Nero vs Cleopatra Review
By Nathan Garden
From minute one, this film is a struggle. And not in the sense that limping to the bus stop with a bad leg is a struggle. I mean in the sense that syphilis is a struggle. In the sense that you feel yourself rotting from the inside. In the sense that the downward spiral only really begins once the initial experience is over, when you are stuck with something very unpleasant and painful which you will have to deal with for a very long time, possibly for the rest of your life.
The sword and sandal genre is a treasure trove which, although the jewels go in and out of fashion, has provided Hollywood with the bounty of some of the greatest films ever made. But someone has placed this relic in the hands of a group of baboons who couldn’t think of anything better to scrawl into the history books than Nero vs Cleopatra. It isn’t just bad. It isn’t just shockingly bad. It is cataclysmically bad. More impressively, it isn’t just bad in the way that low-calibre sword and sandal epics often are, usually by being over-long and boring. It is over-long and boring, but this film doesn’t just put in the hours: once things get started, we are lost in an entire cosmos of rust, rubble and clutter.
It took a lot of people a lot of work, a lot of time and a lot of films to make the sword and sandal epic what it is, but it only took this sluggish, gluttonous abomination to set it back by several thousand years.
Summarising the plot will take some doing, so please leave your questions to the end. To the naked eye, it is a jumble sale of orgies, dreary speeches, and ropey stop-motion. But if you really feel the need, you too can follow the story of Emperor Nero mobilising against his former ally, Cleopatra. Having amassed a mercenary ensemble of gods, monsters, genies and cyclopes, she has turned the diminished civilisation of Egypt into a military titan and is making ever more ominous advances across the ancient world, threatening both Nero’s empire and those of his neighbours. Simple enough so far, but the plot thickens…
Cleopatra is also in possession of The Rosetta Stone which, according to this film, is but one in a series of indestructible cases built to house time-travelling, teleporting gemstones, which enable those lucky enough to possess them to leap to the end of battles, observe, then leap back with the knowledge to assure victory. She also has Anubis on her side, who, by postponing death, has made her armies invincible. But, with the help of Hades himself, Nero resurrects the Emperor Caligula and, together with his legions of the dead, sets out to end Cleopatra’s conquest.
In true Oedipal fashion, however, it transpires that Cleopatra is in fact the Greek poetess Sappho in disguise, and has been holding the real Cleopatra as a sex slave on her island fortress of Lesbos all along. (This revelation has no bearing on the plot other than the dubious bonus of giving Nero someone to have sex with once the day has been saved.) Unsurprisingly, Nero eventually finds a handful of gemstones himself, and the odds are evened. We then spend the next half hour trying to lose consciousness as their armies ping-pong across time and space, doing battle in various locations across the ancient world.
This sounds like a lot to follow, but don’t try to keep up with who is fighting who in which country or when. It doesn’t reward the effort. The best thing to do is just accept that some freak has made the decision to persevere with this maniac idea until, completely unprompted, Anubis sees the folly of his alliance with Sappho, kills her, then throws her to their hoard of mutant necrophiliacs. Who have somehow turned up in Samarkand.
First of all, there is no point in getting hung up on the historical and mythological inaccuracies because this film simply doesn’t care. You could write a sizeable thesis just listing them, but in our heart of hearts we know that inaccuracies are not really the problem, at least not on principle. As history has taught us, sword and sandal epics are seldom hindered by things so pedantic as facts. Indeed, much of the genre is founded on taking liberties, or even making things up as it goes. For a free-for-all like this, it’s an accommodating tradition to walk into: bounteous (and very lenient) source material, with only a few crackpots likely to call you up on inconsistencies. And to be fair, Nero vs Cleopatra gets stuck in trying to have its fun riffing on as many cross-overs and name-drops as it can. But what are we supposed to make of this incomprehensible pigsty? What are we supposed to think? I’m not picking a fight. I just want answers.
I am tempted to say that this film has the production value of a nativity play, but that would be an insult to nativity plays: it looks like it has just slumped in the front door after getting home from the most miserable one-night stand of its life. Every last thing which had to be built by human hands is so egregious as to be alarming. The sets look like they have been wheeled into a converted community hall then chucked together by a group of janitors and bin men. On occasion, the crew seem to have been abandoned to the elements, with only the resources available from local skips and charity shops at their disposal, but on others are adorned with all the brittle luxuries of CGI and turned loose to create as many pixelated warlords as they like. But even then, the battles have the complexion of a zombie film made on someone’s ranch, and the creature effects are an embarrassment to the trade.
Adding their own pungent spice to the broth is an impoverished wardrobe department for whom there is no problem that cannot be solved by a fluorescent waistcoat, a studded crotch plate, latex tights, or simply by getting naked. They have wrapped the lead cast in a moving-van-load of togas pawned from the cheapest, sweatiest fancy-dress shop on earth, and left the rest to hide as much of themselves as they can behind plant pots and Styrofoam pillars. But even the main players aren’t immune, adorned as they are with wigs which change shape between shots and leak hair from under their helmets.
