It’s about time I reviewed something a little classy, don’t you think?
So for today’s review, I’m looking at an adaptation of a play by Euripides! Yes, Euripides, that masterful ancient Greek playwright whose works you haven’t read unless you made a point of studying ancient Greek theater. (I took a bunch of classics courses in undergrad and never touched the guy.) His play The Bacchae is, according to one translator, among the greatest tragedies ever written, and among the most gruesome: it features stonings, earthquakes, magic snakes, and lots and lots of dismemberment. (Wikipedia also says “One woman had honey oozing from her thyrsus.” That’s not as gruesome as you think it is.)
Moving from the Golden Age of Greece to the Golden Age of Italians Filming Stories about Greece, we find ourselves in 1961, when Giorgio Ferroni (who directed “Secret Agent Super Dragon” of MST3k fame) rounded up an international crew of people who felt like taking a working holiday in Italy, dug through the library to find an ancient legend that hadn’t already been made into a sword-and-sandal flick, and filmed The Bacchantes, in Italian of course. I don’t know how, but the good folks at the Peplum TV YouTube channel found a mostly-complete original audio track in English, dubbed it over the Italian film, and released it to the world—in widescreen, even! Good work, guys.
No sword-and-sandal flick is complete without dancing girls.
The story kicks off… by standing totally still as we watch a bunch of women frolic around a ruined temple. Why the temple is already ruined despite being relatively new, I couldn’t tell you. Perhaps it’s a temple to the god of shoddy craftsmanship. They’re all dancing en pointe, which we don’t think ancient Greek women did based on depictions on pottery. So my dreams of a completely historically accurate film about magic snakes have been dashed against the rocks like so many Spartan babies. These are the Bacchantes, a team of women who are sacred to Dionysus, the god of wine. The Bacchantes proceed to disappear from the story for the next hour.
Our voiceover guy reveals that Dionysus’ hometown, Thebes, is suffering from a drought. Presumably he means Greek Thebes and not Egyptian Thebes, but the filmmakers seem to have gotten the two confused: the music kicks into double-harmonic and we get shots of a parched desert that look very spaghetti westernesque. (Now I want to make a spaghetti western about ancient Egypt. “A Fistful of Ankhs”?)
Queen Agave (pronounced the same as the stuff your foodie friend puts in her iced tea) has instituted water rationing, and this isn’t working out well for the common folk. Soldiers are forcing slaves to carry water buckets around. Well, I think they’re slaves. They’re shirtless, and if you’re in a movie like this one and you’re shirtless, you’re either a slave or you’re Hercules. None of these guys have the pecs to be the latter.
After several minutes, the voiceover guy finally wraps up his Mojo Jojoish narration.
V/O: And so it was, in that far-off time, so remote that it survives only in the memory of poets, the events of this story had their beginning.
Are poets really renowned for their long memories? Because I associate them primarily with alcohol abuse.
Manto, our female lead, meets a Phrygian stranger who has nothing remarkable about him at all, no siree.
So the plot stops doing its warm-up stretches and begins trotting leisurely along the track. A platinum blond fellow with a very nasal voice wanders into Thebes and ask for a drink from a non-platinum blond. Her name is Manto, and his name is… well, he doesn’t get a name. He just says he’s from Phrygia. (Phrygia is modern central Turkey, and you might know the Phrygians as the inventors of that hat the Smurfs wear.) Manto gives the Phrygian some water, and in return, he gives her some wine that’s sacred to Dionysus. But she isn’t prepared to take it. She’s pledged to become a priestess of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and it would seem that Dionysus and Demeter had a falling-out recently. Plus, doing anything associated with Dionysus is bad news in Thebes, as the local government doesn’t like him at all. (Yes, Dionysus is from Thebes, but they hate him anyway. If I recall correctly, Jesus wasn’t a big deal in Nazareth, either.)
But there is one man in Thebes who is a fan of Dionysus: the blind sage, Tiresias, who’s also Manto’s father. Keen students of Greek myth will be aware of two things: one, that Tiresias didn’t have any children (indeed, Manto doesn’t appear in the Euripides play), and two, that Tiresias could very well have been Manto’s mother as well. Tiresias is addressing the people, to less than universal acclaim.
TIRESIAS: Oh Thebans, my sons, listen once more to the power of my words!
SCOFFING DUDE: The power of words does not quench thirst.
