Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.02

A. Boschi, A. Bozzato, I greci al cinema. Dal peplum 'd'autore' alla grafica computerizzata.   Bologna:  Digital University Press, 2005.  Pp. 110.  ISBN 88-86909-73-X.  €16.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by James J. Clauss, University of Washington (
Word count: 2956 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Interest in cinematic representations of Classical antiquity has increased in recent times, thanks in part to the success enjoyed by Gladiator, Troy, Alexander, and HBO's mini-series Rome. Evidence of this growth can be seen even among classicists in the development of film courses in Classics departments, panels at conferences, and scholarly publications. Academics are not only writing about films but are also being consulted in their making. Television programs about the ancient world are even creating docustars out of a number of otherwise demure professorial types. What would Wilamowitz think!

I greci al cinema, like many other collections of essays these days, started life as a conference; this one was held in Ravenna on November 29-30 in 2004 and was organized by the Facoltà di Conservazione dei Beni Culturali of the Ravenna branch of the University of Bologna. The book represents the sixth volume of a new series, Nemo. Confrontarsi con l'Antico, overseen by the Dipartimento di Storie e Metodi per la Conservazione dei Beni Culturali of the same institution. The eight contributors include two classicists (Cavallini and Iannucci), two historians (Boschi and Lucrezi), a restoration chemist (Lorusso), a professor of cinematography (Zagarrio), a film director (Bozzato), and the director of tourism and cultural activities of Ravenna (Marini): a diverse group to say the least.

In the preface by Eleonora Cavallini, we are told that Americans use the term "peplum-movies" to refer to films set in ancient times, whether historical or mythological (p. 5). In point of fact, French critics first employed the word peplum in this sense, as Alberto Boschi rightly points out in his first note (p. 15). The term more commonly found among American critics and in video stores is "sword-and-sandal" film, which Cavallini reproduces later on in a plural form (p. 79). Most of the papers in the collection do deal with art "pepla" ('d'autore'), if you will, but only one deals specifically with computer graphics, and that only in part and not on the topic of cinema.

In the penultimate paragraph of the first essay, "Da Ulisse ad Alessandro," Vito Zagarrio describes his contribution as "brief notes." There is indeed a plurality of insights here that would have benefited from a more focused presentation. The paper begins with a few words about Godard's Le Mépris (1963) and its metaphorical exploration of myth, but this critical topic regarding the representation of "la grecità" in film is immediately dropped in favor of straight-up versions of ancient myth and history. Contrary to the title, we begin, hysteron proteron, with Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004) and end with Franco Rossi's Odissea (1969). Zagarrio's summary of Alexander aptly exposes a number of fascinating dichotomies: the film, courageous for being countercultural yet unconvincing in its deployment of "divi hollywoodiani," ends up as postmodern pastiche that sets side by side issues of gender and genre, history and psychoanalysis, epic and biography, introspective drama and "costume hash" (p. 9). Zagarrio then addresses the problem of the representation of history in film and the tendency to project the present into the past, a topic that also pertains to historical writing, ancient and modern. But that's all we get: an introduction to an issue of epic proportions that is dropped as soon as it is identified. After some passing thoughts on the sword-and-sandal films of the 50s and 60s, Zagarrio introduces the contribution to cinematic history made by Rossi's Odissea. As we learn, this pioneering miniseries was among the first made-for-TV serials whose installments were introduced by no less a personality than the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti. RAI's decision to sponsor television films of this quality by other directors, including Bertolucci and the Taviani brothers, clearly exerted a profound influence on Italian cinema. Were Zagarrio a classicist, he might have pointed out that it was the Latin rendition of the same poem, Livius Andronicus' Odusia, that was pivotal in launching the careers of many ancient Roman writers.

