Grade: B-
Entire family: No (older teens only)
Historical Drama, Action
2019, 123 min., Color
Not rated (would be R for graphic violence throughout)
Well Go USA Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Latin DTS-HDMA 5.1 (English subtitles)
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Amazon link

The First King: Birth of an Empire (originally titled Romulus and Remus: The First King) is an Italian film in Latin with English subtitles (and a dubbed English option) that’s epic insomuch as it’s the story of the founding of Rome in 750 B.C.

But don’t approach this film thinking you’ll see a story related to that famous 5th century B.C. sculpture of The Capitoline Wolf suckling the child figures of Romulus and Remus (which, incidentally, were added in the 15th century A.D.). The story begins with the twins as full-grown men.

Likewise, don’t think that this film has anything at all to do with images of Ancient Rome that you might have in your head. Director Matteo Rovere’s stylish 2019 film has more in common with sagas of ancient barbarians, with a treatment that’s less “Roman” and cinematically epic than it is a second-cousin to the old Hammer films, with their brooding atmospheric narratives paced to allow atmosphere and place to become as important as the characters in those early pagan dramas.

If you happen to know the story of Romulus and Remus, don’t expect a start-to-finish retelling of their story—a fictionalized myth of the founding of Rome that sprang up in the 3rd century B.C. In this  version, their mother isn’t a vestal virgin and daughter of a king deposed by his brother. She could be, but there’s no mention of it. Legend has it that the twins were saved from drowning by the god Tiberinus, then suckled by a she-wolf and eventually found and adopted by a shepherd. That could have happened as well, but again there’s no mention of it.

When a flash flood sweeps the adult Romulus and Remus and their flock downriver, they’re found by Alba and his men and imprisoned in wooden cages. Other slaves have also been captured. Here’s where it takes a Braveheart or Spartacus turn and Romulus and Remus rise up to free themselves and the other slaves. But their escape is jeopardized not only by a soon-in-pursuit Alba, but by tensions and fighting among their own factions. At the center of the conflict is a “god” that Romulus insisted they bring with them—represented by an eternal fire in a small pot that’s carried by a virgin in the service of the god. And it certainly doesn’t help matters that she prophecies one day, while fondling what looks like a piece of liver, that one of the brothers will become king and founder of an empire while the other will fade into darkness:  one brother will kill the other.

That’s the dramatic tension that drives the film more than the question of whether this motley crew will evade their pursuers and find a place to build their city. The other thing that drives the film is action and violence. This is a barbarian tale that’s sometimes barbaric, with graphic killing and a scene where Remus hunts a deer in the swamp and then cuts it open and shares the heart with his brother, while the rest gnaw on the other entrails. As I said, this film is more about barbarians than it is anyone we associate with Rome. It’s a pre-Roman film.

Rovere shot in and around Lazio and Umbria, Italy, and the cinematography is by turns moody and dazzling. Alessio Lapice and Alessandro Borghi do a credible job as Romulus and Remus, respectively—though the rest of the cast tends to form a collective barbarian blur, with no real standouts except perhaps Tania Garribba, who plays Satnei la Vestal, the woman who carries the pot of fire. But given the limited canvas, Rovere paints a dynamic portrait of this ancient world. The First King is a stylish film that should appeal to those who like the old Hammer pagan films or the classic sword-and-sandal flicks.

Language: Nothing here; apparently ancient Italians didn’t curse

Sex: Nothing here either

Violence: Pretty intense, with axes hacking off limbs, swords plunging into hearts, and a portrayal of what seems like every conceivable way that primitives could kill each other around 750 B.C.

Adult situations: Nothing recognizably adult except for violence and survival

Takeaway: Teens who study the classical Greek and Roman history or who take Latin may find this film fascinating and the violence justifiable; Rovere manages to bring this pre-history to life in a realistic and stylish way