Underground Cinema: Rome review

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If you perchance witnessed thousands of people wandering around either Melbourne recently or Sydney yesterday wrapped in bed sheets, then have no fear recently, this was not the start of a bedspread fashion craze, nor (as one bewildered passer-by enquired) a Hare Krishna convention, but the return of the secretive organisation known as Underground Cinema (UGC).
Previous attendees have fought off zombies in a post-apocalyptic refugee camp, become inductees into the Swedish Academy of Forensic Science and wallowed around BBQs and whorehouses in the Louisiana flood plains.
For this instalment UGC went back through thousands of years to the times of gladiatorial boodbaths, violent uprisings and ghastly crucifixions (though also admittedly very handy infrastructure advancements); to the age of Rome.
Attendees who arrived at the secret location, revealed by text message only 24 hours before, may have been greeted by ex-lepers, camels, and snarling centurions sure to let any stragglers know “hurry up or I’ll chop your balls off”.
One of the key tenants of UGC is the absolute secrecy that surrounds the event. Notifications of a forthcoming event are emailed out and posted on social media channels with barely any warning. Details are scarce and prospective attendees are offered only the date, time and basic dress code to accompany the theme (in this case history, requiring your finest toga).
Each event has a different theme, different dress code, different running order and an entirely different persona. Indeed, it remains one of the organisation’s most difficult selling points. How do you promote an event where you don’t know where you’re going to be, what you’re going to do or why in the hell you need to wear a toga? With a ticket price a tick under $50 for an adult, it’s not an easy sell to the uninitiated either.
Underground Cinema is split into two halves: the first involves a highly elaborately decorated mixture of costume party meets interactive theatre. Secondly, a film screening from where the previous section’s costumes, sets and design take their inspiration forms.
UGC’s reputation has swelled with a rash of word of mouth ravings from previous attendees, garnering reputation for meticulous attention to detail of both costume and set design. The surrounding secrecy may leave attendees in the lurch in terms of tangible details, but it certainly provides a gluttonous wealth of intrigue for attendees to devour in the lead up to the event.
For Rome, a Middle Eastern market had sprung up on the footsteps of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Arts (ACCA) building in Southbank in Melbourne. Attendees strolled around around buying temporary facial hair from a ‘beard shop’ (which would come in particularly handy for woman attending the male-only stoning), listening to a range of wonderfully bizarre preachers or perhaps findiing divine providence by becoming a follower of the oud.
The most enjoyable feature, at least for this scribe, was to be found in the ‘palace’ (also known as the foyer of ACCA), where those milling around were invited by a character with a hushed whisper to a secret meeting of the PFJ (or was it the JPF?).
However, if this Rome had the cirences covered, the lack of panem was causing some disquiet among the populace. The couple of food stalls had lines broaching the hour mark and for those hoping to grab dinner after work at the 7pm starting event, may have been denied the chance to fully explore the breadth of entertainment.
After instructions from the mercurial Roman governor to follow “Wodger” and “Wichard”, attendees were led off from Southbank towards Deakin Edge at Federation Square, where finally the film was revealed to be Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
The transition between the theatrical part of the evening and the screening was where, in the words of fellow attendee, Matilda Dixon-Smith, “the magic began to wear off”. The transition between the two locations undoubtedly stalled the momentum of the event, and while Deakin Edge is a beautifully constructed, it is not the best place to watch a film. Several fellow attendees were heard remarking the poor sound quality which often made the dialogue indiscernible; particularly unfortunate when only a few metres away lay fantastically endowed theatres of ACMI.
Comedy was also a new frontier genre for UGC, which produced mixed results. While dipping into the world of Monty Python produced many entertaining moments, it was fundamentally a tribute to a great work of comedic art rather than a truly immersive experience. At its best UGC transports you into another universe and while UGC Rome lived up to the organisation’s reputation for meticulous design detail, you could never quite lose yourself in the often bizarre and surreal world of Monty Python.
[box]You can sign up and register for more information about upcoming Underground Cinema events at[/box]

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