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Volume 2, Number 18

This Week's Reviews:  Gladiator.

Retrospective Reviews:  The Passion of Joan of Arc.

This Week's Omissions:  Deterrence, I Dreamed of Africa, Me Myself I.


(Dir: Ridley Scott, Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris, David Schofield, John Schrapnel, Tomas Arana, Ralph Moeller, Spencer Treat Clark, and David Hemmings)



It is about time that Ridley Scott leave me exasperated again.  Thelma & Louise was child's play for this Alien auteur, but it was ages better than the horrible fodder that he has brought out over the last few years.  1492:  Conquest of Paradise, G.I. Jane, and White Squall were all laughably bad ("fathoms below par" was my hauntingly cheesy quote [for another cheesy quote, see below] for White Squall on the Siskel & Ebert rip-off Critical Mass).  I was ready to write off Scott as one of the best directors, even worrying as to what he might do with Silence of the Lambs sequel Hannibal.

But here is the granddaddy of Summer blockbusters.  I know that it is horrible when I say things like this, but I cannot recall seeing a Summer film this impressive since Jurassic Park (say what you want, that film was really good).  Gladiator has everything that should make reviewers and audiences happy:  large-scale action and riveting drama.  There are many places in this film that bring Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, and Titanic to mind, and all those films went on to Oscar nominations (and if it were not for Shakespeare in Love, to Best Picture wins).

The film follows one gladiator, Maximus (Crowe), a man that has served as one of Rome's finest generals before falling to slavery and finally to fighting in the Coliseum.  When the emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius lets his son Commodus know that he plans to leave his position to Maximus, Commodus kills his father and sends forces to kill Maximus and his family.  Maximus escapes, but is unable to save his family (you may recognize his son as Giorgio Cantarini, aka Giosué from Life is Beautiful).  In a state of loss and pain, Maximus is taken into slavery and bought by Proximo (Reed), a former gladiator who hopes to lead a group of slaves into becoming gladiators.

With Commodus now in rule of Rome, the classical thinking civilization is left to fun and games, with daily gladiator fights in the Coliseum to keep him on the good side of the citizens.  Few in power care for this new emperor, many members of the Senate prefer his replacement, especially the esteemed Gracchus (Jacobi) who is planning a sort of coup.  Commodus is also taking fire from his sister Lucilla (Nielsen), who is still in love with Maximus.  Lucilla sees the fate that awaits her son as heir after Commodus, so Lucilla feels trapped without any way to stop Commodus without endangering her son.

The stage is set and Commodus finds a new gladiator winning every battle.  A gladiator that he does not know is really his old friend and new enemy.

The visuals here are impressive, with Scott, cinematographer John Mathieson, and editor Pietro Scalia producing some of the best fight sequences ever.  Also special effects coordinators Neil Corbould, John Nelson, and Nikki Penny and production designer Arthur Max make a better Rome than has ever been brought to the screen.  I was truly astonished at many of the film's shots which show Rome in all her glory.  Spartacus and Ben-Hur have nothing to compare.

The cast is great, with Russell Crowe further pressing himself as one of the first big stars of the twenty-first century.  Here he gives an entirely different performance then the one he gave with The Insider, this is much more like the character he portrayed in L.A. Confidential, balancing brawn with inner demons.

Also of note were the supporting cast members, ranging from the great Shakespeareans like Jacobi to the scenery-eating masters like Reed (giving the best performance of his long career).  Nielsen throws out a turn I would have never expected, she has never been an actress that has turned my head.  The real heart of the supporting cast is the surprise from Phoenix.  I have been one of the biggest denouncers of River's little brother over the years, only lightening up for his turn in To Die For.  I taken aback by his work here as Commodus, far beyond what I would have ever expected.

What the cast and story help to do is bring out the dramatic side of this big blockbuster film.  All the visuals in the world cannot save a bad screenplay (i.e. Twister), so it is notable that Gladiator succeeds in bringing out the guns in the heart of the story instead of the eyes.  I like to think when I see a film, and I am gracious when I can have some eye candy and think it too.


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Retrospective Reviews:  Since this week was so light, I decided to throw in one of my older reviews, one of the Carl Theodor Dreyer silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

(Dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Starring Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, Antonin Artaud, Michel Simon, Maurice Schutz, Jean d'Yd, Armand Lurville, Louis Ravet, Jacques Arnna, André Berley,Alexandre Mihalesco, Raymond Narlay, and Léon Larive)



Not too long ago, Luc Besson, a fine film director in his own right, made a pretty horrible attempt at placing the Joan of Arc story on the big screen. That film, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, was a mockery with a few high points.  For that very reason I set out to see the first filming of Joan's story, the 1927 silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc) from Carl Theodor Dreyer.

One of the biggest mistakes in the Besson film is that it portrays Joan as being a defiant leader, a portrayal that does not fit history.  When the patriarchs condemn her to the stake, it almost seems just with her indignation towards them.  Then compare this to the portrait of Joan in Passion, one of a pious, scared, and rueful woman that cannot come to terms with where her God has placed her.

It is 1431 Rouen, the Hundred Years War has plagued both England and France, and King Charles VII is finally brought to the throne of France.  Meanwhile, a young girl named Jeanne is held on trial by a Catholic tribunal for heresy due to her remarks that God talked to her and helped her lead the French military to victory.  Jeanne, more commonly known as Joan, is less scared of what the tribunal will do to her as what God will do if she tells them she was not speaking to him.

Such is the stage set before The Passion of Joan of Arc begins.  None of the film is about her work on the battlefield, the entire film is about her trial and execution.  There are no grand general moments in which she marches the French army onto English forts, all we see of her is a scared 19 year old girl awaiting her condemnation.

The film's dialogue is based on the transcripts taken from her trial. Nearly every word is that of the real Joan, words that make it apparent her fear.  The blatant persecution by the tribunal comes off with each word they say and whisper, unheard to the viewer, to each other.  There are moments in the film that are fictional, including a horrowing meeting between Joan and three Shakespearean clown guards, but the rest of the film seems as true to life as it really is.

The film is pretty much comprised of three different shots throughout:  the panicked movement shots, the long panning shots, and extreme close-up shots. The film has been long noted for the latter's use, making every pore on the faces of the tribunal incredibly clear.  One thing that is underused in films today is the artistic use of balance.  There are moments in this film where Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Maté that have all the movement in the lower third of the screen, balanced with a deep white on the top.  Not only does this create a thickening mood, but also makes the actions seem much more insidious.  One of these such shots occurs when a corrupt judge enters to try to talk Joan into submission.  In other films, a deep shadow or dramatic music would create the tone for his appearence, but Dreyer and Maté do so by having his head break a nice stream of pure white.  He is the impure entity in Joan's cell.

The performance from Maria Falconetti one of extreme note.  She never made another film after Passion and was never given any sort of award for this performance.  It is only now that we truly appreciate what she did for this film, giving the striking performance that most actresses can only dream about.  I would love to have seen her in an Ingmar Bergman film in which she could once again work in pain simply by physical work instead of speaking.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is yet another classic of silent films that will never find an audience in today's finicky world.  It's a shame.  Of course, they always have The Messenger for the story.


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Reviews by:
David Perry