The gist of this is that Dionysus is punishing the city for being too grumpy, and the only way to avert a permanent drought is to party like hell until the god is satisfied. As you might expect, Tiresias’ voice actor is truly bellowing his lines to reflect their great import, but the guy he’s dubbing is remarkably restrained, especially by Italian standards. Perhaps this is because he isn’t played by an Italian. He’s played by Armenian-American Akim Tamiroff, who had one hell of a career (Touch of Evil, Ocean’s 11, Alphaville, The Trial, The Bridge of San Luis Rey).
Bechdel test: passed.
Back at Tiresias’ house (which is quite nice for a soothsayer. Must be good money in the soothsaying business), Manto returns home to find a guest, Dirce. Dirce brings her a very nice dress, and then the two women bemoan their respective fates. Dirce is set to marry King Pentheus, but she’s not particularly jazzed about the idea. She dreams of “a gay, free life, full of songs and dances and love!” Nor is Manto fired up about being a priestess of Demeter. She’d rather date a guy named Lacdamo (which just doesn’t look like a Greek name, but I can’t get a confirmation of the spelling anywhere, and no, he wasn’t in the Euripides play either). I hope Lacdamo turns out to be our Hercules analogue so we can get a bit of action up in this joint.
Next up is our introduction to the temple of Demeter. The Egypt/Greece confusion continues, as the guy playing Demeter’s high priest looks like he’s cosplaying King Tut from the 1960s Batman series. Manto is here in a polka-dotted dress. Yes, polka dots. When her induction ceremony begins, the high priest throws some whooshing powder into the fire, which—shock, horror—causes the fire to go out.
HIGH PRIEST: The prophecy! Of the sibyl!
Yes, Manto is the Chosen One. She’s fated to… fall in love with Lacdamo. I didn’t think the Sibyls would much concern themselves with a couple of kids falling in love with each other, but my classics courses were slanted towards Rome instead of Greece. Unfortunately for her, Lacdamo is locked up right now. Queen Agave’s thrown him in jail, no doubt for some nefarious crime like skateboarding in a wilderness area or selling food without peanut allergy warnings.
Manto sneaks into jail to meet up with Lacdamo one last time before she joins the priesthood. My first look at Lacdamo confirmed that he ain’t gonna be our Hercules. He’s too scrawny. He’s also got a painfully earnest voice actor, like Flash Gordon from 1980 met a sitcom child from the fifties. Manto gives him one last gift: a taste of the sacred wine.
LACDAMO: “Look at it. The color is as shiny as the most precious stone. It seems almost alive. It gives joy… love, and more.” (Note: Lacdamo says this *before* he drinks the wine.)
Now, Manto isn’t supposed to drink, and when Diony—I mean, the Phrygian offered her the sacred wine, she didn’t drink it. But this is the last time she’s going to see her boyfriend, so she figures she’ll indulge a little. This causes colored gels to cover the camera like we’re watching an Iron Butterfly performance. No joy, love, or more is depicted, unless the red tint is supposed to indicate that there’s sex going on here. Lacdamo’s got a plan now: he wants to run away from the temple to Attica. “A new god will protect us, and will judge us, too!” I’m not sure how Dionysus judges people. Perhaps it’s based on the number of Andrew W.K. albums they own.
(The preceding has been an attempt at a pop culture joke written by a man who lives on a remote tropical island and has recently discovered his first gray hair.)
The Mandatory Trumpet Fanfare at the palace announces the return of King Pentheus from wherever he was. He’s still in his military outfit, and I initially mistook him for an advance guard. He must have had a lousy time at the battlefield, because he’s not in a good mood. He’s confronted with the rumors of drought in Thebes.
PENTHEUS (inventing social media): The rabble says nothing! It only repeats!
A courtier suggests that it might be time to placate Dionysus, but Pentheus won’t have it—he’s no fan of Dionysus’ “orgies of impure women.” The high priest suggests that maybe it’s Demeter’s job to fix the harvest, and you know what? It kind of is, what with her being a harvest god. You’d think that if Dionysus got mad at you, he could only keep your instruments out of tune or replace your good wine with Boone’s Farm or something else within his wheelhouse. But, again, I studied Romans, not Greeks.
The priest, Dowager Queen Agave, and King Pentheus discuss their options. Lots of empty space in this shot, probably to try to make them look isolated.
Pentheus retires to his chamber to talk to his mother and to the high priest, where they discuss exactly the same issues they just talked about in the public meeting (thereby proving that it isn’t just the rabble who only repeat).
AGAVE: King Pentheus, the people are discontented.
