From Epic to Parody: Deconstructing Hollywood’s Rome on the Mexican Screen

Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos (Saint Joseph’s University)

The paper seeks to make a contribution to a body of scholarship (Cull 2001; Malamud 2009, 194-205; 2013; Paul 2013, 285-306) concerned with a rather ignored type of cinematic engagement with the classical past: epic parody. Its case study is La vida íntima de Marco Antonio y Cleopatra (1947, dir. Roberto Gavaldón), a satirical response to Cecil B. DeMille’s blockbuster Cleopatra (1934) produced at the zenith of Mexican cinema’s studio era (mid-1930s to mid-1950s). The film has received some scholarly attention outside the realm of classical reception studies (Cano Alonso 1998; Fidanza 2016; Couret 2018, 229-233), but the relation to its Hollywood antecedent has been unexplored. Emphasizing the nature of celluloid parody as an exercise in intertextuality, the paper focuses on two scenes and analyzes them in connection with the American progenitor, seeking to offer a better illustration of the strikingly different aesthetic approach to the ancient world followed in the Mexican reworking. The first scene recreates the last encounter between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar before his assassination; the second one depicts the Egyptian queen’s attempt to poison her new Roman lover, Mark Antony. I argue that, contrary to DeMille’s overveneration of the classical past and his tendency to spectacularize even the depiction of moments from his heroine’s private life, Gavaldón’s satire adopts an iconoclastic attitude to antiquity and problematizes its perception as an era of great personalities and therefore worthy of admiration. The paper will also demonstrate how the portrayal of Cleopatra is informed by the star image of the Cuban-born cabaret performer-turned actress María Antonieta Pons and the conventions of the cine de rumberas, a subgenre of Mexican musical cinema that she launched in 1938. In particular, I will explore how Gavaldón’s film replaces the subgenre’s exotic Caribbean locale with Alexandria and has the queen of Egypt perform to Afro-diasporic rhythms to seduce her Roman male victims.

Word count: 309.

[The handout will feature a summary of the plot. Stills will be included on PowerPoint slides. All Spanish terms will be explained in English.]

References Cano Alonso, P. L. (1998). “Dos apuntes iberoamericanos a la tradición cinematográfica de la cultura clásica: La vida íntima de Marco Antonio y Cleopatra y El Reñidero.” Cuadernos de Filología Clásica: Estudios Latinos 15, 585-592. Couret, N. (2018). Mock Classicism: Latin American Film Comedy, 1930-1960. Oakland, CA. Cull, N. J. (2001). “‘Infamy, Infamy! They’ve All Got It in for Me!’: Carry on Cleo and the British Camp Comedies of Ancient Rome,” in: S. R. Joshel, M. Malamud, and D. McGuire, Jr. (eds.), Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture. Baltimore, 161-190. Fidanza, F. (2016). “La trayectoria de Luis Sandrini como actor trasnacional en el cine latinoamericano. Su recorrido por las cinematografías chilena y Mexicana.” Fuera de Campo 1:2, 28-48.  Malamud, M. (2009). Ancient Rome and Modern America, Malden, MA. Malamud, M. (2013). “Consuming Passions: Helen in the Jazz Age,” in: P. Michelakis and M. Wyke (eds.), The Ancient World in the Silent Cinema. Cambridge, 330-346. Paul, J. (2013). Film and the Classical Epic Tradition. Oxford.