Feature Documentary Reviews

The Romans (2020) – 1.5 stars

Director: Maurice Micallef

Writer: Chris Micallef

Running time: 1hr 30mins

The history of Rome and the Roman Empire have long captivated the imaginations of people around the world. Over its 2,100 years, Ancient Rome managed to occupy a vast geographical area – with its Empire stretching across almost all of Europe, into portions of Asia and Africa. This means that, as well as the intrigue surrounding Rome’s internal power-struggles, its amalgamous religious and cultural practices, and its infamously niche gastronomical trends, many people are keen to understand how Rome’s dominance may have influenced and structured their daily lives in the modern day.

Sadly, many of the documentaries which address this matter concentrate on the other colonial forces which rose in the centuries following the fall of Byzantine falls; the French, British, Spanish and Portuguese empires which collectively came to rule an even larger portion of the world. History being written by the winners, it is perhaps inevitable that Western historical films would obsess over the ways these nations were themselves shaped by hundreds of years of Roman rule – however, it does little to address how Roman influence impacted countries and cultures outside the traditional imperial spectrum.

Initially it seems as if The Romans positions itself to address this gap on behalf of Malta. Malta was taken by Rome via the Punic Wars from 264-146 BC, and was tied to the empire in its changing forms until the early 6th century AD. According to the director’s statement, the film’s mission “is to promote Maltese heritage and culture abroad” – and seeing how Maltese culture has been shaped by its centuries under Roman rule would be an intriguing way of doing that. It could highlight both an untold story regarding Ancient Rome in a domain oversaturated with accounts of larger nations, and expose us to Maltese culture – something few people beyond the Mediterranean are likely well versed it. For all this promise, however, The Romans delivers on none of it.

From start to finish, Maurice Micallef’s historical documentary is an aimless plod, mercilessly bludgeoning its audience with seemingly disconnected factoids that never weave themselves into a coherent narrative thread. One of the chief causes of this seems to be Chris Micallef’s meandering writing. Chris Micallef is an Associate Professor at the University of Malta – and the unapologetically dry academic tone of his script speak devote more time to throwing as much minutiae at its audience as possible, while devoting no energy at all toward building any kind of relationship with them.

Even the most forgiving and committed history buff will struggle to keep up with the structure of the script, as we are swiftly buried beneath a slew of academic citations and a never-ending stream of name-dropping – from ancient sources like Cicero or Pliny the Elder; to a smattering of gods and goddesses; all of whose obscure names bombard us, without ever being elaborated on. Meanwhile, a raft of stock images seemingly lifted from other television documentaries or from Age of Empires give us no visual substance to support what we are being told.

Worse still, however, in spite of this barrage of information, the film still seems to have nothing to say. After going into excruciating detail about the architecture of Malta under the Romans, and its pottery production and extinct religious practices, we are told Maltese people held ‘Latin Citizenship’ which gave them a relatively priviledged position in the empire, that they were not involved in the slave rebellion made famous by Spartacus, and that it was vague about its leanings during Rome’s Civil War. At this point, we are left to wonder, why should we care? We aren’t learning anything new or controversial that we won’t get in any other sub-par History Channel presentation – and the one thing that would make this worthwhile is absent.

We should be learning what implications Roman rule had on the future development of Maltese culture, and asking people alive now how, if at all, that legacy has impacted them? When we do hear from other people, they are archaeologists from other countries, all invested in exploring the Roman era of Maltese history from a stale academic standpoint. There is nobody here to give a voice of modern Malta – what does their Roman heritage mean to them? We are left to speculate.

Instead, the disappointing sequence of talking heads ends, and we swiftly return to the tedium of our uncredited narrator. Whether it is one of the Micallefs, or an out-of-work actor too ashamed of his phoned-in performance to be named, is anyone’s guess. Whoever is in charge of delivering the script, he somehow manages to make it even less compelling. The delivery comes across as though an AI had been tasked with imitating the trans-Atlantic drawl of a National Geographic narrator – meaning the delivery often comes with something similar to the uncanny valley effect. Our ears are hearing something almost human, and it is unnerving at best, as its cadence routinely gives it away as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, trying to get us to lower our guards, as it continuously spaffs out endless reams of information without pausing for impact.

There is no breathing space, just a barrage of monotone factoids hammering the audience about the head. Of course, it would be cruel to blame this entirely on the faceless narrator – the pacing is ultimately the responsibility of the director. In this case, he might have extended the run-time to allow the audience more time to digest the information they are being hammered with, or more compassionately he might have cut a sizeable chunk of it out.

Another decision from the director which will further push viewers into an unblinking coma is the embarrassing raft of creative commons music deployed ceaselessly throughout the film. Most of it is instantly familiar to anyone who was spent longer than five minutes on YouTube, including two out-of-place compositions from creepypasta stalwart Myuu, and more than 30 from the musical content mill that is Kevin MacLeod. It becomes increasingly difficult to maintain concentration then, as the endless churn of the narration and the dull familiarity of the music combine to lull us to sleep.

This could be an intriguing subject, if the film were to take the time to explain to viewers why this mass of data is important to modern Malta. Unfortunately, no such effort is made, and we are left to suffer through 90 minutes of migraine-inducing, sub-History-Channel waffle.

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