Thursday, 19 August 2010

The first cinematic Roman Tragedy - 1909 - Nerone - Luigi Maggi

...The silent historical or costume film ultimately marked the high-water mark of Italian production and its success abroad in foreign markets. Interest in literary or historical topics helped to create the need for the artistic director, in addition to the cameraman and the producer, whose task was to coordinate the necessary research, the construction of sets and costumes, and the increasingly central role of the often temperamental actor and actresses whose popularity would soon surpass that of the man or woman in the street of the early documentary short film. Increasingly complex plots, taken either from history or from the Italian literary classics, also required the services of another technician, the scriptwriter even though films were yet to speak.
As Film: Ab Initio continues to progress through film's rich history, one of the most interesting conclusions that we can draw about the growth of the film industry is the strange paradox of separate countries producing wholly distinctive films that nevertheless produced certain roles and developments that influenced film makers across the globe. 

Within seconds, Nerone can be identified as an Italian film, yet the crucial developments that such Italian films made in regards to creating the positions of artistic director, producer and script writer, as mentioned in the above quote (from Peter Bondanella’s indispensable book A History Of Italian Cinema) will become a permanent feature for all filmmakers.

The role of artistic director is particularly interesting, as although you may have equivalents to script directors and producers in regards to plays, the role of the artistic director is somewhat unique to cinema (theatre has stage managers, but a play will only have a limited amount of sets and is limited to the stage). The physical setting of Nerone is most impressive and marks a significant step up from those found in the first Italian film, La Presa Di Roma . Whereas the film involved events that took place only decades ago, Nerone’s events take place towards the end of the Emperor Nero’s reign. The sets are therefore more elaborate, with more attention paid to detail.

Perhaps the mediocre quality of the print aids Nerone’s feeling of authenticity, as the sets and costumes are far more ‘believable’ than in any film we have seen so far on the Film: Ab Initio list. For example, the scene where Nero parades Poppea to the Roman public is a spectacular set piece. Here we have some film’s first extras dressed up as Roman citizens welcoming their new Empress. The synchronicity with which they part and then greet the royal couple hints at similar set-pieces that we will see in later films.

The tone of Nerone is different to any film that we have observed so far, it is the first tragedy that we have encountered. I would suggest that this is because it is the hardest genre to convey in the limited period of time that film makers had in the first decade of the 20th century. 

Whereas comedy lends itself rather well to the time-scale that the early silent period offered, it is far more difficult to develop sufficient pathos in a story in the twelve minutes of a film like Nerone to enable your audience to be taken by the tragic nature of that particular film.

Hence choosing a well-known historical event is a shrewd move; most audiences would be aware of the story and would have known any missing details the films could not cover as well as already have an emotional investment in the characters.  

Therefore it is a great shame that the actor who plays Nero himself (see picture above) completely overacts the part; the most impressive thing about his performance is his facial hair. The calm, regal atmosphere the film exudes in its opening scene is dampened by Nero’s overtly eager physical gestures and posturing. The actress who plays Octavia on the other hand, is rather impressive. She manages to convey a diverse range of emotions in a short period of time before she is murdered; moving from shock to authority to philosophical resignation within a span of five seconds.

The most imaginative moment of the film comes towards the denouement of the film, as we see Nero lying on a chair, with his imaginative thoughts unfolding in the background; a pastoral scene gives way to what appears to be Rome on fire, causing Nero to collapse in fear of his own thoughts.

It is as powerful a scene as we have witnessed in any film so far, and makes great use of the medium of film to explore the apocalyptic visions the film’s protagonist. 


  1. Wow... What an evolution from La Presa Di Roma. And only 4 years later. That halucination sequence is the most dramatically integrated use of 'trick' photography so far, in my opinion. Incredible how quickly the medium was changing! The long shot around the 5:30 mark of Pt 1 has fantastic depth (reminds me a bit of the shot of Christ's return to Jerusalem in Scorsese's Last Temptation).

    You point out that choosing a 'well-known historical event is a shrewd move' - I totally agree. Worth noting too that the Nero/Poppea story would be very familiar to an Italian audience not -solely- as history. One of the very greatest early Italian operas was on the same topic:

    In conjunction with some of the Shakespeare adaptations you mention elsewhere on the site, it seems that circa 1909 a theatrical/operatic sensibility was just starting to enter, and steering film away from its 'novelty' origins...?

  2. @Rob - the rapidity with which Italian cinema develops is quite remarkable. Three years after Nerone, The Last Days Of Pompeii will take a similar leap forward.

    The hallucination scene is a an extremely effective use of visual trickery as it allows film to explore the terrors of the imagination for the first time. As Nero lays there agonising, I was reminded of when Macbeth learns that Birnam Wood had moved. Would it not have been fascinating to gain a similar insight into Macbeth's thought dreams at this point of the play?

    Many thanks for the link to the opera - I was unaware of the fact that the Nero/Poppea story already had a rich cultural history.

    I am convinced that 1909 is a key year in film history...there is a definite sense that film is realising that it can cover a lot more ground than its initial triumvirate of actuality films, tricks film and slapstick humour. What is most fascinating to note is that this development occurs simultaneously across the globe. We can only speculate as to how and why this occurred, but it certainly warrants thorough investigation.