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NERO

SYNOPSIS

Twilight falls over ancient Rome as the boy Nero is caught up in political machinations beyond his control during the reign of mad Emperor Caligula. With his father murdered Nero is separated from his exiled mother and sent to live as a slave on a farm. When Caligula is assassinated and Claudius crowned Emperor, Nero, now a teen, returns to a troubled Republic where he is reunited with his mother; the devious scheming Agrippina.

R1 DVD cover.

Year: 2004

Run Time: 192 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (For violence and some sexuality.)

Cast: Hans Matheson, Laura Morante, Rike Schmid, Simón Andreu, Sonia Aquino, Maria Gabriella Barbuti, James Bentley, Robert Brazil, Ian Richardson, John Simm, et al.

Director: Paul Marcus

AKA: Imperium - Nerone/ Imperium - Nero/ Nerón

Official Sites: Lux Vide (Italian); Nerone (Italian); Hans Matheson (fan site in English)

DVD Features

Anamorphic Widescreen (1.78:1)

Subtitles: English, French

Trailers: Nero, Dust to Glory, Augustus, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, Submerged, 7 Seconds, 3-Iron, Heights.

Series logo.

After watching Augustus and discovering it was part of an historical series called "Imperium" I looked forward to viewing the other installments. Alas, having finally found Nero, the second entry, on DVD I'm rather disappointed. For all Augustus' faults it at least had the distinguished talents of Peter O'Toole and Charlotte Rampling to carry it. Nero stars no one you've ever heard of, and only one face was recognizable (to me) from any TV series or movie. .

Conspiring senators.

That's Ian Richardson on the right playing Septimus. Not sure who the other guy is. Some may recognize the actor portraying Caligula. .

The master of madness, Caligula!

According to the IMDB he played The Master in BBC's new Dr. Who series. I didn't recognize him. But just because you don't know the faces doesn't mean the actors lack talent. Alas these poor artists were hamstrung by an script scribbled in excrement.

HISTORICITY

The problem with historical dramas is that history books are readily available for even the totally uninformed, or any who may be so inclined, to test the veracity of events presented by such movies. Alas most never do. Which is a shame because most historical dramas that don't get panned by the critics outright for being bad films should probably be slammed for being utter rubbish for another far more serious crime: historical inaccuracies and outright falsehoods. Then there is Nero, which manages not only both sins at once but much worse!

Nero, the movie, aside from using the names of people, places, and certain incidents bears no resemblance to established history. It presents a fictionalized account of Nero's life and events. But before we discuss the movie let us review the period and people in question: The place is Rome circa the 1st century A.D. Specifically the movie spans the reigns of Caligula (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus), and Nero (Nero Claudius Caesar).

Caligula's reign lasted roughly 4 years between A.D. 37 and 41, during which time Caligula exiled his sisters Julia Agrippina and Julia Livilla. Agrippina, exiled in 39 A.D., returned to Rome the year of Caligula's death. This is important, as is how Caligula died. In 41 A.D. Caligula was assassinated by Cassius Chaerea, a praetorian officer, who together with at least two fellow soldiers ambushed Caligula within the palace. After the deed was done the praetorians swept through the palace seeking any surviving relatives. Caesonia, Caligula's fourth wife, was stabbed to death as her baby daughter's skull was smashed against a wall. Then they found Claudius. .

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor

Claudius, who by all accounts bore such physical infirmities his family kept him out of public view, was also considered a simpleton. When the soldiers who assassinated Caligula found Claudius cowering behind a curtain it was this person, whom perhaps they thought a easily controlled fool, they crowned emperor. He reigned from 41 to 54. Nero was born in 37 A.D., which makes him four years old when Caligula died and Claudius assumed the throne. Nero was emperor from 54 to 68 and the fire he was famous for 'fiddling' during occurred in 64. This is the established history.

THE MOVIE

***Warning: May contain spoilers.***

As with Augustus this "movie" was edited from a joint Italian-British-Spanish mini-series and takes many liberties with the facts. Not that that excuses anything. According to Nero, the movie, which is very sketchy on dates, Emperor Caligula exiles his sister and sends the young boy Nero (the actor looks to be 7-9 years old) off to live on a farm in the country. Fast forward ten years and Caligula is riding a horse (WHAT?) into the senate, declaring it a senator, and is shortly thereafter lured to a brothel and assassinated by his praetorian guard. .

Assasins!

Before the body is cold a guardsman takes the crown from Caligula's head, turns. .

The emperor's crown.

As out from a curtain steps Claudius. .

Claudius

And his wife (Messalina) and children (son Britannicus, daughter Octavia) come running around the corner with Messalina urging him to accept the crown.

Roman family values.

If not for the grossly erroneous presentation of Nero's age and Caligula's length of time in office the movie presents some mildly interesting twists. For instance Nero, typically depicted as a depraved maniac, here is transformed into an naïve handsome Olympian youth. His reprobate attitude toward religion, disturbing vices (which were legion), and utter moral decay have been replaced by the sort of improbable tragic background found only in soap operas.

