Cultural identity Franco Rossi's Quo vadis (1985)

Anja Bettenworth

University of Michigan/Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster

The paper explores the innovative way in which the 1985 TV version of Quo vadis (director: F. Ros­si), handles cultural identity and its transmission. It argues that the film portrays pagans as ali­en not by their lack of civilization and intelligence, as it is often the case in toga movies, but on the contrary by their refined education foreign to the average modern audience. While the spec­ta­tors are occasionally invited to interpret ancient history with the help of the gospels, they al­so wit­ness a pagan trying to make sense of a passage of the gospels with the help of Roman tra­di­ti­on.

One of the first scenes shows Nero's astrologer Balbillus telling the emperor that a comet star has appeared which forebodes his downfall. The movie then cuts o­ver to a scene unattested in Sien­kiewicz's novel, in which Ly­gia, a Christian hostage, lays out a mosaique of the nativity sce­ne including the star of Beth­le­hem. The comet is the first detail of the scene (shown in close-up) and invites the spectator to link the two scenes and to parallel the bloodthirsty Nero with king He­rod. The parallel is ta­ken up later in the movie, keeping this subtext alive in the reader's mind.

Shortly after, Lygia's pagan admirer Marcus Vincius approaches and identifies the mosaique first as a scene "from mythology" (the birth of Achilles) and then, as he puts it, as a fact "from his­to­ry" (Dido and Ae­ne­as in the cave). The context suggests that "mythology" here connotes the remote and unfamiliar, while "history" is seen as "close" and potentially relevant.

While the spectator can easily identify the picture, Marcus fails despite his education, because Lygia holds back the necessary background information: Visual art, in the film, is not self-ex­plai­­ning, but must be complemented by oral tradition - a surprising turn in a movie. No such restrictions apply, apparently, to literary production, represented by Vergil and the go­­spels. Vergil is readily available to pagans and Christians in the film, and the gospels, still in­com­plete at the ti­me of the plot, are compiled from the converging memories of several eye­wit­nes­ses, and de­sig­ned to replace their accounts after their death. 

      The continuous display of visual, oral and written testimonies portrays the confrontation between Christianity and paganism as a struggle between two respectable traditions and invites the audience to review the black and white image of pagan Roman culture conveyed by earlier movie versions of Sienkiewicz's novel.


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