This year, in addition to revisiting all of the old holiday classics as Christmas approached, I decided to get right to meat of things and bone up on the big guy himself: good ol' JC. Investigating the way Christianity has presented itself in film over the years is quite the task. There's the epic route (Ben-Hur), the biographical route (The Greatest Story Ever Told), or the satirical route (The Miracle Woman). I couldn't help but notice, however, that there is a very specific trend in cinema that contrasts the majesty and power of Ancient, impenetrable Rome with the growing insinuation in the Republic of the all-powerful, omnipresent, Alpha-and-Omega God. Now, before I scare any non-believers, let me assure you that this is far from a "preachy" article, as my personal brand of religion is malleable but faithful at best and head-scratching and cynical at worst. My agenda here is to unlock the mystery of faith in film, not to attack you with my personal testaments. That being said, a lot can be learned from Jesus Christ, the way he reached the masses, the way his messages of love and peace encompassed them, survived monotheistic persecution, and continue to thrive today. As the following movies will show, God is good, but men? Men are bad. The formula to bring this evidence to the fore is fairly simple and unwavering. There is a pompous Roman soldier in conflict, a virginal woman who wins his heart, a power-hungry monarch, a prophet, and (most often) a whore. Mix the aforementioned with historical events, cast accordingly, and depending which director's Godlike hands the entree is entrusted into, the effects can be quite miraculous... or a miraculous waste of time. God be with you:
To begin at the beginning, on the first day in Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille recreated good and evil in man's image and called it film: deliciously sinful and utterly devout. DeMille catches a lot of flack sometimes. People think he was a pompous, right-wing Bible banger who used his movies to spread religious propaganda. This is not true. Not wholly. Others think that DeMille merely used religion as an excuse to inject eroticism, nudity, and debauchery into his otherwise inadmissible, nearly pornographic films. This is not true either. Not wholly. DeMille too was holy and not holy. His genius was in giving people what they wanted while interpreting them as they were, as they fantasized themselves to be, and as they guiltily fretted. People were depicted as just as complicated as any of his intricate and textured mise en scenes. He can be accused of preaching a message, but the message preached is not always the one you would expect, yet he always preached in such a way that both a pious person and a sinner would find what he or she was looking for in the text. Hence: The Sign of the Cross (or That Movie Where Claudette Colbert Takes a Nude Milk Bath).
The film begins with the burning of Rome. The perfectly cast Charles Laughton stars as the infamous "Emperor Nero," who strums contentedly on his harp (or cithara perhaps), which history popularly remembers as a fiddle (left). With his cosmetically enhanced Roman nose, Laughton's roly-poly, immature, and deranged Nero is at once childish and dangerous. Sadly, there is too little of him in the film, but what moments he has on screen, he typically savors. Nero has burned Rome, it seems, simply "because." Because he, as the current Caesar, is basically ruling over his own personal tinker toy city and, like a small boy, he smashes his fist into it simply to see it topple. The only trouble is that the city is bound to rebel (after it douses itself), a fact that the simple-minded Nero has not considered-- he is much more perturbed when the string on his instrument breaks than by the sight of his kingdom in flames. Not to worry, he will point the finger of blame at the Christians, who have brazenly been worshiping a God other than He. (The Roman Emperor was worshiped as a deity in this era). The Christians irk him and insult his vanity, so he turns his city against them. Christians are to be found, executed, or sent to the arenas, where they will be brutally murdered before the hungry eyes of their supposed polytheist enemies. Already the war has started: do you worship a false God, an invention of a certain sect of brainless, meek people, or do you worship the true God of Rome, who sits before you on his throne, licking his fat fingers? Tough choice. Naturally, bigotry, prejudice, and blood lust spread as the Roman people seek to eradicate the Christians from their city.
