One of the most distinctive action entries of 2019
More brutal fantasy than historical fiction, The First King offers up a thrilling and singular cutthroat adventure film that does hang its premise around the founding of Rome and the mythical brothers Romulus and Remus.
Whispered about on my social media feeds as an undiscovered 2019 action film in contention for “best of the year” status, I jumped at the chance to check out the Blu-ray release thanks to Well Go USA. I certainly was not disappointed, but Il Primo Re (look, the Latin/Italian title sounds way cooler than the American one) also surprised and played out far different than I might have imagined.
Propulsive from virtually frame one, we meet shepherd brothers Romulus (Alessio Lapice) and Remus (Alessandro Borghi) amidst a rain storm. Romulus prays to the gods as Remus roams and soon perceives a great flood headed their way. Our shepherd brothers are swept away along with their flock in a thrilling and brutal sequence that felt more perilous than many Hollywood set pieces executed on ten times the budget. Before even regaining consciousness, they’re enslaved by a powerful neighboring clan and it appears their lives will be cut tragically short until a small uprising is orchestrated by our crafty brothers. Stricken by a seemingly mortal wound, Romulus is completely at his brother’s mercy as the small band of survivors escape to establish a new tribe. Fickle jealousies and superstitions plague the ragtag group until Remus displays such raw craft and power as to claim kinghood over them all. It will be an absolute fight to the death to keep this small group of survivor-conquerors loyal to one another and strong enough to fend off the tribe that’s hot on their tail.
I had questioned how one movie was going to be able to take Romulus and Remus from shepherds to kings in a convincing and effective manner. But the film does exactly that, and this is achieved through both the aforementioned propulsiveness of the script (Filippo Gravino, Francesca Manieri, and Director Matteo Garrone) and the remarkable, almost primordial worldbuilding. Il Primo Re takes place in a time that feels so distant and foreign it might as well be ripped from the pages of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age featuring Conan the Barbarian. Survival against a hostile environment and against warring tribes is of paramount importance. This is a story of early man, almost before languages, religions, cultures and kingdoms were established. It’s in this fascinating mythological place that Matteo Garrone builds an extremely compelling action film.
Swirling with primal conflicts, the savagery of Il Primo Re doesn’t feel like it has the sophistication of a massive story along the lines of Game Of Thrones. These are bands of dozens of people, forced to gather huts together into what look more like proto-villages than cities or kingdoms. Forces of nature are a total mystery to them, and how to appease the gods is a question constantly on everyone’s minds. The slightest misstep could bring curses on them all, or could be miracles and portents. Between them, Romulus is the religious brother, while Remus relies more on his own cunning and power. It’s enough to sow seeds of doubt and conflict between the two that will stretch throughout all of human history.
It didn’t occur to me until further reflection, but Italy’s Tiber River is very much a motif and backdrop for the events of Il Primo Re. The flash flood which sweeps them off into their fates becomes the symbol of their passage to freedom, where they’ll make their final stand against their enemies, and where they’ll stake their claim for the foundations of Rome itself. Rain, mud, stagnant swamps, and raging torrents serve as a backdrop for the entire storyline and for all the action set pieces and even the thematic elements as well. Shot almost entirely in remote, outdoor locations, the filmmaking team built a foreign and primal world for their film using our real planet as it exists today. The on-location shooting allows for a sparse, almost oppressive environment for our characters to test their mettle against.
Across the board, the action sequences are thrilling, badass, and essential to the plot. As much as I love action cinema featuring fights and chases and shoot-outs just for the sake of entertainment, that’s not what’s going on here in Il Primo Re. Garrone is grasping at challenging ideas about what makes us humans and what ideals were baked into the founding of the greatest Empire our planet has ever known from the very beginning. Fights, battles, and bloodshed come from the sheer drive to survive. Barely formed religions offer answers and rituals to address the problems they face, and tribe will battle tribe to the death over their competing barbaric theologies.
Little spoken dialog is present, as this is a tactile story. But the production utilized a sort of primitive Latin dialect throughout, further proving that Garrone was after more than simple thrills, but also deepening the overall otherworldly feel of the entire project.
Il Primo Re is indeed one of the best action films of 2019. This comes in part from the quality of the work put in by a cast who had to suffer through brutal conditions on rough natural locations wearing loin cloths and speaking in a dead language. But it also comes from being such a surprise left field entry. I was unfamiliar with every last talented person involved in this production. I’ve not seen anything like this coming out of Italy in recent years. And its overall feel being more Robert E. Howard than Game Of Thrones was a welcome surprise.
Featuring a pretty satisfying behind the scenes documentary that runs around a half an hour, this is a concise but thrilling release from Well Go USA. The documentary is well done, touching on all the major aspects of the making of the film and interviewing all the major talent. These days it’s harder and harder for smaller films to get Blu-ray releases so it’s worth noting that this is a gorgeous film which benefits greatly from high definition. Action fans will want to seek this out with a quickness.
And I’m Out.
The First King hits Digital, Blu-ray, and DVD on September 24th, 2019 from Well Go USA