Finding a film about ancient Rome is never hard. Finding a film about anything Byzantine is quite the opposite. Consequently, when one does unearth a film about something byzantine with it feels necessary to watch it. On principle alone if nothing else, and not matter how spurious it ties to Byzantium might be. And if Decline of an Empire has anything, it is a plethora of spurious ties. The film, released in 2014, is also known as Katherine of Alexandria, and this might be a more apt title.
Directed by Michael Redwood it tells the story of Katherine of Alexandria and of Constatine the Great. Constantius and Maxentius also appear in smaller parts, and the film does claim to be about the decline of the Roman Empire and the proposed birth of the new Constantinian era. However, along the way Decline of an Empire takes it fair share of historic liberties, and at times the phrase “any historical correctness is due to mere chance” seems apt. This is particularly noticeable regarding the backstory of both Katherine and Constantine, who are introduced as childhood friends separated by the cruel Maxentius.
Maxentius takes Katherine to Alexandria, where he lets her be tutored by a selection of scholars, one of which is played by Peter O’Toole in his final role. Constantine is sent to the army, and when we meet him ten years later he is a gruff, but kind officer in Constantius’s legion in Britain. There he is fighting a group of British women who wish to drive the Romans out of Britain. The same women are also inspired by the writings of Katherine. For in some way that the film never properly explains, Katherine’s writing has been spread across the empire, and parts of it has ended up in Britain. Decline of an Empire is a promoted as a historical film, though it would perhaps be betters served as being labeled a religious film. The core of the film is the story of St Katherine, who is portrayed as being wise beyond her years already as a small child. The lighting, filming and dialogue all come together to present a hagiographic film portrait of Katherine.
A recurring symbol is a sun drawn by Katherine, and which is later reproduced by Constantine as well as the British female rebels. However, for a hagiographic film, the depiction of Katherine’s death is a bit puzzling as she is not shown beheaded. Instead she dies crucified while tied to the wheel, all while the wheel is pulled up a wall, and her followers look weeping upon her. To make matters even more potent, at her point of death Katherine is wearing a thorny crown placed upon her by a Roman soldier who mocks her by saying “Since you love Jesus so much.” It must be mentioned that this Roman mockery is also the only time the name Jesus is mentioned in the film. In fact, Katherine even rarely mentions God. Instead she talks about the soul’s salvation, all while dressed in white and writing long treatises in all the known languages. Upon dying she also has a vision. First she sees herself running along the shore of the sea as she did when she was a child, and then she sees a woman radiant in divine light reach down from the heavens towards her. Then she dies.
There are other oddities. One that might even amuse is how the battle between Constantine and Maxentius on the Milvian bridge is basically Maxentius with five soldiers facing Constantine. The latter is all alone. After Constantine has taken out two of Maxentius’s guards with throwing knives, Maxentius flees in terror. The remaining soldiers then offer Constantine a sword to finish Maxentius of, but Constantine replies that a sword would be too quick. Instead he catches up with Maxentius and smashes his head in with a stone while screaming “We were children.” So, not exactly the version one can find in Gibbon.
What might have become clear from this summary is that Decline on an Empire is not a good film. The plot is decidedly hard to grasp, and some plot threads are never properly explained. In addition the film is strangely edited, which leaves one with a disjointed feel. But dismissing a film simply on the grounds of it being bad is never very enlightening, so it is better to reflect on what is actually depicted in the film.
What Decline of an Empire seems to do, and which is why Katherine of Alexandria remains the better title, is to retell the story Katherine through the perspective of it being its own branch of femininsed religion. Throughout the film it is the women who are shown to be the moral strength, and in the case of the fighting British women they are also the fighting strength. In comparison, the men skip about doing mostly nothing, with the sole exception of Constantine who is shown to be driven almost solely by his desire to see Katherine again. That there is a religious dimension to this desire is evident from how Constantine is introduced while sketching Katherine’s sun sign – and how it is repeated that he is faithful to her even if he does not know if she lives or is dead. It is also telling that the film ends with Constantine partaking in a form of pilgrimage to see her corpse, and when he has done this the film more or less ends. Before the credits an image of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai is shown, and Katherine is said to be one of the great saints.
While all films about historical events take certain liberties, the ones taken by Decline of an Empire are almost impressive in their range. From Maxentius in a black, Darth Vader like helmet to a Constantine who barely knows Constantius, the film takes its own path and leaves history in the dust. Yet some praise should be given. While it is evident that the film, which was shot largely on Cyprus, has had a small budget , it has opted to let people of all ethnicities play parts. Consequently, there are people of all colours in the film, which much better represents the Mediterranean world than what is normal in Hollywood’s standard, white washed productions. There is also the fact that the actors have different backgrounds, as dialects and accents are very much evident when they speak English. Personally I found this refreshing, as it again can be taken to showcase the diversity of the Mediterranean.
That said, Decline of an Empire is a curious film. It is pretty to look at, and the music is nice – however the plot and its insights on history are decidedly fanciful.