Ralph Fiennes' film of Coriolanus was barely released to theaters, which is a shame but perhaps not a surprise. Though not one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," Coriolanus—based on a Roman legend from the 5th Century B.C.—is the bleakest of Shakespeare's tragedies, and consequently one of his least popular. The titular character of Coriolanus—one hesitates to call him a hero—is a cold, vindictive military commander, openly contemptuous of the greater run of humanity. By the end of the play, the greater run of humanity has proved him absolutely right.
Filled with political double-dealing and bloody battles—including hand-to-hand combat between Coriolanus and his sworn enemy Aufidius—Coriolanus is a natural choice among Shakespeare's plays for updating to our current war-torn times. Just as Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine transformed Richard III into a Fascist dictator with very little trouble, Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) transpose Coriolanus seamlessly to the 1990s and the former Yugoslavian states. (Fiennes shot most of the film in Belgrade.) Fiennes' Coriolanus is at least as good as Loncraine's Richard III, and is if anything superior for the greater immediacy of its setting. Traditionalists may be jarred by the AK-47s, talking heads and sound bytes, but this story of blood feuds and political treachery could not seem more up to date. The Shakespearian dialogue (Fiennes and Logan streamline the play, but don't tinker with the language) serves as it always has, to unveil succeeding layers of character and underscore the story's timelessness.
Some critics have likened Fiennes' performance as Coriolanus to his most famous role, as the evil Amon Goeth in Schindler's List. Both characters have a notable vicious streak, and Coriolanus' plan to lead an invading army against his former home seems Goethian on its face. But unlike the infinitely corrupt Goeth, Coriolanus always acts according to his own inscrutable but rigid sense of honor. This is what spells his doom in the end, living as he does among people with no sense of honor at all. Fiennes reveals Coriolanus' intransigence and conflicted conscience with magnificent skill.
As excellent as Fiennes is, the standout performance is by Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus' Machiavellian mother, Volumnia. In Redgrave's hands, Volumnia is a terrifying variation on the Spartan mother who told her son to return from war either with his shield or on it. Self-righteous to the core of her being, Volumnia sees herself as a fount of courageous justice, and never admits to herself that she's just another one of those who wants what she wants when she wants it. In the end, she is just as ready to curse her own son as she was those who unjustly banished him.
Considering the film's martial ambience, it was a clever move for Fiennes to cast the cinema's most famous Spartan, Gerard Butler (300), as Aufidius. Butler and Fiennes are sensational in their fight scenes. Beyond that, Butler gives a persuasive performance as a military commander who has Coriolanus' skill and cunning but not, in the end, his sense of honor.
There are also fine performances by Brian Cox as the senator Menenius, Coriolanus' only true friend, and by James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson as the perfidious senators who raise the rabble against Coriolanus. Playing one of the leaders of the rabble is Lubna Azabal, who was unforgettable in the French-Canadian film Incendies. Jessica Chastain, who had a miraculous year in 2011 (The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, Take Shelter) plays Coriolanus' wife, Virgilia.
Ralph Fiennes wasn't the only recent English-language filmmaker to have Rome on his mind. Woody Allen, having stopped in London, Barcelona and Paris in his ongoing European tour, snaps a few photos of the Eternal City in his latest film, To Rome with Love.
To Rome with Love is a set of four concurrent but completely separate short films. The most ambitious of the four concerns a successful architect (Alec Baldwin) and a young architectural student (Jesse Eisenberg) who meet by chance on a Roman street and become fast friends. The younger man introduces the elder to his live-in girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and, later, the girlfriend's actress BFF (Ellen Page), who comes to Rome for a visit.
The older man inexplicably sticks around, offering romantic advice in any and all places when the younger man finds himself shaken by the new woman who has entered his life. It becomes obvious that Baldwin and Eisenberg are the same character, separated by about a quarter-century. Baldwin's sly, subtle comic performance is the best thing in To Rome with Love, yet the segment feels overly familiar coming from Allen. It doesn't help that Page—otherwise an excellent and likable actress—is hopelessly miscast in a sexpot role that screams for Scarlett Johansson.
The funniest segment features Allen himself; it's wonderful to see him again after far too long offscreen. (His last appearance was six years ago, in Scoop.) Allen plays a retired opera director, noted (and usually mocked) for the eccentricity of his stagings, who discovers that his daughter's future father-in-law (Fabio Armiliato) is one of the greatest tenors who ever lived—but only in the shower.
The sight gags that end this segment are all too easy to guess, but the true joy is hearing Allen once again sling one-liners with the masterful assurance of his heroes, Bob Hope and Groucho Marx. When his wife (Judy Davis) tells him to unclench during a bumpy airplane descent into Rome, Allen says, "I can't unclench! I'm an atheist!" Davis, a veteran of Allen's movies, is a perfect foil for him. At one point, Allen tells Davis, "I think I'm having a breakthrough, an epiphany…what would you call it?" "A death wish?" she replies.
Roberto Benigni generates some solid laughs in the third segment, about a humble Roman clerk who suddenly and inexplicably becomes the toast of Italian television. The segment has some pertinent things to say about so-called Reality TV, but Allen's moral makes it a little too evident that the sketch was written by a man who has been a celebrity for nearly half a century.
The least satisfying segment is an old-fashioned, door-slamming farce about a happy hooker (Penelope Cruz) who inadvertently creates complications in the life of a young man (Alessandro Tiberi) seeking a job from his ultra-rich, ultra-conservative relatives. Cruz is almost as much a live wire here as she was in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but her material here isn't as good, and the other performers are merely competent.
To Rome with Love is pleasant, but oddly disengaged. Allen doesn't seem particularly interested in Rome, or in any of the stories he's telling. He begins, as he did Midnight in Paris, with a brief, wordless tour of the city, but it feels perfunctory. In Midnight in Paris, Allen's passion for La Ville Lumiere permeated and elevated the film. In To Rome with Love, he's a tourist. You won't regret seeing To Rome with Love, but you won't remember it for very long, either.