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Titus: The Masterpiece that the Cinematic Greatness of 1999 Obscured

1999 was one of the very best movie years, producing masterpiece after masterpiece, and even the movies that were less than that still made viewers feel as if they were practically drowning in a sea of amazing work. Brian Raftery's book Best. Movie. Year. Ever. chronicled it in detail, and there have been entire podcasts and individual podcast episodes on the same concept. Everybody has their favorites from that year, but my own short list includes the original "The Matrix," "Fight Club," "Topsy-Turvy," "The Insider," "Boys Don't Cry" and "Being John Malkovich," and one that has strangely fallen off the radar, even though there were high hopes for it as an Oscar contender that year: "Titus."

Based on Shakespeare's first and bloodiest tragedy—and a play that some consider to be more trouble to adapt and more off-putting to audience than it's worth to mount—"Titus" was a great example of a filmmaker expending the artistic capital they'd accrued on a very successful commercial project to make something that was expensive but challenging. It was the feature film debut of writer and director Julie Taymor, who was then hot off the Broadway spinoff of "The Lion King," which completely upended expectations of a soulless "intellectual property" cash grab by delivering a visually imaginative musical filled with splendid costumes, puppetry, and set design. 

The show made a staggering amount of money, swept the Tony awards for Disney, and arguably reinvented Broadway's identity along the way, in more or less the same way that the success of the original "Star Wars" reinvented Hollywood blockbusters. Taymor turned around and spent $18 million of 20th Century Fox's money on "Titus," which is probably the closest Hollywood has ever gotten to the sorts of gory, sexually explicit, "Who am I supposed to root for here?" pieces that made English directors like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman into art house objects of argument in the earlier part of the decade. A hornet's nest of intrigue, "Titus" revolves around the eponymous Roman general, who has just returned home after a victory over the Goths, and features Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Jessica Lange), her sons, and Aaron the Moor (Harry Lennix), Tamora's servant and secret lover. 

You know that Taymor isn't here to make friends, as reality show contestants always say, when she drops the audience directly into a world that mixes and matches production design elements from different centuries and cultures (including Ancient Rome and fascist 20th century Italy) and expects them to just accept it all as they would in a theatrical production. The characters and their expression of their savage and self-serving values are similarly presented without comment. 

The opening scene (as in the play) finds Titus deciding to sacrifice Tamora's eldest son in front of her as partial recompense for losing 21 of his own sons in the war, and Tamora wailing in grief before accepting what's inevitable. The rest of the movie is similarly merciless and practically rocklike in its impassive presentation of an alien world. It's one of those exercises in moral relativity in the vein of "The Godfather" and "Game of Thrones" that asks viewers to enter into the world rather than standing back from it and being moralistically aghast at all the unacceptable behavior. It's all probably more closely related to science fiction or fantasy than the historical epic as it's typically presented in Hollywood, despite the magnificent, appropriately insistent score by Taymor's husband and frequent collaborator Elliot Goldenthal, who had a good run in the 1990s composing and conducting film scores that were often better than whatever they were accompanying (he did "Alien 3," "Interview with the Vampire," and "Batman Forever," among other blockbusters) and then pulling back to the classical music world he knew so well.

The vast and almost absurdly talent-stacked supporting cast includes James Frain as Bassianus, one of the dead emperor's sons; Laura Fraser as his fiancée Lavinia; Alan Cumming as Basianus's lascivious and devious older brother Saturnius; Colm Feore as Senator Marcus Andronicus, and Matthew Rhys and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as two of Tamora's sons. Everybody throws themselves headfirst into the cruel and inscrutable spirit of the thing, which somehow becomes more strangely moving as it goes along because we start to get used to the peculiar atmosphere and visual logic of the production and feel as if we're part of this world, for better but mostly worse.

"Titus" made a paltry $22,000 during its opening weekend and was gone soon after, topping out at less than $3 million globally. It didn't destroy Taymor's career in film—she went on to direct the multiple Oscar-nominated biopic "Frida," starring Salma Hayek, the Beatles fantasia "Across the Universe" and more filmed Shakespeare—but none of her follow-ups quite had the pile-driver force of "Titus," a literal and metaphorical go-for-broke experiment that hasn't lost one iota of its ferocious singularity during the past quarter-century. The movie is not legally available streaming, only on DVD and Blu-Ray (which can be expensive depending on who you're buying from). It would be amazing if somebody took it upon themselves to do a proper new collector's disc and perhaps promote it with theatrical screenings, but it's hard to imagine anyone footing the bill for that, especially now that 20th Century Fox is in the possession of Disney, a company whose image is antithetical to everything Taymor achieved with her first and still most impressive film.

Note: An earlier edition of this piece incorrectly called Titus Andronicus Shakespeare's last tragedy when it should have said first.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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