Latin at the Movies

Small movie theater

Latin may not be the dominant language of a vast empire any more, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hear it now and again. In this post, we take a look at seven movies that feature Latin in some shape or form and see how popular culture has helped keep Latin alive.

Now, it might be difficult to find an entire movie made in Latin in 2019, but it’s not actually impossible. Still, for all but the most advanced learners, an hour and a half to two hours of Latin would be incredibly difficult to follow.

But there’s an easier solution. There are plenty of movies (and TV shows, for that matter) where just a tidbit of Latin is used; enough to whet your appetite, without leaving you feeling overwhelmed. So, once you’ve had a quick look at our beginner’s guide to Latin or even tried out our app, then why not see what Latin you pick up from the following movies?

(Just a warning—there might be some spoilers!)

John Wick: Chapter Three – Parabellum (2019)

Although throughout the John Wick series of films, the titular character speaks a number of languages (English, Russian, Italian, Indonesian, Hebrew, and American Sign Language), Latin is not one that tops the list. However, the Latin here is in the title: ‘Parabellum.’

As Keanu Reeves explained in an interview, ‘parabellum’ here comes from a Latin phrase—‘Si vis pacem, para bellum.’ Translated, that means ‘If you seek peace, prepare for war;’ so ‘para bellum’ means ‘prepare for war.’ It’s also interesting to note, with this movie, that ‘Parabellum’ is also commonly used to refer to a kind of firearms cartridge introduced in 1902. Quite fitting for a movie about assassins, right?

Invictus (2009)

This US and South African made movie boasted Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon as its leads, examining the 1995 South African Rugby World Cup and the impact it had on a nation still reeling post-apartheid. Watching the movie might teach you a lot about rugby, but not so much about Latin—like with John Wick: Chapter Three, the Latin is in the title more than the movie itself.

‘Invictus’ is the title of an 1875 poem written by William Ernest Henley. Originally, the poem was published with a dedication rather than a title; various titles were used over the years, including ‘Master of his Fate’ and ‘Urbs Fortitudinis’ (this can be translated as ‘city of strength’). When the poem was added to The Oxford Book of English Verse in 1990, it was then titled ‘Invictus’, which means ‘unconquerable’ or ‘undefeated’. Again, this Latin title encapsulates the events of the movie very nicely, referring both to Mandela’s time in prison and its aftermath, as well as the fate of the South African Springbok rugby team.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

John Keating, Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society probably went on to inspire a host of new teachers—as well as their students. However, all of the inspiring speeches Williams makes pale in comparison to his first class, where he tells the students to ‘carpe diem’—‘seize the day.’

It seems unlikely that the line would have resonated so well had it just been said in English, without Williams’ passionate explanation as to what it means. Of course, it would never have cost this deserving movie its Oscar, but it might not have been held in the cultural consciousness the way it still is today.

V for Vendetta (2005)

Graphic novel-turned-movie, V for Vendetta, portrays a dystopian United Kingdom which has to be saved by a masked man known only as V. V is, in fact, so obsessed with this letter that he changes the Latin inscription embossed on an arch in his lair—instead of the famous ‘Vi veri universum vivus vici’ (‘by the power of truth, I, while living, have conquered the universe’), it reads, ‘Vi veri veniversum vivus vici’. 

What is interesting is that this phrase has always been abbreviated as V.V.V.V.V., since in Latin, the letter ‘U’ can be considered equivalent to the letter ‘V’. This means it could read, ‘Vi veri vniversvm vivvs vici,’ which might have been a better way to put it in the movie!

Event Horizon (1997)

Now, this is a scarier one—and might be where we start getting into spoiler-ish territory. At the beginning of the movie Event Horizon, the crew aboard the Lewis and Clark respond to what they believe is a distress call; they hear the words ‘Libera… me…’ or, save me. 

However, the signal is corrupted and once aboard the eponymous Event Horizon, with things starting to go drastically wrong, one of the crew discovers the whole message, and the truth: the former crew member of the ship was actually saying ‘Libera te tutemet ex infernis.’ The meaning? ‘Save yourself from hell.’


Life of Brian (1979)

Onto something lighter… or, well, funnier at least! Life of Brian might be the first movie most people think of when asked to name some piece of pop culture containing Latin—after all, the scene where Brian tries to graffiti so he can join the ‘People’s Front of Judea’, is as much a Latin lesson as it is a funny sketch.

The Roman soldier goes to great lengths to explain that ‘Romanes eunt domus’ should actually be ‘Romani ite domum’ and, in doing so, completely misses the meaning of the message; ‘Romans go home.’ He even makes Brian write it out one hundred times, likely reminiscent of many a Latin teacher the Monty Python crew had!

Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Sadly, our final movie – Cabin in the Woods – has the worst Latin of the bunch, though considering it is a horror comedy film that excels at subverting clichés, this might just be deliberate. Basically, our hapless teenagers wind up at their very literal cabin in the woods, and unleash horror upon themselves—by reading a Latin inscription from a girl’s diary.

The Latin that main character Dana reads goes as follows: ‘Dolor supervivo caro. Dolor sublimus caro. Dolor ignio animus,’ and its supposed meaning, according to fellow character, Holden, is, ‘Pain outlives the flesh. Pain raises the flesh. Pain ignites the spirit.’ Ugh, not great (and maybe a hint for all horror-movie characters to ask for a translation before they go around reading mysterious Latin phrases from an old creepy book out loud)!

However, as many Latin enthusiasts have pointed out, this is a pretty poor Latin translation of those sentences. There are several alternatives, but for some reason, we think you’re more likely to be caught up in the rest of the movie and the fate of the characters than you are to be obsessing over the Latin.

If you aren’t, though, and you want to learn a little more about Latin, then try checking out some of our older posts. There’s a good chance you know a lot more Latin than you think, whether you’ve learnt it from movies, or Harry Potter, or somewhere else entirely.

And if you kind of want to learn Latin, but feel like there are other, more ‘useful’ languages, don’t despair! Learning any language helps develop a whole range of skills, and Latin more so than most.

Feeling ready to start? Take the plunge today with our app, where Latin is one of the 150+ languages we offer. When you do, feel free to let us know how you’re getting on; you can do this through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

In the meantime, however, fortuna secunda tibi adsis!

(Good luck!)

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