Film #282: Sebastiane (1976)

director: Paul Humfress & Derek Jarman
language: Latin
length: 82 minutes
watched on: 14 April 2017

This is a movie I can’t quite believe it took me this long to get around to. I certainly could have had the chance to watch it before, but I had a bunch of DVDs shoved into my hands at my friend’s house – this one following Drive.

I referenced this film last year when reviewing Bavo Defurne’s short film Saint, which also deals with the execution of Saint Sebastian, but putting a lot more erotic emphasis on the execution itself, and treats it more like a crescendo.

Apart from a frankly iconic opening scene with colourfully-decorated men dancing with giant dildoes, it’s set in the desert, where a group of Roman soldiers have been sent. But Sebastian, once the emperor’s favourite, now refuses to fight, as he’s a Christian, and they’re pacifists (what a change from then to now!). He’s strung up and whipped as a result. It’s also implied that his eventual execution, bare nude, is because he refuses to return the love of his centurion. The other characters make fun of him.

This movie is basically a parade of naked male flesh. There are so many penises on display throughout the movie that I’m frankly surprised it got past the 1970s censors. There’s a really erotic scene between two of the side characters that I’m definitely surprised wasn’t censored, although they don’t do any “actual sex”.

I was also very pleased and surprised to find that the film’s dialogue is entirely in Latin, although the way it’s pronounced varies in quality by actor, some of them using more accurate pronunciations than others. It lends some kind of strange, if absolutely unnecessary, authenticity to the film, as if we’re really looking back in time to the 3rd century.

Not a lot really happens as such in the movie – it’s mostly characters lazing around in the sun and tackling each other – but I mostly just sat back and enjoyed the fit young bodies on the screen. Definitely worth it.


Book #116: Ultima (2014)

ultimaauthor: Stephen Baxter
language: English with bits of Latin and a couple of other languages that would be spoilers
length: 513 pages
finished on: 20 October 2016

I had a bad experience with the audiobook of Proxima, the previous book in this two-part series by Stephen Baxter, which takes place largely on a tidally-locked exoplanet. They’ve actually found such a planet orbiting the real-life Proxima Centauri, by the way – exciting times!

The narrator of the audiobook was truly awful, as he’s putting on a fake British accent and failing badly at it. So for this instalment I decided to read the paper book instead. I’m pretty glad that I did – I enjoyed Proxima enough that I wanted to continue the series, but that narrator was painful to listen to, so this time I could enjoy the story much more easily. I did something I rarely do, which was sit down for several hours just devouring the last two hundred pages of the book (I had other stuff I wanted to get to).

Anyway, the last book leaves on a big cliffhanger – the characters have just walked through a cosmic gateway called a “Hatch” by the story, and they find themselves face-to-face with spacefaring Romans. This book goes into the details of how the Romans came to be in space. Essentially the whole thing takes place in a kind of parallel universe – it’s like the universe reset itself when they walked through the Hatch and when these special wormholes called “kernels” (still only described in passing and vaguely) were exploded with a nuclear weapon, releasing a stupid amount of energy. It wasn’t quite what I’d expected, to be honest – I thought the Romans were just coincidentally in space, and we’d find out about a convoluted chain of events that got them there.

It turns out that the Library of Alexandria hadn’t been destroyed, or something, and the Romans had discovered spaceflight – and their empire had stayed intact, eventually rivaling the Chinese (“Xin”) and British / Celts / Scandinavians (“Brikanti”), who partially conquer and discover the Americas, calling it Valhalla in a not-so-curious echo of some of Terry Pratchett’s works – it was alluded to in Pratchett and Baxter’s joint works like The Long Earth, and originally came from one of Pratchett’s older pre-Discworld novels, I think Strata.

Baxter has also recreated the three deadlocked empires-at-arms structure of 1984 almost exactly (Europe, China, and UK/America). As in 1984, I didn’t quite buy it, as I don’t perceive the modern world that way. I liked Baxter’s fleshing-out of the civilizations, though, and when (spoilers!) the universe resets itself again halfway through the book, and they discover Incas living in a deep space habitat, this civilization is also described nicely in a lot of detail.

