Titus opens with a scene of a young boy sitting in a kitchen and wearing a paper bag on his head, with holes poked for his eyes and mouth. The boy appears to be eating a meal while attempting to play with all of his toys at the same time. Most of the toys are dolls, and many are electronic--the setting is apparently a modern one. The boy begins to play rather violently. He throws the toys around, slams them into his food, cuts off their heads, breaks dishes. Suddenly his small violence is interrupted by a larger, more threatening one--there is an explosion, the room shakes, the boy falls to the floor. A man appears wearing a strange uniform. He tears the paper bag from the boy's head and carries him out of the burning house. They exit into an enormous stone arena, and all at once we are in Rome of the distant past.

     The rest of the film is in many ways a repetition of this opening scene. There is the same surreality, the same strange mix of the humorous and the disturbing, the ancient and the modern. And, just as the boy treats his dolls, so are men and women treated--they are thrown about and hacked to pieces as if they were the playthings of a violent, thoughtless child (and, indeed, one of the boy's dolls bears an uncanny resemblance to the title character, who bears the brunt of the majority of the tragic events in this story).

     This is Titus, a film adaptation of an early, rarely-performed Shakespeare play called Titus Andronicus. The play is not produced or read very often partly because most critics think it is one of the Bard's lesser works, and partly because the subject matter is so, well, unproduceable. It's the story of the Roman general Titus Andronicus (Sir Anthony Hopkins, in a performance that is both subtle and over-the-top in all the right ways) who, as the story begins, is returning, victorious, to Rome from a great battle against the Goths. He immediately makes two huge mistake for which he will be punished for the rest of his life. The first is, he does not show mercy to his prisoners. Queen Tamora of the Goths (Jessica Lange) begs for the life of her oldest son, but Titus will not be moved--he sees it as his duty to sacrifice the boy to the Gods. Tamora and her sons, Chiron (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys), swear vengeance.

     Titus's second mistake is that, when he is offered the Emperorship, he declines it and turns it over to Saturnine (Alan Cumming, slimy and effeminate as always). Not only is Saturnine a thoroughly horrible and easily manipulated person, he also almost immediately hooks up with Tamora, Titus's mortal enemy, and a masterful manipulator.

     These two acts begin a chain of violence, rape, murder and mutilation the likes of which even Shakespeare himself never exceeded. Titus starts it off by killing one of his own sons, in an act of loyalty toward Rome. Next, Lavinia (Laura Fraser), Titus's beautiful daughter, is raped by Tamora's sons, who chop off her hands and her tongue so she cannot tell anyone who violated her. Then Bassianus (James Frain), Lavinia's husband, is killed, and two more of Titus's sons are executed for his murder, though they are innocent. Titus cuts his own hand off in the mistaken belief that this sacrifice will save his sons. And finally, Titus captures and kills Tamora's two sons, then cooks them up and serves them to their mother and her husband, whom he subsequently kills.

     That somebody had the guts to even try to make a film out of this story is stunning enough. That that same somebody had the talent to succeed is almost unbelievable. But believe it or not, writer/director Julie Taymor did it, and right after a Tony award-winning run as director of the musical version of The Lion King. Maybe she was testing her range. If so, she passed the test. I'm not sure if she did it with flying colors, but Titus is definitely a success.

     The story of Titus Andronicus is obviously a totally over-the-top melodramatic tragedy, so telling it is going to be a delicate business, involving lots of complicated questions. Do you go whole hog and make it really serious and depressing, or do you try to add some comedy to lighten it up? And how do you make it mean something to a contemporary audience--should you modernize it or not?

     Taymor answers yes and yes. She recognizes that the line between tragedy and comedy is a very thin one, so instead of choosing a side of it to stay on, she erases it altogether. Rather than avoiding the black humor inherent in the "Hey, guess who you're eating!" scene, she plays it up. Hopkins arrives dressed as a chef and practically dances while Lange and Cumming enjoy their man-meat pies. And instead of choosing a time period to set the events of the play in, Taymor sets it in all time periods at once, putting motorcycles side by side with horse-drawn chariots, and adding arcade games and swing music to Roman bacchanals.

     Another line that Taymor blurs is the one between fantasy and reality. There are numerous surreal dream sequences involving tigers and angels, fire and swords, and really fancy costumes (viz. The Lion King). And near the end of the film, we are suddenly and inexplicably returned to that stone arena that appeared in the first scene, and an audience materializes to witness the epilogue, mimicking we ourselves, the audience of the film.

     The film is loaded with beautiful symbolic imagery, including the Freudian kind, which means plenty of phallic symbols and weird mother-son relationships to go around (Tamora's two wild and crazy boys hang on their mother a little too much for [our] comfort, and she acts as a combination mother-substitute/sex object for Emperor Saturninus). And that's one of many recurring themes in this film--the relationship between a parent and a child and what it means when that relationship is shattered by violence. Other themes include mercy--the giving and withholding of it; especially the dangers that go with the latter--and the bestial way in which men and women often treat their fellows.

     Titus also has great characters and great acting. (Harry Lenix in particular stands out as Aaron, Tamora's Moorish lover and advisor--he's a completely evil and heartless manipulator, a kind of prototype Iago.) In fact, the film's only faults are those that are inherent in the subject matter--at times it really does go over the top, becoming so gross that we can't watch, so horrifying that we can't even believe it anymore, so stylistically flashy that we're overwhelmed. But despite these flaws, Titus is still an impressive achievement from an exciting new talent.

Jim Genzano

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