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00709 - ROME

Movie-Hype (#709) – ROME

The best thing about HBO's Rome isn't the sex and the violence, although trust me; I am appropriately thankful to whatever gods want to take credit. No, the best thing about Rome is how thoroughly unmodern the prism through which that sex and violence comes to us. What do I mean by that?

HBO's most famous show is The Sopranos, which certainly contains many characters "acting badly," and indeed quite a few of them we root for. But Tony and Co. live in our world, and while they have made their accommodations to "right and wrong," the very act that they hide many of their actions shows their guilt, or at least their complicity in breaking the law. In that way, watching The Sopranos becomes like watching a fantasy, for it is not a word that you and I generally get to live in.

However, in Rome, we get a different world. A pre-Christian world (whatever that means), and more importantly, a world that profoundly sees right and wrong differently than we do today. Most historical epics color their portrayal with modern morality. After all, sin is sin, right?

Well, no, it's not. Or maybe it is; I'm not trying to get into a religious truth argument with you. What I am saying is that every society, every era has a code of right and wrong, but these codes are often radically different.

I'll give you an example: if a wife cheated on her husband, and the husband then killed her, cursed his children and allowed his children to be sold into slavery (for they knew and kept quiet), would that husband be morally correct? By your standards, probably not. (How could selling children into slavery ever be right?????)

Welcome to Rome.

Watching Rome can be a weird experience. It's not that the people are amoral (although they often are), it's that their morals are so different from our own that it's like you're looking at aliens. Oh, all the behavior then is still here now, but the motivations….

There is a point in Rome when one of the characters wants to marry his slave girl, and so (honorably, to him) frees her. Misunderstanding, she gives him effusive thanks, as she is now free to marry another one of the slaves. Clouded by rage the fellow kills the slave man, and—I swear you will have the same reaction—you feel bad for the guy because he's probably screwed up his chances with the girl. Rome does weird things to you.

(Later on, he proposes to her, in one of the greatest lines I have ever heard: "I know we didn't get off on the right foot, with me killing your man and all….." How can a girl resist?)

Speaking of women, I've been trying to get Kaida to watch The Sopranos for like ever. She's been resisting, and then to spite me decided to watch Rome, which she knew I couldn't complain about because I was smack in the middle of Season 2 at the time and had been raving over every new episode. Anyway, Kaida watches the entire two seasons in one weekend, and I call her halfway through to hear her wish murder and death on her enemies and generally about as bloodthirsty as a pirate.

Come to think of it, Kaida was no more bloodthirsty than any of the women in Rome, a particular breed of vicious:

Atia of the Julii: You. Leave this house this moment.

Glabius: I will not! Octavia's my rightful wife.

Atia of the Julii: You defy Caesar?

Glabius: A fig for Caesar!

Atia of the Julii: By the five Furies, if I was not a gentle woman, I would have you flayed, and hung from a bracket at the door!

I do not say that as a negative, but you might want to be aware. Watching Rome—at least during the time you watch—changes you. At first you might just be entertained by the epic, but watch yourself slowly start using 2000 year old swear words and wishing to put somebody's head on a pike. I suppose some of you might see that as a bad thing, but hopefully someone else runs you through with a sword so you don't take up oxygen from the rest of us.

The first season of Rome covers the last 8 years or so of Julius Caesar, while the second Season involves Octavian (later Augustus) and his struggle for power against Marc Antony. (Speaking of Marc Antony, Cleopatra shows up for a few episodes each season…..Man alive, she is enough to make a fellow believe in Isis, or Ra, or that dog fellow.)

Now, for those of you just determined to cause problems, let's get one thing out of the way. Rome is not (nor does it claim to be) strictly historical. Many of the events are the same (albeit time compressed or chronologically rearranged), and most of the characters were historically real, but this ain't history.

And that's a good thing.

A) What you think of as history didn't happen that way either. So get over yourself. Besides, if you want straight history on Rome, watch The History Channel, Read a book or watch THE MUMMY.

B) What they are going for, according to the show's executive producer, is authenticity over accuracy. And here I think they hit a home run. Rome feels incredibly real. They have gone out of their way to give us a window into what the most powerful city of its age might have looked, sounded, tasted, smelled and felt like. It's not just the costumes, or the battles. It's all the little things. It's Rome.

The story itself is about the big guys, but often as minor characters. Our main characters are Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, sort of Everyman soldiers who have this Zelig-like knack for winding up in all the big adventures their betters become embroiled in. Vorenus is the upright citizen, yearning to do right, sometimes incapable of it, or showing emotion. His buddy is Titus Pullo, not so nearly so concerned with right and wrong as he is with, well, bros and hos (usually, but not always, in that order.)

Lucius Vorenus: Do you think of nothing but women?

Titus Pullo: What else is there?

[he thinks]

Titus Pullo: Food, I s'pose.

These two manage to be there for all the big events, and it is their humanity (or at times lack of it), that make the show work above and beyond a well-acted historical epic. Oh, and speaking of well acted, HBO continues their tradition of unbelievably good casting. There is not a weak spot in the 60+ main roles. The men and women are pretty but not beautiful, which seems to make them more "real." (There are some beautiful ones, but pretty much everyone gets naked at some point, if only to sleep with a slave girl, a family member, or several at once.)

I exaggerate. It's not all blood and orgies. But you know, I'll have no one surprised by Rome, so I might as well run off the squeamish now.

When I say that Rome is a step behind the big four HBO shows, that isn't a put down at all. I think the first two seasons (which is all they ended up making) would make the top twenty of best first two seasons for any show ever, and possibly the top ten. It's that good.

Rome is even better when you can watch the episodes several in a row, as it really gets going toward the end of each season. If you like good entertainment, and don't mind sex and battles, I think Rome may be for you. (But NOT for your kids, you idiots. I heard about parents who were letting their kids watch 300. Sigh.)

Maybe you're not someone who generally watches television. Well, Rome was shot all at once like a movie. In many ways, it is a movie, just a really long one. I can say there isn't a single movie—with the possible exception of BEN HUR—that comes close to this. All those sword and sandal epics?

Screw 'em.

Watch Rome.

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