Kasia Smutniak as Livia in Domina. Photo: Supplied

Critic’s Chair: Guy Somerset revels in the betrayals and counter-betrayals of Domina, the latest drama on ancient Rome – and in the great lies revealed in a series of documentaries on the Soviet Union

Scholars of the Roman Empire, by which I mean those of us who have watched the BBC’s I, Claudius and HBO’s Rome, will appreciate how the new eight-part Domina fills an important gap in the historical record.

It’s essentially a sequel to Rome (2005–2007), whose two seasons ended just as Octavian, later to be Augustus, first emperor of Rome, came to power, with only a brief glimpse of his wife Livia, and a prequel to I, Claudius (1976), which began with Augustus (played by Brian Blessed when he still retained a vague grasp of the value of restraint) approaching his dotage and poisonous-in-every-sense-of-the-word Livia in full imperial pomp (her feline cunning conveyed with forensic precision by Sian Phillips).

Both series were, in their own way, a delight and so is Domina, even if it lacks the comic jeu d’esprit of Rome (with no one to match the shameless vim of James Purefoy as Mark Antony or the balletic bitchiness of Polly Walker and Lindsay Duncan) and the luvvie chops of I, Claudius (Derek Jacobi in the title role, John Hurt as Caligula).

Livia learning the ropes of murder. Families that are little more than a nest of vipers. Rampant personal and political treachery. Characters who would as soon run you through with their sword as give you the time of day. Infidelity and brothel-going as a way of life (“Shall we get a whore before we go back?” “There won’t be time before dinner”). Power-craziness and in the case of Tiberius just plain craziness. Really, what’s not to like?

Domina’s betrayals and counter-betrayals are hard to resist. 

One of Augustus and Tiberius’ successors as emperor, Nero, has been receiving a rethink lately, with a new exhibition at the British Museum scotching all that ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ nonsense. Domina is no such party-pooper, preferring to burnish rather than downplay the juicy legends. It does, however, offer a few surprises.

Always thought ‘the usual suspects’ originated in the 1942 movie Casablanca? Think again. The Romans were there first. “Guys”, “screw-up”, “driving me nuts”, “tits-up political crisis”, revenge as “a dish which tastes much better cold” – so many of our contemporary phrases seem to have come from the Romans. Or, rather, Domina’s dialogue comes from creator and writer Simon Burke, who is not blessed with originality, in either the lines he gives characters (liberally throwing around the word ‘fucking’ in lieu of genuine grittiness) or the clothes he has them shed, especially the women.

But the cast – particularly Kasia Smutniak as Livia – give it their all and it’s hard not to revel in the betrayals and counter-betrayals, the bunkum about family and honour meaning everything when marriage is such a malleable commodity for the sake of political gain and everyone is so perfidious.

Domina makes for an entertaining companion piece to Mubi’s season of Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s documentaries about Soviet Russia. Rome under its dictators and emperors; the Kremlin under Joseph Stalin and his successors: substitute the Communist Party for family as the locus of power and there are many common threads. Both systems were halls of mirrors.

The highpoint of the Loznitsa season is the screening of his most recent film, State Funeral (2019), which recreates through archival footage (most of it never seen) the days after Stalin’s death: its announcement in the farthest-flung corners of the country; the arrival of apparatchiks from all the satellite states; the hordes of people herded past his coffin as he lay in state; and then the funeral itself and its procession through Red Square.

Stalin’s state funeral. Photo: Supplied

Another companion piece for State Funeral might be Armando Iannucci’s treacle-black comedy The Death of Stalin (2017), which satirised the back-stabbing political machinations occurring behind the scenes. Front stage, meanwhile, as seen in State Funeral, the people are either weeping or completely impassive and impossible to read, as you might expect when the cameras and eyes of the state are on you and your response. The weeping could be genuine loss or it could be an outpouring of relief that the old bastard has gone. For some it could have been pure acting. A young woman in one of the outposts of the empire is seen smiling, virtually alone in doing so in all the footage throughout the two hours’ running time. She obviously didn’t get the memo. You do worry for her.

With the footage of hundreds of camera operators to call upon, Loznitsa switches between angles and between black and white and colour as he captures the sheer scale of the event. Of the lie.

There’s more of that lie in his The Trial (2018) and Revue (2008). The former is built on comprehensive footage of one of the more theatrically manufactured of the bogus show trials of the Great Terror; the latter pulls together clips from propaganda films of the 1950s and 60s to show the extent the lie leached into every aspect of Soviet life and corrupted journalism and the arts and their ability to tell the truth about that life.

The plays for the masses we see in Revue are excruciatingly tendentious. The Roman emperors may have resorted to bread and circuses, but at least they didn’t inflict socialist realism on their people.

Domina (Neon); State Funeral, The Trial and Revue (Mubi).

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