Diesel follows trend for dead languages with film in Punic

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The Independent Culture

For film students with a passion for archaic languages awaiting the release of Mel Gibson's bloodcurdling Mayan adventure Apocalypto next week, 2007 could prove to be something of a vintage year.

Following in the footsteps of the controversial star comes another movie tough guy with the desire to be treated as a serious artist.

Vin Diesel is hoping to replicate the success of Gibson's Aramaic-language film The Passion of the Christ and to a lesser extent the Yucatec Maya-scripted Apocalypto by starting production of his own adaptation of the life of Hannibal Barca in the original Punic.

The Hollywood rumour mill has been abuzz with talk of the forthcoming historical epic for months. But many have dismissed as little more than a bad joke suggestions of Diesel recreating the life of the man considered by many to be the greatest military strategist of all time.

However, the shaven-headed star with the gym-buffed physique insists that he is deadly serious. Having recruited the same academic who translated Passion for Gibson, he spent much of this year scouting Spain for suitable locations. Diesel has said that he will direct and star in Hannibal the Conqueror, which is expected to go on general release in 2008.

Industry jokes are already flying that Diesel, who got his big break courtesy of Stephen Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan, has learned to ride an elephant in imitation of the third-century general, who led an invasion force of pachyderms across the Alps. Although nearly all his 37 war elephants died on the journey from Carthage, Hannibal occupied large parts of what is now Italy for nearly a decade.

"It's been a passion project," said Diesel. "If you do something like that, you want to go all the way. Usually, you want to go all the way when the subject matter or topic speaks to you so much that you have these scenes playing out in your head all the time. That's usually a pretty good indication that you need to find a way to make it."

While Diesel may be best known for his role in questionable action movies such as Pitch Black and The Fast and the Furious, he has been building a reputation as a more serious artist since starring in Sidney Lumet's Find Me Guilty this year.

Diesel's fans point out that he started as a stage actor, self-financing his early film work and securing warm reviews at Cannes and the Sundance film festival.

Hannibal has long captured film-makers' imaginations. The Italians twice sought to remake the legend of their old foe. In 1937 Mussolini commissioned Carmine Gallone to make Scipione l'Africano. Although Il Duce intended it to be an exercise in propaganda, it was hailed by some critics as an artistic masterpiece.

An ancient tongue

* Punic is a late form of spoken Phoenician, once commonplace in southern Europe, north Africa and the Middle East.

* A Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic, it remained in everyday use in Carthage - close to latter-day Tunis - into the time of St Augustine of Hippo.

* Pockets survived the Arab conquest of North Africa and it continued to be spoken in the city of Sirt in Libya long after its written use lapsed.

* Punic is said still to influence the language used by the Tuareg of the Sahara.