Enter the Prophet, a man named "Titus" (Arthur Hohl), who has been schooled under none other than the great apostle Paul, and has come to spread his word. To find those like minded, he makes his identity known by making the sign of the cross in the dirt. The only problem is that this alerts the authorities to the interloper's presence, and soon he and his peer, "Favius Fontellus" (Harry Beresford) are being rounded up by a couple of beefy, Roman goons. Enter the Virgin, named "Mercia" (of course) and portrayed by Elissa Landi. Mercia defends Favius, who has acted as a father to her, and when Roman Prefect "Marcus Superbus" (Fredric March) intervenes on the ruckus, sparks fly between them. Looking less like an ancient Roman maiden and more like a modest flapper in a period costume, Mercia is an attractive proposition for Marcus. As he immediately wants to sleep with her, he can't muck things up by killing her foster father, and so he sets the corrupt Christians free. Unfortunately, Marcus's nemesis "Tigellinus" (Ian Keith) is looking for any way to usurp his power, and thus sets about locating the party that Marcus freed and finding out just why it was that Marcus freed them. The answer, sex, is quickly discovered, and Tigellinus will later use this to his advantage. The Empress "Poppea," the always amazing Claudette Colbert, too has it in for the lusty Marcus, but in a very different way. In mid-milk bath-- DeMille's testament to his own opulence and that of the absurdity of wealth in the Roman monarchy (right)-- Poppea is told that Marcus has refused her latest summons, which makes her certain that he has found another woman to warm his bed.
Lust in ancient Rome is apparently a big thing, which is why this film and many in the same genre tend to establish the acceptance of Jesus Christ as synonymous with the domestication of the male animal. The goal of every human being, thus, is elevation: to rise above lust and find love, to rise above greed and find generosity, and to rise above death and the fear of it by creating new life in the name of God. The Romans, as depicted by DeMille, have no interest in this nonsense. They worship better Gods and Goddesses. They indulge in wine and orgies. The human experience is meant to be visceral, sensual, and encouraged by the persistent pursuit of pleasure. Marcus knows nothing of modesty or moderation. As the second most powerful man in Rome, he knows only that he gets what he wants, which is accordingly a bottomless pit of women. What attracts him to Mercia is her unattainability. Unlike Poppea, who possesses no virtue nor scruples and throws herself mercilessly at Marcus, Mercia has already given her heart to another: Christ. Ah, the un-gettable get. Yet, Landi's interpretation of Mercia is not the typical, doe-eyed innocent. Her attraction to Marcus is palpable in her eyes and manner. As he chases her, she openly flirts back. Interestingly, sex does not seem to be a sin to her, and she lets it be known that she is interested, though she holds back just enough to tease him (left). So tantalizing is her appeal, that Marcus's conquest to obtain her blinds him to his own safety, but his heart has not yet reached a place of love where her religion can claim him. When he comes for her at her home, he is halted by Favius and Titus, whom he chides as being ignorant fools that want to destroy the world. Titus corrects him: Christians merely want to make the world "spiritually free." This falls on deaf ears.
This idea of religion as freedom is shared by all films of this genre. Men in shackles, men enslaved, impoverished men, and as ever freedomless women, will all be utterly free in the Kingdom of God. This is the appeal of the faith. It delivers, not so much God or Heaven, but Hope, which is essential to any man, if he is to survive the life experience with any amount of joy. This is what Titus preaches to his followers in their secret meeting place. Without hope, mankind turns ugly. Without hope, man ceases to try, to succeed, to innovate. The idea of a reward for goodness, the idea that suffering will end, is the only reason for anyone to keep going. This is where Cecil's brilliance interjects. The story he is telling is not one of God, but one of Man. God may indeed be a spiritual force in our universe, he may not; but if he did not create the first cavemen, they invented him. Man needs Hope. Our defenselessness without these religious myths to soothe us is quite pitiful; but the reality, even with this hope, is really no better. DeMille reveals this when Titus's speech is interrupted by attacking Romans. As he preaches that "there is no death," one of his flock is unceremoniously and brutally stabbed. It appears that, despite prayers, there is no salvation in life. In life, God can't help you. God can't stop life nor death from happening. Under attack, a woman cries out to God for help, and the scene is so devastating that it makes her plea, not heartbreaking, but pathetic. Still, she needs that hope. God is great, certainly, but he is also far far away from where we are-- from where we are killing each other in his name or in fear of his name. The way the flying daggers take these Christians down is almost comical. Titus's paltry little cross too is not grand or heroic. The presence of God is thus not an awe-inspiring monument in this film. He remains intangible, hypothetical, and secondary to the human characters, and in particular the bad characters.
