L’assedio di Siracusa (1962)
Director of Photography
Angelo Francesco Lavagnino
It’s nearly impossible to believe that Rossano made L’assedio di Siracusa a full two years after South Pacific. Even accounting for Emile De Beque’s age (courtesy of the make-up department), Rossano looks well over 10 years younger, virile, ravishingly handsome and according to one viewer, “My god, he looks better in a mini-skirt than I do!” This may be true, but even more impressive, we feel, was our ability to vaguely understand the story while knowing very little Italian AND being dazzled by Rossano’s legs at the same time. Yes, this is another “Film in Italian, no subtitles”.
The film covers a lot of territory: war, political intrigue and the infamous Siege of Siracusa – a well-documented moment in Italian and classical history. In a nutshell: the City of Siracusa (Syracuse), on the eastern shore of the Island of Sicily, was at the time of this story under the rulership of Greece (Athens), not Rome, something Rome meant to amend by forcibly bringing Syracuse under the rule of the Roman Emperor. Undoubtedly Syracuse’s most famous citizens is Archimedes the mathematician (Rossano’s character, of course), whose first contribution to modern science (at least in THIS movie) is to accidentally set fire to Tina Louise’s dress, using reflective glass and sunlight … yes, the very same process your little brother used in the backyard using dried leaves and magnifying glasses, resulting in that scandalous “Incendiary Brush Fire Incident” your neighbors still remember with horror.
Of course, the difference between Archimedes and your little brother (not counting the toga, of course), is that Archimedes discovered the principle, and your little brother just tortures bugs with it, the little sadist. No historical record exists (that we know of) suggesting that Archimedes’ first use of his life-altering discovery was burning up ladies’ clothing while they swam naked in lakes … however, art does take its liberties, and “L’Assedio di Siracusa”, at least in this respect, is exceptionally artistic. What Archimedes is even more famous for is discovering the mathematical theory of water displacement while taking a bath … a discovery so exciting to him that he is reported to have dashed naked into the street yelling “Eureka!” (“I have found it!) … now why they couldn’t have recreated THAT important moment, we’ll never know! In this film, Archimedes later recounts this incident to his students (who find it very amusing), but alas, keeps his clothes on for the entirety of the film. Which is unfortunate; else, we might have enjoyed a discovery far more memorable than the mathematical theory of water-displacement.
But we digress. In this movie, his first scientific discovery is burning up Tina Louise’s dress. Initially, he’s more excited by his scientific discovery than he is by the fact that Tina Louise (playing a gypsy named Artimede) has to cover herself with tree branches. But eventually, he gets around to noticing this and gives her his robe to wear … she tells him that she is a dancer – a performer – by which she means a gypsy who makes her living dancing for (and, we assume, doing other things for) the men of the world. But despite the difference in their social standing, he falls in love with her. There’s only one problem with this (there always is): Archimedes is already promised to Clio, daughter of the King of Syracuse … and she loves him madly. Archimedes, on the other hand, now loves Artimide. He is disturbed by her profession, and pulls her away from one performance to a secluded temple where they consummate their love. Later, laying beside the sea, they dreamily plan their future together amidst the unsettling possibility of war with Rome. “Evil exists,” he tells her sadly, “But for me there is only you.” Before they can be together, there is some business he has to attend to, and he promises to return as quickly as he can. The “business”, of course, is breaking the bad news to Clio and her father that the engagement to Clio must be broken. “But you gave your word!”, the King protests. “No, it was YOUR word.” Archimedes argues. Clio overhears their argument and, although distraught, releases him from his promise. On his way back to Artimide, Archimedes is detained by Roman soldiers. Meanwhile, Artimide, back in Siracusa pining for him, has angered her original ‘pimp’ by leaving the profession and refusing the advances of other men. The pimp sneers at her pretensions, telling her that Archimedes is promised to Clio and that she is a fool for believing in him. Artimide is devastated by this, not knowing that Archimedes has already broken the engagement to Clio and is returning to her. Her heart broken, she books passage on a ship bound for Rome. When Archimedes at last returns, he assaults the culprit, throttling the truth out of him. Even then, he does not know where Artimide has gone — and now HE is distraught.
On the ship, Artimide is assaulted by a guard and left for dead. But she has suffered a blow to the head from which she recovers, but without her memory. She can’t remember who she is, only that she is filled with inexplicable sadness. The captain, Marcello, nurses her back to health, and assuming, with her beauty, that she must be a great lady, falls in love with her. Back in Rome, he is awarded a Senatorship, and Artimide becomes his wife. She bears him a son, Marco, but in truth, Marco is Archimedes’ son. Artimide doesn’t remember him.
Time passes. Archimedes, unmarried and still pining for Artimide, consoles himself by teaching science to the young men of Siracusa. Finally the King, who is growing older, pleads with him to marry Clio and produce an heir to the throne. Sadly, he agrees to it, for the sake of the King, who he loves. Clio loses their first and only son in childbirth. The King sends him to Rome to negotiate for peace with the Romans “for the salvation of your people”. He meets with Marcello and all goes well until he is overcome by an inexplicable presentiment and is drawn to look out a window, where he sees Artimide walking in the garden. He rushes outside.
At first she doesn’t remember him, but the sunlight suddenly blinds her and she faints. It reawakens her memories of Archimedes and his blinding mirrors. They learn they did not betray each other, but she is now bound to Marcello and Marco, who have overheard this conversation. Archimedes learns that Marco is his only son and reaches for the boy, who cowers behind Marcello. Marcello orders him to leave, and he does so, sadly wishing a happy life to the only woman he loves and his only son, and returns to Siracusa without a peace agreement and with his heart shattered.
Clio, learning that her husband has found Artimide and that she will never know his love, commits suicide by driving her chariot into the sea. The Roman army advances on Siracusa. Archimedes’ mirrors (now vastly improved, with time) completely destroy the Roman naval armada, but the ground forces invade the city, with Marco leading one battalion. Marco, now grown and drawn to Archimedes by a force he cannot deny, realizes that Archimedes is his father. He confesses to Marcello that he cannot wage war against his own father. He strides into the Siracusian court, unarmed, preparing to negotiate for peace, and is struck in the shoulder by a soldier bent on blood. Archimedes rushes to his side and the battle begins around them. Marcello is killed in the fighting. Marco recovers.
Archimedes, Artimide and their son Marco are reunited at last. Archimedes initially rejects the thought of resuming their love, protesting that the cost of their love was too great. Artimide reminds him of his own words, spoken during that tender moment on the beach, in their youth: “Malevista esiste.” (Evil exists.”) Startled, Archimedes stops and turns to her. She joins him in the light of a brilliant Siracusian sunset.
Created by the Rossano Brazzi International Network