Napoleon by Ridley Scott. Valerio Sammarco’s review

“Was it true glory? For posterity
the arduous sentence: nui
let us bow our heads to the Most
Fattor, who wanted in him
of the creator his spirit
wider print footprint”.

In just 3 days Manzoni composed Il May 5th, ode to Napoleon who died in exile on the island of Saint Helena. In almost one hundred and thirty years of history, however, cinema has tried on more than one occasion to capture its specter, not always succeeding, other times setting aside the idea (the projects of various Kubrick and Chaplin are famous, but never completed): Abel Gance was the only French filmmaker who – almost a hundred years ago, in 1927 – managed to restore the mythology of such a character by associating it with a seminal film, a colossal work lasting 333 minutes, later reduced to 235, which told only the first part of his life, until the Italian campaign of 1796, followed then – in 1960 – by the disappointing The Battle of Austerlitzstarring Pierre Mondy as Bonaparte, Claudia Cardinale as Paolina Bonaparte, Orson Welles as Robert Fulton and Vittorio De Sica as Pope Pius VII.

The other Frenchman (although Russian by birth) to try his hand at the challenge in a “canonical” way was Sacha Guitry, who in 1955 also took on the part of Talleyrand in Napoleon Bonapartethen in 2002 came the television miniseries by Yves Simoneau with Christian Claver as the protagonist and, the following year, the uchronic Mr N by Antoine de Caunes.

On the Anglo-Saxon front, Ian Holm is the only actor to have played Napoleon twice, in 1974 for the miniseries Napoleon and womenyears later, in 2001, in The Emperor’s New Clothes movieanother “fantasy” operation directed by Alan Taylor.

But obviously you have to get to the United States to intercept, still remaining on the subject of actors, the “important” participations in films about the French emperor: Marlon Brando played him in 1954 in Desiree by Henry Koster, Rod Steiger in 1970 in Waterloodirected by the Russian Sergej Fëdorovič Bondarčuk (a film which, as the title suggests, turned out to be a terrible commercial flop) and, we come to us, Joaquin Phoenix embodies this Napoleon di Ridley Scott.

We find him among the crowd awaiting the beheading of Marie Antoinette (purists have pointed the finger at this first “historical fake” of the film), we will then follow his incredible rise in post-revolutionary France, from the battle of Toulon to the campaign of ‘Egypt (the cannonade at one of the Pyramids of Giza, another scene poorly digested by the exegetes…), passing through the seizure of power with the coup d’état in 1799, the proclamation of the French as Emperor in 1804, the battle of Austerlitz in 1805 , then arriving at the disastrous Russian campaign, the Elba exile, the return to his homeland and the failed attempt at Waterloo, until his last breath on the island of St. Helena, in 1821, after six years of exile.

We therefore jump from one period to another, evading a very certain thing (on the other hand, the film’s considerable length, almost 160′, could never contain everything, who knows the announced Director’s Cut of 4 hours…) and proceeding along the lines guide of the “classic” historical film, however focused on the ambiguity of a character so lucid and resolute in the art of war, tremendously clumsy and fragile elsewhere.

Without prejudice to the usual, indisputable grandeur with which the 85-year-old director restores the epic in the battle scenes, Napoleon it is a leaden biopic that amazes for the choice of never wanting to go too far, thus avoiding the risk of grotesque or over the top situations (the Emperor’s ridiculous moments are hinted at, but never overloaded), but also the pathos that a film as Gladiator – certainly more imperfect and more imaginative than this – he managed to give.

Vanessa Kirby e Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon
Vanessa Kirby e Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon

Vanessa Kirby e Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon

The intention is rather to “cage” the character of Napoleon in a perpetual limbo where egotism and megalomania, together with strategic genius in battle, fight with the feeling of love that binds him to the woman of his life, Giuseppina ( Vanessa Kirby), cheating wife, then empress, then left because she was unable to give him the expected male heir, a figure who however will accompany the story of this man even in the aftermath of her death.

“France. Army. Josephine…”, the last three words that Napoleon would have uttered on his deathbed, a man who in command of the French infantry and cavalry, over the course of twenty years, killed more than 3 million people. But that he had to give up love to leave himself to his homeland.

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