In 1st Century AD Rome, the Emperor Caligula has been murdered and Claudius proclaimed Caesar. A plotting nobleman arranges for Claudius to marry the young Messalina (Belinda Lee), hoping to wield her like a puppet and control the throne. However Messalina has plans of her own and kills the nobleman as soon as she is married. Meanwhile a young military commander named Lucius Maximus meets Messalina in the gardens and falls in love with her, but she uses a fake name and he does not realise who she is. Messalina sends him away to war in Armenia. Two years later he returns, Messalina has taken almost complete control of Rome and the citizens worship her name, but Lucius discovers that she is making wealth by destroying poor suburbs and selling the land. He confronts Messalina but discovers her to be the woman of his love and is torn between what to do.
Genre regulars Ennio De Concini and Duccio Tessari take the credit for scripting this rather unusual Peplum. With no musclebound hero and few action scenes it would be best classified as a historical drama compared to the usual fantasy or historical adventure Pepla. It is largely dialogue based and fortunately has a script strong enough to keep it interesting throughout, packed with intrigue, romance and murder - at times coming to resemble a lost work by Shakespeare. The tone is generally quite serious but there are a few comic relief characters and a rather tiresome Spaghetti-Western style bar brawl. The pacing is quite slow but the film never drags and it all builds up to a suitably dramatic climax.
As far as history goes, the film is only very loosely based on real-life. Messalina was the wife of Emperor Claudius and did plot to have him overthrown, however she married him before he became emperor - many interesting aspects of the history are left out, including Messalina's children and the infamous 'marriage' between Messalina and one of her husband's rivals. According to contemporary (but probably not un-biased) sources, Messalina was a nymphomaniac and while certainly no Caligula (1979), there are various hints of Roman 'free love' in the script here that would certainly have shocked Anglo-American audiences of the day.
Occasional Peplum director Vittorio Cottafavi takes the lead and the film is very well presented. Despite resembling a stage play at times in the script, the wide variation of good looking sets means that it avoids looking too much like one. The exteriors are noticeably small in scale and do not really give the impression of being part of the large city of Rome, although restrained camera angles help to avoid this becoming too noticeable. Hard working Italian composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino (The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)) gives the film a rather generic, but quite suitable orchestral soundtrack.
The tragically short lived British born actress Belinda Lee takes the lead role here in what is probably the only female top billing of the Peplum films. Messalina herself is believed to have been in her twenties during Claudius' reign and Belinda Lee would have been 24 when the film was shot - importantly though she doesn't look like a Hollywood actress, with a maturity that a woman of that time would certainly have had, making her a perfect choice for the role. Spiros Focás best known for his role in Rocco and His Brothers is similarly effective as the young Lucius. There are a variety of familiar faces in the cast, including Arturo Dominici (the grave-rising killer of Black Sunday (1960) and the villain of Le Fatiche di Ercole (1958)) - here he plays a conspiring nobleman with another solid performance. The film also marks the first performance of Ida Galli (credited here as Arianna Galli) and a very early performance from Giuliano Gemma, both of whom would go on to make their names in Euro-cult cinema.
Messalina is a Peplum for the more mature audiences with political intrigue and characterisation instead of dragons and impossible feats of strength. Not one for historical reference but well written and quite well produced, Messalina's biggest assets come from the solid line-up of actors, particularly Belinda Lee in the title role. Recommended to fans of historical dramas.
|Anyone famous in it?||Belinda Lee - a British actress who played several roles in Italian films before her tragically early death in 1961.|
|Directed by anyone interesting?||Vittorio Cottafavi - a little known Italian directed who also helmed the fantasy Peplum Hercules and the Captive Women (1961) with Reg Park.|
|Any gore or violence ?||Some occasional blood and some surprising death and torture sequences.|
|Any sex or nudity?||Nothing seen but a lot of suggestion.|
|Who is it for?||Fans of historical dramas should enjoy this well written film.
|Visuals||Original Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour
The print is of generally good quality, however the disc suffers from a rather low bit-rate transfer that is very noticeable on large television sets with a general lack of detail.
|Audio||English and German mono - both sound fine.
Note: the German is missing in a few scenes where the original German print was cut.
|Subtitles||German - fill in the gaps on the audio and translate a few scrolling text screens.|
|Extras||The disc includes:
|Availability||German release. DVD Title: Messalina|
|Region||Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL|
|Other regions?||Not available elsewhere.|
|Cuts?||The film is believed to be fully uncut. The print used is English language.
Note: The original German print was trimmed of some more violent scenes - these are fully restored here.