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MESSALINA, MESSALINA (1977)
WOODHAVEN DVD (region 0)
d. Bruno Corbucci; pr. Franco Rossellini; scr. Mario Amendola; ph. Marcello Maschiocci; ed. Daniele Alebiso; m. the De Angelis Borthers; cast. Lori Wagner, Anneka Di Lorenzo, Tomas Milian, Vittorio Caprioli
Capitalizing on leftover sets and cast from a Penthouse Epic
The 1970s saw the legalization of hardcore pornography in film markets in the USA and Europe.
Italy, however, was one of the last European countries to relax their censorship regulations regarding explicit sexual content. Perhaps as a result (or as overcompensation), the most expensive pornographic movie to date was filmed there, the notorious Tinto Brass / Bob Guccione film of Caligula. However, before this venture there existed in Italy and indeed throughout Europe a number of erotic, so-called soft-core features and comedies to cater to the demand for sexy material. Caligula was in turn bound to loose a number of hastily made rip-offs, some conceived while Brass’ film was yet to be officially released: this was the case with the odd Caligula 2. With controversy imminent, Guccione’s Italian co-producers hoped to safeguard against a flop and so whilst Brass’ film was mostly in post-production hired Bruno Corbucci to turn away from the more nihilistic aspects of exploitation and return to the sex farce, to be hastily assembled on leftover sets. Although far removed in its tone, the easy-going ostensible sequel does share some commonality with the illustrious Caligula – aside from several sets, it also stars Penthouse Pets Anneka Di Lorenzo and Lori Wagner in what credit listings indicate as the same characters from Brass’ film – the main device needed to satisfy the specter of continuation needed for a sequel.
Synopsis (contains spoilers)
Messalina, Messalina actually takes place during the reign of the famed Roman Emperor Claudius, following the death of Caligula.
Claudius is lauded over by his sexually insatiable wife Messalina (Anneka Di Lorenzo). Much of the film concerns her sexual exploits – from her obsessive quest to find the most well-endowed men in Rome to her lesbian relationship with Agrippa (Lori Wagner). As she conceals much of her proclivities from her symbolically flatulent husband, who is content it seems to be an Imperial cuckold, the film resembles a kind of slapstick sex farce. Thus, Claudius dresses as a commoner and wanders the streets of Ancient Rome in order to discover what ordinary people truly think of him. He overhears a drunken braggart (Tomas Milian) and soon concludes that it will be Di Lorenzo’s activities that will dictate Roman history. Milian, however, is a con-man who deceives a Venetian visitor in search of a brothel: although the man does indeed find the brothel he seeks, where Messalina secretly continues her search for satisfaction. The visitor proves to be a most unusual source of sexual longevity and pleases Di Lorenzo. Milian in the meantime is duped in an elaborate scheme by the Emperor to give a commoner a taste of what it is like to be in charge of Rome. Finally, Claudius is advised that he must get rid of his wife and her entourage and so plans to have them massacred.
Slapstick Farce and the Sexual Subversion of Patriarchal Order
Messalina Messalina is a somewhat energetic and slapstick sex farce with the Roman Emperor depicted as a put-upon gasbag at the mercy of his overly lascivious wife.
With much exuberant nudity and knockabout cynicism, Corbucci clearly suggests that sex and money were the twin pillars of so-called Roman morality, indeed even Fates in their own right. Yet despite this rather bitterly ironic social commentary, much of the film is content to be a rather coarse and crude sex comedy about insatiability, too good-natured and even celebratory of promiscuity to emerge as either as base or decadent in the manner of those films that truly sought to imitate Caligula in tone and philosophy (like director Joe D’Amato’s mean and crass Caligula – the Untold Story for instance). With a snickering titillation throughout, there is nonetheless the intriguing idea that moral order is determined not by the Patriarchs of the world but by women (insatiable) who seek the liberation of their desires. In this way it ties in to a number of erotic films which explored feminist sexual liberation with on-screen displays of sexualized women in the hope of conveying sexuality as a revolutionary means of expression for these women – sex is in this way the sole power that undermines Patriarchal order: hence Claudius is driven by male Senators and moralists to act to remove the emerging threat of feminist sexual empowerment.
While the above may be read into the movie, it does not detract from the fact that the film was mainly sold on the premise of seeing two beautiful Penthouse Pets in various states of undress and copulation.
