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I recently had the pleasure of revisiting MGM's mammoth 1951 Quo Vadis in both its SD-DVD and BD incarnations. If that particular pair of transfers left a bit to be desired, it at least provided the opportunity to once again watch one of the most epic of all epic motion pictures, one that truly lived up to the claim of "cast of thousands." If its star, Robert Taylor, was too stiff, Midwestern and, frankly, blandly asexual to ignite much interest, Deborah Kerr was transcendent as the distaff side of the love story, and Peter Ustinov chewed up the scenery in his star-making turn as Nero. So I was more than a little interested to be able to see this much talked about 2001 Polish television miniseries version of the property. After all, the original novel was by Nobel prize winning Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, so one would think his countrymen might have some sort of special insight into the source material that might better illuminate some of its dark corners. And with hours and hours with which to tell their story, perhaps a bit more character development could be portrayed.
I'm not sure about the insight part of that equation, but this lengthy adaptation does allow for a more nuanced introduction of both the main characters, Roman centurion Marcus Vinicius (Pawel Delag) and the lovely slave girl Lygia (Magdalena Mielcarz) with whom he falls in love. Lygia is of course a member of that radical underground cult, the Christians, and the bulk of Quo Vadis' story is the conflict between a Rome sadly in moral decline under Nero and these new believers in a risen God who has promised salvation for all mankind. If the 1951 MGM version was heavy on Hollywood piety and impressive spectacle, this version takes a little more time with character and intimacy, as befits its television origins.
Though this miniseries was the most expensive Polish production of its time, it does lack the jaw-dropping spectacle of the MGM version. Crowd scenes tend to be limited to a score or so of people, aside from the Colisseum scenes, which look fairly grandiose. In fact a lot of this version of Quo Vadis reminded me quite a bit of I, Claudius: minimal, though effective, interior sets with decently costumed individuals reciting very literate dialogue about matters great and small. When in fact the film opens up, for example in scenes shot next to waterways, it does achieve a visual grandeur that is otherwise not very abundant.
Where this miniseries excels is in its performances, even with the language barrier (the movie is in Polish with English subtitles). Delag is a much more dynamic actor than Taylor in the role--more handsome, more athletic, certainly younger, but with a certain almost callowness that makes his ultimate conversion all the more moving. Mielcarz is incredibly lovely, a stunning beauty and more than capable actress who is able to convey Lygia's purity and strength of purpose in equal measure. Where the film really sparks, though (much like the 1951) version is in its depictions of Nero (Michal Bajor) and Petronius (Boguslaw Linda). Bajor has a completely different take on Nero than Ustinov. It's probably just as much of a scenery chewing turn, but it seems more grounded in real madness, as opposed to the sort of hubris combined with artistic foppery that Ustinov brought to the role. Nero's death scene in this version is a truly shocking moment, unlike the MGM version, which director Mervyn LeRoy played almost for laughs. Linda's Petronius is a commanding character, so commanding in fact that he takes center stage at times when he really should be relegated to the sidelines.
This is not a film for youngsters or for the squeamish. There's quite a bit of female nudity sprinkled throughout the palace scenes, and there's a viscerally disturbing scene of Christians and lions that is not easy to forget. If you're used to the patently laughable Hollywood version of these events (think Victor Mature wrestling an obviously stuffed lion), you'd better steel yourself for some explicitly gruesome moments as Christians meet their maker. Another disturbing segment has several crucified believers being burned alive. These moments are handled as tastefully as possible, but they're not for the weak stomached among you. By contrast, the closing denouement of the film, featuring St. Peter, may leave you scratching your head in puzzlement.
If this version never quite rises to the level of genius that I, Claudius did, it certainly shares many admirable traits with that brilliant miniseries. There's just enough of an epic feel to keep the film from feeling completely studio bound, the performances are uniformly top notch, and the writing, direction and especially cinematography help convey the tenor of Nero's times quite effectively. For anyone who is familiar with the Hollywood version (or even the other miniseries version), this is a uniquely satisfying retelling of Sienkiewicz' tale that should excite a lot of people who love the basic story. Just be prepared for the "naughty bits" and the gruesome lion scene.
Unfortunately Quo Vadis arrives in an unenhanced letter- and pillar-boxed 1.78:1 transfer that deprives the film of a lot of its visual impact. The source elements are in generally good shape, with lifelike color and contrast. Detail is generally quite sharp. There's not the blatant difference in interior and exterior scenes that hampers a lot of British productions, but nothing here rises to a level that is going to knock your socks off. This is a production that really should have received a proper, enhanced 1.78:1 transfer for maximum impact.
The DD 5.1 Polish mix only fitfully comes completely to life, notably in the Colisseum scenes which fill the surround channels with crowd noises. All dialogue is crisp (though several scenes are really badly looped), and fidelity throughout the miniseries is just fine. English subtitles (in yellow, making them easy to read) are offered.
None are present.
This is a fascinating companion piece to the MGM Quo Vadis. Longer and more deliberate, with several scenes of shocking brutality, this gives a much seedier view into Nero's Rome than the opulent Hollywood version. If you're a fan of the MGM film, or just would like a different take on the same source material, this is definitely Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet