Fascism and cinema have a long and uneasy history together, filled with tyrannical directors that push auteur theory to authoritarianism. A unification of group effort towards the vision of one man above all else, a leader who creates an orderly narrative out of the chaos of the real world. In Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes asks the viewer to follow the journey of Caius Martius Coriolanus as he walks the path of hatred, oppression, and power. Other directors may have softened the lead character, but in doing so would twist the narrative to an even darker tale. A fascist leader in an anti-fascist story can’t be the good guy, as that undermines the whole point.
Fiennes’ Caius Martius is a man more at home in the battlefield than the halls of power in his home city of Rome, or even resting in his palatial estate with his mother, wife, and son. There seems to be a clarity of purpose in war that makes sense to him; there’s an enemy that must be defeated, and every action taken is in service of this goal. The path to that goal may be paved with the gruesome horrors of war, but it’s an approach to life that makes sense to him. The endless politicking in the capital disturbs him greatly, both in it’s apparent pointlessness, and as a reminder that this is the supposedly great civilization that he’s been fighting for his entire life.
Martius’s contempt for politicians is only trumped by his hatred for the citizens of Rome. They’re presented in the film as a collection of peoples from all over Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and even Asia. What they lack in ethnic unity is more than made up for by their collective poverty, and very real hunger. Martius begins the film tasked with preventing the protesting citizens from raiding the city’s grain stores, relishing the chance to show them just what he thinks of them through the cudgels of his soldiers. He’s called away to fight the external threat of the Volscians before he gets that chance, but not before making enemies of the people.
The Volscian commander Aufidius(Gerad Butler) is a bitter rival of Martius, the two having fought many times before. While their respective armies are fighting for the city of Corioles, they’re much more interested in defeating the other. They wallow in the cruelties of modern urban warfare, understanding the post-structural nature of it, the way that it undermines human preconceptions of constructed space.
‘this space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. […] The question is how do you interpret the alley? […] We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. […] I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war.
Martius finds Aufidius, and the two resolve to end the conflict through single combat with knives. The ensuing combat is partially reminiscent of West Side Story in it’s ritual aspect, while also bringing to mind the brutal fight between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live. Before a clear victor is decided, Aufidius’s men pull him away, and retreat from the city. Cauis Martius has taken Corioles for Rome, and gains a cognomen in honor of this victory: Coriolanus. Soon enough, this is the only name he has left.
Cauis Martius Coriolanus returns to Rome a hero, is thrust into the world of politics by his family and so called friends, and leaves the city an exile, stripped of title, rank, name and surname. Only Coriolanus remains, only the warrior conqueror who desires revenge upon Rome. His contempt is so great that he entrusts his life to his old enemy Aufidius, who accepts him with brotherly arms. A cult of personality grows around him, his shaved pate becoming a symbol of allegiance, the barber’s chair his throne. With his intimate knowledge of Roman defenses, the army easily pushes into Rome. While his wife(Jessica Chastain) and child try to appeal to mercy, it’s his mother(Vanessa Redgrave) that forces him to break down in tears to spare the city. A peace treaty is signed, but Coriolanus acted against the wishes of Aufidius, and he is killed on the road in an unceremonious group stabbing. It’s the kind of the end that fascist leaders often face.
Fiennes does not hesitate to make his Coriolanus hateful, easy to dislike, and yet filled with a brutal masculine charisma. The film’s modern aesthetics contrast wonderfully with the Shakespearean language, creating a world that is alien and chillingly familiar. The audience is privy to all the backhanded scheming of the consuls, so that the violent simplicity of Coriolanus seems refreshingly honest. The viewer is invited to become complicit in his contempt, his rage, and his hate mirroring the charms of fascism. The simplicity of viewing the world in stark black and white terms is made much more appealing when the shades of gray are so perfidious. The pair of opposing Roman consuls, Brutus and Sicinius, are so brazen in their attempts at destroying the political future of Coriolanus that it’s shockingly easy to forget that they’re completely justified in trying to prevent him from gaining any more power.
The tragedy of the film isn’t just that of Coriolanus, but of our own history.