Rome and Titus: End of the Millennium Movies

TitusDVDCoverMovies have much to tell us about beginnings and endings. Julie Taymor’s 1999 Titus is an example of an end of one millennium/beginning of a new era movie. Based on Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the film portrays a political world informed by a dystopian National Socialist-style “modernity” with Rise and Fall of the Empire motives. At times, the Empire in question references an American anti-Bildungsroman tale of juvenile delinquency turned violence, combined with powerful women turned greedy – or perhaps, greedy women turned powerful. The difference is not insignificant, since the film rests on Jessica Lange’s character, “Tamora,” a conquered queen turned victor’s consort: Tamora is a woman who is enraged at the consequences of war only when they affect her kith and kin. And she has reared sons who must constantly feed their cruel passions – a genetic trait, apparently –  with drug-induced visions of grandeur, marked by sadism and, consistently, stupidity.

The film is filled with so many dramatic heights that it becomes a surreal embarrassment of riches to decide where the turning point actually happens. Should it be when Titus voluntarily allows his hand to be cut off in a ruse that was to bring back two of his sons? Or when Tamora sends instructions to her servant/lover Aaron, the “Moor,” to kill the dark-skinned baby – his son – whom she has given birth to? And then there is, of course, the banquet with Titus as chef, when Tamora learns that she is eating a delicious savory pie made with the flesh and blood of her sons.

Of all the scenes of seemingly endless horrifying realizations, where blood and violence vie with sadness and despair as central themes, the film’s most dramatic point comes when Titus kills his daughter, Lavinia. Some reviews from critics like Roger Ebert have found this moment too incredible to be taken seriously. Tamora had helped orchestrate the rape of Lavinia by her two surviving sons, and much of the movie is spent with Lavinia literally trying to find the words to give details about the crime – since they had cut her tongue out and sliced off her hands, she has few means to communicate either the story or her pain. But critics who cannot understand Shakespeare’s and Taymor’s decision to force a father to murder his violated daughter are not paying attention to the message. It is the new emperor of Rome, after all, whom Titus quizzes as to what would be the appropriate course of action should a man find out that his daughter had been sexually abused, and it is the new emperor who gives Titus the answer: the father would be so devastated by his daughter’s own pain and his inability to render things right that he would have to kill her to put her – not himself – out of misery.

Unfair, unjust, a misallocation of fault and victimization? Yes, then (historically, twice over) as now. And yet, it is this scene, in which Lavinia willingly places herself in her father’s arms to be killed, that defines not only the movie, but Taymor’s message to Titus from the gods, and to the audience: There is no justice, good does not always prevail, evil does not always need a reason to be, and some fates cannot be gotten over. In this manner, Taymor’s millennium ends with a desperate gasp of what has not been accomplished, and what would seem to have little hope of resolution in the next centuries, either. To complain that the father should not have killed his daughter is to complain that Titus lives in a world governed by a system of illogical deistic and state justice that he accepts, is complicit in, and sees no way to escape. It is, in other words, to lament that Titus, his family, his friends, his enemies, and his fellow Romans followed the code of ethical behavior that they knew – one that did not allow for mercy, one that placed the perceived needs of the greater good over the desires of the individual, one that Titus could escape from only by turning to it, and forcing it to its most extreme conclusion. Titus had lost so many sons in war, then killed another who, in Titus’ belief system, had brought dishonor upon the family by disobeying the wishes of the emperor. Titus, ruined physically and psychologically, ready to reject the system that had betrayed him and his family, escaped the cycle of brutality by forcing the emperor to “innocently” pronounce Lavinia’s death sentence, in turn setting into motion a blood bath that would end the reign of terror that Titus had once defended.

If the final scene, in which Titus’ grandson carries out Aaron’s and Tamora’s son towards the dawn of a new day, appears hopeful, it is only so in contrast to the fates of everyone they leave behind. Taymor’s view of the next millennium found an ideal vehicle in the tragedy of Titus and the loss of his family’s role in a New Ancient World Order. To suggest that Shakespeare’s original play or Taymor’s adaptation for film is too over-the-top to be credible is to remove the film from its place in the history of media documentations of prevailing world views from the many historical turning-points that come together in Titus. Taymor’s view of the end of the millennium rested on the echoes of the twilight of Ancient Rome and Shakespeare’s commentary on the end of a century .

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