Did you know that over 60 films have been made about the life and loves of Cleopatra -- and who will ever forget Elizabeth Taylor playing the role of the Egyptian queen, although that was filmed almost 50 years ago (1963)?
Fair enough, she was unforgettable, but what about Zenobia? Where is she in the stardom stakes?
Lonely as a cloud, it seems. The scorecard: Cleopatra 60, Zenobia 1.
The Syrian queen has appeared just once on the big screen. And that was long ago, too (1959). Admit it, you not only don't remember the film but, in truth, you've never heard of it.
Now, Dr Maria Teresa Grassi of the University of Milan and Director of the Italian-Syrian Archaeological Mission at Palmyra, comes to your rescue ....
In an article aptly titled 'Zenobia: the Missing Myth', she pulls the film out of total neglect, a revival, you might say, of The Sign of Rome ('Nel Segno di Roma'); it was an Italian-French-German co-production, one of the earliest shared Euro-disasters.* According to her -- and to everyone else who even noticed -- The Sign of Rome was a terrible film, and of no historical value whatsoever. Who cares? For Zenobia was played by the hugely buxom Anita Ekberg (just a year before her sensational role in Fellini's La Dolce Vita).
Here's Ekberg as Zenobia:
Pretty luscious, you have to agree. And her mountainous mammaries are put to best effect in a series of low-cut gowns, which prompted one reviewer to remark: actually, her huge bosom should have gotten a billing of their own. Filled with romance and subterfuge (everyone seems to have a secret agenda) and -- did I mention it? -- a strong smell of sex, it's a 'sword and sandal' film that manages to find time for two bump and grind belly-dances by hot Cuban starlet Chelo Alonso (seen sizzling below) .
Belly-dances? Hey, that's Turkish, isn't it?
Besides those erotic Turkish belly-dances, as Dr Grassi points out, with what I hope sounds like a laugh, The Sign of Rome is a total mismash of Orientalism: pseudo-Egyptian (as in the scene above) rubs shoulders with borrowings from Mesopotamia, Persia, and even India, along with a bit -- if only a little bit -- of Palmyra.
So, thank heavens, I do have something serious to say about The Sign of Rome.
In one scene at least, the jewellery is spot-on. According to Dr Grassi's report card, somebody did their homework. Ekberg (above) wears a gold diadem with two locks of hair combed up on either side. Compare the lovely female figurine now in the Hermitage Museum (late-second, early third century CE; below left). And check out the star's gold hanging earrings: they look very much like those worn by Aththaia, daughter of Malchos (third century CE; below right) whose bust is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
For the rest, we have villains: Semantio, a double-dealer plotting with the Persian king to sell out Zenobia -- and he looks the wicked part as he leers and all but curls his mustache. Needless to say, we also have heroes: Marco Valerio, a handsome Roman consul; and, yes, Zenobia does fall in love with him; and, yes, she will marry him in the end and live happily ever after.
But, really, what it's all about is best summed by a picture, which isn't worth nearly a thousand words.
I bet you knew this would happen in the end.
But I promised you an erotic belly-dance, didn't I? Here's Chelo Alonso wearing a frothy confection and in eye-opening competition with Anita Ekberg for the most enormous chest.
Sorry, that's all for today. I'm off to Crete later this morning ... and some real work, I suppose.
Have a great summer. I'll see you again in August.
* Directed by Guido Brignone. Assistant directors Michele Lupo and Riccardo Freda. Sergio Leone is one of the script writers. The score is by noted composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino.
Sources for this post: M. T. Grassi, 'Zenobia, 'un mito assente', in LANX 7 (2010) 299-314. Brian Bankston, reviewing 'The Sign of Rome' on his blog, AliveNotDead, 16 September 2011.
All from Brian Bankston's review with the exception of close-up of Anita Ekberg (second down, centre) which is from Dr Grassi's article and Aththaia, daughter of Malchos from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
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