March 20th, 2021

Asterix Romans

2. The Dacii (1967), dir. Sergiu Nicolaescu

This film came to my attention because I noticed people were tweeting about it on the ClassicsTwitterMovie hashtag. It was too late for me to join in the communal watch by that point, but I saved the information and watched it myself a few weeks later. It's available on Youtube with English subtitles, though you have to actively turn them on by clicking on the cog, bottom right.

It is the second Romanian film I have watched, the first being Vlad Tepeș (1979) in February of 2015 (DW / LJ). I had made some attempts to learn some Romanian already at that point, ahead of a visit there that May, but only from a teach-yourself book - I hadn't yet discovered Duolingo. I see I judged in my review that I was able to understand about one word in a hundred, which wasn't much to celebrate! Watching The Dacii was a sober reminder of how far I still have to go, despite being 3/5 of the way through the Romanian Duolingo course now. Romanian speakers seem to go at a similar speed to their Spanish cousins when speaking to each other, which would explain why I've needed to make a lot more use of the 'speak at half-speed' button on Romanian Duolingo listening exercises than I ever have with German. On the other hand, I definitely understood a lot more than I did in 2015. The subtitles seemed to appear on a slight delay by comparison with the actual speech, which meant that once or twice I was able to parse a shorter sentence before the translation appeared. For longer sentences, I was probably understanding something more like about one word in three, but not really getting the time I needed to figure out what the sentence as a whole might mean before the next one started. Still, it is progress.

The story deals with the Dacian resistance to Domitian's campaign against them in AD 86-88, led by Decebalus. As such, it belongs to a wider genre of stories about antiquity which similarly focus on resistance to Rome's military might by peoples from the same geographical area as the contemporary nation making them. Comparable material from other nations includes the Asterix books, Los Cántabros (1980), a whole German mythology around Arminius and a similar British one around Boudicca. Rather like most of these other examples, the Dacii are cast as fighting not merely to defend their own territory, but as the last great hopes for resistance to Rome, all of which is made quite explicit via opening dialogue between a Roman at the gates of a Dacian fort and the inhabitants within. This seems to fit with Romanian foreign policy at the time, at least insofar as I've gleaned it from Wikipedia, which involved Ceaușescu in the early years of his regime winning popularity by taking a stance against the authority of the Soviet Union. Wikipedia also tells me that the film itself is extremely popular in Romania, standing as their second-most-watched historical film and fourth most watched of all time, so it seems that message of brave nationalism did indeed resonate.

The basic plot sees the Romans turning up for conquest and taking a Dacian encampment after an epic siege with a cast of thousands and lots of good details like a siege tower and a battering-ram with a roof covered in soft sacks to protect the men wielding it. The two sides then send ambassadors to one another, but both are clearly basically preparing for further war. The Dacians manage to ambush the Romans in a narrow pass, throwing rocks and felling trees on them a bit like the Ewoks. But this is not the end. Things culminate in a major battlefield confrontation, where although the Dacian leader Decebalus and a sympathetic Roman character named Severus try to defuse things, the Romans march forward anyway and we fade to an ancient battle scene relief. It's hard to map the events of the film very closely onto the actual history of Domitian's campaigns, as several licences have clearly been taken. E.g. history records that the Roman general Fuscus died in battle during the campaigns, but the film has him dying as the result of a sword-fight with Severus. Perhaps the decision to end with the battle and not show who wins was a way of capturing the somewhat ambiguous / unfinished outcome of the campaigns themselves? It seems a slightly odd choice given the evident desire of the producers to deliver a nationalist message, but perhaps it was better for them than either a) showing an outright Dacian victory, which wasn't really true, or b) Decebalus ending up suing for peace and becoming a Roman client king, which didn't really fit Ceaușescu's stance of resistance to the USSR. The mid-battle ending instead allows the producers to send the audience out of the cinema with the message that the battle of resistance against external authority is never-ending ringing in their ears.

Meanwhile, there's a lot going on around that bare-bones outline of battles and their outcomes. First the Dacians. Our sympathies are clearly supposed to lie with them. Charming pastoral hunting scenes early on in the film secure that, and contrast sharply with establishing scenes of the Roman characters which show Domitian's generals conspiring to undermine him and the emperor himself more concerned with gold than victory. The Dacians are coded in various ways which make the analogy with contemporary Romanians very clear - for example they wear embroidered clothes much like traditional Romanian garb, and send their women and children away from war to the mountains in carts much like the ones used there today - what Stoker calls a leiterwagen in Dracula.

