28 March 2012

Coriolanus (the motion picture) …

Posted by at 2:06 AM

Like practically everyone else in the English-speaking world, I had to read several Shakespeare plays when I was in high school: Julius Caesar, Henry IV (Pt1), Macbeth. Some time later I would eventually also read  A Midsummer Night's DreamRomeo and Juliet, King Lear, and Hamlet. Although I have found his archaic language to be somewhat of a challenge (given that I spoke Spanish exclusively until I was twelve years of age), the universality of Shakespeare's stories and characters always shines through, allowing me to find the beauty within the tales.   
Fast forward to last Thursday, when I was hanging out with my friend Frank, who suggested that we go see a movie at the Camelview Cinema. I said, "sure, what do you wanna see?" He said that he had listened to a review of a new film called Corolianus on NPR, and that he was eager to see it. "What is it about?" I asked. He said it was a modern rendition of a Shakespearean play. "Which one?" — "Coriolanus." — "That's a Shakespeare play?" — "Yes." — "I never heard of that one." — "Neither had I until today."
We were on our way to see a Shakespeare play that neither of us had ever heard about.

In a nutshell, Coriolanus is the story of a ruthless Roman general who returns home from a successful campaign against an insurrection (the Volscians) against Rome. The people heap much adulation upon him as a military hero at first, only to turn on him at the instigation of the senators who, because they fear that he may become powerful beyond their ability to control him, conspire to denounce him as a hyper-ambitious tyrant-in-waiting. The mob flip flops. The citizens go from bestowing a consulship on Coriolanus to taking it away and banishing him all within a couple of minutes in the film. The change of heart happens so fast it almost gave me whiplash. Exiled, his glory and honor stripped away, Coriolanus makes his way to the Volscians he once fought so fiercely, this time to join them in laying siege to Rome, thus exacting revenge on those who ruined his life. Fortunately (for Rome), Coriolanus' mother is a die-hard Roman patriot. She comes to see him (with his wife and child in tow) and shames him into signing a peace treaty. He goes to Rome, signs it, and upon his return he is murdered by the Volscians who feel betrayed by this turncoat mercenary. Fin.
Because I had never heard of this Shakespeare play before seeing this film, I looked it up in my The Complete Works of William Shakespeare when I got home. Sure enough, there is was. Why hadn't I known of this play before? It's funny how we miss so many details in the things around us. Reading the original, it was interesting to note the way that it had been edited for the screen. One aspect that made the film version particularly fascinating is the anachronistic use of Elizabethan English in an early twenti-first century setting. This superimposition lends the piece a surreal lyrical quality that would not ordinarily be there in a mainstream war movie. It is simultaneously essential to the story's flow and a bit distracting, which is to say that I still have difficulty with the archaic language and meter of Shakespearean dialogue, I guess.
All that aside, what is my take on the play?
I find that, unlike the other Shakespeare plays that I have read, this one has no clear hero or villain. Both sides of the conflict are equally despicable — Coriolanus in his aristocratic sense of entitlement and his obvious contempt for the common people, and the scheming tribunes who take advantage of their credulity and simple-mindedness and who manipulate them for their own greed and lust for power. A pox on both their houses! I could not help but be reminded of the cruel and dirty business of the politics of government, and of why I detest nationalism in any form. Extreme patriotism is the refuge of scoundrels (who was it that said that?).
The play is new to me, but once again I find that Shakespeare skillfully wove a timeless tale that faithfully reflects the nuanced frailty of the human condition in his inimitable fashion.
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