German director Robert Schwentke’s directorial career has swung in a few directions; he has made Hollywood actioners like Flightplan with Jodie Foster, the adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife and a film that almost defines the idea of a personal movie, based on his own diagnosis with testicular cancer. He has both written and directed Seneca – On the Creation of Earthquakes, an eccentric competition choice, even by the inclusive standards of the Berlinale – starring John Malkovich as the eponymous Stoic philosopher. Over two hours, he delivers what is largely a monologue: as a performance, it has at least the strength of dogged determination. As a film, however, Seneca is almost unendurable.
Shot in and around an open colonnaded pavilion constructed in the Moroccan desert, Seneca draws on Roman historian Tacitus’ account of the great thinker’s reluctant suicide in AD 65. A celebrated public figure, Seneca is also on the young but already completely crazy Emperor Nero’s payroll as a classical combination of speechwriter, life coach and spin doctor. It’s not really a job for life. As Nero (Tom Xander) abandons the idea of trying to make placatory speeches in favor of 24-7 debauchery, his mother Agrippina (Mary-Louise Parker) warns Seneca to retire to his estate and keep a low profile.
Schwentke describes his approach to updating Tacitus as “aggressive anachronism”. Nero is addressed as Mr. President and makes reference to his own stability as a leader, an opportunity for audiences to share a knowing snicker. Seneca describes his socialite visitor Cecilia, a witchy Geraldine Chaplin, as “a one-woman opiate crisis”: yes, even the ancients had their drug fiends. Nero, famous for fiddling while Rome burned, plays heavy metal on a lyre crossed with a rocker’s axe. No opportunity is missed to trowel on the parallels between Rome and our own times.
The most heavily underlined of these is Seneca’s own murky moral status, as a Stoic philosopher preaching reason, restraint and the virtues of a simple life while getting rich taking a tyrant’s shilling. It’s a dilemma faced by any artist with rich patrons or, indeed, any film director who finds himself on career roll making demeaning but lucrative potboilers. It’s the quandary of the expert seconded to advise a bad president, telling herself she can make a difference. Seneca is a sell-out. We get it.
Unsurprisingly, he is also not the kind of public figure who can slip into obscurity; his retreat to the country is no more low-key than a holiday in the Hamptons. Thus we see him entertaining a few rich patrons with a satirical play – his version of theatre involving real murders, the better to lampoon the Emperor’s brutality – followed by dinner at what is described as the most desirable table in Rome.
Julian Sands, the British actor who went missing while hiking in January, is among the gaggle of idle rich who pay for such diversions. This sybaritic posse are busy swilling wine and trading insults when a particularly driven (and indubitably hot) member of the Praetorian Guard (Andrew Koji) arrives to tell Seneca that Nero believes he was part of an assassination plot he has just foiled. He has one night to kill himself, or the guard will do it for him, Nero’s way. You don’t want that, he says.
Seneca accepts his fate. As long as he has scribes to note every pronouncement he makes – up to and including his death rattle – and an audience to witness the historic moment, he can almost enjoy its performative grandeur. But that point is already made: he’s a dreadful windbag. Early in the film, we may feel a passing sympathy with the repulsive Nero when he snaps at his mentor: “Does anyone demand you stop your stupid life lessons and be quiet for once?” By the end, people in the press audience were screaming at him to get on and die.
Malkovich truly delivers on the character’s pomposity, but for an actor to be so unbearable that the entire audience is willing him to take a double dose of hemlock is something of an own goal. Anyway, no spoilers here, but you can find out what happened next in the Annals of Tacitus. They’re way more fun than this.
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