Nero, or The Fall of Rome
Reviewed in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Luigi Maggi. Cast: Alberto Capozzi, Lydia De Roberti, Mirra Principi, Luigi Maggi, Ercole Vaser, Ernesto Vaser, Serafino Vite, Mario Voller-Buzzi. Screenplay: Decoroso Bonifanti and Arrigo Frusta.

Photo © 1909 Società Anonima Ambrosio /
Film Import and Trading Company
A punchy little 12-minute divertissement in which that reliably louche tyrant rejects his wife Octavia in favor of hot number Poppea, which so outrages the Roman folk that they burn down the city. No one fiddles, not even Nero, and for dramatic incident, Nero wouldn't have been much to write home about even a hundred years ago. The dolorous Octavia, who has the bad manners to show up desperate at Poppea's big coming-out party as the new empress (never let 'em see you beg, Octavia!), is played by one of those zaftig early-1900s actresses who looks like a train car wearing dark eye-liner, but she emotes energetically, not least when she is literally stabbed in the back. If all the gesticulating, the bare plot, and the abrupt finale risk risibility, the photography is rather wonderful. Nero already thinks in terms of deep visual fields with several planes of action, rather than cramming all of its actors into flat, downstage tableaux. Director Luigi Maggi choreographs movements and bodies in the fore-, middle-, and back-grounds of nearly every shot, to the point where the shots extend further backward into space than they stretch to either side. There's a neat bit where Nero tosses aside a curtain to reveal a pure vista on the panic in the streets, only to draw the curtain again and return to his bullheaded hedonism; in other words, Maggi actively associates shallow depths of field with willful disavowal and shallow morality, which strikes me as quite sophisticated for 1909. The costumes and sets are elaborate and visually interesting in the way they catch the light, and a late film switch from green to red tinting adds some interest. Even better is the simultaneous switch from literal, objective imagery to the violent, wall-demolishing paranoia of Nero's imagination. Nero makes up in deep-space choreography and bold visual impressions what it lacks in story and consistency. Never mind that both of the pastoral scenes look more like The Fall of Walden Pond than anything remotely Roman. It's the right length to maximize the impact of its most vivid qualities without drawing too much attention to its most amateur traits. Grade: B+

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