Color, 2002, 127m.
Directed by Tinto Brass
Starring Anna Galiena, Gabriel Garko, Franco Branciaroli, Antonio Salines, Simona Borioni
Cult Epics (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Arrow (UK R2 PAL), Eagle Pictures (Italy R2 PAL), Bach Films (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Black Angel

Originally released in Italy under the Black Angeltitle Senso '45, which intentionally recalls a certain Luchino Visconti '50s classic and its source novella, this opulent film from director Tinto Brass marked his final foray to date into the lavish, erotic period dramas earlier in his career like The Key and Salon Kitty. He also benefited from stronger leads than usual at this point in his career thanks to a dynamic turn from a mature and curvy Anna Galiena, a familiar art house favorite from films like The Hairdresser's Husband and Jamón Jamón, and model-turned-actor Gabriel Garko, now a regular fixture on Italian TV.

Married to a high-ranking Italian official, Livia (Galiena) has turned her life into a complicated mess via her affair with a German soldier, Helmut (Garko), a relationship conveyed in flashbacks embedded within a tragic framing story filmed in black and white. Livia's passionate affair is interspersed with a number of separations from her love and sometimes shockingly sordid detours, even using her body to get what she needs. Meanwhile Helmut takes advantage of his rise up the SS ladder, setting the stage against a backdrop of fascist-controlled Venice for a reckoning for everyone involved.

Bolstered by high production values and atmospheric, shadowy cinematography, this was clearly an ambitious undertaking for Brass in between his much fluffier sex comedies, Cheeky! and Private. However, it shares those films' tendency to push Italian film censorship as far as it would allow, in this case indulging in a lengthy, eye-popping orgy scene involving bordello girls and Nazi officials complete with a couple of shots skating up to the edge of hardcore. However, it's the flawed love affair at the center of the story that receives the most attention, and both leads give it their all with committed, fearless performances. Adding to the film's allure is a lush score from the great Ennio Morricone, reuniting with Brass for the first time since The Key. It's an endearingly old-fashioned accompaniment, reaching its zenith during the rhapsodic sequence in which Livia and Helmut frolic in the ocean to one of the maestro's best latter day love themes. Black Angel

Eagle Pictures released this film in Italy with a relatively high degree of fanfare, with a DVD release without any English-friendly options soon following. As with virtually every Brass film, the intended 1.66:1 compositions have been reframed to 1.78:1, meaning the headroom in several shots looks significantly tighter than it should. That said, it's an otherwise worthwhile transfer with 5.1 and 2.0 stereo options along with a making-of Black Angelfeaturette. The first English-subtitled release came from Arrow in 2003, complete with the same featurette (and a bonus related one with Brass) but suffering from some brief but obvious cuts to the orgy scene to bring it in line with BBFC regulations at the time.

After that it took a whopping eleven years for the film to officially reach American shores courtesy of Cult Epics, following numerous thwarted attempts to license the film in between including a bid from Image Entertainment in 2007. The same master used for the Italian disc was offered for the DVD edition in early 2014, but at least that was finally a way for Americans to see it completely uncut and subtitled, something impossible to find commercially before. Just a few months later that was essentially supplanted by a Blu-ray release from a newer HD master, once again framed at 1.78:1 and featuring healthy colors with careful bursts of crimson in the production design looking especially effective. Both the 5.1 and 2.0 options are included (standard Dolby Digital only), both sounding fine if unspectacular. (An English dub was apparently never commissioned for this one, which is just as well). The making-of featurette (25 minutes) is included of course, in which Brass talks about adapting the literary source to the Fascist occupation and recalls about Galiena's reluctance to undress so frequently, "I got her to understand that there was nothing dramatic about showing your ass." Meanwhile both lead actors are very articulate about their roles, with Garko in particular talking about his reaction to seeing himself in the mirror in a Nazi uniform. Also included are an eight-minute promo created to sell the film to distributors, the Italian trailer, a stills gallery, and in a welcome gesture, the entire 43-minute Morricone soundtrack playable as an option in the special features menu.

The Blu-ray is also available as part of a five-disc set entitled Tinto Brass: Maestro of Erotic Cinema, alongside the preexisting Blu-rays of Cheeky!, Private, and Monamour. The final disc is a DVD containing a new feature-length interview with Brass bearing the same title as the set; it's actually a great, in-depth discussion as he runs through virtually every single film he made. From his early political days through his avant garde period and into the erotic epics that made him famous, there's plenty of material here to make anyone clamor for more Brass titles on home video. And yes, he gets into Caligula, too. Lots of fun if past editions of his films left you wanting to hear far more from the man himself.

Updated review on August 26, 2014.