Nice costume.

Nero, the boy, is given a boyhood love interest in Acte. We know it's a love interest because no sooner does the young Nero meet the young Acte than the movie is fading to an older puckish Nero pranking Acte ten years later. Alas their frolics in the idyllic pagan countryside. .

Nero and Acte.

Comes to an end when soldiers arrive to take Nero to Rome, where he is reunited with his mother. What follows is, well, it's. .

ANALYSIS

Imperium: Nero could easily be dismissed as a work of trite fiction. The historical story of Nero, full of intrigue and tragedy, has here been reduced to a pallid soap opera drama. But the real question is, Was this a good movie?

Viewed as an alternate history Nero presents some interesting ideas. What if Caligula had lived longer? What if Nero had been older when his father died and witnessed his murder? (As opposed to his father dying abroad when he was an infant.) Sadly Nero was not filmed as an alternate history, which makes this a historical fantasy all the more disconnected from reality. There was some fertile ground the writers could have explored there, but they didn't.

The parts of Nero, the movie, actually about Nero, the person, plot out a dreary star crossed love story that's about as romantic as watching vultures rip apart the rotting carcass of a caribou on the History channel. The movie is a re-writing of the personal history of the young Nero that attempts to soften his maniac image in a effort to make him a more audience friendly character. This is partially achieved by adding a slave-girl love interest and glossing over, or ignoring outright, his many vices and sexual perversities.

However the real problem isn't the historical inaccuracies, rather it's a lack of narrative focus. The first 38 minutes are consumed with flashing back and forth between Nero frolicking on the farm with Acte and glimpses of Caligula. Caligula's character is not well developed and by the time he dies we are wondering why any screen time was wasted on him. Alas Nero's story does not begin here, rather the movie shifts it's focus onto Claudius. Another hour passes in which we are forced to endure a tedious re-envisioning of Claudius's life story before, finally, this movie focuses on it's titular character.

That is over an hour and a half wasted on what could have been accomplished with a montage and voice over in about 5 minutes. This movie is supposed to be about Nero, not Claudius or Caligula. I can only surmise this was meant to be two installments, one for Claudius the other for Nero, that were never completed and their footage hastily edited together. However it's not all bad. Agrippina, at least, is still the familiar overbearing mother cum conniving harridan. Then there is Messalina. .

Messalina

She serves no real purpose to the internal narrative other than to provide Claudius a few extra scenes to pad out an already bloated runtime. That said her death scene, which was rather interesting if you know her history, lacked impact due to poor character development. Then that's my main gripe with this "movie", the characters, and their back stories, are all woefully underdeveloped.

What's amazing is even after the movie finally shifts it's focus to Nero it's still really not a about Nero. There is an attempt at a Christian persecution subplot ala The Sign of the Cross or Last Days of Pompeii involving Paul of Tarsus. In effect Nero is merely the loose thread used to weave together a series of otherwise unconnected plot arcs. The result is an mind-numbing half-assed historical fiction lacking action, suspense, or drama (boring an audience does NOT count as dramatic effect).

CONCLUSION

Compared to Augustus, which also took liberties with historical events and was sluggish, Nero is not just a bore it's an insult. For instance Nero and his mother have been exiled from Rome for a decade. The writers and director thought this important enough to waste screen time on yet, incredibly, do nothing with it. The few characters we are introduced to during this time have virtually nothing to do with the main story of Nero. Rather they are part of the superfluous Paul of Tarsus subplot. It's all very disjointed.

Nero's main problem is a lack of focus. The writer's tried to squeeze too many subplots into the mix. The Paul of Tarsus subplot was unnecessary, the Claudius arc was 45 minutes too long, and Caligula did not need to be in this movie at all. This was, after all, supposed to be the story of Nero. Alas he is but a character lost in a sea of characters.

R2 DVD covers.

AVAILABILITY

There is a R2 German 2-disc special edition released as "Imperium - The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire Part 1, Nero" which runs 177 minutes, a R2 Dutch release running 185 minutes, an Italian DVD running 180 minutes, and even a Russian release running either 181 or 184 minutes. In short this appears to be available, officially or otherwise, on DVD just about everywhere. But is it worth having?

VERDICT

Nero is Guilty! Guilty of being a dull historical costume drama that ignores the facts of history. Guilty of being ineptly scripted and clumsily directed. Guilty of being an unfocused mess. Whether a movie or a mini-series Nero is a tiresome, plodding, unhistorical non-epic that, despite the title, really can't decide what it's about. The movie has two false starts, the first involving Caligula, the second Claudius, and never manages to recover any sense of direction or momentum. There are too many subplots and none of them executed very effectively. In closing this movie may not be total garbage but if you are looking for historical accuracy there's none here. The movie lacks focus and spends too much time cramming in poorly developed characters whose inclusion fragments a barely coherent plot. Recommended only for the morbidly curious.

Copyright © C. Demetrius Morgan

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