Barbarossa: Siege Lord a.k.a. Sword of War, 2009.
Directed by Renzo Martinelli.
Starring Rutger Hauer, Raz Degan and F. Murray Abraham.
In Northern Italy, the Germanic Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (Rutger Hauer) plans to capture the regions of the South and Centre to recreate the empire, leading to deadly clashes between the people of the land as they fight for independence and social status.
Italian cinema, with great regularity, seem to produce a lot of historically themed TV movies. Normally fairly cheap, but with enough polish not to look too cheap, these always feel fairly consistent in their delivery. Historical accuracy, not that I’m a history buff, is perhaps not as stringent as it could be. Barbarossa is yet another of these TV history specials. Perhaps part education, part entertainment, and in no small measure, part Gladiator wannabe. Gladiator is a recent benchmark of the historical epic, and followers aspire to be like it, and tick all the epic boxes, from melodrama, searing glares, and strange faux-British accents. Oh and lots of shouting and rousing speeches of course. So as far as this goes, Barbarossa does everything expected of its genre.
Does anything mark it out as different? Well not really. The story centre’s on 12th century German general, Barbarossa whose vast empire comes up against the Milanese it defeated, who retaliate under their new guise, the Company Of Death. In respect of the central character, Barbarossa is interesting. He’s not outright evil, and has in view an empire of piece, albeit under his tight control. He’s still a vicious when needed however. But aside, this is nothing you haven’t seen before, under a different title.
The cast is good. Rutger Hauer makes a compelling Barbarossa. Hauer is generally very reliable. While this isn’t him at his electrifying best, he offers enough complexity to his part, to leave a lasting impression. As lead of the uprising and kind of protagonist, Raz Degan (Alberto) is okay. A problem, which is a commonality amongst these Italian TV movies, is that he’s an Italian actor, who’s been dubbed over for the English language version. Visually he stares wistfully with aplomb, but never really engages, and of course the mis-match between his face, look, and the accent coming out. Elsewhere, Kasia Smutniak shines as Degan’s love interest, a suspected Witch.
Letting the side down though, is one time Oscar-winner, F. Murray Abraham. Truly, his performance here, is the epitome of ham! He’s horrendously bad, chewing scenery like a ravenous bear let loose on a juicy T-bone steak. Given how incredible his performance was in Amadeus, it’s remarkable how his career since has panned out. Abraham makes regular appearances in these Italian movies, recently turning up in The Inquiry (featuring also Max Von Sydow and Dolph Lundgren). He was just as bad in that. Of course the classic moment for any ham is a good death scene, and Abraham effectively has two death scenes here to drench in the ripest, most mature of stinky cheese!
The battle scenes are pretty formulaic. Once again in the vein of Gladiator, with also an added dash of 300 style slo-mo histrionics. Though the budget can’t allow for a set piece of massive scale, it’s often a fault of big budget epics to fall back on such luxuries. The more contained action here, actually works fairly well, despite moments when more money and a better stunt unit, could have got more from the production.
Technically the film is well shot, well lit and well edited. Sound wise, the mix is a little slip-shod. Many sounds feel as if rattled off some old generic collection somewhere. There’s no real depth to the sound mix either. It all seems quite simplistic. The score is okay, but again, like much of the film, simply aspires to something better.
Overall, Barbarossa is passable. For what it delivers, it’s run time is too long, but at the same time, in this genre, all budgets considered, there have been far worse. It manages to hit it’s target every now and again, and moments in the film are genuinely interesting, but just as often it misses the target, or drags in places. History buffs may appreciate the subject matter, if they can overlook the fantastical elements in the film (such as soothsaying) and any inaccuracies. But aside there’s little to write home about.
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