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The Emperor's New Foes

Filmgalerie 451

Seneca – On the Creation of Earthquakes (2023)

When did John Malkovich become this generation's Orson Welles? By this I do not mean as a director. I mean as an actor, able to single-handedly enable the financing and carry the weirdest projects with ease just by showing up? If anyone is in doubt of this, I invite you to enjoy a viewing of “Seneca – On the Creation of Earthquakes,” a ridiculous Eurotrashfire of a movie which could not possibly have existed without him. Why did we stop making movies like this? They are so beautiful and so over the top you feel smarter just for thinking about them.

Seneca (Mr. Malkovich) has been the advisor to Nero (Tom Xander) since the emperor was in short trousers. But since the emperor murdered his own mother, Agrippina (Mary-Louise Parker, and why not) by personally beating her to death after she survived a shipwreck, Seneca has lost his hold on him. So, Seneca takes himself and a party of his best friends, Geraldine Chaplin and the lamented Julian Sands among them, to his country retreat for an evening of metaphysical theatre in everyone’s fanciest clothes. Meanwhile, Nero observes a gladiator named Felix (Andrew Koji, who is as attractive as it’s possible for a man permanently covered in sweat and grime to be) beat the brains out of an injured trainee. Just the man he needs to personally deliver Seneca’s sentence of death. But out of respect, Felix will give Seneca the night to sort the death out himself.

Honestly, you cannot imagine how profoundly ridiculous and beautiful and gory this all is until you see it yourself. Mr. Malkovich wanders around in a toga declaiming as pretentiously as any grad student attempting to impress a drunk girl at a party. Most of the others allow their costumes to speak for themselves. Costume designer Anna Wübber must have wept with glee. Ms. Chaplin enjoys comporting herself in an orange terrycloth jumpsuit cut in a perfect circle, while Ms. Parker attends a party having punched a hole in a gold serving platter to wear around her face like a cone of shame. Director Robert Schwentke uses the hot sun and Seneca's rococo country retreat to make its own point about the pleasures of philosophy, and the dialogue he wrote with Matthew Wilder manages to be gruesome and hilarious at the same time, a difficult trick. The death scene for Lilith Stangenberg as Seneca’s wife is an especial horror-comic delight. The nasty racial politics on silent display reinforce the unpleasant message of power and how it is maintained, both in Roman times and in ours. Ignore the people who walked out at the Berlinale; pretentious teenagers who fancy themselves deep thinkers and film viewers who love an insane time will swallow this beautiful monstrosity whole.

God bless “Seneca” and all who sail in her, and may it not be the last time we see Mr. Sands on screen.


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