Reviewer: Charity Bishop
One of the most infamous Caesars in the history of Rome was Nero. Many scholars have debated his madness, his reason, and whether or not he truly set the fires that burned down most of the city. This film is based somewhat on his life and the circumstances behind those he held account against, but the timeline is badly off the truth, and the actual story would have made for more compelling filmmaking.
When his father is found guilty of planning crimes against the monarchy, Nero's young life is placed in peril by the insane emperor, Caligula (John Simm) in order to force his mother (Laura Morante) into revealing her participation. Rather than see her son slain, Agrippina confesses what she knew of the plot. As punishment, her son is taken from her and sent to be raised among slaves, while she is banished to a deserted island where she may never again do harm to her family. The years pass and Nero (Hans Matheson) has grown into an adventurous young man, passionately in love with the beautiful Acte (Rike Schmid). The laws of the empire govern that a slave cannot be lawfully wed to a free man, and thus she can never be more than his concubine. Her Christian father forbids this. Caligula is murdered in torrid circumstances, leaving the empire to be governed by his uncle, Claudius (Massimo Dapporto). Believing Agrippina and her son have been treated unfairly, he returns them to the court. Agrippina has seen a vision that implies her son will one day rule the empire, and plots to bring him into power.
The senate, in the meantime, insulted beneath Caligula's brutal reign, have become disillusioned with the Caesars. History unfolds to reveal the path that takes Nero far from his beloved Acte and into the halls of Rome, where he is slowly corrupted by deception and hatred for what he cannot understand, as Christianity spreads through the civilized world. There is much to like about this production, however poor in its history. The odd thing about this film is that some of the facts are correct (indeed, a good many of them tie in with fact) but others have been fabricated. It would work much better if the timeline were not off by fifteen or twenty years. Nero's life has been sanitized, leaving out his perverse sexual practices, penchant for sadism, and numerous attempts to viciously murder his mother. How he comes about evil acts in the movie seem to imply he either had nothing to do with it, or was forced into it in self-defense.
As other viewers have complained, the story implies that had he merely been able to marry his childhood love, Nero would have turned out all right. Still, the costuming is absolutely gorgeous and it was a joy for me to see all of the characters I know so well from my studies breathed into life, from Nero's tormented first wife to Senator Septimus (Ian Richardson). I enjoyed seeing the infamous moment when Caligula lead a horse into the senate and informed the senators that there was a new senator among them. I was also surprised with how much faith was put into the film. There is some paganism early on but through the second half Christianity takes precedence. There is even the appearance of Paul, who teaches in the underground church, sends out letters to his fellow believers throughout the empire, and baptizes followers in the name of Jesus. Nero sends for Paul, having heard that he is capable of rising people from the dead. Acte becomes converted, and later attempts to influence an unfeeling Nero to share her point of view.
Even so, there's a little something lacking in the production. Perhaps it was passion, for the whole thing felt slow and less than enthusiastic about its purpose. If one is capable of overlooking the historical deficiencies, Nero is actually a decent film. I was pleasantly surprised with the religious turns it took in the second half, but would have appreciated a bit more passion from its participants. I also feel might have been more compelling had not Nero been made to seem relatively harmless. That Acte was in love with an evil man against her will would have made for far better storytelling.
An allusion is made toward Caligula's perverted sexual preferences; he is shown being taken to a brothel in the city, where he eyes a transvestite and orders "it" be taken to the palace. Claudius' first wife is unfaithful toward him. She cavorts at drunken parties and is part of an illegal "marriage ceremony." References are made to whether or not men have slept with their wives. The most offensive is a twenty second scene in which we see Nero and Acte engaged in a sexual act (this is before her conversion).
A dozen murders (people are stabbed through the chest, poisoned, and dispatched by other means) and the appearance of a severed head on a silver platter. A man slits his wrists and bleeds to death. Slaves defend themselves from an assault on the road. Overseers threaten to beat them. Implications are that Christians are persecuted and killed in the arena.
Agrippina has a vision of a soothsayer who tells her all Nero will accomplish.