Everyone loves a martyr, but I spent most of this movie wanting to see more of Colbert and Laughton. As Alexander Pope said, "To err is human, to forgive divine." We, as human, are incapable of divine acts. It is above us. Erring is in our nature. Sinning is in our nature. Regret and guilt are in our nature, and after these things, we fall to our knees and pray for that aforementioned and unreachable divinity. Fredric March is much more alive in his scenes with Colbert, who is dripping with human, erring sensuality (right). Poppea's desire for Marcus is no secret. She wants him, and his refusal of her hurts, not only her pride, but her heart. This is where Colbert gives her character more depth than the typical villainess. When Marcus crashes his carriage into hers on his way to save Mercia from the Roman ambush, he rushes off despite Poppea's orders to stay. As he departs, her voice cracks as she calls for him: "Marcus!" It is not a yell, so much as a little girl's shocked pain at desertion. Later, she uses all her wiles to obtain him, and again her vulnerability is shown when Marcus rolls his eyes at her typical tactics-- he's been here before, and she is no different from any other desperate woman. Yet, he is ready to be enlightened. He wants a "virtuous girl," though he still does not understand why, (Time to settle down boy-o?). Poppea is pissed. Thus, she puts Mercia on Nero's radar, and her child-husband is easily manipulated into doing her bidding. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Poppea when scorned wants Mercia's head.
Meanwhile, to protect her, the lustful Marcus has taken Mercia back to his home, where she is shocked to learn that he means to make her his concubine. Sex would be one thing, but the fact that he is asking her to turn her back on her Christianity is unforgivable. Marcus is equally shocked when she won't put out, and tries to convince her that it is her religion that is holding her back. He claims that Christianity is "vicious" for convincing her not to do what is natural to her. He is also ticked that he is expected to share her heart with this dead Jesus dude. Mercia is missing out on life! Marcus tries to convince her of this by having one of his gal pals (Joyzelle Joyner) perform a homo-erotic dance around her-- which was quite scandalous in its day, and is still uncomfortable to watch (left). However, any attempt to "warm" Mercia is halted when she hears the sound of her fellow Christians singing outside. The Roman guard interrupts the party on Nero's orders, and Mercia is taken to the arena where 100 Christians will be executed as a gift from the Emperor and Empress to their loyal people-- still frothing from the fire. After Mercia is taken and the doors closed behind her, Marcus assumes the pose of the Crucifixion, his arms draped upon the dead-bolts. His martyrdom is very different from Christ's. What Marcus feels isn't a sudden understanding for Mercia's faith, the faith that Christ died for, but a pain at the loss of Mercia-- a symbol of Hope and the woman he slowly is learning that he loves. He suffers not for a metaphorical God, but for the flesh and blood woman that he wants. In this way, DeMille interprets that Marcus's pain is somehow more real, and definitely more relatable, than the religious icon's.
Throughout the film, while Mercia is devout to the point of bland, the earthy guttural suffering of Marcus, and also Poppea, are much more believable. As the Christians are slowly sent to die-- by tigers, elephants, and gators-- they rise to meet their challenges still with hope in their eyes, but their faith doesn't stop the sounds of violent screaming from erupting from their bodies as they are torn to shreds (right). Mercia's death, by Poppea's vengeful order, is saved for last, and Marcus agrees to die with her, not for her God or his God but for himself. He tells her that, in a moment of desperation, he tried praying to her God, but He didn't hear him. Instead, Marcus prayed to her-- Mercia, the woman he loves. It is his new found faith in her-- that desire for hope and elevation that he could not comprehend until it was too late-- that has made a new man of him, and one even willing to die. Still, he begs her to renounce her God, keep him in her heart if she must, but publicly denounce him so that she and Marcus may live together and for each other. One almost wants to slap her across the face when she refuses. Marcus is offering her a chance at life; but she goes to the God of her dreams, one she deems so close, just on the other side of the arena door, where she will consequently meet her demise. Marcus is life; God is death. Mercia is immovable, so the lovers will die together. As Marcus climbs the stairs with her into the light, which makes the duo appear as if they are going indeed to heaven-- deceitful, considering what awaits them-- he does not look upward but at her.
