The story begins around 64 A.D., as a Roman officer falls in love with a Christian girl, the ward of an aging aristocrat, and a student of Saint Paul. Petronius squanders his talents flattering Nero. Nero’s mistress Poppea is cruel and vindictive. Nero is childish and vicious. The movie largely follows the plot of the 1896 novel Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, but abridges some elements. The title comes from Quo Vadis, Domine? – “Where are you going Lord?” – in legend spoken by Saint Peter who, leaving Rome, meets the Lord. Jesus’s answer, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” causes Peter to return to the city. In the movie, Peter comforts the martyrs in the Coliseum before being executed himself.
Quo Vadis is a classic Big Movie – a Technicolor Biblical epic about Nero’s persecution of Christians. At just under three hours, watching it is time well spent. Peter Ustinov, just thirty years old at the time, gives a memorable performance as the increasingly demented Emperor Nero, composing bad music, playing it while Rome burns, then trying to blame it on the Christians. The resulting scenes in the Coliseum aren’t for children. Though not graphic as in The Passion of the Christ, they do communicate some part of the reality of Christian martyrdom in first century Rome.