Credit: Filmgalerie 451
by Luke Gorham Featured Film

Seneca — On the Creation of Earthquakes — Robert Schwentke [Berlinale ’23 Review]

February 28, 2023

With his latest feature, director Robert Schwentke has moved away from his Time Traveler’s Wife, Divergent, Snake Eyes-days of bad blockbuster filmmaking. Seneca — On the Creation of Earthquakes is roughly as audience-unfriendly as films come, sometimes to its benefit, but mostly otherwise. For proof, simply start with the conceit: a pseudo-satiristic comedy charting the final hours of the life of Stoic philosopher and playwright Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger. Famously the tutor of the tyrannical emperor Nero, Seneca (here played by John Malkovich) has by the point of Schwentke’s film fallen out of “The President’s” favor; and, as students of history know, will soon be asked to kill himself for (probably unfounded) treason against the sanctioned despot. And at one point post-condemnation, Seneca rails against the “fucking, fucking, fucking rich people.” So, let’s take stock: we have a president in quotes who rules as a dictator, an elitist antipodal class of self-indulgent and self-serious yokels, and some vague anti-capitalist rhetoric. If you’re reading contemporary critique into this barely-A.D.-set historico-tragedy, well then you’re picking up what Schwentke is laying down. Parallels between American and Roman excess — WHOA.

The problem, then, is that all of this would-be acerbic fodder is remarkably flaccid. It’s also much besides the point. Despite such pointed but empty provocations littered throughout, Seneca is more accurately classified as a dark comedy of sorts; it’s just a shame that the prime conceit of centering an oddball, Malkovich-starring comedy around Seneca’s historically documented struggles to off himself would be so irksome. Much of this comes down to a series of inane and arch decisions made by Schwentke. The film boasts a baffling and somehow aurally anachronistic voiceover that lends the proceedings the feel of a Wes Anderson-does-Shakespeare historical tragicomedy; not actually a terrible gambit — that’s, well, 70% Wes Anderson — but inconsistently and directionlessly utilized here. Then there’s the grating fisheye lens that is employed for much of the film’s first half, establishing a hallucinatory texture during an early, particularly brutal performance of Seneca’s Thyestes for a horde of rich wads at the dramatist’s home; the askance angles and lensing admittedly help to infuse the first twenty minutes with some intrigue, as it’s unclear at this point where exactly the bonkers film is headed, but it’s all ultimately in service of momentary affectation. And we also have the garish, horror-adjacent costuming meant to channel the spirit of the Roman Empire’s upper-class indulgence. But it all mostly amounts to a very stagey film, its line readings and spare production design feeling deeply theatrical — certainly intentional, given Seneca’s profession, and the oppressively flowery screenplay delivered by frequent Schwentke collaborator Evan Spiliotopoulos and Matthew Wilder (which admittedly pulls directly from the Roman Senator’s own words, but is assembled to maximalist effect) — and the myriad early, cartoonish tableaux landing mostly in womp womp fashion. There’s a clear Julie Taymor influence here, the film attempting to occupy some heightened but nebulous space between the modern and antiquated, but there’s nothing beneath the dressings.

The film’s second half is where Schwentke’s intent clarifies a bit, but not really in any meaningful or appealing way. Here, after Seneca the Senator is informed by a particularly violent soldier of the end he has been commanded to meet, Seneca the film leans, quite spectacularly, into its comedy. Rather than rendering the circumstances a tragedy in their own right, or adhering to the more romantic historical version of Seneca’s noble suicide, Schwentke opts for a more measured account of the event, by the historian Tacitus: Nero is never humanized, but the eponymous thinker is cast as more of a pompous, waffling doofus than heir to the Greek tradition he so subscribes to (and cribs from). And much is mined from the account of Seneca’s difficulties at death: while his wife, who attempts to duplicate his efforts, fountains blood and falls into unconsciousness, his “sawdust” veins leak little. He then attempts hemlock, but that too results only in fatuous, drug-addled ruminating. And finally he plots to lobster himself in a boiling hot bath, but his lone remaining adherent finally balks.

But while this tilt into po-faced absurdity results in some genuinely funny moments — watch a flustered Malkovich in Roman-era garb drop a “whatevs” after 45 minutes of high-brow pontificating, and try not to crack a smirk — this is also where the film becomes most annoying. Malkovich’s masticated monologues become even more halting in delivery and on-the-nose in content: “For how can anything exist when I’m dead.” And if contemporary American analoging and musings on the upper crust within a stealth totalitarian state weren’t enough, Schwentke also regrettably decides to skew even more of-the-moment, channeling the social media age’s innate solipsism as subject matter. We cycle through the admittedly clever line, “Perhaps I can be my best Seneca by becoming Socrates,” to the Senator’s incessant ballyhooing about his legacy, to the actual line uttered in a Roman Empire-set film: “I must have my followers.” (The camera even adopts the posture of a smartphone during a climactic compositional rotation.) By this point, whatever weirdo novelty originally existed in the film’s premise, and whatever grace Malkovich brings to the film — you can’t deny the casting; few people can spit either nonchalant vitriol or pretentious bullshit in the same way — has been subsumed by the utterly gauche treatment Schwentke has subjected the material to. It’s frustrating because the conceit is fine enough on its own to build a kitschy flick from, but, much like the presentation the film offers of the man it takes as both subject and stooge, Seneca is a blowhard endeavor carried forth only by its own hot air.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.5.