making sure that audiences left satisfied but it had its flaws. Obviously, anyone not familiar with the source material would be completely in the dark and only see a random collection of unrelated scenes. Title cards were usually limited to descriptions of the action to come and they would not necessarily fill in the gaps for viewers who did not already know the tale.
In the case of Nero, his fame assures that anyone with even a passing knowledge of Roman history should be able to easily follow the action. In rapid succession, Nero throws out Octavia, goes and fetches Poppaea, is persuaded to have Octavia killed and then must deal with the fallout when the people protest the death of their popular empress. Nero reacts by burning down Rome and then flees when it is clear that the people have turned against him.
The sets and performances are quite stagy (as was typical during this period) but this is not really a problem in my book. The classic topic lends itself to the stage and while the performances are certainly exaggerated, they are not over-the-top. In fact, I would say that compared to similar performances of the era, both Nero and Octavia are excellent. While the gestures are broad and clearly intended for the live stage, the performers move with grace and the acting flows very well. (Compare the awkward and unintentionally hilarious movements of The Copper Beeches, made three years later.)
The sets are equally stagy: painted walls and floorboards. They’re not going to convince anyone but I’m not sure that was really the intention. They are not large but they give an illusion of grandness and do give the appropriate flavor to the undertaking, though I must say that the scenes shot in the real outdoors are a jarring change. A relatively large number of extras add to the mini epic feel.
I guess what I am trying to communicate is that this picture is really good but you have to go in with certain expectations. This isn’t Cabiria but Cabiria built on the foundation that films like Nero laid. It’s stagy in the extreme and that’s something that viewers should accept as par for the course. In an apples to apples comparison with other films of this period and genre, Nero clearly shines.
What I like best about this film can’t really be measured. There is a swagger and confidence to the production, the actors really seem to own their characters and setting. From the lead performers to the extras, no one seems unsure of how to act, no one shows doubt as to how to walk in a bedsheet. Compare this to the anemic 1907 production of Ben-Hur from Kalem, which features a cast best described as catatonic. Okay, maybe that’s a bit mean as Ben-Hur was a frank cash grab shot on a shoestring but I feel like being mean. So there.
Nero must be viewed as a product of its time but viewers who are familiar with pre-feature film should enjoy it. There is a spark of life about it that is very appealing and the performances, though stagey, are enjoyable. A thoroughly fun mini epic and definitely worth a watch. The version I saw is only twelve minutes long so there’s little chance of the picture wearing out its welcome.
Where can I see it?
Nero was released on DVD as part of Kino Lorber’s The Movies Begin box set. The entire box is well worth the investment as a crash course in pre-feature film history.