Monday, January 31, 2005

HBO's "Rome" offers realistic view of the ancient Roman world

A blow to the temples"At modern Rome?s fabled Cinecitta studios, the BBC and American TV giant HBO have joined forces to shoot an epic $100m television drama series that aims to topple the Hollywood image and set a new vision in its place.

Simply called Rome, the painstakingly researched show is shaping up as a vast, operatic, Grand Guignol drama. Its epic story will weave the lives of two ordinary Roman foot soldiers with historical celebrities such as Julius Caesar and Pompey in the last years of the Roman Republic. The show?s relatively unknown British stars - Kevin McKidd, Ciaran Hinds and Polly Walker - are likely to become household names.

In keeping with ancient Hollywood traditions, Rome will feature intrigue, spectacle and casual brutality. In a radical break with Hollywood traditions, though, it will also be jammed with cliche-busting surprises. There?ll be much more sex and paganism than we?re used to. We?ll see Julius Caesar as he really looked during his ceremonial triumphs (painted head to toe in Jupiter?s colour, red) and Cleopatra will not be a vamp or demi-goddess, but as Cicero saw her - a dinner-party bore.

HBO is putting up most of the money. The first 12 episodes are due to air late this year, and if all goes well a further four seasons are planned. So far, though, the show?s most spectacular feature is its jaw-dropping set, reckoned to be the biggest and most expensive ever built for television. On the backlot at Cinecitta, where Ben-Hur?s chariot race was filmed and where 500 slaves once dragged Liz Taylor into town atop a giant sphinx for Cleopatra, a spectacular new version of the ancient city has been built of steel and fibreglass. There?s a full-scale replica of the Forum, a warren of working-class streets, markets, villas and gardens.

It looks tremendous, but also weird, because this Rome is grubby rather than grandiose. Its temples don?t shimmer but are dirty and multicoloured. The set is smoky and covered with Latin graffiti, much of it obscene. On street corners there are candle-strewn shrines and drawings of giant penises. In one street there?s a typical Roman toilet: a latrine with planks with holes where men and women sit side by side and use the same fetid sponge as toilet paper. Grass grows between the flagstones on the Via Sacra. There?s mud everywhere.

Welcome to the new, realist, ?authentic? Rome: feral, vivid, jumbled, irregular. ?Third world Rome?, the show?s executives call it - a bracing, provocative antidote to a century of ?Hollyrome?.

Production designer Joseph Bennett, who built the set, says: ?People think of Rome as white and cold and beautiful, powerful but distant. But based on the research, I don?t think it was like that at all. If you go to Pompeii, you?re struck by how garish it is, even now. The temples and sculptures were all brightly painted. Rome was like Pompeii, but much bigger. And Rome was so noisy it was impossible to sleep. It was like hell. Think of it as a combination of New York and Calcutta, with insane wealth and insane poverty. It was pretty extreme.?

?We?ve taken everything from scratch,? says chief writer and executive producer Bruno Heller. ?We are disregarding what people might have seen before, and asking: what was it actually like at this moment in history? We?re trying to deal with the lives of ordinary people, the details of routine, everyday life, of unemployment, of disease. And we are trying to be very precise in the historical moment, very precise about the texture of everyday life. Everything flows from that. The Forum was about as grand as it got, but it was not, by any means, stupendous or stupefying. Once you know that the Tiber flooded regularly and the houses were constantly on fire because they were just made of wood, you know that there were fires and floods constantly. It was always smoky, grimy and dirty."
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