• Isabella Rossellini guides us through ‘Pompeii: Sin City’. (Daniele Cruciani)Source: Daniele Cruciani
From eye-opening brothel murals to graffiti swooning over the sex appeal of gladiatorial challengers, there’s a whole lotta sauce stuffed into this historical doco.
Stephen A. Russell

13 Jan 2022 - 11:05 AM  UPDATED 18 Jan 2022 - 9:34 AM

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the myths of mortals and monsters will know that the whims of the gods can be terrifyingly cruel indeed. The apocalyptic fate of the ancient port city of Pompeii and nearby town Herculaneum, consumed almost instantaneously by the eruption of towering volcano Vesuvius in 79AD, fits the mould exactly.

As documentary Pompeii: Sin City, directed by Pappi Corsicato and narrated by beloved Italian film icon Isabella Rossellini, notes, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great renaissance man of German culture, remarked that few catastrophes that have befallen humanity have gifted “so much joy to posterity.”

A terrible form of immortality, the ruins of these once-teeming port populaces have been frozen in fire. The volcanic eruption and resulting inferno extinguished countless lives in a heartbeat, capturing their anguished final moments forever. Not in their remains, but in their very absence. The ashen voids in which their flesh and bones were consumed would, centuries later, be filled with plaster. In this way, their forms were summoned forth once more, as if to do the bidding of the same angry gods who condemned them.

The earth-shattering apocalypse also preserved, in remarkable detail, the palatial homes, venerated temples, vast amphitheatres and abundant brothels of this bustling mercantile centre. The heaving bustle of the sex trade is fixed in the sights of this fascinating documentary. It draws on academics’ expertise, including classics professor Catharine Edwards from Birkbeck, University of London, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill at Cambridge, and Massimo Osanna, director general at the archaeological park of Pompeii. They peel back the curtain on the sexual mores of the time, many of which are illustrated in jaw-dropping detail in elaborate murals.

Goethe wasn’t the only cultural titan to be flabbergasted by the astounding eroticism on show (many examples of which were triple-locked away from prying eyes in a secret cabinet in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples until as recently as 1967).

They also entranced Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who, on witnessing these tantalising tableaus, was inspired to write The Magic Flute. Painter Pablo Picasso and his travelling companion Jean Cocteau were similarly agog when they visited in 1917.

This was a place where brothels and temples abounded in equal measure, where gods and monsters felt ever-present, and brave mortals dared to become legends.

Pompeii: Sin City enjoys uncoiling these Medusa-like tendrils to paint a picture of sexual mores and violent desires. It intersperses historical insights with fanciful sequences. One depicts Leda’s struggle with a violent Zeus in swan form, as captured in the Yeats poem Leda and the Swan. Then there’s a segment that tells the tale of Ariadne’s abandonment by Theseus, after she helped him defeat the Minotaur, and her subsequent turn towards Bacchus, the god of wine, wild places and debauchery. Perhaps most amusingly, a band of buff men semi-clothed in American football gear conjure forth the warring gladiators of old.

There’s a glimmer in Rossellini’s eye as she discusses the fruity graffiti that was scratched into walls telling tales of these battle-hardened heartthrobs of the day. So in demand were they that at least one story tells of a senator’s wife who cast off propriety to run away with a hulking brute.

A confluence of beliefs and clashing empires helped shape this doomed city that will forever capture our imaginations. The Romans didn’t just borrow from the Greek pantheon, after all. One of the most intriguing strands of the documentary focuses on the cult of Isis, a powerful woman-led force indebted to the Egyptian goddess of the moon.

Many women used these cults, and the business of sex, to build business empires, allowing them certain freedoms and a measure of power. But as with the daring mortals who challenge the gods, not every woman brave enough to break free from patriarchal strongholds succeeded. The tragedy of Emperor Nero’s brutally murdered second wife Poppaea Sabina is horrendous.'

As brutal as much of this history is, it’s like a gift from the gods to follow Rossellini’s footsteps through this remarkable place while we cannot easily travel internationally right now. And Goethe is right. Their terrible sacrifice is a monument to eternity for which we should be forever grateful.

Pompeii: Sin City is streaming now at SBS On Demand:


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