Thus, the conundrum. DeMille served us up a movie about Jesus, yet ends the film with the vaguely insinuated idea that God ain't everything. Of course, this is a very harsh analysis. By the film's end, when we have witnessed every measure of humanity-- the pious, the bloodthirsty, the envious, the peaceable-- the one thing that all these beings exhibited was love. Love, whether in its most tortured or triumphant state, is the most intense and lasting thing about life. Jesus spread the word of love to mankind, but love wears many faces, and we as human beings constantly trip on ourselves when trying to find the right one. For this, we are not wholly sinful. Yet, no matter how far we have fallen, we can find redemption, not necessarily in God, but in the embrace of pure, selfless love for another human being. This is when love righteously wears the face of God. DeMille, despite his constant Christian rhetoric, therefore presents the idea that life should not be wasted on the worship of God, but should be spent in the worship of each other.
This theory could arguably be shared by the next film, The Robe, although this time around, the presence of and necessity of an almighty God in one's life is much more fixed and magnificent. What DeMille presented with a side of naughty, director Henry Koster presents with total piety. Unlike the silent spirit of Christ in The Sign of the Cross, the presence of God in The Robe is mighty (as evidenced even by the awesome opening score). He is also visible. The film begins over 30 years prior to the burning of Rome. The Christians' numbers are slowly growing due to the public orations of someone known as the "Messiah" or Jesus the Christ. All of this is secondary and not too fretful where our protagonist, the Roman Soldier, is concerned: "Marcellus Gallio," played intelligently and passionately by Richard Burton in his break-out role. Youthful, curly-headed, and vain, Marcellus has the intense displeasure of serving under the fussy, infantile, and annoying "Caligula" (played with very little intrigue by Jay Robinson). The notorious gluttony and greed of Rome become apparent as Marcellus makes his way through the crowds on slave auction day. Scantily-clad and well-formed women are held up for buyers to drool over, and Marcellus has his eye on a couple of twins, (I mean that literally). It is to be assumed that Marcellus is just like the other ignorant and savage Roman beasts, trading flesh and swimming in wine, but there are indicators that Marcellus actually has a soul. He proves this by stopping an altercation when Greek slave "Demetrius" (a beefy Victor Mature) tries to escape. Marcellus then purchased him (left), thus saving Demetrius from a life of Hell with the also bidding Caligula. When Marcellus loses the twins to Caligula, the audience is also surprised to learn that he was purchasing the women for his mother and not himself. The way he and the openly corrupt Caligula banter, and the way Marcellus runs mental circles around his Emperor, also convinces the viewer that this Marcellus is not a bad guy at all.
Of course, he's not perfect, a fact that is made clear when a random woman (the Whore, with a blink and you'll miss it part in this film) chastises him for getting drunk and embarrassing her the previous night. A decent man and soldier, Marcellus may be, but a man he is nonetheless. However, the sudden appearance of the beautiful and pure "Diana" (Jean Simmons)-- a girl he knew in his youth-- and his instant attraction and affection for her are symbolic of the fact that he may be ready to close the book on his ruffian days and embrace the good man inside himself in toto. The honor of becoming Marcellus's wife is something that Diana has been dreaming of since her girlhood, and the duo quickly make plans (right). Unfortunately, Diana is being kept in Caligula's care, and after the earlier insult at the slave market, Marcellus and his new slave Demetrius are thus sent away to deal with a minor nuisance that is cramping Caesar's style in Jerusalem: Christianity. Before he departs on this punishment mission, Marcellus is instructed by his father to "take nothing on faith" and to "trust no one." It is dangerous where he is headed. Man must protect himself, and a man from a faithless society, that worships only the deities that can give the most enticing rewards, thus sails into the fray with nothing but instinct, orders, and smarts to protect him.
