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Movie Review: “The First King”

The First King


This is a worthy addition to the roster of sword and sandal or peplum movies, made in Italy like its ’60’s predecessors, only down and dirty with a big emphasis on naturalism and de-emphasizing the supernatural, mythical element. Director Matteo Rovere retells the ancient myth of Rome’s founding by the divine twins Romulus and Remus, but the bit about the twins being suckled by a she wolf gets dropped along with a lot of other improbable details.  There’s absolutely no hint of imperial grandeur or sophisticated culture. Instead, the film depicts early Iron Age civilization in 8th Century BCE Italy with much detailed   attention to squalor. Romulus and Remus start out as grubby teenage shepherds. People go about clad in skins or poorly woven woolen homespun, with filth and blood everywhere, and characters often rolling in both. A change in regime is signaled by carrying around the previous chief’s severed head impaled on a pole. The film adds to the verisimilitude with the actors speaking entirely in a primitive, pre-Roman Latin (I had to listen for about fifteen minutes before I could even start to pick words out). Like any good peplum, the action is steady and fast paced, with some incredibly gory scenes of close contact, no quarter, vicious ancient warfare. Rovere wisely refrained from resorting to the curse of CGI, preferring to rely instead on expert stunt men and traditional special effects. The decision only adds to the realism.

Alessandro Borghi gets the meatiest role in the flick as the violent, brooding Remus, obsessively devoted to the protection of his brother while simultaneously increasingly more unhinged and savage in his behavior. Alessio Lapice has the tougher task of portraying the saintlike Romulus who bands a disparate group of refugees together into a new tribe through his positive leadership example.  The conflict between the two men is simple and stark, but the film does a good job of suggesting that the ultimate outcome turns more on their individual characters than the will of the gods.  Shot on location in Italy, the film does an excellent job of invoking a dark, primeval, heavily forested world with humans far and few between and potential threats everywhere.

I recommend this film to fans of the old Roman myths, peplum admirers, and folks who just like gritty action movies in general.

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