As you can see below from the dark muscleman by his side and the peeling of he flower petals, Nero is coded as homosexual in De Mille’s Sign of the Cross. Charles Laughton gives an extraordinary performance which is at once restrained AND floridly camp. Out of relative stillness blooms just the right ‘too-much’ gesture and then it settles as if in a photograph. It’s quite extraordinary to see.
So far I’ve seen María Félix as an actress only on stage so she can charge more for her favours, as Lady Lucifer, as goddess on her knees, and as someone who only God can judge and may God forgive her. It’s almost inevitable that she should play Mesalina, who neither asks for nor seeks the forgiveness of any God.
She’s got Emperor Claudius (Memo Benassi) wrapped around her little finger and is already bankrupting Rome with her demands for jewels as the film begins. Claudius is too old and too busy, however. And she’s lonely. So she takes on a series of young, handsome lovers and, when she tires of them, she has them killed. She also has them killed if they gossip too loudly about their trysts with her. In fact, she has no compunction about killing anyone who gets in her way or is the least bit inconvenient.
She’s scared of death, but only when it comes to her own. In what must have been a very daring sequence for its time, Mesalina in blonde wig slinks off at night to a seedy brothel to satisfy her lust with as many men as she likes and, after she’s done, quickly stabs to death the poor prostitute who happened to recognise her. The combination of sex and death is luridly highlighted.
One wonders how they got this through the censors. But then, director Carmine Gallone was expert at doing just that. He’s started off making films in 1914. He was one of the leading directors during Mussolini’s dictatorship (Scipione l’Africano, 1937) and was famous for his epics (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, 1926). He was often compared to De Mille, and one can understand why: this has exciting scenes with hordes of men riding two horses standing, fights to death, Christians being thrown to the lions, Nubian slaves whipping dancing girls. It’s all redeemed in a sub-plot with two young lovers (Erno Crisa as Timo; Delia Scala as Cinzia) by highlighting the power of love and the power of faith (she chases after her lover into the arena and prevents him from being eaten by lions by praying to Christ, see below).
All of the religiosity is an alibi for the violence; and the violence and spectacle is all a setting for Mesalina’s wickedness. She’s got power, jewels, and as much sex as she wants. Her weakness is that she wants to be loved. Her choice is Caio Silvio; and as played by the very handsome George Marchal, one can understand why. But it’s a mistake. She had his best friend Valerio (Jean Chevrier) sentenced to death. While he’s heading a plot to depose her; she’s plotting to marry him and kill her husband so that they can rule together.
It’s all very sensationalistic and very entertaining, a tabloid rendering of the wickedness of Rome. Whilst watching it, I thought how can a film look both expensive and cheap. There are enormous sets, thousands of extras, but then all the little details seem wrong, like they haven’t taken proper care. There’s a ballet scene where the two dancers dancing with Cinzia keep going in and out of the frame, like director and dancers just got it wrong and couldn’t be bothered to correct it.
In the scene above Caius is forced to submit to Mesalina’s request to see him. She’s just had the friend he loved sentenced to death, though she made herself seem generous, in allowing him to choose the form, an opportunity to show us a beautiful women opening Valeria’s veins whilst he lounges in a chaisse longue. Caius accuses Mesalina of doing it only because she covets Valerio’s house and gardens. She admits it. She can’t help it if she loves pleasure. She’s doomed not to be loved and it’s her only compensation. But what if he loved her, he asks. Then the Emperor’s days would be numbered, she replies. She looks at the window comments on the beauty of the night, the smoke on the horizon, and the lovely smell of Spring. He tells her it’s from Valerio’s funeral pyre. He’s so enraged, he tries to strangle her. Her last reply is that she will get her torturers to make him scream with love. It’s that kind of film.
As you can see from the clip. It’s not very imaginatively shot. Also, whilst María Felix is beautifully lit in close-up (see above), there’s a lot less care in medium and long-shot (as you can see from the clip). She looks a bit hard in certain sequences. And certainly the character as written does not arouse empathy, understanding, or identification, like the Mexican films do, even when showing Félix at her most wicked. Mesalina is there to excite and to be judged, by the film and by men.
The DVD I saw it from has both Italian and Spanish versions. And though I expected the film to be dubbed in Italian, it was disconcerting to see María Felix dubbed in Spanish. One misses her distinctive soft cadences, the lack of which might also add to the impression of hardness in the characterisation. Still, the film was a big success in Italy, increased her international stardom, and paved the way for her filmmaking in France. She remains the main, if not the only, reason to see Messaline/ Mesalina/ The Affairs of Mesalina.