In fact, he goes to murder faith. Soon enough, Jesus Christ, whom Marcellus has only vaguely heard about, has been identified and sent to be executed by Crucifixion, which Marcellus will dutifully oversee. The audience sees it too. The faceless icon carries his cross through the streets, his arms are nailed to the wood, and he is left to die. It is all a sideshow to the Roman soldiers who perform the murderous act and proceed to play dice below his slowly dying body. Only the impoverished and the poor little children, including Demetrius, are taken in by the death of this man, whom they deem somehow magnificent beyond words. Demetrius bundles the Christ's discarded robe into his arms (left), but it is soon taken and used as a bargaining chip in the gambling game of which Marcellus has taken part. Marcellus wins the piece of cloth. Jesus dies. A storm begins. The winds have changed, and they are howling, and suddenly Marcellus is fearful and he knows not why. As he and Demetrius run for shelter, he tells his slave to cover him with the robe, but the minute the fabric touches his skin, he quivers in fear: "Take it off!!!" The spirit of God has become encapsulated in the threads of the robe of the Holy One, and Marcellus shrinks under its power and from the feelings of his own guilt. In his heart, he knew to crucify a man for nothing but words of peace was a sin, but a faithless man cannot sin, can he? Apparently, indifference and inaction was his crime, a crime shared by all the people who played their own small part in Christ's death-- Caligula, Pilate, the throngs watching Jesus crawl to his death, and even Demetrius, who received word that Jesus was to be betrayed and tried to find him and warn him, though he was too late. In his quest, Demetrius met only Judas, soon to pay for his sins. Marcellus has yet to pay for his.
Marcellus is summoned back to Rome, thanks to Diana's intervention, but he is a changed man. Scared, hollow, and mad, he is constantly tortured by the sound of pounding-- the pounding of nails into Christ's palms. The solution to his malady is to find the robe again, which has clearly "bewitched" him, and burn it. So, he searches far and wide for Demetrius, who has betrayed him and run off with the piece of cloth. Demetrius has freed himself through faith, and taken all power from his master and thus the mastery of Rome. On his quest, Marcellus bears witness to the miracle of the spreading Christian faith. He is puzzled and even angered like a child by the idiotic people who believe in the beauty of life when they are blind and crippled, unhealed by their departed God. Their faith reaches him through music, and something inside him, a window in his heart is being opened. He learns that Demetrius is with Simon Peter, Marcellus tracks him down, and tries to toss the robe with his sword into the fire. Yet, it falls into his arms and overcomes him in a fit of hysteria. Now, the power of the one true God is in his heart. He is bewitched no more; he is penitent (right). After Marcellus performs an act of mercy, stepping in to stop an ambush where many Christians will certainly be massacred, the Prophet, Simon Peter, asks him to join their crusade. Marcellus says that he cannot, because he is responsible for the death of Christ. Peter then shares the story of how he denied Christ three times on the day of his death. Peter obtained forgiveness by preaching his word; Marcellus will do the same in defending the Christian faith.
The rest of the movie is spent with Caligula trying to hunt down the Christians and most importantly his betrayer, Marcellus. Diana is not easily taken in by these myths of Christ, but she follows her beloved Marcellus gallantly wherever he dares to tread-- not dissimilar from Marcus Superbus's devotion to Mercia in the last film. Demetrius is captured and tortured by Caligula, then saved from death by the miracle of Simon Peter's healing prayers: more proof that there is a God who is more than any man can comprehend. Marcellus is eventually put to the ultimate test. He stands before Caligula and is given the option to either renounce his faith in God or be killed. He swears allegiance to Rome, but cannot recant his new faith. It is bigger than him, and worth dying for. Diana vows to die with him. The two march off to their deaths with looks of glory on their faces, and soon they are walking in the clouds of heaven. Thus, this movie presents the beauty that comes of accepting the Christian faith and the dishonor that is sure to follow if one does not. There is no gray area, as in DeMille's film. While the presence of the Lord is sometimes presented as sinister almost, in the way he haunted and eventually overcame Marcellus's obstinacy, there is only peace everlasting in the embrace of him. Christians are portrayed as nearly untouchable, and the brutality and savagery with which Caligula attempts to exterminate them is nothing compared to their triumph.
