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Released in 1982, this is an Italian film which was probably intended to exploit the publicity associated with Tinto Brasso’s notorious 1979 release “Caligola”. It is clearly a low budget production, shot mainly in the studio, with a number of larger scale dramatic sequences borrowed from other films incorporated at points where these fit reasonably well. The film provides an interesting study of the life of Messalina, the Roman Empress first married to the mad emperor Caligula and then after his assassination (which takes place at about the mid-point of the film) to his successor Claudius; and it would have been better titled Caligula and Claudius, or just Messalina. Historically it is not strictly accurate but probably provides a fairly realistic interpretation of life in Rome during the periods of the two Emperors concerned. The first half provides a beautifully crafted confirmation of the dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but the second shows a very different scene when Claudius takes the throne, introduces careful and incorruptible administrators and rapidly repairs the damage to the fabric of Roman society caused by his predecessor. Presumably the intention is to show that absolute power does no more than give any ruler the freedom to behave in accordance with his natural character, and in this sense it can be regarded as a film with an important message to convey.
Historically the reign of Caligula is regarded as exceptionally violent and cruel, and the film has to make this clear to viewers who are not familiar with the history of this period. Whereas other filmmakers have succumbed to the temptation to exploit the violence in a pornographic way, it is greatly to the credit of this film that unnecessary violence has been largely avoided and much of that which is shown remains implicit rather than explicit. Caligula maintained a vast network of spies, and individuals who spoke against him would often disappear – probably to meet an unspeakable end. This is brought out early in this film, not by showing such a sudden disappearance and what followed, but by a restrained warning from one army officer to another who had been a little too loose in his conversation. There is a brief scene in a Roman torture chamber when plotters against the Emperor are being interrogated, but (in my copy at least) this is less explicit than similar scenes in many films depicting events in mediaeval Europe. A legend that Messalina, a very junior lady in Caligula’s court, was trained by her mother to come to his attention by mastering such masculine skills as swordplay, and then demanding to demonstrate these, has been incorporated into the film; and the nearest it comes to becoming pornographic is during a fairly graphic swordplay sequence in the Coliseum which unexpectedly ends in not Messalina but the gladiator having to appeal to the Emperor to spare his life. This sequence clearly shows the violence and cruelty which was associated with the Roman Circus. However it forms an important part of the story, and in my opinion it is treated with enough restraint to be more acceptable than many of the violent scenes incorporated (with less reason) in certain films intended exclusively for children today. Later, even the assassination of Caligula is shown without a rather meaningless bloodbath involving all and sundry; and in the second half of the film after Claudius has taken the throne, the trust shown by the Emperor in his chosen advisers (both military and civil) is clearly brought out. Nudity?, yes there is nudity in many of the scenes showing the decadence of Caligula’s Imperial Court, but it is never obtrusive – it always seems a natural part of any scene where it occurs. Afterwards, when looking back on the film, it is very hard to remember which scenes these were. There are none of the visual excesses to be found in films such as Tinto Brasso’s “Caligola”. Another sequence displays the continuing decadent life at Court after Caligula’s death during a period when Claudius and his legions were campaigning in Britain, this very effectively shows decadence as an ongoing characteristic of life among the Roman ruling class of the period, not something which was introduced at the whim of a mad Emperor. This film is definitely not just softcore pornography, and it provides two very important lessons for us today. The first is that absolute power will only corrupt those rulers who are corruptible, whilst the second, even more important but maybe a little less obvious, is that mankind has changed very little during the past two millennia; and that many rulers, such as Hitler, Idi Amin, Pinochet or Sadaam Hussein who have been given absolute power during the past century, have shown a behaviour pattern very little different from that of Caligula.
Overall this film, together with Fellini’s Satyricon, have both significantly contributed to my limited understanding of what life may have been like in classical Rome. No one today can really appreciate how it would have felt if they had been a part of Roman society, but we must recognise that, for most Roman citizens, family life continued under Roman law in what was probably a remarkably stable pattern for the period. This film is enjoyable to watch and, despite having been rated by many jurisdictions for 18+ viewing only, I believe that watching it would make a positive contribution to the history education of most high school children.