The second paper, "Con il peplo o con la clava. Modelli di rappresentazione dell'antica Grecia nella storia del cinema," by Alberto Boschi, is likewise characterized as "notes". After a brief introduction, in which he calls attention to the relative lack of filmed versions of Greek tragedies and Hollywood's preference for Biblical, Roman, and Egyptian themes over Greek, Boschi offers summarizing commentary on a number of films grouped in the following categories: Tragedies, Homeric Poems, Hercules and Other Myths, History and Philosophy. Comparing the Greek tragedies filmed by Pasolini and Cacoyannis, Boschi observes that both use the ancient plays primarily as starting places and limit the "verbocentrismo" of the originals in favor of visuals and scenes of haunting silence. Those few other directors who take on Greek tragedies prefer to shoot them in postclassical settings (e.g., Fedra by Jules Dassin [1962]), as if, Boschi opines, feeling the need to demonstrate their topicality and universality. The survey of films among the other categories underscores what anyone interested in the history of Classical antiquity in film knows well: the dominance of the Italians. "Perhaps because of the importance that has always been bestowed upon Classical culture in our country, Italian cinema has felt itself invested with the mission of handing down -- even in its lowest and most degraded forms -- the inheritance of the ancient Greek world" (p. 15-16). I have long wondered what drew Italian directors and audiences to Classical antiquity and find this suggestion a good starting point.

In "L'occhio del Ciclope: Momenti di cinema nell'Odissea di Franco Rossi," Alessandro Bozzato explains why Rossi's cinematic rendition of the Odyssey made such an impression on its original audience. The title of the paper is in fact misleading. While it is, to be sure, about Rossi's TV series on the story of Odysseus, Bozzato focuses primarily on the contribution of Mario Bava, who directed the scene that appears to have caught the attention of most of the original viewers, the hero's encounter with Polyphemus. Bava is best known as a director of horror films, beginning with La maschera del demonio (1960), a film that Tim Burton cites as inspiration for Sleepy Hollow (1999), and Ercole al centro della terra (1961) in which Herc fights zombies! A more evocative title for the article, in the tradition of 60s Italian pepla, might have been "Ulisse contro Dracula." Bozzato, a practicing director himself, offers a fascinating and detailed explanation of how Bava created his special effects by way of camera angles and montage. Before that, he addresses two widespread contemporary errors regarding such effects: that they are new and that they are central to the success of a film. As Bozzato points out, cinematic sleight of hand was present at the birth of film in the mythological productions of Georges Méliès; he adds, "one can go so far as to say that cinema in and of itself is, by extension, a mega-special effect" (p. 32). Regarding the second point, Aristotle would doubtless agree with Bozzato's emphasis on the importance of plot over special effects. As Bozzato also rightly notes, if we become conscious of the latter, we have lost the magic, a point unappreciated by those who measure success by this modern-day Persian cord.

In "Le metamorfosi di Antigone (Da Sofocle a Liliana Cavani)," Alessandro Iannucci considers renditions of the myth of Antigone with a special focus on the versions of Sophocles's Antigone and Cavani's I Cannibali (1970). Although there were other ancient versions of Antigone's fate (e.g., by Euripides and Ion of Chios), that of Sophocles dominated the history of the myth to which post-Classical artists turned again and again. Iannucci examines the structure of both versions from four angles: (a) the tensions among the dramatic agents; (b) the audience's reaction; (c) the degree of identification with, or alienation from the agents; and (d) the success of the production. Using these categories, Iannucci exposes crucial differences between the ancient and modern versions. In short, Sophocles' play, admitting of ambiguity, can be read at multiple levels, while Cavani's film is "univocal" (p. 49). In the former, while we admire Antigone for her courage, we also understand the irreconcilable demands of family and city, and pity Creon whose actions result in his complete devastation. I Cannibali, on the other hand, is set in a future totalitarian state in which Antigone, Tiresias, and Haemon are hideously destroyed by an enemy we never come to know, a reflection of contemporary themes in Italian cinema. Using Aristotle's Poetics as a guide, Iannucci concludes that I Cannibali failed to achieve critical success not only because of a lack of verisimilitude, but also because, instead of pity and fear, the film arouses cinematic shock and awe. As Cavani related in an interview, her goal was to shake up the collective consciousness of a public which was becoming inured to brutal atrocities.

