Tag Archives: Rome

Dürrenmatt’s “Romulus, the Great”

As Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1950 play “Romulus, the Great” begins, A. D. 476. a messenger arrives with news for the last emperor (of the west)  of the latest calamity in the onward march of the barbarian Teutons. The messenger is told to wait a few hours and then go to the daily session of petitioners for audiences. The chamberlain might then set a date for the messenger to see the emperor. The news seems urgent and the messenger catches the emperor passing from inspecting his hens (egg production is Romulus’s seeming primary interest). Romulus rejects the idea of earth-shaking news that must be conveyed: “News never shakes the world. Only events do that, and once we get news of them, they’re over and done and past altering. New only agitates the world: it’s best to get used to as little news as possible.” (So the emperor does seem like Bush or Trump  in incuriosity and Ashcroft or Sessions in blocking the Freedom of Information Act he is supposed to be enforcing…)

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Romulus’s wife Julia and daughter Rea are conventionally patriotic and concerned about taking decisive action to save the empire, but Romulus tells Julia, “I don’t want to interfere with the course of history, my dear.” Romulus is concerned about food (gourmets pop up frequently in Dürrenmatt writings) and is selling off furnishings (portrait busts) to cover daily expenses at the run-down villa he has not left since being proclaimed emperor.

A merchant building an international conglomerate specializing in new-fangled trousers offers to pay off the barbarians if Romulus will give Rea to him. Romulus is willing to sell the empire, but not his daughter. However, the merchant, Caesar Rupf, knows that the upkeep of empires is more expensive than profitable (a lesson of history lost on the Ivy League graduate currently extending the American Empire).

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The eastern emperor visits from Constantinople with the kind of courtiers who made “Byzantine” an adjective. Rea’s fiancé returns from three years of being misused by Teuton captors. An array of characters want to assassinate the slacker emperor in the third act. He challenges their rationales, taking the role of judge of Rome. After noting that “every state calls itself ‘country’ or ‘nation’ when it is about to commit murder,” he tells his prospective son-in-law, “Rome knew the truth but chose violence. Rome knew humaneness, but chose tyranny…”

And, finally, the barbarians are through the gate and the Teuton chieftain, Odoaker, discusses chickens, ambitions, conquests, tyranny, etc. with the last emperor. Romulus turns out to have a more complex agenda than his courtiers and womenfolk realized. But if there is a leitmotif in Dürrenmatt it is “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray” and both Odoaker’s and Romulus’s very interesting ones are frustrated.

What starts as a farce, and continues with fairly anachronistically modern businessmen and bureaucrats, ends as a philosophical tragedy. The version I once saw on stage (not the translation here, but an adaptation by Gore Vidal whose view of empires is close to Romulus’s) played well, too. Dürrenmatt is certainly a modern bard laying out the perils of hubris, and entertaining as well as thought-provoking.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Thwarted Europeans in two films directed by Luchino Visconti and one by Sidney Lumet

With its melodrama amped up by the use of Bruckner’s very heavy Seventh Symphony, Luchino Visconti’s “Senso” (1954) is quite slow, running more than two hours. Alida Valli played a countess who is easily ensnared by a handsome but caddis Austrian lieutenant, Franz Mahler (Farley Granger). She is slow to realize that he is using her (to get money) while she throws away everything for her Great Love. When finally he decisively humiliates her, she uses her position. She does not seem to care what will happen to her after she has avenged herself (and the movie ends).

Granger and Valli spoke to each other in English during shooting. They were dubbed into Italian, as was standard practice for Italian movie-making. Criterion found a version in English (and German), that was shortened by half an hour. Granger’s performance is more compelling in his own English. Valli had made movies in English (most notably “The Third Man”) and was also more affecting in English, though watching “The Wanton Countess” showed me that she does not speak very much. Also, she sounds like Ingrid Bergman, to whom the part had been offered (when she was being monopolized by Roberto Rossellini; the first choice for her lover was Marlon Brando; the Italian producers thought that Granger was going to be a bigger star than Brando…).

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The Criterion edition includes a making-of feature that does not even mention the dialogue credited to Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles. It does get into the outrage of the Italian government about the portrayal of the “Italian army” before there was an Italy, and what a martinet Visconti was on-set. The opening scene in La Fenice was supposed to feature Maria Callas in an excerpt (obviously a different one) from “Il Trovatore,” but she was in America when it was shot and it was Pasolini rather than Visconti who made a film starring her (Medea). Having just watched the Visconti documentary on the “Ludwig” disc, I didn’t watch the British one (“Man of Three Worlds,” which I think I’ve seen before) on the “Senso” one, nor find out what Peter Cowie (whom I find insufferable) had to say about “Senso” and Visconti.

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I also watched again the ponderous (238-minute) 1973 “Ludwig” in which most scenes run on too long. Helmust Berger plays the Bavarian king who is an enigma to himself (why his subjects like him is another mystery; he cared not at all about them). Though he eventually marries (Sophie), his loves are Richard Wagner (played by Trevor Howard), and “Sisi” (the Empress Elisabeth), the wife of the Hapsburg emperor. Romy Schneider could be imperious, but was compassionate for her cousin Ludwig.

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The post-dubbing bothered me in “Ludwig,” too. I can understand an Italian release dubbed in Italian, but I think a version in German should have been the international version. Berger and Schneider, as well as supporting players Gert Fröbe, Heinz Moog, and Helmut Griem) were native speakers of German. (BTW, Visconti wanted Laurence Olivier to play Wagner, though I don’t think he would have done better; Richard Burton, maybe, though I have not seen his Wagner (a ten-part, 300-minute miniseries).)

Bavarian reactionaries protested the revelation of homoerotic inclinations of Ludwig, and an hour of the film was cut (then another hour). I doubt that either made the cuts in scene length I think should have been made.

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I went on to watch an also slow-moving lethal romance, “The Appointment” (1969), set mostly in Rome. It looks and feels European and stars Omar Shrif (Egyptian) and Anouk Aimée (born in Paris). It was written by James Salter and directed by Sidney Lumet, both Americans and not generally interested in romances. In general, Sharif was likeable and bland, Aimée sphinxlike (elusive). Here Sharif, tormented by jealousy and possessiveness, is not likeable, if not a villain, Aimée inarticulate but relatively sympathetic. Even Lotte Lenya as an antique dealer who is also a supplier of high-end prostitutes, is sympathetic (not like the Stasi agent Lenya played in “From Russian with Love”).

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Aimée’s character was a model for a fashion house. The haute couture shows that the fashion disaster that was the 1970s began earlier! I did not like Aimée’s reddish hair or Sharif’s severely cropped mustache either. He did, however, look totally groomed and tailored.

“The Appointment” was Salter’s first screenplay, followed by “Downhill Racer” (also released in 1969, from the novel by Oakley Hall).

©2018, Stephen O. Murray