One year after sharing the screen on BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (1973), Pam Grier and Margaret Markov met once again in the odd genre mixture of THE ARENA, a historical fantasy set against the colourful and decadent background of Imperial Rome, although one reference to the Spartacus revolt of 71 B.C., is enough to show that the film has no intention of letting something like historical accuracy get in the middle of all the fun. And that is not necessarily to the detriment of the film, as it works surprisingly well as an atypical WIP film, enriched by some acute (although by then not too original) social commentary.
Despite some very trite and sometimes syrupy dialogue, the movie exceeds on a purely visual level, allowing the viewer to “read” the story in every frame, no small feat for the shared directing chores of Steve Carver and Joe D’Amato (Aristide Massaccesi) and swift editing by a still young and unknown Joe Dante. But above all, it is the screen presence of Markov and Grier that once more ignite a special chemistry between viewer and the events on screen. Even more markedly than in BMWM, both actresses play determined women who fell afoul on the hands of injustice, violence and degradation.
Bodicia of Brittany (Markov), a priestess, and Mamawi (Grier) a tribal African dancer, are captured during raids from Rome’s provincial forces and dragged to the city of Brundisium where they’re sold as slaves to Timarchus (Daniel Vargas), a games editore and the owner of the title’s gladiatorial arena. At the hands of Timarchus, the girls are forced to entertain his slobbering guests at his abject orgies and to serve the patrons while they’re watching the fights at the arena.
Under the tutelage of Timarchus’s housekeeper Cornelia (Sara Bay), the girls are subject to other public humiliations, fostering even more the differences among them – particularly in what concerns Livia (Marie Louise), another slave, who pretends to be of Roman ancestry, a claim that will prove disastrous to the group’s unity further on. In one of the parties where the girls are forced to serve and entertain, the haughty Bodicia slaps a Roman who tries to grope her and is then “punished” by being raped by another guest amidst the leering partygoers, while Mamawi, ever the adaptable survivor type, looks on with a mixture of haughtiness, disdain and sorrow.
The fights, however, are not going well to Timarchus, as the patrons seem to be getting tired of always seeing the same spectacle – a growing ennui that will later grow to symbolize the indifference of a brutalized society confronted with organized suffering. So, when a particularly vicious fight erupts in the kitchens between Bodicia (who wants to fight the system and escape) and Mamawi (who believes her more restrained way of coping with adversity will get her better results), the wet an messy confrontation spurs Aemilius (Christopher Oakes) to suggest to Timarchus that if the girls could fight like that in the Arena it would be a tremendous crowd-pleaser.
And so it is, as the first fight pits Bodicia against a sexily inebriated Deirdre (Lucretia Love), in a fun and gay fight that ends with the crowds cheering and allowing both girls to live. However, that easy first trial doesn’t fool the girls, all to well conscious that just as it was happening to the male gladiators, one day they may be forced to kill one another. And that happens just the next day, when Livia, claiming Roman ancestry is spared from fighting Mamawi, who ends up being forced to kill Lucinia (Mary Count). Truth is just too crude to allow hope to go on. Their choices are simple: escape or die fighting in the Arena.
All considered, THE ARENA is, plot-wise, pretty standard fare, rehashing by the numbers the structure of any run of the mill WIP film, with the final third entirely reserved for the escape from prison through the jungle (or, as in the present case, through the catacombs). Where it departs from others is in the meticulous atmosphere of some of its settings (the idyllic opening, the bath scenes, or the dark kitchen, among others), and the magnificent presence of Grier and Markov, both of them haunting the screen with almost supernatural beauty. More than the crass dialogue they’re given to munch, it is their total physical performance that conveys who and what their characters really are. When they face each other, the screen sizzles with intensity, and it’s their eyes, their posture, that lead us from their initial mutual distrust, through their apprehensive cooperation, to their final fight together.
Although the film has some very funny moments, and doesn’t shy away from goofiness in the form of the effeminate Priscium (Sid Lawrence) or the drunken Deirdre, it is smart on not allowing that goofiness to spread to the fights in the arena; moreover, there are some very clever moments – brief glimpses, sometimes humorous, sometimes not – that evokes Eisenstein’s editing to underscore some social points so in keep with the racial tensions of the time (that is, the American 70s). Consider, for instance, the moment when Cornelia is tripped during the kitchen fight and Livia, she of Roman ancestry runs to her aid, only for Cornelia to grab Livia’s skirt to clean herself up; or the way Mamawi is quick to adapt to every circumstance (she fights when she needs to fight, she dances for the Romans as she danced for her tribe), mirroring the black’s situation on the inner city. And the film is not free of irony as well, as attested by the way Livia ends gang raped by her “fellow-citizens”.
Romans that are so brutalized by the games, so insensitized to violence, so dominated by ennui, that even the fad of the women fighters quickly turns boring to the point that when Bodicia and Mamawi finally face each other on the arena, their struggle is not even seen by the crowd lost in its own search for pleasure. Which makes Mamawi’s plea to be allowed to spare Bodicia’s life even more poignant.
But, as I said above, this is truly Markov’s and Grier’s film, the one in which their beauty goes unsurpassed, the one where their eyes and their faces and their bodies are allowed full expression. And it is wonderful to behold the silent complicity that bonds both women when they fight each other to the death, respecting each other, honouring each other. And the beauty of the moment when Mamawi, endangering her own life, decides not to kill Bodicia, is unsurpassed by any other exploitation film ever. Just scroll up and watch the girl’s eyes and posture in the scenes where they are together, admire the subtle promise of a smile on Markov’s face when Grier’s trident bites the sand near her head. While Grier went on to be queen of the exploitation scene and, in time, to become an icon of the twentieth century, I’ll never understand why hasn’t Markov become a major player in the industry.