There is one thing to be said for Seneca — On the Creation of Earthquakes, which has its world premiere in Berlin this week. It may be the first major film set in ancient Rome in a couple of decades. But those who are hoping for a vivid adventure like Gladiator or Spartacus or even a campy hoot like Quo Vadis will be sorely disappointed by this bizarre effort to create a historical fantasia. John Malkovich has a rare starring role and acquits himself solidly enough. But it is harder to understand what motivated director Robert Schwentke, who has some successful films to his credit (The Time Traveler’s Wife, RED, the Divergent series) but adds no luster to his resume with this head-scratcher.
Schwentke was born in Germany but has made most of his films in Hollywood. This German-financed effort was filmed primarily in Morocco and showcases a cast from all over the world, few of whom register except in a florid, over-the-top vein. The campy tone is set at the outset with tongue-in-cheek narration delivered by actor Jefferson Mays. The tale, which has some slight basis in fact, is set in the first century, primarily during the reign of Nero (the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned, at least if Quo Vadis is to be believed). Seneca was a Roman senator, a philosopher and playwright who acted as tutor to the boy emperor and received nothing but rank ingratitude for his efforts.
Seneca — On the Creation of Earthquakes
The Bottom Line
No noble Romans in this lame historical lampoon.
In the opening scenes we see Seneca coddling and deferring to Nero (Todd Xander), who becomes increasingly deranged and power-mad as he embarks on a murderous rampage against enemies real and imagined. Schwentke and co-writer Matthew Wilder seem to be drawing parallels between Nero and contemporary megalomaniacs like Trump or Putin. (Courtiers even address Nero as “Mr. President” rather than “Your Majesty.”) At one point Seneca defends his toadying to the emperor by suggesting that “it could have been worse” without his mediating role in the palace. Then who is Seneca’s contemporary analogue? Steve Bannon? Or maybe one of the initial members of Trump’s cabinet like James Mattis or Rex Tillerson? All of them eventually ran afoul of their Dear Leader, just like the self-deluding Seneca in Schwentke’s movie.
This contemporary counterpointing is ludicrous but amusing enough for a while. Xander gives perhaps the most entertaining performance in the movie as the mad monarch. But he disappears fairly early when Seneca repairs to his country estate, where he holds court with his younger wife (Lilith Stangenberg) and a bunch of aristocratic toadies. But once they realize that Seneca has lost favor with the monarch, most of them decamp.
Schwentke has assembled an impressive supporting cast, which includes Mary-Louise Parker, Julian Sands, Geraldine Chaplin and Alexander Fehling. Chaplin has a lively confrontation scene with Seneca, but most of the others have truncated roles that allow them to do little but rant and then depart. Eventually Nero dispatches an assassin to eliminate Seneca, and the movie wallows in gruesome bloodletting that is a sure sign of narrative lethargy.
The widescreen cinematography of the Moroccan locations by Benoit Debie provides some visual stimulation when the story runs out of steam. Sets and costumes are also suitably sumptuous. The problem is with the underlying conception. Schwentke’s attempt to create a parable of the decline of the American empire seems mainly forced and fatuous. Many of the cast members appeared in Schwentke’s earlier movies and were apparently recruited to join this historical pastiche. The best they can hope is that their efforts to shore up this misguided spectacle will be quickly forgotten.
As for the meaning of that enigmatic subtitle about earthquakes, guesses are welcome.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Cast: John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Geraldine Chaplin, Julian Sands, Todd Xander, Alexander Fehling, Lilith Stangenberg, Louis Hofmann, Andrew Koji, Jefferson Mays
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenwriters: Robert Schwentke, Matthew Wilder
Producers: Karim Debbagh, Frieder Schlaich, Irene von Alberti
Executive producers: Guido Brascheit, Harro von Have
Director of photography: Benoit Debie
Production designers: Ian Bailie, Marco Trentini
Costume designer: Anna Wubber
Editor: Michael Czarnecki
Music: Martin Todsharow
Casting: Anja Dihrberg-Siebler
1 hour 50 minutes