Pompeii Live

DIRECTOR: Neil MacGregor

CAST: Peter Snow, Paul Roberts, Bettany Hughes, Mary Beard, Giorgio Locatelli, Rachel de Thame


RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes

RATING: ****


While live theatre and art films are specific, this film is even more of a niche product.

If you are fascinated by history, and by delving into museums in any way, you will be thoroughly absorbed by this documentary.

This limited release documents an exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, held at the British Museum last year. It is a tour of the exhibits, led by experts, which alone is something you would not normally have access to, even if you visited the museum.

It features objects loaned by other museums, such as jewellery, sculpture, mosaics and even food – such as an intact loaf of bread with the baker’s stamp visible on it.

Also on display is wooden furniture, such as a linen chest, a garden bench and a baby crib, all carbonised by the high temperatures of ash that engulfed Herculaneum.

This didn’t happen at Pompeii, which was covered by slightly less hot ashwhen Vesuvius blew its top in 79 CE.

While the artefacts are fascinating, the interpretations given by the experts are even more so, especially considering they acknow- ledge that a lot of what they do is conjecture and none of them can be certain about their deductions. The documentary is structured around what the last two days of the cities would have been like for Roman citizens in the two cities.

Recreated scenes are intercut with discussions between presenter Peter Snow and people such as historian Bettany Hughes and the exhibition’s curator, Paul Roberts. They even bring in contemporary gardener, Rachel de Thame, to talk about a fresco that shows a typical garden of the time.

Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli tries to recreate how a baker back then would have made bread.

The objects are so interesting that sometimes you wish the presenters would stop being appalled by questions like “Just why were there so many phallus symbols around the cities?” or “What does a dormouse taste like?” and simply allow the viewer a chance to absorb the images.

The documentary starts with a long tracking shot. This is followed by plenty of jump cuts and exciting music – and then it is action stations all the way.

At first it is more about the items that residents used then, as we are shown around a typical home, it is more about how the people interacted, until at last you are confronted with plaster casts of the citizens, showing you how they died. At this point it becomes a poignant reminder that real people died, but their very tragic, scary and violent deaths resulted in our being able to explore how people lived 2 000 years ago.

If you liked Vermeer and Music or Manet – Portraying Life you will like this.


• Pompeii Live screens at Cinema Nouveau at V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, Rosebank Mall in Joburg, Brooklyn Mall in Pretoria and Gateway in Durban for only three shows: Wednesday and Thursday at 7.30pm and Sunday at 2.30pm.


• While the film has not been rated, note that graphic images of a sexually explicit nature are shown.