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A Transporting Experience

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Associate Arts Editor

Directed by Ridley Scott

Written by David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson

With Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou

Art reviews are, to a large extent, expressions of subjective opinions; I have to restate this right now because in the case of Gladiator my emotional reaction to the film clashes dramatically with my intellectual understanding of it. To put it tersely: Gladiator is a great film. I hated it.

As films go, Gladiator is a truly impressive achievement, a triumph of modern cinema technology wedded with old-fashioned storytelling. So old-fashioned, as a matter of fact, that the last significant big-budget Ancient Roman epic was Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, and that was forty years ago. The hero here is General Maximus (Russell Crowe), the iconic and laconic leader of Roman troops in Germania, fighting to extend the boundaries of the empire. The villain is Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the heir to the imperial throne. Everything that the hero does is strong and noble; everything that the villain does is evil, soaked in festering incestuous passions.

When Maximus unwillingly becomes an obstacle between Commodus and the throne, Maximus finds his family destroyed and himself a slave. After some turns of misfortune, he ends up as a gladiator, at the very bottom of society; and from this position, using all his brains and brawn, he plans to avenge himself and his family.

There’s not a single point of complexity in this narrative, and this is great, because none is needed: this is not a realistic story but an attempt at myth-making, similar to Braveheart. The story has a classic three-act structure, moving Maximus from warrior to slave to gladiator, and each next step is dizzyingly exciting.

It also helps that Ridley Scott is at the helm. Always a fine visual stylist, here he uses ample digital effects to re-create the entire world of Ancient Rome in living glory on the screen. Just the shots of Coliseum, intact and swarming with crowds of spectators, are breathtaking. In addition, Scott stages half a dozen elaborate action sequences like there’s no tomorrow, pulling out all the stops, and filling the screen with swords and tigers and chariots, oh my.

The way these sequences are edited brings to mind Saving Private Ryan more than Ben Hur: in older movies, the film camera was the Eye of God, the objective view on the proceedings; here, the audience is right there, with fast cutting, closeups, and enveloping design all functioning to put the viewers right into Coliseum. The movie drags almost any time the characters stop whomping each other and start talking, but those scenes are thankfully rare.

The two main actors clearly understand the large-than-life dimensions of the movie, and their performances are note-perfect. Crowe is all brooding and intensity, and his gaze has the power to melt holes in brass armor. Phoenix is despicable and creepy, with eyes so deeply sunk in that his face looks like a pallid skull, and his reaction takes are priceless. Most of the supporting actors are excellent as well (Derek Jacobi in particular), the only exception being Connie Nielsen, who is saddled with a particularly static part.

So this is the way the movie goes, moving from one violent set-piece to another one, each one more exciting than the previous one, with amazing special effects making the surroundings completely believable, and with camerawork bringing me right into the middle of what’s happening on screen -- and then I started feeling vaguely nauseated, not because of motion sickness, but from the strangely disturbing feeling that something was not right. This feeling got stronger and stronger the more thrilled I was with the filmmakers’ artistry, and I couldn’t explain what was going on.

Then the movie ended, and the crowd around me (mostly BU students, who came to a free sneak preview) started cheering, and then it hit me. I spent the last two and a half hours sitting in a crowd of people, looking at many acts of brutal violence, all explicitly orchestrated for my viewing pleasure. The movie was indeed a transporting experience: I was moved to the stands of the Coliseum and forced to be a part of the mob; and I despised the experience.

How do you rate a movie like this? I don’t know; perhaps averaging what I thought about the movie when it was unfolding (3.5 stars) and how I felt about it right when it was over (1.5 stars) is a good estimate.