Freedom through faith is the message. Faith is not the issue of fear in Rome. Freedom is. If the little people break their bonds and rise up against their masters, structure will be destroyed. Christianity is thus viewed as a dangerously spreading organism or disease that must be stopped before the nation is infected and order undone. This is the seed that when sprouted will cause Rome to fall, which it will, and God to rise. This is the opposite theory as postulated by The Sign of the Cross, where we were to look to each other for peace. Here, God is all. Yet, the two films do share and spread the ideas that we should try our best to make a Heaven of life on earth, that doing good to each other and acting toward our brothers as we would ourselves is the ultimate goal. The Robe presents this theory as much more attainable and glorious. While the film is not as interesting as The Sign of the Cross, it moves quicker and the performance of Burton-- with his eloquent, lyrical, staccato speeches and ever-present intensity-- is something worth witnessing. It too is a sweeping, spreading narrative, enticing to the eye and clearly worthy of being the first film made using the new CinemaScope process. The film also manages to fairly escape the cheesy factor, which is not easy when dealing with such subject matter. It succeeds perhaps because the presence of God is presented in such mythic and horrifying proportions that the audience feels as compelled to convert as Marcellus.
The same cannot be said of Quo Vadis, which is nearly all cheese. Quo Vadis is a fitting title, beings that I was indeed wondering where the Hell this movie was going since it was taking so long to get there. Nearly three hours in length, it is a tedious bit of work, so I won't dedicate as much time to its diagnosis. It had its good points, mind you. Bearing basically the same plot at The Sign of the Cross, it lacked in poetry what it made up for in pomposity. Visually, it is a splendor, ever moreso than The Robe. However, part one of the film is wasted as "Marcus Vinicius" (Robert Taylor) tries to creepily seduce "Lygia" (Deborah Kerr, both left). Kerr is so beautiful that she literally glows, and her piety to her faith, again Christianity-- identified in this film by The Sign of the Fish-- is so decadent that one can understand Marcus's incurable erection over her. Unfortunately, Taylor is terribly miscast, and he seems old and tired in the role. The boyish charms of his A Yank at Oxford days do not work here, and Kerr has to work overtime to make her attraction to him believable. His sexuality is sinister, overbearing, and clumsy, an error that Kerr cleverly tries to compensate for by making her interest in him seem more maternal than erotic. However, even her performance can't improve the chemistry, which is never on par.
The uncomfortable sex game is turned asunder by "Emperor Nero," this time played by Peter Ustinov, a comic light spot in an otherwise overbearing film. Ustinov's interpretation of Nero is not as calculatingly insane as Laughton's; he presents more of an overgrown boy who knows no discipline and thus no bounds. He is, essentially, an idiot. He thinks himself an artist, and is constantly writing atrocious poems and singing songs while his right hand man, "Petronius" (Leo Glenn, another plus) manipulates his mind in order to somehow keep Rome running (right, Leo stands, Peter sits center). Soon, Nero decides to burn Rome as an artistic statement, for only in the destruction of his art can he see it rise again anew and totally in his name. The fire is a test of his own power. Ustinov tends to go a bit too far, chewing the scenery as the infantile Nero, but he also seems like the only one in the film truly enjoying and stretching the limits of his role. After Rome burns, Nero is again convinced to put the blame on the Christians, a fact that the "Empress Poppaea" (the Whore, played by Patricia Laffan) suggests because she wants Marcus (God knows why), and she knows that the Christian girl Lygia is a threat to her conquest of him. The Christians are rounded up and sent to the slaughter, and their massacre is very long and overdrawn, as opposed to DeMille's equally sexual and frightening interpretation of the arena. The singing of the Christians as they go to their deaths is incredibly annoying to Nero, who wanted to hear screams and is very taxed by their apparent lack of fear.
