In Ovid and the Art of Love, a schoolboy returns to a deserted Detroit neighborhood that is lying in ruins. He sits down on a concrete floor and begins to read a biography of the great Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso or Ovid, author of Ars Amatoria, The Art of Love. Emperor Caesar Augustus (John Savage) next appears in these same ruins with his advisor Senex (Mark Rademacher) and his wife Livia (Kimberly Cruchon Brooks). Augustus had restored the Roman Republic but without due process, fomenting the civil unrest that recurs throughout this film. His daughter Julia (Tara Summers) is married to Augustus’s stepson Tiberius (Barton Bund) but this is a political union rather than a love match. When rumors of Julia’s lascivious behavior reach Augustus, according to the new “morality” of Roman life, the Emperor must exile his daughter for adultery.
Well-born Ovid (Corben Bleu) has moved to Rome and is attending law school with his new best friends Maximilius or “Max” (Sam Haft) and Agripinna (Ashlee Marie McLemore) but his studies with Professor Gaius (Thomas D. Mahard) are not going particularly well. He has problems with sobriety and finds the law to be flawed and often unfair. Ovid drops out of law school to become a “practical” poet, i.e., a broke bard. He becomes enthralled by the blonde beauty Corinna but after his first attempt to establish a relationship with her is thwarted, his second effort succeeds in getting her into the sack.
Ovid goes to his first poetry “slam” at the Olive Tree Bar but this becomes a major fail. On another trip to the podium, he simply slays the audience with his erotic and seductive imagery. Meanwhile, Rome’s many poor people demonstrate outside of the halls of justice. Senex has Ovid arrested for violating Roman “moral values” with his love poetry. In prison, Ovid meets Julia the Younger (Tamara Feldman), Augustus’s granddaughter and a political activist. After they are released, she takes him on a tour of the “other” Rome and its denizens of the dark night. The film’s dramatic crux occurs in the courtroom after Julia and Ovid are rearrested. The Emperor confronts Ovid about the seditious nature of his poetry as the young man now faces either exile or death.
Writer/director Esme von Hoffmann has taken the risk of trying to blend the customs and costumes of Ancient Rome with the vibe of 21stcentury America. She mostly succeeds in giving viewers a sometimes quirky, sometimes humorous, and sometimes brutal film that is unlike most of the fare on today’s big screens. Contrasting the trope of a legendary poet with today’s hip-hop, rap-riddled music and speech rhythms makes for a continually interesting and occasionally unsettling watch.
What makes much of this Shakespearean-style dramedy work well is the excellent cast that Kathleen Mooney has assembled, headlined by veterans Corben Bleu, John Savage, Tara Summers and Kimberly Cruchon Brooks. The transcultural blend of ancient and contemporary devices works far better than I thought that it would. Had Ovid and the Art of Love screened when I was reading some of these poems in high school and in Latin, I would have liked this poet a whole lot more than I did at the time. While not without some missteps like the awkard suicide of Augustus’s guard and some less than smooth transitions between past and present, this is still a thoroughly entertaining retelling of an ancient tale that should appeal to today’s younger audiences.
Ovid and The Art of Love begins screening on August 10, 2019
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