I think this kind of storytelling, focusing on the bigger picture and describing whole civilizations, is Baxter’s strength. I wasn’t as impressed this time with his characters, as I thought too many of them weren’t developed enough. I found some of them bitter and vindictive, even when they should have had enough time to get over their gripes. I also found that there were too many minor and undistinguished Roman characters. One of them stays to the last act, and only then develops a distinctive comic verbal tic.

He also had some of his characters stay behind on their ship when they go to meet the Incas, and it took me a while to realize where they’d gone, as it was in a throwaway sentence. I found this just indicated he’d ended up with too many characters and had to get rid of some for a while. It was a bit of a long while though, timeline-wise. At the same time, he’s not afraid to kill off characters. In a book with such long-reaching arcs and grandiose scope like this, it can be make or break. It was certainly “break” for Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy, which suffers from similar characterization and overpopulation problems, but refuses to kill off its main characters, to the point that they become uninteresting.

Linguistically the book cut a lot of corners, too – the two robot characters, one a glorified farming machine that is later compressed into a tablet and carried around by a Chinese slave boy, and the other a scheming mastermind type, seem to both have universal translators, even for languages that have never been discovered before. By modern technology, this is absolutely impossible, and I have a hard time believing these science fiction models could do any better. Classical Latin is also still used by the Romans in what is essentially the modern day, and to match this, their technology is also oddly old-fashioned. Again, not believable – there’s a concrete reason this didn’t happen in the real world.

Incidentally, this sets it apart from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, where a similar level of technology exists (I already mentioned on that review that both books contain a kind of iPad-like tablet, but with different invented names), but that book and author, while not quite as up on scientific lingo, treated linguistic issues much more realistically – they need a trained interpreter, for example, instead of hand-waving away the issue.

In the final act it becomes clear what the purpose is of the Hatches, and it turns out to be these great world-level brains reminiscent of Solaris, embedded in the rock of many different planets. The name “Ultima”, furthest, is supposed to be the opposite of Proxima, nearest, and it turns out the furthest planet is actually the same planet as Proxima, just at the end of time. This was also not explained very well, but it goes that there is an end event like a great release of energy somehow – also the origin of the so-called “kernel” wormholes. But I found the explanation of this to be flimsy, something about statistics and the assumption that we must be in the middle times of the universe. People have conjectured it and put the idea forth in papers, and Baxter has a bibliography at the back of the book to check – but I find it more of a philosophical than scientific question, more of a conjecture than a theory.

Basically I was happy to read about this story again. I think it’s run its course now, and I’m happy with this conclusion overall, even if I don’t agree with the ideas in the ending times event. I don’t think this book was as strong as the previous one, however – it’s a bit too grandiose in scope, and not focused on character in the same way. The previous book is more concerned with life on an exoplanet, and this descends into almost-but-not-quite philosophical discussions on the multiverse. Ultimately, I recommend that one over this one.

Film #64: Thermae Romae (2012)

20120903-174159.jpgaka: テルマエ・ロマエ
Director: Takeuchi Hideki
Language: Japanese and some Latin
Length: 108 minutes split between two flights
Watched on: 13th and 17th of August

I watched this film on my short flight from Japan to Korea last month. It’s relatively new, and I’ve seen a lot of posters around Tokyo advertising it, so I was mildly surprised to discover that the version they were showing on the plane had English subtitles already. But of course, this was in-flight entertainment, so for one thing, you could hardly see the subtitles on the screen – and for another, every time the cabin crew made an announcement (which they would inevitably repeat in Japanese, English and Korean), the film stopped. So somehow, on a 2:30 hour flight, I wasn’t able to complete a 1:40 film – surely they can’t have had FIFTY MINUTES worth of announcments?! In fact, I still had a full half an hour left of the film by the time we landed (I was able to finish the film on the way back), and I don’t know how they managed to pause my film so much, unless it’s actually because they managed to run ahead of schedule. Korea was nice, and cheap, incidentally, although I wouldn’t want to stay there over Japan. But this isn’t my travel blog. I should really get me one of those.