PENTHEUS: But it’s folly to give in to the populace. And it’s for their affliction and their perpetual misery.
Sounds like a winning campaign slogan. Anyhow, the high priest has a suggestion: maybe Demeter ought to be placated with a human sacrifice. Mobs always enjoy seeing people killed, and it would play right into Pentheus’ theme of eternal unhappiness. As a bonus, the high priest suggests offering Manto as the sacrifice. Upon her death, he reasons, Tiresias will shut up and fall in line (or maybe just get angrier, whatever).
Dirce drops in to see her fiancé, rather reluctantly.
PENTHEUS: Don’t tell me it’s your modesty. The modesty of women melts like love, like snow in the sun.
Unsurprisingly, this cut-rate seduction routine fails to impress Dirce, but she’s going to be a good Greek woman and accept her marital fate.
Out on the town, the hoi polloi are in a tizzy because some woodsmen have returned to town with a story about beautiful women in the woods. They allegedly came down from the mountains and “performed miracles.” Rather than dismiss this as rannygazoo, the people decide that the women must be the legendary Bacchantes. (They may have been won over by the woodsmen’s matter-of-fact tone.) These priestesses of Bacchus live carefree lives of pleasure until their god calls upon them to fight, at which point they turn into murder machines. (If I were making a movie about the Bacchantes today, I’d have them fight using drunken master kung fu.)
This incites the crowd to light up some torches and gather ‘round the palace for one of those non-violent protests that the ancient world was known for. (Seriously, not a single skull gets cracked.) Inside the palace, Pentheus agree with the high priest that a human sacrifice is just the thing to calm down the crowd. Agave chimes in with details on the prophecy of the sibyls: Lacdamo and Manto are going to have a son who will overthrow Pentheus and take the throne. See, now that’s a plot point we could’ve used a lot sooner in the movie.
Pentheus steps out to address the public, as follows.
PENTHEUS: Thebans! I don’t know whether I should still call you by the name of Thebans, because if you do bear that name, I alone, Pentheus, must still be your king, and it doesn’t appear to me just or right for his loyal subjects to present themselves to him, armed with sticks and hearts filled with rebellion!
See, now, there’s nothing wrong with any of those phrases in isolation. But when you string them together, they look like the linguistic equivalent of an overturned fruit cart. I’ll give the voice actor credit for putting enough pauses in his speech to paper over the awkwardness of the sentence.
In the remainder of the speech, Pentheus confesses that he’s been remiss in his worship of Demeter recently. The best way to make it up to the goddess is by sacrificing “the youngest of our virgins,” Manto. (Is there a minimum age for virginity? I recall from “The Monster Squad” that there is not.) He’s so confident that the sacrifice will work that he’s allowing everyone to storm the storeroom and take all the water they want.
This guy’s just an extra, but he’s really put on his crazy face to indicate his delight at free water. (He shovels it into his face instead of using it on his crops or his animals, so he must not be a farmer.)
The crowd is especially excited by their king’s announcement.
OLD GUY: A human sacrifice! That doesn’t happen every day of the week, does it?
Except for Lacdamo, of course, who rushes off to do something-or-other. Dirce, however, has a plan. She goes to Pentheus and asks him to cancel the sacrifice as a personal favor to her. (Maybe sacrifice one of the unpopular virgins instead?) Pentheus isn’t willing to do this because it would be a sign of weakness.
Tiresias is fed up with this nonsense and sacrifices a goat to Dionysus. I’m not sure it’s a great idea to let a blind man play with knives, but I wasn’t consulted. Dionysus says that if Dirce rounds up the most beautiful women in Thebes and takes them to a cave at the edge of town, and if the women do the sacred dance, then Dionysus will appear and bail them out of this mess.
Dirce isn’t keen on this proposal until she gets to drink the rest of the sacred wine, at which point she reconsiders and gets on the hot-chick telegraph to summon the maidens. (“Come on out to the caves and join your queen-to-be! And leave your ugly sisters at home!”)
When they arrive at the cave, the holy oboes and flutes strike up for a slow-paced dance scene, with lots of dramatically spread cloaks, arching backs, and holding invisible beach balls. Dirce does the Swim at one point. I genuinely couldn’t tell if Dirce’s conclusion, in which she staggers forward, puts her hand ever-so-dramatically to her forehead, and collapses was meant to be the end of her dance, or whether it was meant to represent her actually running out of energy to dance. This summons the Phrygian (you remember him, right?) who assures the crowd that Dionysus is right here inside us all and is going to save the day.
