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Robert Schwentke leads a strong international cast that includes Mary-Louise Parker, Geraldine Chaplin, Alexander Fehling and Todd Xander.
There is one thing to say about Seneca – In the creation of an earthquake, which had its world premiere in Berlin this week. This may be the first major movie set in ancient Rome for decades. But those hoping for an outstanding adventure like Gladiator or Spartacus or even a glamor like Quo Vadis will be sorely disappointed by this epic attempt to create a historical fantasy. John Malkovich has an unusual way and presents himself well. But it is difficult to understand what motivated director Robert Schwentke, who has a few blockbuster films under his belt (The Time Traveler’s Wife, RED, Divergent series) but does not add any luster to his resume in a heist.
Schwentke was born in Germany but made most of his films in Hollywood. This German-funded effort was filmed primarily in Morocco and features a cast from around the world, few of whom register except in a florid, over-the-top vein. A campy tone is set from the start with a tongue-in-cheek story delivered by actor Jefferson Mays. The story, which has little background, is set in the first century, mostly during the reign of Nero (the emperor who played the violin while Rome burned, at least if Quo Vadis would – believe). Seneca was a Roman legislator, philosopher, and playwright who served as a tutor to a young emperor and only earned a position as a thank you for his efforts.
In the opening scene, we see Seneca coddling and deferring to Nero (Todd Xander), who becomes increasingly deranged and insane in power as he embarks on a murderous rampage against real enemies and illusions. Schwentke and his co-author Matthew Wilder seem to draw a picture of Nero and modern-day megalomaniacs like Trump or Putin. (Courtiers even addressed Nero as “Mr. President” instead of “Your Majesty.”) At one point, Seneca defended his sycophancy to the emperor by suggesting that “it would have been worse” if not for his role as a mediator in the palace. So who is Seneca’s modern analogue? Steve Bannon? Or maybe a former member of the Trump administration like James Mattis or Rex Tillerson? They all eventually converge on their true leader, like the self-deluding Seneca in Schwentke’s film.
The scene at the moment isn’t great but it’s fun for a while. Xander gives perhaps the most interesting performance in the film as the mad king. But it disappears soon after Seneca goes to his country, where he is with his young wife (Lilith Stangenberg) and a group of violent people. But once they realized that Seneca was not interested in the king, most of them stopped.
Schwentke has assembled a great supporting cast, which includes Mary-Louise Parker, Julian Sands, Geraldine Chaplin and Alexander Fehling. Chaplin had a hotly contested scene with Seneca, but most of the others have taken roles that allow them to do little rather than run away. Finally, Nero sends an assassin to eliminate Seneca, and the scene descends into a terrible bloodshed that is a clear proof of the lack of fiction.
Benoit Debie’s cinematography The breadth of Moroccan locations provides visual inspiration when the story ends. The setting and costumes are also very good. The problem is that the design is underneath. Schwentke’s attempt to create a parable of the decline of the American empire seems forced and empty. Many of the cast members have appeared in Schwentke’s previous films and were obviously recruited to participate in this historical pastiche. The best they can hope for is that their efforts to promote this misleading show will soon be forgotten.
As to the meaning of this enigmatic earthquake quote, speculation is welcome.
Seneca — On the Creation of Earthquakes movie details
THE BOTTOM LINE
No noble Romans in this lame historical lampoon.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Cast: John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Geraldine Chaplin, Julian Sands, Todd
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenwriters: Robert Schwentke, Matthew Wilder
1 hour 50 minutes