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Film set in ancient Rome hits home at today's politicians

It is one of those films you go to expecting the worst. The posters give ample warning: overweight actors in togas gesticulating inanely, scantily clad actresses with saucy expressions showing off how "prosperous" - as the felicitous Italian phra se has it, they are in the chest department and, most embarrassing of all, the dreadful Leslie Nielson, he of the Naked Gun films, putting on his characteristic startled expression as he lies stripped to the waist in a Roman bath.

And yet there must be something special about S.P.Q.R., the latest offering from Italy's distinctly low-brow comedy duo, the Vanzina brothers. In the few weeks since its release the film has become the third-biggest money-spinner in Italian cinema history. The success certainly owes nothing to the critics, who have slammed S.P.Q.R. as a waste of time and money.

The explanation lies surely in the subject matter: set in a pop-up version of ancient Rome, the film sells itself as a satire of Italy's modern-day corruption scandals.

The plot will sound familiar to the most cursory of students of modern Italy. A judge comes down to the capital from Milan and stumbles on a trail of corruption and vice leading to two powerful Senators. Political forces work to stop him digging up the dirt but the judge ploughs on, unravelling a vast network of bribery at the heart of the Republic.

To ram home the point, the judge is even called Antonio, just like modern Italy's champion crime-buster Antonio di Pietro. The message, it seems, is that nothing much has changed: Italians are chancers and grafters by nature and that is the way they willalways be. S.P.Q.R. stands not only for Senatus Populusque Romanus but also Sono Porci Questi Romani - these Romans are revolting.

Unfortunately, it wins no points for cinematic bravura. It looks like a Naked Gun version of Spartacus with a few doses of Asterix and Carry on Cleopatra thrown in. Everything reeks of cliche, from the opening chariot jam on the Via Appia to the Versacius fashion-show (geddit?), the gibes about Milan-Rome rivalry, and the slapstick.

More serious though is the gloss the film puts on Italy's Tangentopoli bribery scandal. It makes short shrift of Judge Antonio's integrity, showing him up as a bungler as susceptible to the lure of high living as anyone. He ends up forgiving his arch-enemy, Senator Caesar Atticus, and joins with him against the eminence grise of the Senate, played by Nielson. Their efforts backfire and they wind up in a hard-labour camp and then - Spartacus-like - on crucifixes along the Via Appia.

The moral is that judges are as bad as politicians, if not directly in cahoots with them - a line much peddled by the short-lived prime minister Silvio Berlusconi last year in his efforts to keep criminal investigators off his back. The period setting ofthe film makes its message only more reactionary: if corruption has been the name of the game for 2,000 years, what is the point trying to change now?

The most depressing aspect of S.P.Q.R. is that audiences seem to buy this line and come back for more. H L Mencken once wrote the function of satire was to "afflict the comfortable and bring comfort to the afflicted". One does not imagine S.P.Q.R. striking much terror into the heart of Bettino Craxi, the disgraced former prime minister crying foul against the judiciary from self-imposed exile in Tunisia. Who knows, if he saw the film he might even have a good chuckle.