Fabiola (1949)
aka: The Fighting Gladiator
A film directed by Alessandro Blasetti

Genre: History / Drama / Romance


Fabiola photo
In the fourth century AD, the Roman Empire is crumbling and the growing cult of Christianity is to blame. A  young Gaul, Rhual, is a Christian, but he must keep this a secret if he is to realise his dream of becoming a gladiator in Rome. One evening, he discovers a beautiful young woman alone on the seashore. It is love at first sight, but Rhual abandons her to take up his new position as a gladiator to a wealthy merchant, Fabien Sévère. He does not realise that the woman is Fabiola, Fabien's daughter. Shortly after, they meet again, at an evening festival hosted by Fabien. After beating his employer in a friendly fight, Rhual is mocked by Fabiola, although it is clear she is infatuated with him. Soon after making a speech claiming that, on his death, all of his Christian slaves will be set free, Fabien is murdered. His entourage immediately blame his death on the Christians, although suspicion soon turns to Rhual, who fled from Fabien's house just before the body was discovered. The incident merely fuels the public antagonism towards Christians, and a terrible blood bath appears increasingly inevitable...
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Film Review

Fabiola is among the earliest and best of the big budget Roman spectacle film which became popular both in Hollywood and European cinema in the late 1950s, and which has enjoyed a recent revival in the shape of the American blockbuster Gladiator. Whilst it lacks the gloss and extravagance of such films as Ben-Hur, Fabiola fares much better in other areas, such as the quality of the dialogue and acting. Whilst it adopts a moralistic tone from the start, the film manages to kindle some tragically poignant moments, to add to the tense moments of drama which lead up to the final crowd-pulling spectacle scenes of blood and carnage.

This Franco-Italian film was directed by the Italian Alessandro Blasetti, with an enormous cast list headed by some of the luminaries of French cinema at the time. Michèle Morgan plays Fabiola in one of her most spiritual and captivating roles and it is inconceivable that anyone could have played the past better. Cast opposite her is the brawny Henri Vidal, who would marry Michèle Morgan a few years later. In the 1950s, Vidal would become an increasingly popular actor, although his career was cut short when he died of a heart attack at the age of 40. The magnificent Michel Simon also appears, but all too briefly, in the film's first half as the loveable tyrant, Fabien, an ebullient and memorable performance which puts some of his Italian co-stars to shame.

The film is closely based on the work of Cardinal Wiseman and the film's strong moral slant is evident throughout, although, unlike with so many films with a religious agenda, it does not patronise its audience by attempting to convert them to Christianity. It is not difficult to drawn parallels between the Romans' treatment of Christians and the Nazi's attitude towards Jews. The film was made directly after the end of the Second World War when the Nazi atrocities were beginning to come to light and the film's dedication is a strong indication that its production team was influenced, if not inspired, by the Holocaust. Certainly, the terrible scenes of brutality and carnage at the end of the film are much more graphic and shocking  than practically anything seen in European cinema up to that point in time. Fortunately, this horror is swiftly followed by one of the most beautiful moments in European cinema.

This is a film that, despite its length and occasional faults, enchants and enthralls its audience throughout. It portrays the best and the worst in human nature and is a fitting epitaph to the folly which was World War II.
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If you like Fabiola you may also like: Caroline chérie (1951), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), L'Aigle à deux têtes (1948) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943).
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