The first major ancient Roman spectacle to surface internationally since “Gladiator,” this Polish remake of “Quo Vadis” looks and plays very much like a ’50s-style Hollywood epic. Bright, glossy, grandly scaled and dramatically stolid, 79-year-old writer-director Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s longtime dream project mixes earnest religiosity with the depraved cruelty of Nero’s Rome in the classic De Mille tradition. At $18 million the biggest-budgeted production in Polish film history, this foreign-lingo Oscar submission, which is Catholic to its core, had the distinction of a Vatican world premiere in the presence of Pope John Paul II Sept. 1 and performed well on home turf. But as with the giant historical domestic hits “With Fire and Sword” and “Pan Tadeusz,” local success does not look to translate into significant foreign biz.
Best known internationally for his static and, ironically, anti-clerical epic of an even earlier period, “Pharaoh,” which was Oscar-nominated in 1966, Kawalerowicz met with understandable difficulty during the communist era in getting backing for this inspirational tale of early Christian perseverance under ruthless Roman persecution. Written by Polish Nobel Prize-winning novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz in the wake of the international success of Lew Wallace’s “Ben-Hur” in the 1890s, “Quo Vadis” was a staple of the early silent cinema: Shorts derived from it were made as early as 1901, an eight-reel Italian feature appeared in 1912, and an Italo superproduction, with Emil Jannings playing Nero, was an international smash in 1924.
Most famous version, directed by Mervyn Le Roy in Italy for MGM and starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov as Nero, emerged as the fifth-highest grossing picture of all time after its 1951 release, although it looks incredibly wooden and devoid of style today. In 1985, Franco Rossi helmed a six-episode rendition for Italian television, with Klaus Maria Brandauer as the mad emperor.
The story of a Roman military leader whose love for a Christian woman eventually leads him to embrace the nascent religious cult circa 64 A.D., “Quo Vadis” unquestionably possesses the storytelling style and creative motivations of an earlier era, an impression underlined by Kawalerowicz’s sincere and straightforward approach. All the same, the narrative is so jam-packed with dramatic incident and sometimes lurid detail — a love story fraught with class and faith barriers, orgiastic imperial feasts, clandestine religious gatherings, the burning of Rome and a succession of circus scenes spotlighting such treats as Christians being fed to the lions, being crucified en masse and being employed as human torches, all as foreground to the rise of the West’s dominant religion — that there is more than enough to hold the interest given a natural disposition to this sort of ripe material.
For what it’s worth, pic reps an improvement on the MGM version in some important respects, notably in acting and the sophisticated development of certain relationships and scenes. Still, neither Le Roy nor Kawalerowicz evince a true and exciting feel for the epic form (new edition isn’t even in widescreen), and this “Quo Vadis” in no way constitutes a reinterpretation or significant refreshening of its century-old material.
From a cinematic p.o.v., part of the story’s problem is that the first half is devoted almost entirely to long talky scenes, with the spectacle all saved for the final reels. Arrogant army officer Marcus Vinicius (Pawel Delag) returns to Rome from a successful campaign anxious for a little r&r, which is easily arranged by his uncle Petronius (Boguslaw Linda), witty author of “The Satyricon” and “arbiter of elegance” to the Emperor Nero (Michal Bajor). Vinicius also desires the attentions of the beauteous Lygia (Magdalena Mielcarz), the Christian princess of a conquered land who’s a “hostage” in the house of friends, but she manages to keep him at arm’s length.
Intrigued, Vinicius surreptitiously follows Lygia to a Christian gathering presided over the Apostle Peter (Franciszek Pieczka), the world’s direct link to the words of Jesus. But while Vinicius wrestles with whether he can accept a belief that contradicts every standard he’s ever lived by, Nero fiddles with the fate of the empire’s capital city. He soon sets it ablaze and later blames the Christians, which provides the excuse for a series of games featuring mass executions of the most gruesome nature his feverish imagination can concoct.
Shot on location in Tunisia, France, Poland and Rome, this is physically the most well-scrubbed epic since “The Greatest Story Ever Told”; every toga and dwelling makes it look like Rome’s slaves were assigned to nothing but cleaning detail. Sets are borderline gaudy in ’50s sword-and-sandal style, and large-scale sequences, notably the torching of Rome, are done effectively but with economy. Of the arena scenes, episode with the big cats is most impressive, as the felines look genuinely hungry and are shown in the same frame very realistically going at their human dinner. Outright gore is modest, however.
As the ostensible hero Vinicius, Delag is younger, more virile and turbulent than Robert Taylor was 50 years before, although character behaves so abrasively that for a good stretch he verges on the entirely unsympathetic. The lovely Mielcarz displays considerably more spirit than the zombified Deborah Kerr did, while Bajor’s Nero sometimes brings to mind Gary Oldman in the way he unpredictably shuttles between nearly human rationality and completely unhinged pronouncements.
Drama’s best role remains that of Petronius, the peerless diplomat and court wit. Leo Genn’s performance, which emphasized the character’s political smarts, was the highlight of the 1951 film, and vet thesp Linda’s turn here is equally valid in the way it presents Petronius as the most fully developed product and exponent of Roman culture as it existed at that time.
Coming in such a conventional context, pic’s ending, which cuts from ancient times to show the Apostle Peter heading into a modern Rome dominated by the basilica named for him, seems downright radical. It must have gone over great at the Vatican.