Anyone can see that "Rome" wasn't built in a day, but it doesn't look like it cost $100 million -- as trade papers have reported -- either. When watching HBO's lavish, ravishing and wickedly shocking new series about long-ago ancestors of "The Sopranos," however, it's really not fair to play accountant and try to figure out where all the money was spent, or why it doesn't appear to be "up there on the screen."
What matters is the film itself, and the film itself elevates the Roman-epic genre to a new level of literate lustiness, a feast for the senses that includes generous portions of food for thought.
The BBC-HBO co-production definitely has a look, and a look unlike most other films set in this era, with the possible exception of Richard Lester's comic "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Although Lester's romp obviously was of a different temperament entirely, it conjured a Rome like "Rome's" -- not majestically marble but splashed with tawdry color, much of it blood-red.
Certainly the city drips with decadence -- right from the outset, the outset being tonight at 9 on HBO with Michael ("Coal Miner's Daughter") Apted directing Bruno Heller's pip of a script. The story continues for 11 more weekly episodes of what's being called the show's first season, leading one to wonder, why not just do it as a 12-hour self-contained miniseries (or maxiseries) and let it go at that? Why not? Because HBO, like the broadcast networks, refuses to let anything go at that.
The prospect of spending 12 weeks with "Rome's" collection of corrupt and conspiring characters has a genuine appeal, something akin to the experience of public TV's long-ago import "I, Claudius." But how many people, one has to wonder, will make it through all 12 episodes and then jump for joy at the prospect of waiting eight months or a year to pick up the saga where it left off?
Actually, many a reasonable viewer might be justified in letting out a loud, pained groan on anticipating another visit to ancient Rome even before the new "Rome" begins. After all, that overblown and overpraised movie "Gladiator" bloodied up movie screens not all that long ago, and it was June of this year when ABC spent hours and hours on "Empire," which covers much of the same temporal terrain as the HBO series. "Empire" picked up the tale in 44 B.C.. "Rome" starts in 52 B.C. and when its final episode airs it will have reached the year when ABC's began.
There is no comparison, however, between the two epics; ABC's seems, in retrospect, simplistic and melodramatic (if also more fun) in comparison to HBO's. And the new production seems more clearly to have allegorical aspirations, or at least an urge to make contemporary parallels more evident for those inclined to see them. Gaius Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) has been off fighting a war, disgruntled members of the Senate grumble in the opening installment: "For eight long years he has gorged himself like a wolf in the blood of Gaul and truly made himself monstrously rich." Some might see the current war in the Mideast in similar pessimistic terms, though we're told in "Rome" that the bloodshed in Gaul has made Caesar hugely more popular than ever and even solidified his reputation as a man of the people -- though he's really every bit the snooty aristocrat that his obsessed enemy Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham) is.
On being declared "an enemy of Rome" by the conniving senators and their leadership -- nobles who see their fortunes and status threatened by any kind of populist champion -- Caesar laments, "Our beloved republic is in the hands of madmen. This is a dark day, and I stand at a fork in the road." Two cliches in one sentence is a bit much, but one can imagine the first line of that speech being uttered by the politically dismayed of A.D. 2005.
Richer than Caesar or Pompey, and even richer than Croesus, is the production's milieu, its evocation of ancient times, its vast panoramic portrait of a society fully realized on film and studded with sparkling or startling details -- those ranging from a grotesque caricature of Caesar performing fellatio (perhaps on someone named Fellatio?) hastily scrawled by graffiti artists on a Roman wall, to an anxious mother allowing herself to be doused in the blood of a slaughtered bull as a superstitious way of protecting her son before he embarks on a potentially perilous journey.
That son is Octavian, Caesar's nephew, supposedly 11, according to production notes, but sent off to a brothel to lose his virginity nevertheless. Played both knowingly and innocently by Max Pirkis, he gives the audience something it desperately needs -- considering the craven political windbags who heavily populate the story -- and that is a character to root for, or at least care about, especially considered in tandem with his beautiful, evanescent sister Octavia, bewitchingly played by Kerry Condon.
They're spoiled rich snots, both of them, but attractive spoiled rich snots, as close to anyone of having a hint of humanity. As far as other sympathetic characters go, there aren't many, though some in the audience, present company included, will have a soft spot for the big fat fatty who serves as a kind of town crier, though hardly of the fair-and-balanced sort: He stands on a centrally located platform and blares the day's news, always glorifying the exploits of Caesar and denigrating the deviltry of Pompey. No wonder Pompey is always losing his head.
There are, in fact, simply too many characters chasing each other up and down the seven hills, and viewers who try to keep track are in for maddening frustration. If only people would address one another by name once in a blue moon, that would help a little.
The mother of Octavia and Octavian, Caesar's niece Atia, at least stands out for her earthy selfish cynicism and is waspishly played by Polly Walker. Her lover, Mark Antony, played by James Purefoy, is a self-adoring, imperious clod. Purefoy, for the record, has one of the epic's full frontal nude scenes, an interlude in which his skin is scraped by servants, the same sort of treatment displayed in "Spartacus" -- or was it "Ben-Hur"? Or both?
We see far, far too much (in terms of screen time, not naked display) of Kevin McKidd as Lucius Vorenus, a centurion who is blessed with a sexily Mediterranean wife, Niobe, played by Indira Varma, who comes off like a malevolent Audrey Hepburn. Pompey himself gets an excess of screen time, and it's played with little flair by Cranham, who bears a distracting resemblance to Mel Brooks, especially as he appeared in "The History of the World: Part I." Would it have been too much of a sacrifice for HBO to include a few actors whom American audiences have actually heard of and might recognize? Naturally, as is sacred movie custom, most of the inhabitants of ancient Rome speak with a pronounced British accent -- the higher up you go on the social ladder, the more British they sound.
On the other hand, Ray Stevenson as Titus Pollo, who seems to be wandering the streets of Rome in search of a case of Budweiser, brings much needed color and zest to his role as Lucius's very physical and lusty ally. This is a man of few fears. He endures what might be called open-head surgery on a kitchen table, with physicians drilling a large hole in his head as a way of relieving pressure on the brain. Who knows, it might have worked as well as psychiatry.
There are scenes of ghastly torture, of blood running wild, of bawdiness unbound and much talk about the consumption of oysters, the organic Viagra of their day. Instead of videos or pay-per-view movies, Romans enjoyed living porno, ribald and raunchy vignettes acted out by undressed models at parties. In Part 4, we also witness one of Caesar's terrible fits -- "he hath the falling sickness," as a Shakespearean character said of him.
It may have been simple epilepsy that caused Caesar to lose control and writhe in helpless agony. Fortunately there is someone around to put a stick in his mouth for him to bite on. It is a powerful scene, but there are many powerful scenes.
Caesar and Pompey are only nominally the two main characters. Perhaps the way to say it is to call them two "of" the main characters, with the third and most impressive being Rome itself.
It is a Rome realized for the umpteenth time on film yet in a way that seems more vivid and vital than most of its predecessors. Certainly, it helps that "Rome" was shot in the very city it celebrates, much of it on soundstages of Italy's famed Cinecitta studios.
And it is a Rome that, the filmmakers convince us, might really have existed, its inhabitants having escaped from an ancient mosaic in the same way that the characters in "Fellini Satyricon" did. "Rome" is hardly the surrealistic fantasy that Fellini's film was, but it shares that sense of immersion in a distant, intoxicatingly exotic epoch -- a time when political manipulation, inhumanity to man, lustfulness, greed, depravity and other dark arts were practiced with even less subtlety than they are these roughly 20 centuries later.