Ralph Fiennes’ ‘Coriolanus’ drops into modern-day warfare

Ralph Fiennes made his directorial debut in this 2011 British adaptation of “Corialanus” and set it in modern-day Rome, as if Rome and not Afghanistan  and Iraq were at war.

Rome and Italy were last at work during World War II and if you’ve watched the 2014 George Clooney movie, “The Monuments Men” or the documentary about them “The Rape of Europa” you may want to weep.

The movie begins a man sharpening a beautifully etched knife. A man’s watching television. We see Martius, but we also see food lines. Soldiers walks the streets. The news tells us that a general named Martius has suspended civil liberties. Then we see rioting in Rome.

A woman walks through the streets alone to a meeting. A protest is planned against Martius with his face crossed out on their posters and pamphlets. Martial law has taken some of the civil liberties away from the common citizens. Rome is at war with its neighbor, the city of Volsci. The rioters target Roman general Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes), whom they blame for Rome’s problems. The police come out in riot gear.

Martius, comes out. His face is scarred and he covers his bald head with a black beret. He feels nothing but contempt for these citizens that he calls “fragments.” The police form a wall several men deep with their riot gear shields and move forward against the crowd.

The man with the knife is  Tullus Aufidius. He sends to Rome a video of himself questioning a man and then shooting him in the head.  Aufidius is a brute and Martius opening admits to admiring the man.

Martius leads a raid against the Volscian city of Corioles. Their warfare is carried out at a distance with high power guns, grenades and tanks.

Martius is more blood thirsty than your average modern general. He isn’t satisfied with just conjecture and playing human chess. He enters the battle and leads his troops through the graffiti filled streets.

On TV, the media reports these actions. His wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) watches her son, also Martius (Harry Fenn) play mock war by himself. She clearly worries for both her son and doesn’t enjoy watching warfare on TV or as play. Yet her mother-in-law Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) rejoices at Martius’ victories and claims she would even greet news of his death. Volumnia is happy that her grandson would rather play at war than learn. The mother created this brute Martius and marvels at her creations–a man that we later see holding a gun to an old man.

Martius rashly leaves his men and goes off into the burned city alone. When he rejoins his men, he is without his helmet and his face bloodied–more so than his soldiers whose faces are mostly covered with the grime of warfare, but not blood.  Martius meets the Volsican commander, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Martius’ raid is successful and Aufidius is forced to withdraw with a villainous snarl–he’ll be back and he’s kill Martius.

The soldiers and generals are clothed in camouflage uniforms although when honored they change to sharp dress uniform.  This alternative version of Rome has Volumnia dressed in a uniform at the ceremony to honor her son’s great deeds in war when he receives the name Coriolanus. Did she serve in an army? She has medals yet her uniform is grey. Martius’ wife wears a white dress while their son, also Martius, also turns out in grey uniform. It’s Redgrave’s eyes that beam too brightly and too eagerly with ambition that give one pause. There’s something a bit unmotherly and scary about her Volumnia.

The patricians and tribunes wear dark suits and dark ties. They are all men. The two tribunes Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt) are middle-aged men–soft and clever. Coriolanus’ friend Menenius (Brian Cox) is also old and well-padded with an easy life, but he supports Coriolanus. They, like the TV commentators, wonder if Coriolanus will run for consul–something that Coriolanus himself doesn’t particularly want, but his mother urges him on.

Fiennes’ Coriolanus is a man who enjoys killing too much to be a general, and in a modern army, he is a man who shows such contempt for human life that he is probably not a fit general. We sense that he enjoys killing and the adrenaline rush of life hanging to tenuously before the possibility of death. This is a man not fit for civilian life, not fit for anything but the disaster and randomness of warfare.

By setting this Shakespearean tragedy in modern times, in a Rome that would easily be Iraq or Afghanistan, Fiennes asks us to question war and warriors, and, how even in modern times, we look toward brutal war heroes to become candidates for elected offices where they would govern the people when they might not actually value human life as much as one should. This Coriolanus shows no signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s not suggestion that war has troubled him so much as being away from it and the madness of a general rushing away from the war rooms and into battle becomes a greater issue than it would have been in the 5th Century BC when the real Coriolanus is supposed to have lived.

This thought-provoking film, adapted by John Logan,  might come off as a bit heavy-handed in an America that is still at war and still holds prisoners  in Guantanamo Bay detention camp, but it was nominated for a Golden Berlin Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival and Fiennes was nominated for a BAFTA award for Outstanding Debut of a British Director by the British Academy Film Awards.

Ralph Fiennes’ “Coriolanus” was released in Los Angeles briefly in December of 2011 and only at select U.S. cities. It is currently available to stream on Netflix and well worth watching.

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