Titus (US-Italy 1999) ***
Written and directed by Julie Taymor. Freely adapted from Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus." Photography, Luciano Tovoli. Editing, Francoise Bonnot. Production design, Dante Ferretti. Costumes, Milena Canonero. Music, Elliot Goldenthal. Produced by Jody Patton, Conchita Airoldi and JulieTaymor. Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Titus), Jessica Lange (Tamora), Alan Cumming (Saturnius), Harry Lennix (Aaron), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Chiron), Matthew Rhys (Demetrius), Angus Macfadyen (Lucius), Colm Feore (Marcus), et al. A Fox Searchlight release.162 minutes. R (gory violence).
"Do I see it or do I skip it?" I suspect that many readers of reviews check this out by cutting to the chase and just checking the critics' ratings by stars or letters. Sometimes this tactic is valid, but it does not work for unusual items like "Titus." What's needed in such cases is the equivalent of computer-dating, matching the movie and the personality of the moviegoer.
"Titus" is not the kind of Shakespeare that one would rush to see on the stage. Its screen progenitor Julie Taymor has done the next best thing: making it a wild sight-and-sound spectacle. Her challenging, hugely idiosyncratic production is unlike anything else. It stands on its own feet, Roman sandals or Gucci shoes. At three hours minus eighteen minutes it is not recommended to the mainstream public or the faint of heart, but for cognoscenti there is a definite enrichment. Ms. Taymor, admired for her fanciful theater-staging of Disney's "The Lion King," also did a quirky "Titus" off-Broadway around 1994. "Titus-the-movie" is a specialty picture. It is for those who follow no-holds-barred experimental avant-garde. For Post-modernists who specialize in Shakespeare and are curious to see what Ms. Taymor did with, and to, the Bard. For some of the many students who never read "Titus Andronicus," a work which always been at the bottom of the pile of assigned Shakespeare -- assuming it was placed on the list at all.
The story revolves around Roman General Titus who returns after a great victory over the Goths. He brings prisoners, QueenTamora among them. (Her name looks like a version of "Taymor"). Hewing to a jolly tradition, he executes her oldest son.
Titus declines to be crowned Emperor. Instead, he nominates foppish Saturninus. But the General modesty and generosity are repaid with a maze of political plots, counter-plots, machinations, assassinations, rivers of blood and cut-off body parts.
The play, a very early one by William S., is his most gory and violent. The film's extra-vivid visuals make it even bloodier. To mention merely three gruesome occurences, Titus's daughter who gets raped by two young men before they cut off her hands. Titus's self-mutilates.. He cooks up the now-butchered rapists as meat pies served to unsuspecting Bad People.
The over-the-top play becomes a topping-the-topper movie. Not a sight for sore eyes but a sight to make the eyes sore. Ms.Taymor takes Shakespeare's feverish imagination and keeps adding to it. The "less is more" principle of the Weimar Republic's Bauhaus ushered in modern, simple, functional design. The slogan for this movie should be "more is more." "Titus" was shot in Italy, with some parts in Croatia..Its production credits are a Who's Who of abundantly imaginative, audacious collaborators. They are mostly Italian. The main exception is a French woman: veteran, international and eclectic editor Francoise Bonnot. She has been cutting films since 1962, including six by Costa-Gavras (down to his latest, "Mad City"). Among the non-Gavras pictures are "Black and White in Color," "Un Amour de Swann," Polanski's "The Tenant," "The Year of the Dragon." "Titus" is a big stretch for Ms. Bonnot, with its surrealism at opposite poles to the realism of her past labors.
Julie Taymor's tactics are something like "Anachronism as Art." In the demented sights of her film we get automobiles brushing against Roman legionnaires, toga-clad people smoking cigarettes, modern priests among breastplated warriors, a T-shirted boy, tuxedo-wearing adults among ancient garb, a huge modern bank safe, helmets with delirious ornaments, modern jazz, boogie woogie, sundry methods of torture, assault rifles, revolvers and poniards....
That's just a sampling. There's also the make-up such as that for centurions with ash-covered faces who march like computer-made creatures. Additionally, shots or scenes may remind you of Federico Fellini's outlandish faces and bodies; or of his streetwalkers in "Nights of Cabiria."
What obviously Ms. Taymor had in mind was to modernize Shakespeare while showing his undiminished relevance. She establishes many parallels to contemporary (and eternal) politics, maneuvers, tricks but no treats. Her references run from the non-glory that was Rome to Italian Fascism, dirty deeds, inhumanity, and other such niceties of our times
Fantasy has no limits.. And there's the rub. The uncompromising excesses are --for what they are -- spectacular, perhaps admirable, certainly novel. But they also distract. You don't concentrate as much as you wonder whilst the layers of visuals often cover up the language.
Above all, Shakespeare is words. His text for "Titus Andronicus" is not while not as stupendous as that of his mature plays, yet is still replete with great lines and verse. But I could not always catch them. For several reasons.T he one mentioned above. The unfamiliarity with the play, even if one has read it before. The torrent of words delivered with rat-tat-tat speed. The accents of players who are British, Americans trying to sound British, or Brits trying perhaps to sound un-British.
I miss my beloved Oxbridge or BBC accents, especially the amazing clarity of Laurence Olivier's euphonious, sonorous, mesmerizing voice in his Shakespearean plays and films, in fact in everything else the man performed. Also in his narrations, as for "The World at War." For that matter, I miss too the voice and delivery of Orson Welles. In counter-argument to myself I'll admit that while "Titus" needs state of the art sound equipment, acoustics, volume control and audio balance, these were not available at the auditorium where I saw this work.
In the audiovisual orgy that is "Titus,":the players range from good to excellent in their peculiarly styled roles. Cast leaders Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange do not sound traditionally "Shakesperean,"only semi so. This fits the staging. For Lange (who becomes the new Emperor's consort) and for many of the actors, the defining word is "malevolence." Tamora paves the way for Lady Macbeth, who by comparison is almost a sweetie.
The grandest schemer-plotter of them all is Aaron the Moor, played by black actor Harry Lennix. He is also Tamora's lover and, in a modern way, the main hater of the Establishment and its prejudices. I suppose that Shakespeare had a change of heart later when, way ahead of his time, he championed minorities such a Jews and blacks. In "Othello," the great soul is the Moor of Venice, while the villainous Iago is a nasty white man who in some ways inherits Aaron's trickeries and treacheries..
Influences or inspirations last to the very end..The last shot is a freeze- frame, the kind that Francois Trufaut's "The 400 Blows" made so very popular that it became a cliche. Here however, this deja vu is mitigated by a clever aural trick. "Vivere," one of the many songs by the famous Cesare Andrea Bixio is heard over the end- credits..There is no Italian alive who does not know all Bixio's compositions, no Italian tenor who has not sung or recorded them, from Tito Schipa and Feruccio Tagliavini to Luciano Pavarotti..The singer here is Carlo Buti, in an older, original recording.. All this may sound like a detail, but for Italian audiences, "Vivere" which means "To Live," makes a melodiously ironical "finis."
NOTE for lovers of popular Italian music. Bixio (1896-1975) was prolific, had major hits throughout his whole life. Starting with the first Italian sound movie "La Canzone dell'Amore" (1930) most, perhaps all of his songs were introduced in films. His best period was 1930 -1940, with tremendously popular pieces at home and in most of Europe: "Parlami d'amore, Mariu," "Violino Tzigano," "Torna piccina mia," "La mia canzone al vento," "Mamma," "Vivere" and others.