Bringing Ovid's World to Life

Luby Kiriakidi |

A Classicist Reviews “Ovid and The Art of Love”


Many people do not know that we classicists study Publius Ovidius Naso, a Latin poet who, among other things, wrote a guide on the art of seduction. Starting on May 19, anyone with streaming services will fall in love with Corbin Bleu (of High School Musical fame) and his portrayal of this grand poet in Esmé von Hoffman’s Ovid and The Art of Love. If you are looking for a movie to escape from the problems of today, this is not the movie for you.
The plot is framed by the story of Jamal, a young schoolboy who spends the afternoon traversing Detroit reading Ovid: A Primary Reader (a fictional book created for the movie; I looked it up) from his Latin class. Untold circumstances have him wander the city rather than enter the ominously open door of his home. Instead of dwelling on his dwelling situation, we watch as Jamal finds an abandoned automobile plant and digs into the back biography section of his schoolbook. His imagined world of Ovid slowly begins to appear in front of him and in front of us, with Detroit remaining in the spotlight.
It is this boy’s imagination that lets the audience morph first century B.C. Rome within modern-day Detroit with a willing suspension of disbelief. A voice-over of Ovid serves as an introduction to himself and this temporal balance, adding, “I was born in a ‘time of peace.’” But 43 B.C. is far from peaceful, as is 2020. “There was a rape and a murder here just the other day,” says a passing-by homeless woman to Jamal, “you best be careful!”
The facade of peace is quickly revealed as part of the political consolidation of the movie’s villain, emperor Augustus, played by John Savage (The Deer Hunter and many many others). In his far-from-young age, the emperor is depicted mercilessly maiming and killing enemy soldiers, and marrying his already married daughter Julia The Elder to a political ally, future successor Tiberius. Our villain often meets with his advisors, Lepidus (Joseph McKenna) and his wife Livia (Kimberly Cruchon Brooks) in the abandoned plant as Jamal coyly looks on.
Augustus’s “time of peace” and “family values” are themes repeated ad nauseam by various speakers as the up-and-coming Ovid finds his way to Detroit/Rome, wearing a makeshift toga with a hoodie, shades and high-top Converse, a backpack and a charming smile.
Ovid’s coming-of-age story shows him transitioning from a failed lawyer to a “practical poet” with support from a beautifully diverse cast. However, his neighbor and fellow law student Maximilius, Max for short, stands out like a sore thumb in his forced bravado. The modern world clings on to the story as women hold positions historically unavailable to them as students, lawyers, judges, and bureaucratic figures. Julia the Younger, Augustus’ granddaughter and a prominent character in the plot, schools Ovid’s awkward first attempts at flirting by a fountain, telling him that it is a highly unsuitable place to pick up women. As he learns his art, the knocking on Corinna’s door adds a fine nod to his love elegies, Amores.
The main focus, his Ars Amatoria, the movie’s eponymous guide to love, is creatively featured in a slam poetry club scene. This is an innovative way to depict the elite literary circle that led to Ovid’s rise in fame. Bleu’s poetic recitations stand their ground among featured Detroit poets such as Intellect Allison and ROCKET(!!!)MAN (you can listen to some of their music to get a sense of the movie’s cultural milieu). Although Ovid’s early poems were indeed erotic in nature, the historical poet wrote the Ars Amatoria when he was in his forties. His earliest extant work, the Heroides, makes no appearance.
These anachronistic decisions are understandable, but still vexing to anyone who studies this time period. The mention of the “contemporary” battle of Actium is a decade off by Ovid’s chronology and at least two off by Augustus’s. Ovid would have only been twelve years old in 31 B.C. Similarly, Julia the Younger was over twenty years younger than Ovid, nowhere close to the same age, while Augustus was twenty years older than Ovid, rather than the approximately forty year age difference in the movie. There are, however, some details that a Latinist would appreciate, such as Ovid bemoaning and punning on the fact that his last name Naso means nose, or his mother berating him in Ciceronian Latin.
The main disappointment from a classicist’s perspective is the villain, Augustus. He is one of the most enigmatic personas in history, yet in this film, Savage plays a flat, inept, paranoid old man dependent on his far more intriguing advisors. Perhaps this portrayal is a reflection of our current political leaders, but the lack of a complicated antagonist is a missed opportunity. The “time of peace” juxtaposed with starving citizens and unemployed veterans along with “family values” and “treasonable offenses” ought to bring Ovid and Augustus head to head in a subversive battle of politics and sex, but the tension is lacking.
More interesting is the blossoming relationship between Ovid and Julia the Younger. Their interactions also feature Ovid’s more famous work, the Metamorphoses (although the actress playing Julia, Tamara Feldman, tragically calls it MetamorphosIS, as if it was by Kafka). Featured myths of transformation include Apollo and Daphne, which was part of the lesson in Jamal’s Latin class in the opening of the film. The boy must not have been paying attention because in his fantasy, Julia admires how Daphne, “just wants to be something for [Apollo],” a gross misinterpretation of the myth, or rather a more innocent one. The film’s reveal of the carmen et error (Tristia 2.207) that led to Ovid and Julia’s exile in 8 A.D. is far from innocent and quite climactic.
Overall, the movie begins with promise, is bolstered by unique cinematography that pays homage to Detroit, and totters on telling the story of Ovid’s ascent to poetic glory as the visualization of a child as opposed to a group of actors of uneven performances stuck in the contemporary world.
Jamal’s perspective is unique, but it creates a dilemma in the film. He is not featured enough throughout the movie, aside from a scene in a library and an adorable dancing cameo in the poetry slam. Concern for his well-being at home is left unsettled and his prepubescent age creates a disconnect with Ovid’s guide to erotic love, especially regarding Jamal’s crush on fellow student Hope.
If this movie was not appropriate for Jamal, is it appropriate for a Latin classroom? Julia the Elder’s speech on fellatio and cunnilingus may be a peculiar lesson on the Latin language, but I personally would not feel comfortable sharing a film with this much sexual content in a classroom. Parts are certainly useful, such as the poetry slam scenes, or Ovid’s conversation with his parents. A group of mature high school seniors could perhaps handle watching the entire film within the school context.
Esmé von Hoffman’s Ovid and The Art of Love is a worthy effort at bringing Ovid and his world to life and certainly shows its relevance to our modern world. It is an alluringly shot film with some thematic issues which will nevertheless revive Ovid’s fame, something the poet certainly would not mind.

Luby Kiriakidi is a Classics Masters student at Durham University. She enjoys teaching (and learning) languages and writing and hopes to continue to do so in the future.


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Luby Kiriakidi

Luby Kiriakidi is studying for a Ph.D. in Classics at Harvard University. She likes to teach languages and write. You can find her Ancient Greek and Russian videos on Youtube.


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