Nevertheless, it is clear that women’s sexual efforts threaten the myth of male potency and that suppression is the primary means of ensuring history. The “decent” male ruler is clearly mocked, not only a cuckold but a man who hopelessly laments the greedy and lecherous nature of what has become of Rome. He resents the immorality of open sexuality as spearheaded by the liberation of female desire: indeed, he comments in the films most telling thematic moment on his belief in the nobility of women as opposed to the whores of Rome. In its way thus, the film is both a standard sex farce and a comment on the hypocritical Italian authority that would seek to suppress the freedom of sexual expression, particularly feminine, in any form. That is the curious dilemma of the non-pornographic sex film – both exploitative of female nudity for a presumed male gaze and celebratory of the move towards the expression and acceptance of female sexuality. It is tempting to say that such sex films as this are at the forefront of moral change but that would give this rather silly film too much importance. Still, it is surprisingly entertaining in parts and not altogether as negligible as one might expect.
From Courtly Orgy to Grand Guignol
The visual transfer, however, is absolutely abysmal. It is in fullscreen only (except for the credits sequence) and seems taken from a video master (quite possibly even VHS as picture quality, clarity and color differentiation are atrocious).
Colors fare so poorly here that it is all but impossible to ascertain those values the film might have once possessed – although the costume design seems colorful and blues, whites and reds still emerge with some force. At times it looks faded, smeared and bleached. Isolated instances of an aesthetic design still emerge to some effect. The use of colored filters in one sequence indicates that color may have been intended to indicate the ebb and flow of passion, but is too inconsistent from shot to shot in this transfer. Elaborate scenes of courtly, orgiastic entertainment have a colorful sense of spectacle and some camera tracking work briefly adds style and energy. Amusing visual gags are still present although once again the low-grade transfer works against them. Nudity is frequent although the erotic centerpiece of the film, the lesbian encounter between Di Lorenzo and Wagner, seems awkwardly edited, leading one to believe that although this DVD is unrated it is not uncut. The final massacre sequence, however, is a stunning and vividly audacious blend of extreme Grand Guignol gore and farcical violence, most surprising although not as tonally inconsistent as it appears.
Sexual Cavorting, Bad Dubbing & Orgiastic Frenzy
The sound transfer, sadly, is equally lamentable: indeed, it is an almost total disaster: as poor as the lowest expectations of Dolby Digital mono.
Sounds and voices are thus always dull, muted and undifferentiated. Not only is there a substantial hiss throughout but no real auditory ambience is even possible, let alone maintained, leaving the bulk of the energy to the dubbed voices (which validate all those bad-movie clichés about the dubbing of Italian movies and work against any thematic import the dialogue may have had in its original language). Di Lorenzo sounds like Mae West at moments, although the many noises of her passionate exuberance are convincing enough. Indeed, moans of pleasure still carry through here, and Claudius’ flatulence is juxtaposed with a Senatorial speech suggesting the film’s complete disrespect for Patriarchal traditions of power and morality. The score is eccentric at times, particularly during the Empresses’ elaborate party scenes but the transfer reduces this to blunted monotone, undifferentiated in levels or mixing. Thus, the sense of energy and fun in courtly decadence (dancers, music, jesters, sexual cavorting) is dissipated. There are very few ambient sound effects noticeable let alone forceful, although the final Grand Guignol set-piece has many Monty Python-esque noises of spurting, gushing blood and of people slipping on bloodied floors. Overall, however, the transfer is terrible.
Deserving of a Better Quality Transfer
There are no special features.
It must also be said that the DVD used for review had a case of what fans term DVD-Rot: it was stained, frequently pixilated, and jumped and froze especially in the second half. The same authoring and playback problem was encountered in another disc (Caligula – the Untold Story) from the same distributor and is evidence of a very cheap product, disrespectful towards even that limited audience the film may have. Buyers especially should beware: as DVD transfers go, this is about as bad as they get – a cash-in. Pity, for the film is a rarely seen example of a populist but critically despised form of period erotic farce.
THIS FILM IS NOT YET AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY
USA DVD PURCHASE INFORMATION: Caligula II - Messalina, Messalina
UK DVD PURCHASE INFORMATION: Caligula II - Messalina, Messalina
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