A philosophical counterpoint to the militaristic bombast of the historical epic, Quo Vadis expels the grand battles and superfluous strategy, favoring dramatic richness and a contemplative examination of faith and authority. Forthright in its Christian perspective, but never obstinate, the narrative paints pagan Rome in a harsh light without shielding its eyes, retaining the decadence and promiscuity of a culture bewitched by conquest and pleasure.
Satirizing the delusions of grandeur that propelled Rome towards oblivion, the camera pans slowly to reveal material wealth, poring over marble columns, amethyst gowns and golden imperial uniforms, fineries that stand in stark contrast to the venal words pouring from the mouths of the magistrate. At the fore of this despotic monarchy is Nero, embodying the duality of man through his artistic sensitivities and bloodthirsty carnality. He is a petulant child in the role of God and the peppery Peter Ustinov lays him in perpetual recline, imbibing liberally and bellowing in amateurish lyric poem.
Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) is Nero’s polar opposite, building a reputation through military campaign and resolute comportment, denying himself the amenities of celebrity aside from absolute vanity. His fixation on possession extends beyond the fray, inserting itself into lustful desires that couple the bondage of slavery with the catharsis of sexual congress. The target of his affection is Lygia (Deborah Kerr), the adopted daughter of a retired general and devotee of the spiritual and intellectual; a woman indifferent to the libidinous cravings of a violent narcissist.
Manipulating Roman law to his advantage, Marcus exploits Lygia’s patronage, enslaving her as a way to sate her concupiscent thirst, though she’d much prefer to drink from the metaphorical cup of Christ. This clash between body and mind further stresses duality, positing Marcus and Lygia’s tempestuous relationship as a key symbol for strain between Roman wealth and virility and the modesty of evangelical Christianity.
Despite broad shoulders and a square jaw, characteristics that epitomize noble fortitude, Robert Taylor’s stone-faced line reading stalls the pace of an otherwise refined chamber piece, leaving the camera and cast to counterbalance through sweeping tracking shot and exaggerated performance. The only rendition that remains unscathed is Deborah Kerr’s Lygia, her wit and beauty perfectly representing disharmony, each wrinkle of her anxious countenance clashing with strawberry locks that flit atop her pearly breast. The camera is appropriately transfixed, bathing in the radiance of her crimson lips and the sparkling ornaments of her cobalt robe, nearly legitimizing the covetous nature of Marcus’ courtship.
The biblical flashbacks are just as sumptuous, reproducing Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper and the tale of the four fishermen, animating the Gospel by the soft glow of orange torches and wondrous close-up shots. Each character portrait is potent and lovingly produced, searing tan flesh, pink lips and blue eyes into our memory banks. Al fresco shots of Roman flora are treated with as much esteem, each elaborate exterior replete with verdant olive trees and azure trickling pools, adding tranquility despite the tumultuous nature of the times. The claustrophobia of a collapsing imperium only develops as the aesthetic beauty gives way to a litany of sorrows, each Christian suffering the cross to gratify the demoniac Nero. As his scramble for absolute power canonizes a peaceful legion of monotheists, Nero triggers a regime change, one not only of fidelity over idolatry, but the evolution of the mind over the lust of the body.
Quo Vadis (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1951)
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Written by Henryk Sienkiewicz (novel), John Lee Mahin (screenplay), S.N. Behrman (screenplay), Sonya Levien (screenplay) and Hugh Gray (lyrical compositions and historical advisor)
Photographed by William V. Skall and Robert Surtees