"A proposito di Troy," by Eleonora Cavallini is without a doubt the most scholarly and detailed of the papers (58 footnotes in a book with only 97 total) and the longest at 26 pages. The paper is in essence an elaborate defense of the movie Troy by Wolfgang Peterson. While I find the connections made in the paper between the film and ancient culture persuasive and even impressive, I still have to wonder: do we need to defend the liberties taken by Peterson, when Homer himself handled the Trojan saga with considerable freedom, as did his successors? Cavallini concludes: "different from the vast amount of contemptible literature pertaining to Greek mythology and history, the film has the advantage of attracting the attention of the public to the exploits of heroes so distant in time, as well as to the poets and writers who memorialized their achievements" (p. 79). Troy is also lots of fun: we love the heroes, hate the villains, and are treated with eye candy in the form of buffissimo Brad and beauteous babes. What's not to like? The body of the paper is taken up with showing how a number of features of the film reflect the Homeric poem with remarkable precision. These include the anachronistic armor and style of warfare (hoplite warfare of the archaic era retrojected to the Mycenaean era, as in the Iliad), architectural design, statuary (the film's use of the kouroi and korae in the Daedalic style finds parallel in the chryselephantine statuette discovered at Palekastro, datable to the neopalatial period), the blond hair of the hero, and the color of the clothing (the reds, ochers, and yellows used in the costumes can be observed in late Mycenaean paintings). Cavallini includes 44 figures in support of her argument; these, regrettably, are in more than a few cases so reduced in size that they are difficult to see without a magnifying class. Where the film departs most dramatically from Homer's epic, Cavallini points out, is in the presentation of character. For instance, Patroclus, while still in his role of sacrificial victim, resembles more Euripides' Iphigenia than his Homeric incarnation as warrior; Helen's quasi-divine status has been reduced to fully human; and Briseis has been raised to the status of a post-Homeric Cassandra, or might Xena be a better comparandum?

Francesco Lucrezi reflects on the role of the gods in Greco-Roman films in "Dèi e cinema." While there are many ways in which the representation of the ancient world in film resonates with modern audiences, particularly in the realm of the emotions, one area of life in which the ancient Greeks and Romans differed profoundly from their Judeo-Christian successors lies in their understanding of the nature of the divine and its relationship with humans. For pagan culture, the gods are a part of nature and subject, like humans, to the decrees of fate. Moreover, virtue, which is neither practiced nor encouraged by the gods, does not lead to immortality; glory does. Lucrezi examines Troy, Alexander, and Gladiator in the context of these striking differences. In Troy, Achilles decapitates the statue of Apollo and not only suffers no immediate consequences but achieves glory in defying the god. Hector, on the contrary, who is more human and virtuous, is eo ipso weaker and less impressive. In his competition with Achilles for fame, the titular hero of Alexander claims that the entire world is witness to the greatness that he has earned by conquering fear, not by submitting himself to the gods. Maximus in Gladiator, on the other hand, lives in a different world, one in which, Lucrezi argues, the role of the ancient gods has come to an end with the destruction of Rome's enemies and, as a result, the opportunity for glory has been lost. Different from Achilles and Alexander, the Roman general has a personal relationship with his divine ancestors, he awaits eternal reward and not private glory, and he believes in justice that will happen, in this world or in the next. In calling Maximus a new Cincinnatus, however, Lucrezi undermines his initial hypothesis by retrojecting thinking such as Maximus' back into the early years of the Republic, where in fact it belongs, at least in part. Not surprisingly in a paper of four pages, Lucrezi's account of the differences between pagan and Judeo-Christian religion is superficial, in part by being synchronic and overly focused on literature. We know that the ancients had a much more nuanced and complex relationship with the divine than is represented in the Homeric poems, to which Lucrezi looks exclusively. In addition, Roman attitudes towards the gods were significantly different from their Greek counterparts, and Gladiator offers a splendid example of this difference. What is more, there were thinkers among the Greeks, mentioned by Lucrezi (p. 84), whose views on morality and divinity anticipated, and possibly helped to shape the Christian conception of God. Gods in cinema is a subject that merits considerably more space and thought, especially as it tends to be avoided rather than embraced in film (pace Lucrezi, p. 83).

