Souvenirs of the Moment: Establishing Emotional Nostalgia

Now We Are Free
Hans Zimmer & Lisa Gerrard

Associations of stimuli, such as scents, tastes and songs, with moments and memories allow them to inspire emotions when encountered later. Normally, soundtracks are tied to excitement and anticipation, the shadow of my enjoyment of the movie. Now We Are Free, however, inspires a vague sense of mourning and of budding hope, associations I have with the final moments of the movie Gladiator. Though well arranged, the reaction isn’t due to any aspect of the song, but rather comes from the moment in the movie to which the song is associated.

The emotional impact of the movie Gladiator came from the characterization of the protagonist and antagonist.  From the beginning, the writers and producers show us Maximus and Commodus through their actions, encouraging us to empathize and bond with one while despairing of the other.

To the best of his abilities, Maximus acts with nobility, loyalty, competence and courage. Though he is a man of achievement, a skilled general, his humility is shown in his initial refusal of Marcus Aurelius’s offer of power. His greatest aspiration is to get back to his family and farm, both of which are destroyed.  He is forced into slavery and to fight for his life as a gladiator. Even though he has apparently lost everything, he finds friends to care for and protect.  He fights well and not only survives, but achieves excellence.  Maximus is shown to represent ideals that the audience also values, encouraging emotional buy in.  We want him to succeed, to have his revenge.

By comparison, Commodus acts with treachery, all consuming ambition, hubris and cowardice. He starts the story by lusting for power and committing patricide when it is denied. He orders our hero murdered and his family raped and slaughtered. Though he lives a life of ease and luxury, he is continuously suspicious of those around him, and is in fact the source for those justified suspicions. He is heavy handed in his political maneuvers and unable to manage or accept the consequences of his actions. Commodus is shown to represent all that the audience would distain and despise in a politician. While we want him to fail, we fear the repercussions of that failure, and what it would mean for the characters we like and respect around him.

In the movie, the song Now We Are Free is played just after the resolution of the climax, as Maximus’s body is being carried off the coliseum floor and his spirit joins his family in the afterlife. This timing associates the song with the emotional release of the climax. It isn’t the music that causes my mourning, but rather the death of the hero I had so admired. It isn’t the lyrics that inspire the hope, but rather Maximus’s reunion with his family. The song is a mental and emotional hook, a reminder, a souvenir of the experience.


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