Lygia is saved for last, and Marcus (who is performed better at the end when Taylor gives up on the chest-beating and eyebrow raising) has come to her to die by her side. The two are married, again by the Prophet "Simon Peter" (Finlay Currie) who is soon Crucified upside down for his insinuations that there is a God higher than Nero. Lygia is tied to a post center-ring (left), and her loyal bodyguard fights a bull to protect her. If he can defeat the bull, Lygia will be freed. Surprisingly, he does, but Nero makes an error when he still gives the "thumbs down" signal to kill her anyway. This enrages the masses, who have witnessed already surprising courage in their supposed Christian enemies. They have been swept away by their fortitude and consequently turn on Nero. Marcus, who has been sitting by Poppaea's side, forced to watch his beloved's attempted murder, jumps into the pit and cries out for justice. The Roman legion too jumps to his defense, less out of anger or questions of faith than because they think it was rude of Nero to try to kill Marcus's girlfriend in front of him. Soon, the arena is in uproar, the lovers embrace, and Nero flees to his castle, where his favorite concubine convinces him to kill himself. He does. An interesting moment, either a wise move or a very unfortunate one, by director Mervyn LeRoy was to reveal the blood lust of the masses as they come to Nero's castle like a colony of angry ants. Despite the messages of Christ that have just been died for, man still seems to have learned nothing. One assumes that LeRoy meant for these bloodthirsty vermin to be interpreted as the brutish, unenlightened Romans and not as the recently freed Christians. Lygia and Marcus ride off into the sunlight, an unfortunate and sugary Hollywood ending that renders the film a total waste, and the film closes on an image of flowers blooming-- hope and beauty where there was none before.
I cannot say that I liked the film, but I too can't say that I hated it. In many ways it was impressive, including a brilliant live action recreation of Da Vinci's The Last Supper, but the story was stylistically over-exaggerated in terms of performance, the message was one note and uncomplicated, and the interpretation of God's power was not as effective-- He is construed as so loving and peaceable via the work of Simon Peter that He does not possess the same awesomeness and threatening nature that made his power so obvious in The Robe. Here, God can only assert himself through the faith of his people and not on his own, which is a worthy enough statement, but one never learns the value of believing in him. In fact, in many ways, LeRoy-- again, perhaps purposefully-- portrays the Christians as just as mindless for following their God as the Romans for following Nero. Give a group a leader, and away they go. At the end of the film, a new Emperor is announced, and the masses are just as fanatic for him as they were mere moments ago for Nero.
The plus of the film is the concept that God, the true God, can only be found in Love. Again, women are portrayed (just as in all the previous films) as already being receptive and knowledgeable about the purity of love, so just as Mercia and Diana, Lygia is ready and willing to accept it when this message comes. She merely sits and waits for her chosen man to discover it, while he trips over the hurdles of whores in his way and matures into a man worthy of her virginity and spirituality. Marcus finds this lesson of love too, as does a very surprised Petronius, who finds himself in love with his slave girl "Eunice" (Marina Berti) who adores him, the highest being she knows, with the same faith of Lygia following her God. This love of a good woman makes more faithful, better men out of both Romans, but so cliched and over dramatic are the acts of devotion that one cringes at Eunice's ignorance and shakes the head in pity for Marcus's future, in which he will be sharing a bed with both his wife and Jesus. (One assumes that Lygia will spend most of the night praying and too little comforting her still horny husband). So, where The Robe had God and where The Sign of the Cross had humanity, Quo Vadis had neither. Yet, if you put the thing on mute and just look at it, it's pretty visually engrossing.
Well, after many many many words, I bring this to a close. Many thanks for reading, if you made it through, and my best (belated) wishes to you this Christmas. God Bless!