"La nave (greca) dell'ingegno. La conoscenza storico-umanistica e tecnico-sperimentale per lo sviluppo dell'arte, della cultura e dello spettacolo," by restoration chemist Salvatore Lorusso, is the odd man out in this collection. While all of the other papers deal with cinematic representations of the ancient world, Lorusso's piece focuses on the recuperation and reconstruction of cultural artifacts that include film, sound recordings, and archeological remains. Much space is given to the discussion of Italian and international law pertaining to cultural preservation and, when the author does touch upon film, it is in the context of the restoration of films by Charlie Chaplin. The Greeks eventually make an appearance in the virtual reconstruction of a trireme based on the remains of a fourth century BC freighter found near Kyrinia (Cyprus). As in Cavallini's paper, the illustrations are very small, but neither this nor the lack of relevance detract from the overall quality of the paper in its attention to cultural, legal and scientific detail.

The book concludes with a short but elegant piece by the conference co-organizer Maria Grazia Marini entitled "Il cinema (in)fedele." Marini addresses a question that arose in some of the essays: to what extent should we get riled up when a film does not meet our expectations of the literary text upon which it was based? While employing different media, books and films both present narratives from limited and biased points of view. Novels can take their time and the reader responds to the story through his/her "cinematic imagination", as it were (my term). In the filming of a classic, the director limits our exposure to the original story by, among other things, the angle of the camera and loss of the characters' intimate thoughts. Marini resolves the problem by shifting the onus from the storytellers to the audience. "We, readers and viewers, are the real protagonists, because we need stories. Stories that evoke universal sentiments or that touch desires buried deep within us" (p. 107). True enough, yet these eternal verities aside, there are those who enjoy experiencing new and creative adaptations of ancient myth and history, others who are uncomfortable with anything less than an orthodox version, and still others somewhere in between. The next conference might turn the camera away from the Greeks and focus on the variety of responses to the celluloid Classics. There is an interesting story to be told on the other side of the screen.

I greci al cinema, like many collections, is uneven. In fact, no editor or co-editors are specifically identified; instead the cover lists the names in alphabetical order of all of the contributors. The apparent absence of editorial supervision is manifest not only in the confusion of the origin of the term "peplum" featured in the title and the lack of interaction between papers in the published version of the talks, but even in the format of the volume: some papers have footnotes, some do not; some have bibliographies at the end, others do not. The fact that the conference took place in November of 2004 and the book has been available for some time in 2005 suggests that it was rushed into print, so there was no opportunity for putting this together as a cohesive production, which is too bad, as the papers could have achieved more individually and as a group.


Vito Zagarrio, "Da Ulisse ad Alessandro"

Alberto Boschi, "Con il peplo o con la clava. Modelli di rappresentazione dell'antica Grecia nella storia del cinema"

Alessandro Bozzato, "L'occhio del Ciclope: Momenti di cinema nell'Odissea di Franco Rossi"

Alessandro Iannucci, "Le metamorfosi di Antigone (Da Sofocle a Liliana Cavani)"

Eleonora Cavallini, "A proposito di Troy"

Francesco Lucrezi, "Dèi e cinema"

Salvatore Lorusso, "La nave (greca) dell'ingegno. La conoscenza storico-umanistica e tecnico-sperimentale per lo sviluppo dell'arte, della cultura e dello spettacolo"

Maria Grazia Marini, "Il cinema (in)fedele".

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