Sunday, November 11, 2012

The sacrifice of an egoist


                Ralph Fiennes, a famous British actor, recently decided to step behind the camera. For his debut he chose an adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy "Coriolanus". It's a story of Roman general Caius Martius and his downfall. Martius is a member of Roman high society who looks down upon common people considering them a primitive, uneducated mob. After a victory over his arch-nemesis Tullus Aufidius from the Volscian army for which he is given a title "Coriolanus", Martius runs for Consul. But some of the tribunes don't have it in their best interest for him to be elected so they decide to use his well known contempt for people and short temper, and pit him against those who must acknowledge him as a consul, leading to his banishment from Rome. Once banished, his resentment for Rome grows so big he goes to Aufidius and offers him help in conquering the city.

                All of the dialogue in the movie is Shakespearean and you can easily imagine warriors in their armor with swords and shields, as well as Roman senators and tribunes walking around in their togas. But here comes the interesting part. The movie transports the story in our present (or at least some variation of it), so instead of swords we have guns and instead of senators walking around we see them driving in cars. That modern setting emphasizes the parallels with the current situation in the world, where the gap between the rich and the poor becomes wider and wider and common people complain against those in power. But the movie does something even more interesting. It shows that people, how ever smart every one of them might be, when put in a group fall under the influence of mass mentality and need guidance. The question is, is it better for them to be led by someone with sweet words but selfish mind or someone who looks on them from above but is smart and noble. It seems that Shakespeare gives us such flawed candidates on purpose, suggesting the imperfection of the world we live in and showing us we'll often have to choose between two evils.

                But the movie isn't just about showing us the flaws of the system or mass mentality. It also focuses on the relationship between Martius and his dominant mother Volumnia, which feels almost incestuous. There's a scene in which Virgilia, his wife, walks in on Volumnia nurturing his wounds, and withdraws with shame like she caught two lovers in the act. But the power his mother has over him, shaped Martius as a person of many contradictions and ultimately made him sacrifice himself for the city he wanted to destroy.

                Although the first half of the movie is filled with gunfire and explosions, it's a full-blooded tragedy with larger-than-life characters, pompous dialogues and some, presumably deliberate, overacting from Vanessa Redgrave and Ralph Fiennes in the roles of mother and son. Placing the plot in a modern setting, Fiennes adds a kind of post-apocalyptic feel to the tragedy and makes a 400 years old story feel fresh in spite of Shakespearean language. Beside Redgrave and Fiennes, I should point out Brian Cox as Menenius, one of the senators, as well as Jessica Chastain as Virgilia. The role of Aufidius is played by Gerard Butler, who, I feel, lacks the conviction of the others, and is one of the movie's weakest points.

                "Coriolanus" is an interesting, if not completely successful, experiment. Though the Shakespearean element can be difficult for most, it pays off once you get accustomed to it, creating a unique experience. Fiennes has done a very good job and I can't wait to see his take on Charles Dickens' life in "The Invisible Woman". However, I hope there won't be any machine gun fire and driving around in cars this time.

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