Capitoline Wolf suckles the infant twins. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by larrywkoester

Ancient civilizations in entertainment

From the Romans of Romulus & Remus: the first king to the Aztecs of casino gaming.

Some people are more excited about history than others and many of the former have movies, TV shows and other forms of entertainment to thank for that. Productions about ancient civilizations have come and gone, a select few reaching the epic status they wanted and worked for. And the attempts continue as long as the slightest historical obscurities still exist. The last such movie to make a splash in this competitive niche was Il Primo Re (2019), better known in Canada as Romulus & Remus: The First King. Apart from basic production details, the more important question is what qualities it shares with other successful works of history-themed entertainment.

Matteo Rovere directed the Italian award-winning creation starring Alezzandro Borgui and Alession Lapice as the brothers Remus and Romulus. As the classic legend goes, the latter founded Rome after killing his twin in a dispute regarding where to build the city. The 2019 movie goes back to their origins, however, and follows their journey from young shepherds to men with an influential but tragic destiny.

The movie is special not just because of the mythological and historical hooks, but also Rovere’s genuine interest in representing ancient lifestyles. Features that impressed reviewers on include the use of subtitled Paleo Latin, authentic settings and costumes, natural lighting for striking visuals, and a visceral plot and pace. Romulus & Remus: The First King runs along similar directorial lines as Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006), except it’s focused on the Romans instead of the Mayans and Aztecs.

So two key elements of a good production involving ancient civilizations: a desire for authenticity and the lengths directors will go to achieve it. Getting as much right as possible – historical or cultural – is a difficult job as it is, but you’d expect a director taking on a project like Alexander (2004) to pay closer attention to nagging details. Don’t factual inaccuracies reduce a movie’s credibility? Not to mention the fact that artificial lighting or too much CGI can ruin the immersive experience of the senses.

SBIFF 2012 SBclick Scorsese. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by sbclick

Hopefully, Martin Scorsese’s instinct and dedication to real cinema can be trusted when he delivers his much-anticipated The Caesars TV show. Nothing new has been heard since this 2018 report revealing his collaboration with screenwriter Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, The Tudors, Vikings) on a project narrating the lives of Julius Caesar and all the Roman emperors that succeeded him.

From Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to Ubisoft Montreal’s Assassin’s Creed: Origins, the entertainment industry has always loved ancient civilizations. Even casino game developers SoftSwiss and Amatic have titles on based on a legendary culture: Aztec Magic and Book of Aztec. Popular choices in Canada, these slot games’ basic 5-reel experience is enhanced by visuals and audio creating a rich Mesoamerican atmosphere. Like Apocalypto, their production teams applied their resources to delivering a genuine historical theme on a very modern platform. The Total War and Age of Empires franchises are other famous examples.

Scorsese and Hirst’s project will undoubtedly blow our minds. Until then, it’s good to know that we have plenty of options from filmmaking visionaries like Rovere to keep our curiosity for ancient times satisfied.