One of history’s greatest sluts is given a very tasteful treatment in Vittorio Cottafavi’s early sword and sandal epic, Messalina. Sure, Messalina is shown coming onto everything with a bulge in his mini-skirt tunic and she’s not above being pawed by a sweaty goon solely to achieve the assassination of her emperor husband.
There’s also that time a guy sneaked into her palace bedroom to kill her, but she ended up screwing him instead. Really though, anyone would agree that was purely self defense.
And just because the only guy in Rome able to put all the pieces together to finally end her reign of horny terror is obviously a homosexual doesn’t mean that some straight guy might not finally tire of succumbing to her royal hotness and eventually halt her power grab. Like maybe when she was sixty and was forced to wear an unattractive support toga.
But it’s not like the movie ever mentions that gang bang contest she supposedly had against a prostitute and won by nailing 25 guys in 24 hours. And when you realize that that tally is only about 5.9% of a Roman Legion, it almost seems like she was holding back!
Like a lot of colorful characters from the history books, Messalina’s life gets a little bit of a reworking here. And like a lot of movies where details are condensed, goosed, and just plain old made up, people complain that it isn’t true to life.
There’s at least two problems with that criticism. First of all, it’s not like those whiny critics were actually there to know exactly what happened! Second, and much more importantly, if I wanted to know what really happened, I would have just gone and lived during that time!
You know what though? I’m living right now! I want to be freaking entertained! If that means you have to invent a judo expert stud tribune named Lucio Massimo to love Messalina, but is redeemed by a strong Christian broad, you go ahead and do it!
Intrigue and treachery are the order of the day in Ancient Rome! Caligula is but a grody memory and now Claudius is Emperor! Though he is portrayed as a bit of an old fool, he seems to realize that there are constantly schemes swirling about to dethrone him.
While he was put in power by the praetorians, the aristocrats are not supportive and want him removed. In an effort to strengthen his hold on power, he marries Messalina who was apparently both a second cousin to him and to Caligula.
Messalina though obviously considers her being married to the Emperor as merely her day job because she is also having a love affair with Lucio. And in what reminds the viewer though of one of those door slamming mistaken identity comedies (except with severed heads and poisonings), Lucio doesn’t know who she really is!
It’s only when he returns to Rome after a few years of whipping ass in the Armenian Wars that he discovers the evil Messalina is actually his true love! In his absence, Messalina has gone from merely being a sultry nympho to a full blown redistribute the wealth socialist!
The public loves her because of her early version of the food stamp program, but when the ugly truth of how she is paying for it comes out (burning down poor Christian settlements), public opinion begins to turn against her!
Lucio defends her despite the whining of one his friends. Messalina would later sex up another of Lucio’s friends enough that he slit the throat of the complaining friend! A dying confession from this friend finally convinces Lucio that maybe his sexy Christian maid isn’t such a bad backup plan after all.
Perhaps for no other reason than Messalina has run out of other men to kill, she finally gets around to plotting the death of her husband with another guy who wants to be Emperor.
This precipitates the best action in the picture and if it doesn’t seem to match the historical record precisely (Claudius had her killed after learning of her plot, but without the attendant battles portrayed in the film), hundreds of corpses, guys getting shot, stabbed, and Lucio drowning a dude with his bare hands in a river make it easy to realize that history is for the history books!
Those expecting the silly antics of the typical Italian sword and sandal film where greased up hunks sling foam boulders at guys in ape costumes will be disappointed that Messalina is closer in temperament and execution to such mainstream Hollywood efforts like The Robe.
With its emphasis on the plotting and politics of the day, it feels more like a soap opera dressed up in Roman costumes. But since this particular soap opera’s plotting and politics is all about sex and heavy doses of violence, it’s even better than a beef slab named Goliath cheerfully slapping his male traveling companion on the butt after a particularly strapping brawl against the local cyclops!
The first part of the film is full of overwrought moments between Lucio and Messalina (who frequently scowls like the Twelve Caesars themselves just farted in her face!), but since she supplements those moments with scenes of her seducing guys and arranging for guys to be killed, the decided lack of action doesn’t irritate much.
The pay off at the end though is worth the wait because Cottafavi (Hercules and the Captive Women, Goliath and the Dragon) shows an amount of violence surprising for a movie made in 1960. The battlefield is littered with corpses and the party held by Messalina after she thinks she’s gotten rid of Claudius is likewise turned into charnel house with Lucio and his men killing everyone in sight including all the women!
The film also benefits from impressive sets and fluid camera work including some sweeping shots and proto-steadicam views that keep things visually interesting.
Much more entertaining than expected and though Belinda Lee certainly doesn’t bring much more to the role of Messalina than a bunch of red hair and about three facial expressions (bitchy, lusting, and um, okay only two expressions), since she was killed in a car wreck a year later when she was only 26, you’d just be jerk to point out any of that.
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