Says a character in this movie: "I would not have believed men could build such things."

It is very rare to attend a movie where the audience weeps and cheers in the afternoon showing. The last such movie I attended was the Barcelona opening of the "Omega Man" in 1972 under Franco's Spain. The audience made a direct connection between its theme and the troubles of the time and gave it a five-minute standing ovation.

In St Petersburg, Florida, watching gen-xers and little old ladies in polyester alike gasp at the view of Eternal Rome, cheer the hero Maximus, and weep at his final idealistic semi-soliloquy that " Rome is a dream that will be realized " is not something one expects in these times – or to be appreciated in the incessant let's-be-different-and-conform brainwashing of our era. Ridley Scott, who with his out-of-nowhere panorama of films from Gladiator to Blade Runner to Alien, where he seems determined to tell the story of the aspirations and nobility of the person against the decadence of the era has, quite simply, done it again.

Sure, there are numerous faults on this film, which retells the disturbing legend of Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius – called the last good emperor – and his mystery general, who refused the opportunity to restore the republic, and paid. The tale was previously told in The Roman Empire starring Stephen Boyd, which in 1965 was perceived as having a Vietnam and American Empire subtext. If so, Scott tells a story evocative of a post-Vietnam, post-colonial world, obsessed with what it can do for or to people on a magnificent scale but not asking why. And there will be the usual fractured debates on historical details – German scholars will claim that there was no thumbs up in the arena, while Italians will say no, the signals changed in the second century. But the film, like the legend, is beyond time and place, and recalls Pericles' warning that though you take no interest in politics, politics alas takes an interest in you.

Certain criticisms will also be predictable. Some will complain the movie is too long. But Scott takes his time to tell the story, and at the showing some complained the movie was too short. Some will say the movie is too violent. But these people do not realize that given the times, the movie is arguably quite restrained. Others may say there is too much action. But each action scene makes an important point in the story and the ideals it seeks to exemplify – courage, duty, defiance, simple ingenuity as in the Carthaginian scene – that are absent in the society that has precisely lost those ideals, and pays to see them, displaced, in the poetic horror of the arena. And, as we do today, with cop shows, artificial crimes, phony wag-the-dog wars, and political circuses, as Scott clearly wishes us to consider.

This movie, faults or no, is extraordinary, and says things that need to be said in a historical story that will be understood quite well by average people in many countries. The cast is terrific, from Richard Harris doing an hommage to Alec Guinness as a Jedi and as Aurelius in the original film, to Oliver Reed (in his last performance) self-referentially named Proximo Palindromus as a rascally yet sincere lanista or gladiator trainer, whose luminous description of his old days as a gladiator himself makes it almost seem earthy and logical. Everywhere, down to the extras, one has a clear sense of a vast, multicultural Empire that has lost its center and purpose and drifts into the final corruption: of rule by an obvious psychotic.

But the casting of Crowe is inspired. His portrayal as a Spanish general is, well, more Spanish than the Spanish, catching the light-hearted misdirecting shallowness of charming manner, ironic dash, bizarre courage, and skeptical depth with which the Latins pride themselves and which will make the movie a guaranteed hit in those countries. In many ways the Roman Empire was more Spanish than Roman, and a nod by Hollywood to this neglected fact as it revives the Imperial Epic genre will be appreciated. Scott lets us be in love with Rome, and what could have been had Rome not made so many wrong turns, from the proud monuments in Latin saying "All roads lead to Rome of this world" to Maximus' touching prayers to his ancestors. Everywhere, in Scott's grand-yet-decrepit signature style, we are drawn to its quasi-modern technological prowess of mind-numbing vastness. But ultimately, who cares? It is Crowe's character as a person, the horribly wronged general Maximus, an imperfect man grappling with the outright evil of the time, determined, like a true Quixote-like Spaniard, to avenge his lost family, his lost Empire, his lost honor, and his lost ideals, that makes us pay attention.

And pay attention, we should, if on entertainment values alone. The degree of detail is astonishing, and makes you want to go see Rome now, forgetting Scott recreates a vast metropolis of 1800 years ago, and that did not reach an equal height of population or public buildings until this century. At long last, arenas are shown with their proper awnings at the top. And Scott, while drawing on parallells to make things seem familiar to his audience, makes no compromises: Commodus is dressed and dresses his followers in black, which seems sinister to us but is the Roman color of joy; in the climactic fight, Commodus dresses in white, the color reserved for elders and the dead, a ghoul without soul at last.

Indeed, this may be the first major film to actually show battles in the notorious Coloseum, in other films such as Quo Vadis it being the Circus Maximus where the action unfolds. And there are resonant but funny references through the film. Maximus, masked as he is, is a who-is-that-masked-gladiator Lone Ranger character, and in one funny yet poignant scene explains to the adoring young nephew of the Emperor that the two horses on his breastplate are Argentus and Scoutus – the horses of the Lone Ranger series, Silver and Scout. But Scott has no de rigeur pseudo-sophisticated arch references in the film, no po-mo angst, no anachronistic character pumping his arm and yelling, "Yes!"

While the movie has a hopeful ending, it is not for nothing that Gibbon begins his great chronicle on the Decline of Rome in this period. When people do not fight against injustice for freedom, technology and wonders will not save them, and the fate will be as happened to the world in the centuries after, a long slide of wars, murder, burning libraries, genocide, fanaticism and blood, relieved here and there by a little peaceful moment of plague. Indeed, plague, unknown in the efficient Empire for generations, breaks out as Commodus returns to Rome, while the people clamor not for action, but distraction.

This, like Blade Runner, is a political film, which should be banned by governments with any desire to control their populations, as was Three Hundred Spartans back in the sixties. It does not date itself with over-commentary on the problems of the day. Deny it though the pundits will , it is a film that talks to our youthful political idealism, right to the heart, and Crowe's brilliant, economic final scene, the vista of Rome as the Tiber flows at the end, speak not of some colorful but forgotten era, but of us, as we look too like Coloseum spectators on the events that made a part of what we are today, so long ago.

Michael Gilson De Lemos, known as MG, is Coordinator of the Libertarian International Organization. He believes with Jefferson that, along with Gibbon, Cicero and Tacitus should be read by all grade-schoolers. In Latin.