Is it better, when asked to serve a tyrant, to enter the inner circles and try to moderate his whims, or to stand aside, revelling in your integrity as his rages consume the world?
Seneca - On the Creation of Earthquakes seeks an answer to this question, both very contemporary and eternal, in the last night of the first-century Roman philosopher's life, after he learns the Emperor Nero has ordered his death.
"All these dilemmas, political, personal, philosophical would come to a head in one night and that would end with his death," director Robert Schwentke said of his film, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on Monday.
The film, shot in Morocco on minimalist, theatrical sets, has little sympathy for its main character, played by John Malkovich as a man of a glibness so total that not even his impending death can stop the torrent of pat wisdom from his mouth.
"He talks a lot," said Malkovich. "And sometimes it was hard not to think, OK, but die and, you know, be quiet."
Nero, played by Tom Xander, is callous and childlike, willing to kill or humiliate anyone who would constrain him. He soon turns on Seneca, tiring of his minimally moderating influence.
"There was a lot of opportunity to draw on current events and influence my performance," said Xander.
Seneca's monstrousness is more understated. He asks his young wife, played by an ethereal Lilith Stangenberg, to die with him to lend theatrical weight to his death and his dictums.
"He was more of a life coach. You know, he would have a TV show today," said Schwentke, who studied philosophy in Germany before leaving to study film in the United States in 1989.
Seneca's bloodless pomposity makes his end hilarious, even enjoyable, to watch. But Geraldine Chaplin, who plays a Roman aristocrat, drew on her father Charlie Chaplin's experiences to warn there were limits to what humour could accomplish.
"My father made The Great Dictator, I guess, 70 years ago," she said, referring to the 1940 anti-war satire that lampooned Hitler and Mussolini. "And he thought that would change the world. And it only made people laugh. ... And this film is very funny."
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