Now, over at the temple, oh, they really pack ‘em in. The in crowd say it’s cool to dig this sacrifice thing. Or at least they do until the Phrygian appears, standing atop a barrel, explaining that Dionysus hates human sacrifices. The high priest, defiant, raises the sacrificial knife and is promptly struck down by lightning. Pentheus, ever the level-headed ruler, responds by saying, “Arrest that arrogant stranger!” The Phrygian laughs awkwardly—I can’t really describe in text—and gallops away like a swashbuckler. “No one will ever capture him,” says a guy in the crowd who is presumably jaded about the capability of Theban law enforcement.
The rain starts to fall, the people storm the altar, Manto is released, and all the young people climb the mountain to worship Dionysus as triumphant music plays. The end.
Wait, no, there are still another 45 minutes left. Cripes.
Agave is not happy, but Pentheus is waiting for the people to screw up before striking them down. When he hears that the kids are going to the mountain to buy the world a Coke—sorry, celebrate the forbidden Bacchanal (a reference so old that I doubt any of my readers will get it!)—
GUARD: Cups overflowing with wine are circulating among the women, and they have abandoned themselves to all manner of orgies!
(I’m trying to imagine different varieties of orgies and I should probably stop.)
The orgy is the Phrygian’s fault, because he was serving the wine and incited the women to abandon their purity. Look, I’m not going to take this joke to its logical conclusion. Feel free to do so on your own if you like.
PENTHEUS: Bitter, indeed, will be the aftertaste of the orgies he’s brought!
Orgy #671: the Heel-Grabbing Phrygian Cave Orgy!
The orgy is about as calm as a senior prom in South Dakota in 1958, and the Phrygian is here to call for the triumphal chant, which is about happy and pure lives and blessed auras and exultation and goodness and all the things no reasonable person believes in any more. The Phrygian wants to conduct Lacdamo and Manto’s wedding right now because Lacdamo is really Prince Lacdamo, Agave’s nephew, and “the one legitimate pretender to the throne of Cadmus.” Legitimate pretender, you say?
Their wedding is rudely interrupted by Pentheus’ soldiers, who are here to arrest everyone, and I’m enough of a grouch that I want the soldiers to win. I bet the loud wedding party was keeping all the neighbors awake. The only one to escape is Dirce, who skulks around in the very spacious cave until the soldier chasing her go transparent, accompanied by a female choir going “oo-oo-ooo-oo-oooo” and swirling strings. So, magic, then. Yes, the Bacchantes are lying in wait for her, as is the Phrygian, who explains that he didn’t pitch in to help the kids avoid arrest because “the god’s ways cannot possibly be understood by mortals.” That’s a fine answer in theology (well, Christian theology—Greeks seemed to think their gods were perfectly understandable) but lousy in screenwriting. Dirce doesn’t need to worry because the Fates will do their thing.
It turns out that Agave had a sister who’s buried in this cave, and who was Dionysus’ mother. Dionysus has become a man to learn about things like grief, and then he’ll ascend to Olympus. Now, Dionysus and Jesus do have a few things in common—both born to mortal women, both descended into the underworld, both associated with wine—but there’s no legend of Dionysus becoming fully human. Anywho, the Phrygian (who JUUUUUST MIIIIIGHT be Dionysus) starts talking to Dirce about what a bad idea it is for humans and gods to fall in love.
PHRYGIAN: An abyss of eternity parts them, and the void of the finite and the infinite is quite immeasurable.
Man, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Tweets really can be cryptic, can’t they? Now, you may be asking yourself, “Did the Cheapskate cut out some previous scene between the Phrygian and Dirce where they started making eyes at each other?” No, no I did not. These two are falling in love at first sight, as indicated by the dialogue and by the Phrygian’s eyes going super intense. Like, Gowron-level intensity.
The Phrygian visits the palace. I wonder if the grapevine on his outfit symbolizes anything? Naw, certainly not.
Warp back to the palace, where the Phrygian strolls in, uninvited. Sadly, we don’t get a fight scene. Instead, Pentheus attempts to score a sick burn.
PENTHEUS: I see from the way you are dressed you hail from the land of barbarians. However, your costume doesn’t seem to me to be that of a priest, nor certainly that of a warrior.
Too wordy. Try again.