A sizable pamphlet could be written documenting Nero vs Cleopatra’s continuity errors. Instances of weapons disappearing and reappearing are everywhere. Characters who have somehow caught fire during battle appear in perfect comfort in the very next shot, entire palaces disappear into the ether of CGI shockers, and as for the plot… Well, the plot dug its own grave when it mentioned Stonehenge. Don’t get me wrong, these kinds of mistakes are funny the first five or ten times, but by the fifteenth, you begin to doubt the competence of the film-makers. By the fiftieth, you have lost hope completely and, by the looks of things, so have they.
I’m not trying to whine, and I’m certainly not trying to tarnish this film’s good name by screaming a few bloopers from the rafters. Perhaps I’m just confused. Perhaps I’m just out of touch with how epics are made these days, but how can a film be so profligate as to obliterate several digital cities, but can’t cobble together stop-motion models that don’t fall over and break mid-take? Or at least hire cameramen who can work a camera. Because, having done absolutely nothing inventive, with the sole responsibility of pointing their machines at what was in front of them, they couldn’t hold it together even for this base task. Thanks to them, the exposure has been botched so badly that even day-lit exteriors look like they have been filmed in a bomb shelter: Nero vs Cleopatra doesn’t even look like a film, but a rope of celluloid dunked into a pond of mould. Again, I’m not picking fights. I just want answers.
In the middle of all this is a twenty-minute sequence which I can confidently say is the closest I have come to witnessing pure hell. It is surely impossible to relate without resorting to obscenity, so, in the interest of deterring you from ever seeing it for yourself, I’ll just go for it.
The scene in question features possibly the most grotty, repugnant hard-core sex ever to emerge from a film set. It takes place in Sappho’s underground orgy hall where she is entertaining Anubis and his shady entourage, and where every last slab of stone is buried three feet deep in a pile of mutants, slaves and necrophiliacs. By the end, everyone and everything is dripping with mucus of one kind or another as Sappho cheerily leads the guests into her bed chamber for a banquet and some depravity of their own.
So, let’s get the question out in the open: Is this pornographic? Well, that depends on what you mean by ‘pornographic.’ There is certainly un-simulated sex, but is that enough to qualify? If we’re working on the basis that pornography should arouse, then one would have to say ‘no’. Far more than desire, more than arousal, we feel panic. Panic that we might be implicated in a human rights violation simply by watching. Panic at the very real possibility that these slavering, soggy animals might roll out of the screen and haul us into their very own circle of hell.
It sounds bad, and it is, but this is merely the crest of the wave: make no mistake, the whole film is building to this with more enthusiasm and effort than it is applying to the plot. In fact, by the time it gets round to it, Nero vs Cleopatra has been charging its batteries for more than an hour. The whole film is infested with sad, confused naked people shuffling around carrying palm leaves while those wearing costumes try to remember which gods owe them a favour. Even elderly generals’ tents, stranded in the desert wilderness, are at least spared the home comforts of five or six hesitant lesbian concubines. And all you can do is blink in acknowledgement and wait for the naked people to either go away or have sex. Those are the only options.
But let’s not be prudish: it isn’t pretty, but it isn’t the end of the world. What is truly disturbing is that despite their youth and physical beauty, these people, the ones who have to put on the show, somehow always seem ill. Healthy enough to stay on their feet when required, true enough, but rather than actors or extras, they move like captives. They share an expression as if they died on the set of a disaster film and woke up in Sappho’s palace. But don’t believe me: the cameras constantly catch them glancing at each other for reassurance, for comfort against the grisly phantasmagoria around them, for someone to share in their shame.
There is even a single fleeting moment, perhaps the saddest of the whole film, when, quietly waiting her turn to top up the pile, a young woman stares into the camera with a wizened, ghoulish look in her eyes, the look of someone praying to be rescued. But why? Could it be the woe of signing up for an epic, but having to settle for paying the bills with this? Or does she appear ill simply because her skin has been tinted by the slime of green neon that smothers every interior like a haze of urine? Once again, I am not picking fights. I just want answers. Or do I? In fact, no. I don’t.
There is a reasonable chance that Nero vs Cleopatra is a sword and sandal epic. There is a good chance it’s high fantasy cross-bred with a very long, unappetising porno, or even a monster film. Whatever it is, the feeling one gets when leaving is not that of exiting a cinema, but of hurrying out the back door of a particularly skanky, dilapidated brothel. You feel like the fugitive client of the grubbiest, most repulsive, unhygienic prostitute in the land which, now I think about it, isn’t entirely inappropriate. Because even as it was being cast and shot, Nero vs Cleopatra opened its doors to all: actors who can’t act, designers who can’t design, directors who can’t direct, and writers who can’t write.
But is it worth lampooning this film for technical suicide? Even if it had any sheen at all it would still be appalling. You would still have to wade through the squalor of sex and violence to the end by which time, when everyone has finally drained themselves and melted into the blackout, you are weary with a heavy, almost Biblical sense of failure and disappointment, not just with the film, but with yourself.
It’s a lot to take in, but a tip to bear in mind, even simply as a distraction, something to alleviate the pain, is to routinely ask yourself, What the hell was going on when this was being made? As you may have guessed, I don’t have the answers. Such information is, thankfully, lost to the ages.