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Director Mario Caiano can be relied on when it comes to pacing and effective action scenes, and he does not disappoint here: "Maciste, gladiatore di Sparta" is a reasonably entertaining and well-crafted piece of peplum kitsch. The plot takes place in 69 B.C. (one year after the assassination of Nero) during the short-termed (half a year!) reign of emperor Vitellius. No attempt is made to portray the turmoil and uncertainty of this terrible year. Instead, the script portrays Vitellius as a glutton who delights in the amenities of empire, without having a bit of interest in politics - with the exception of the extermination of the Christians, obviously a legacy from emperor Nero, which he follows blindly as if it was a whim. It is worth noting that the actor playing Vitellius actually is well chosen in that looks very much alike to the surviving busts of the emperor! The obesity of the portrays might have suggested the running gag on the emperor's everlasting appetite for food. Mark Forest, one of the most enjoyable peplum actors, plays Maciste, a star gladiator from Sparta. As far as I can see, there's no reason to make him Greek, and there's no true Spartan flavor about him. The name might have simply been chosen to evoke (a) Spartacus (who, however, was NOT from Sparta) and/or (b) the traditional toughness of the Spartans. He gets to do all kinds of fighting and gets to flex and exercise his muscles on a number of occasions. Sometimes, he uses his wit as well. The emperor's courtesan (played by brunette beauty Marilu Tolo) is in love with that gladiator, and Vitellius delights in having such a delightful source of bloody arena entertainment. However, Maciste meets a blonde Christian girl, and though he does not convert to their faith, he helps the peaceful people against their oppressors. The focus here rests on the characterization of early Christendom - their secret meetings in catacombs and their pacifist attitudes - and all too easily forgets to place that in contrast to heathen cults and religion. It is remarkable how the film avoids any references to heathen cult: The Romans come across as a race with no true beliefs at all. (Though at one time, Maciste is briefly compared to the god Mars himself.) Marcello, the name of the Christian bishop, is perhaps inspired by Pope Marcellus I. (308 A.D.) who was interred in the Priscilla catacombs. "Syphace", the weaver of intrigue at the imperial court, was perhaps named after the Numidian king Syphax (220-203 B.C.) who betrayed Rome to the Carthaginians.
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