Berlinale 2023: The Whimsical, Angry Ideology of Malkovich's 'Seneca'
by Alex Billington
February 21, 2023
"Sometimes even to live is an act of courage." As much as this may be the perfect kind of ridiculous film to dismiss and forget, I can't stop thinking about Seneca. Made by German filmmaker Robert Schwentke, who has been working in Hollywood for years (RED, R.I.P.D., Allegiant, Snake Eyes), he has returned to his roots to make something much more intelligent and so much angrier than his action blockbusters. It is an exceptionally wacky, weird, linguistically loquacious, intellectually stimulating, amusing, strange film that is just as indescribable as it is thought-provoking. I can already tell that most critics, actually most people at all who dare to watch this film, will hate it. It's heavy-handed and direct, especially at the end, which always upsets most people. Yet also so funky and, well, for lack of a better word – philosophical (because of course it is, considering it's about a famous philosopher) – that it just won't sit well with most viewers. Even if it is far from perfect, I can't help but want to talk about Seneca, and talk about why I find it fascinating anyway.
The full title is Seneca - On the Creation of Earthquakes, a tribute to his commentary on earthquakes and how destructive they are and also perhaps how beneficial they can be. Co-written by Matthew Wilder and director Robert Schwentke, the film is pretty much a Shakespeare tragedy - built on numerous quotes from, proclamations by, and conversations with the revered Roman philosopher / playwright Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger. He's sharp, he speaks fast & intelligently, his words slicing like a dagger, his wisdom limitless. He's also an arrogant fool, but that's exactly what this film is trying to address. Maybe we should be listening to these "arrogant fools" instead of dismissing them and their truths? In fact, one could say he's not really arrogant - just smarter than everyone else. He wants to encourage everyone to also live smarter, better, and to stop treating everyone like complete shit, but that was a controversial thing to say in Ancient Rome. (And even nowadays, too.) The absurdity of this film is off the charts; it's wacky and whimsical, while also daring and unhinged, bold in its protestations, absurd in its intentions, yet intellectually charged and rebellious. Even if you don't much like the film, it's hard not to admire what Schwentke is trying to do here.
On one hand, the film is aiming for historical realism and accuracy. It's shot almost entirely with natural light throughout, in real places that seem like they could really exist in Ancient Roman times. His home is just a few walls and big round doors, with flowing drapes and other simple luxuries. On the other hand, the film is also borderline obnoxious in its witty playfulness, with a performance of one of Seneca's iconic plays ("Thyestes") as the highlight of this kitsch – featuring characters and sets that seem to come straight from a modern art museum's warehouse. Pointing this out isn't meant to be a criticism, it's more of a curiosity, I'm aroused and intrigued and fascinated by how wacky and weird it can be. The easiest comparison to make is Terry Gilliam's (finally finished after decades) film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which also often stumbles over its own attempts at ambitious creativity but is compelling in how peculiar it ultimately is. Seneca could use even more of this, as there are times where it gets boring and loses steam. It really ramps up around the half way point when he starts getting angrier and angrier and lets loose on everyone, calling out their bullshit and nonsense, which honestly is always refreshing to me (even if others hate it – I love it).
As wacky and as loquacious as Seneca is, I find myself overwhelmed with thoughts on it the more I analyze it. Just as Seneca reminds us in the film, his thoughts do not deserve to be dismissed because we don't like them or they're not presented inoffensively. "You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire." In telling the story of Seneca, and specifically his suicide finale as required by the evil Emperor Nero, it's important to make a point rather than just go for the bland historical presentation of his demise. Schwentke's point, though apt and audacious, is ironically going to be dismissed as swiftly and as ferociously as Seneca's speeches in Ancient Rome. It's a bit sad because, as much as I enjoyed hearing him lash out, I was thinking this is not going to sit well with audiences today. They're going to hate everything about this. As an added layer of meta commentary, this seemingly also Schwentke's point on top of the story of Seneca and how it relates to today. We live in anti-intellectual times, and this is a vividly intellectual film that does not conform to these anti-intellectual times. "He who is brave is free," Seneca once said. Indeed…
I doubt that I can convince anyone to enjoy this film more by providing my thoughts and insight into why it left a strong impression on me even though it's decidedly wonky & weird. That's a bit irrelevant, however, in that one of Seneca's final speeches before his death is about how words and affirmations and proclamations will stand the test of time and go on to influence humanity beyond our lives. Thankfully the exceptionally talented John Malkovich approached this role with that exact mindset – his performance is "one for the ages" and it's clear he really felt and believed in every word he spoke. He knows this is a legendary character and that Schwentke wanted the performance to be legendary as well, to have an impact beyond "was this good acting?" when what is being said matters way more than that kind of criticism. This same argument could be made for the entire film – it's not about how these thoughts are presented, it's about what is being said and why we need to listen to wisdom, why we need to stop making such a big deal about arrogance, and learn to respect intellectualism again. This movie probably won't change many minds, but you never know. Maybe Malkovich's Seneca will inspire some, maybe Schwentke's message will resonate. One can only hope.
Alex's Berlinale 2023 Rating: ∀ϽƎNƎS out of 10
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