But they are very much also the noble barbarians of the ancient Greco-Roman sources, which likewise suits the nationalist agenda very well. They wear the Phrygian caps and carry the dragon-headed standards shown on Trajan's column and various other Roman victory monuments. In the early siege of the Dacian encampment, the Romans manage to take only one prisoner alive, who promptly grabs a sword and kills himself. Later on, Decebalus explains to the sympathetic Severus, who has been sent to him as an ambassador, that the Dacians always fight to the death because they have no fear of it, and die laughing because they are going to their god, Zalmoxis. Indeed, there is lots of Zalmoxis business as the film goes on, which was one of my favourite things about it. Once Decebalus has resolved on war, he reluctantly agrees on the advice of his priest to send a message to Zalmoxis via his son Cotizo using the ritual of impalement on three spears (described by Herodotus), which they then proceed to do in front of this rock formation, which some people say is the face of Zalmoxis. I'd love to know whether that association predated the film or was created by it. Zalmoxis takes his time to respond, but does, sending torrential rain which floods the plains where the Romans are, causing them all sorts of trouble. It is all very cool stuff to see enacted on screen.

Decebalus himself is of course idealised as a wise and capable leader. We meet him for the first time when he is overseeing training contests (so, showing appropriate leadership in a state based on warfare), and then see him with his council of advisers being cautious yet firm and taking the necessary measures to protect the Dacian women and children. The councillors respond by casting doubts on Decebalus' strategy, which I found interesting because the motif of the wise leader surrounded by doubters and hot-heads was something I also recognised from Vlad Tepeș (1979). I am going to place a guess that this was part of Ceaușescu's self-fashioning, and I can see how that would be a useful narrative for an autocratic leader to create about the relationship between their own personal qualities and those of the people around them. He must have created it early, though, because (just guessing from its release date) this film probably went into production only about a year after he took power. Anyway, in the film Decebalus is of course proved right by the course of events, but is still having to rein in hot-headed generals right up to the final battle scene, where they force full-blown warfare despite his attempts to resolve things via intelligence rather than machismo.

Meanwhile, the Romans are fairly recognisable as the relentless military machine portrayed in many a Hollywood film, except here presumably standing for the Soviet Union rather than the Evil Brits. We see huge numbers of them marching to relentless music, but they are also humanised and characterised. Severus, the sympathetic one who spends time with the Dacians and comes to understand them, is of course portrayed as skilful and likeable from the beginning. On the other side, we have Fuscus, who is shown early on conspiring to undermine Domitian, and later decimates (literally) a legion whom he thinks have let him down. Domitian is of course a classic Bad Emperor, who sits arrogantly on Burebista's throne in the Dacian camp after the Romans have captured it to receive ambassadors from Decebalus, and has a tame historian following him round writing everything down - presumably in a suitably panegyrical manner.

Overall, definitely one I'm glad I watched. It certainly is nationalistic, but so are many Roman historical films, and it was fascinating to see that from a specifically Romanian angle. It's not naturalistic or subtle as a piece of cinematic art, but it makes the most of the assets Romania could command in the 1960s - beautiful landscapes and lots of people. And it's good to find that the time I've spent on Duolingo has had at least some impact at least. Here's to further progress!

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ITV digital Monkey popcorn

3. The Grass is Greener (1960), dir. Stanley Donen

This was screened on Talking Pictures TV, but I watched it as part of a Zoom-based meet-up organised by Scalarama Leeds. We logged in and chatted for half an hour before the film, then switched the Zoom off to watch it in our separate abodes, and then logged back in to discuss it afterwards.

It's based on a 1956 West End stage-play, and we agreed that it felt like it in the sense of being a bit static and set-bound. It also felt weirdly on the cusp of two different eras without quite managing to make the clash between the two exciting or dynamic. It's basically a drawing-room farce about a love triangle, lightly updated for the post-war era, and within which the American millionaire love-interest played by Robert Mitchum and the husband's London socialite ex-girlfriend played by Jean Simmons felt rather out of place by comparison with the slightly down-at-heel aristocratic central couple. The comedy also sat alongside some quite sincere emotional moments without the two really setting each other off all that effectively either.

Still, Jean Simmons in and of herself was a definite highlight, in a role which to me rather anticipated Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly the following year. And there were some good scenes. There's a split-screen phonecall at one point between the husband and the love-rival, with Jean Simmons and the wife leaning in to hear and comment on what the person on the other end is saying and both couples paralleling each other's actions and words, which we thought was quite cleverly donw. And some quiet-but-effective comedy moments, like when the wife, wanting to offer the love-interest a drink during their first meeting so he would stay a little longer, mused that it was a bit too early to offer him a cup of tea, so he helped himself to a massive G&T instead.

Nice to watch as part of a group and discuss afterwards, but I wouldn't go out of my way to see it otherwise.

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