The Phrygian presents his defense of the Dionysus worshipers. Sure, there’s, like, wine and sex and stuff, but they’re, like, happy, man. They break into an argument about Freedom versus Duty. Now, the ancient Greek audience probably would have sided with Pentheus here. Dionysus is fundamentally a god of excess, and the Greeks thought that virtuous people were fundamentally moderate. The Greeks saw this play as a tragedy about a god demanding that a king abandon his kingly duties to promote virtue, and the king fighting back hopelessly. (I can relate: if the Lord God appeared to me and told me to go to the Gathering of the Juggalos, I’d probably raise my mortal fist in defiance.)
The movie, however, is pretty clearly siding with Dionysus, who’s saying that the people have the right to be free, and to enjoy themselves however they want. It’s a far more modern attitude, and if I were feeling particularly politically inclined, I’d try to present this argument in Cold War terms: Dionysus presenting the Western desire to put personal happiness first, and Pentheus as the Communist trying to get people to fulfill their obligations to society. But I suspect this film’s reimagining of Dionysus as the good guy has more to do with market research than with propaganda.
Pentheus decides what to do with the arrested kids. They’ll be pardoned, the Phrygian will be chained to a rock, and Lacdamo will be executed. Well, sort of. Pentheus visits Lacdamo in his cell (addressing him as “cousin,” to Lacdamo’s surprise) and offers him a deal: he’d rather have Lacdamo commit suicide, because it’s “the most undeniable confession of the guilt of a prisoner.” Somewhere, Vladimir Putin nods. In exchange, Lacdamo will get one last night with Manto. Lacdamo takes the deal.
Elsewhere, Tiresias meets with the hippie kids and announces that Pentheus is a usurper. The kids decide to rush the jail to break Lacdamo out. Elsewhere elsewhere, the Phrygian is tied to a rock, awaiting death, and Dirce, standing by, suggests that maybe the Phrygian’s god ought to come and free him. This sounds oddly familiar. I guess they must have cut the scene with the soldiers casting lots for the Phrygian’s clothing. Dirce finally admits that she loves the Phrygian, and that’s the magic word. No, literally, it’s the magic word. Once the Phrygian is loved, he can escape. He breaks out of the ropes, and… well, he just leaves. There are a bunch of guards standing around watching this and none of them do anything. Must be on break.
As Lacdamo’s about to drink the hemlock, the rebels burst into his cell and make a matter-of-fact announcement.
GUY: (using the intonation you’d use when signing off a radio newscast) These warriors are your own people and stand ready to die for you.
Lacdamo’s response is “Do you have a plan?” Now, I probably would’ve told them something along the lines of “this is horse hockey,” but I guess if someone’s planning on installing you as the head of state after a coup d’etat, it pays to find out their plan.
For whatever reason, the kids have decided to make their stand at the caves, instead of storming the palace. The soldiers charge the caves for the second time, and we finally, finally! get our goddamned fight scene. Sadly, it’s rather slow-paced and not very swashbuckling. We don’t even get a Hercules-type spot where a guy throws a beam at three or four dudes and knocks them all down, which is pretty much de rigeur in sword and sandal movies. I would, however, like to point out that one of the soldiers carries an axe. The ancient Greeks really did use axes in combat on occasion, but it’s rare to see it depicted in film. Usually you just see guys swinging a bunch of gladii around.
When the rebels are just about defeated, the Phrygian (who’s not even pretending not to be Dionysus at this point) calls forth the Bacchantes to defend them, and gasp! Dirce is in command. Pentheus arrives on the scene and offers to allow surrender, but Dirce refuses, and the final showdown begins:
PENTHOUSE: Infantry! You may finish the carnage!
Dirce threatens her fiancee with a purple-headed staff.
I love watching sword and sandal movies, but this one was a real slog. When your movie is full of silly, faux-classical dialogue, you’ve got to break it up fairly often so your audience’s attention doesn’t drift away. In most peplum movies, this is accomplished through goofy fight scenes, but here, they try to use dance numbers, and it doesn’t work as well. Fights advance the plot. Dances don’t. The whole thing fees like it’s running in place, and I don’t think it’s worth watching.
• Filming is generally competent, and there’s one particularly nice shot of Pentheus walking through his deserted palace.
• There are pretty girls in the movie, if you like looking at pretty girls.
• The actors—both the Italian actors and the people dubbing them—seem bored.
• Pacing is glacial.
Watch It If:
You’re writing a novel featuring a time traveler from ancient Greek and you want to learn how to write awkward dialogue for said character. You’re a big fan of Italian choreography from the sixties.