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Slaves and Greeks

Last time I checked, “12 Years a Slave,” this year’s Oscar “Best Picture” winner, was still showing in Manila theaters, and perhaps elsewhere.

But you know what, I’m not quite optimistic about its chances—or at least the chances that local moviegoers will flock to theaters in enough numbers to justify the air-conditioning. When we went to watch it over the weekend, there were barely a handful of us in the theater. And through most of the film, I thought my husband and I were the only ones viewing the movie, judging from the sepulchral silence in the dark movie house. Maybe the others were like me, shocked into stupefied silence, not quite believing what I was seeing onscreen.

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The film does not make for “pleasant” movie-going. And for those whose ancestors survived the ordeal of slavery—and who still feel faint echoes of the experience more than a hundred years later—the film must be excruciating to watch. Slavery in America has been the subject of other movies. I remember in particular the way “Negro” slaves were depicted in “Gone with the Wind,” devoted and fiercely loyal to their “masters,” and, like Mammy, soft and loving. Indeed, the novel and the movie reserved much of their opprobrium on the carpetbaggers who descended on the South after the Civil War, glossing over the cruelty inflicted by slave owners and the necessity for war.

Well, “12 Years” tears that cheery curtain to bits. The slaves here are not the eternally sunny, singing and dancing workers basking in the sun of the cotton fields. Instead, their miserable living and working conditions are laid bare, as are the impersonal, hypocritical attitudes of the plantation owners who looked on them as property and not quite human.

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Maybe the movie, based on the personal account of Solomon Northup, a free African-American living in New York who was drugged and sold off to slave traders, had to be made by someone somewhat removed from the roots of the slave experience in America. One could almost say the approach taken by British director Steve McQueen was clinical, a bit standoffish despite the horrors of the lash and the casual cruelties the movie depicts. Someone closer to the story might have tilted the balance to sentimentality, if not rage.

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IT’S the same approach employed by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, who keeps his anger and frustration, as well as his education, under wraps, concealed from the plantation owners and slave traders. His face is a passive landscape, and in an extended close-up, though he barely changes expression, one can breathe in the rage simmering beneath his skin.

Lupita Nyong’o bears little resemblance to the poised, confident young woman we have been seeing on red carpets. As Patsey, the “favored” slave and hardest worker of the cruel master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), she is both fragile and ferocious, but the scene of her whipping is harrowing—as much for her as it is for the audience.

Given all the time that has passed, one would think people around the world would know everything there is to know about America’s experience with slavery. But “12 Years” still manages to open our eyes, to let our senses and emotions come to terms with the book learning, to “see” with the eyes of slave descendants and realize that for many, reconciliation is still a work in progress.

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ITS predecessor, “300,” was soaked in testosterone, so immersed in the warrior ethos that young men exiting the movie house confessed to “wanting to stab somebody.”

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Well, “300: Rise of an Empire” could not be said to be as steeped in machismo, since some of the main characters are women, including the arch villainess. But the same ethos prevails: death as an honorable reward, vengeance as a spur to action and violence, and honor as the defining currency of manhood.

The movie is also so bloody, one eventually gets inured to the red splotches staining the screen (it is even more gory in 3-D) and spurting out of skulls, chests and dismembered limbs. But, strangely, the bloodletting also left me cold. There was something cartoon-y about all that blood, not really unexpected since it was meant to resemble the stark style of comic storytelling.

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“300: Rise of an Empire” takes place shortly after the slaughter of the 300 Spartans by the vastly more powerful force of the Persian “God-King” Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). The focus this time is on an Athenian warrior-politician Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) who seeks to unite all of Greece against the Persians bound for conquest.

He faces off against Xerxes’ naval commander, a Greek woman named Artemisia (Eva Green) whose soul is turned sour by her resolve to avenge herself against Greeks who slaughtered her family, abused her, then threw her away.

But to fend off the Persians, Themistokles must convince the Spartans to fight alongside his ragtag army, and to do this he must gain the consent of the widowed Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey).

The battle scenes in this movie are much more epic, more detailed and dramatic than even those in the first “300.” Though ostensibly taking place at sea, there is still plenty of room for hand-to-hand combat and clever strategies, and for dramatic posturing from the main antagonists.

Though the plot is far simpler and—despite the blood—less harrowing than that of “12 Years a Slave,” “300: Rise of an Empire” seems headed for commercial success, at least on our shores. Filipinos may feel little affinity for the descendants of slaves, but there are enough angry men out there to propel “300” to box-office success.

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TAGS: “12 Years a Slave”, “300: Rise of an Empire”, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Lupita Nyong’o, Movies, Oscar, Persians, slavery, Spartan Queen Gorgo, Spartans, Themistokles
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