So this film, which literally translates in Latin to “Roman Baths”, is apparently based on a manga. It involves a time-travelling Roman called Lucius, who gets magically transported to modern Japan. It just so happens that he’s an influential architect of bathing facilities in his own time, and when he travels to Japan, he picks up various ideas for things that one can do with plumbing. Hilarity ensues, essentially. He also meets an attractive young Japanese woman – they seem to be fated to be together or something, because wherever he shows up in Japan she’s somewhere around. And later in the film she gets transported back to Rome. And then somehow because he’s taken ideas back with him from the future, he’s going to change the past.

Overall, the plot was quite simple to follow, and the film is meant to be a comedy, so probably shouldn’t be taken so seriously, but I have a few issues with it, primarily nitpicky historical things, perhaps, but issues nonetheless. I should start by clarifying a few things about the film and the way it’s structured: basically, all the major Roman characters are played by Japanese actors – Hiroshi Abe plays the main character, for instance – although racewise they tend to look at least ambiguous compared to the Japanese characters, and the main character’s inner monologue calls the Japanese “the Flat-Faced clan” and assumes that they must be slaves because they don’t look Roman. A lot of the extras seem to be European, though. Everyone in the Roman age speaks Japanese, in some kind of translation convention – but when Lucius is transported to Japan, although his inner monologue is still in Japanese, he can’t understand anyone else, and the few lines that he actually speaks are in Latin. Later, the girl learns Latin and they have a short conversation. But when the Japanese characters are transported to Ancient Rome, there’s no language barrier, suddenly. Got that? No, I didn’t think so.

Anyway, because there are only about 15 lines of Latin in the film, presumably to be less of a tax on the brains of the actors, you essentially end up with an almost mute character of the main character – his inner monologue keeps going, describing all the things around him, but he’s surprisingly calm for someone who’s suddenly found himself in a strange foreign country with no warning. This kind of bothered me. If it happened to me, I’d be shouting all over the place and incredibly confused. But he somehow takes it all in his stride.

As for the Latin itself, I was reasonably impressed. I’ve never had training in spoken Latin, so I don’t know how it’s supposed to sound, but it seemed reasonably accurate. They did have quite a strong Japanese accent when they did speak it, though, and there were a couple of pronunciation issues in my mind, at least with the question of whether they were using Classical pronunciations or not – the character’s name, Lucius, in particular, would be /lukius/ rather than /lusius/.

In terms of other nitpicky problems I had with the film, these included the fact that Lucius somehow knows that the AD date is 135 – and yet the AD system wasn’t invented for another two or three hundred years after that, and the fact that they use carbon dating with a time-travelling object to verify that it was made in the second century. Carbon dating works by measuring the passage of time by radioactivity, so an object that skips two thousand years would lose out on that. The third inaccuracy I’m not so sure about, but I couldn’t help thinking that black Roman citizens (seen as extras in the background of some larger crowd scenes) weren’t actually a thing, and that if you had black people in Ancient Rome, they’d have probably been slaves. But feel free to prove me wrong on that point. I genuinely don’t know. Anyway, I’m willing to bet that anyone who’s studied more Classics than me could easily pick out a slew of other anachronisms, perhaps in the way people dressed or in the architecture.

The other thing is, the plot later in the film becomes one of Changing History, and the essential thrust is that if they pull together and build a big bathhouse in the right place, then war will be averted? Or something? The plot point was quite contrived, and depended on the minutiae of the relationships between the bigwig characters like Emperor Hadrian. It felt like something that was potentially quite well researched, but to me was just something to leave me confused.

Overall, the film was OK, anyway; basically what I expected from a film about time-travelling Japanese actors pretending to be Romans. The comedy was sometimes subtle and sometimes quite overt (jokes about Japanese toilets, especially), and sometimes quite slapstick – for instance, there was a leitmotif involving an opera singer whenever time travel happened, but by the end of the film he can’t be bothered getting out of his chair anymore. It wasn’t quite laugh-out-loud hilarious at any point, but overall I enjoyed it. And I like the fact that for once I can actually see a modern Japanese movie and keep up with the times – it’s something I rarely get to do, what with expensive cinema tickets to films that would have no subtitles, so I’m quite thankful for the fact that I get the chance to watch movies like this on planes sometimes. It doesn’t come with a shining recommendation from me, but it was enjoyable.