Synopsis: Caligula may very well be the most controversial film in history. Only one movie dares to show the perversion behind Imperial Rome, and that movie is Caligula, the epic story of Rome’s mad emperor. All the details of his cruel, bizarre reign are revealed right here: His unholy sexual passion for his sister, his marriage to Rome’s most infamous prostitute, his fiendishly inventive means of disposing those who would oppose him, and more.
The combined talents of cinematic giants Malcom McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud and shakespearean actress Helen Mirren, along with an acclaimed international cast and a bevy of beautiful Penthouse Pets, make this unique historical drama a masterwork of the screen.
Not for the squeamish, not for the prudish, Caligula will shock and arouse you as it reveals the deviance and decadence beneath the surface of the grandeur that once was Rome.
eyelights: its cast. its ambition. its naked indulgences.
eyesores: its tone. its length. its editing. its mixture of sex and violence.
“Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man and therefore I am a God.”
‘Caligula’ is a 1980 motion picture about the rise to power and death of the notorious Roman emperor. Based on a script by Gore Vidal, directed by Tinto Brass and produced by Bob Guccione (the original publisher of Penthouse magazine), it’s a mixture of period drama, sex and violence.
As a kid, “Caligula’ had a mythical quality to it: Ads for it were featured in all the porn magazines we could get our hands on, and we all wondered what it was. Naturally, none of us got to see it because it was out of cinemas well before we were of age. And getting it on VHS was impossible.
For us, anyway.
I only got to see the picture in 1999, when it was first released on DVD. I paid a fortune for the damned thing (it was one of the first DVDs on the market – and they were really pricey then!) but, by that point, I was really curious to find out what I’d been missing out on all those years.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of it: ‘Caligula’ had the ambition of a Hollywood period piece epic, and a high quality cast, but also lower production values than you’d expect for this type of film. And then there was the wall-to-wall sex and violence, which often felt gratuitous.
I’m actually not averse to either (obviously, or I wouldn’t have picked up the movie in the first place!), but the grotesque torture and debasement of human life neutralizes any of the picture’s sexiness. Meanwhile, all the sexual imagery makes the violence feel awkward and ill-fitting.
Further to that, the picture was intended to show how power corrupts and it has a sinister quality to it that is rather disquieting. It shows Caligula raised under the influence of his grandfather, Tiberius, a mad tyrant, then taking his place and becoming the worst despot imaginable.
Ultimately, one ends the two and a half hour-long picture feeling burdened and filthy.
Like my soul needed a rinse.
Perhaps that was the intention of the filmmakers, but we’ll never really know because Vidal’s script was altered by Brass, whose film was re-edited by Guccione, who decided to insert unplanned pornographic sequences into the final film. Everyone disagrees on what was initially planned.
What is known is that the picture is edited completely out of sequence, with some scenes taken from the middle of the picture and shoved at the front, and vice versa, with some scenes cut together from various bits intended in different scenes, …etc. It can be a frightful mess.
The most surprising of all is the calibre of the cast that participated in this travesty: Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole and John Gielgud. Seriously. I mean, these are reputable actors essentially in a large-scale porn film, surrounded by all sorts of debauchery.
And McDowell and Mirren were fully committed to their parts, as Caligula and his spouse: they did tons of nudity and sex scenes themselves. And not just together, or with Caligula’s sister (a luscious Teresa Ann Savoy), either: with just about everyone else in the picture’s large cast.
‘Caligula’ really wasn’t afraid to offend, either: although Guccione and Brass toned down the original script’s homosexual content, there remain gay and lesbian acts, midget sex, incest, rape, group sex, freaks of nature, …etc. And it’s extremely graphic in its portrayal.
Having said this, the picture loses a lot of its edge because it looks staged. Despite its reported 17 million dollar price tag, the picture mostly looks shot on sets, sort of like pornographic theatre – at no point are we transported to 37-41 Anno Domini, as the filmmakers intended.
Even the violence looked fake, making amateurish mistakes as though they’d never shot such things before. For instance, when Caligula is finally put out of Rome’s misery, the sword he’s stabbed with clearly has no point and is retractable. Seriously, just shoot it at a different angle!
But at least the cast makes up for it:
- Malcolm McDowell is at his demented best, playing up the madness of Caligula. He’s a bit over-the-top, but it works anyway, and he’s quite watchable in the part – which is a touch away from Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange’.
- Helen Mirren is and always will be awesome. As the most promiscuous woman in Rome and confidante of the Emperor himself, she gives it her all and is stunningly credible. Plus she’s just stunning to look at. Wow.
- Teresa Ann Savoy holds her own in fine company, even though she’s clearly the lesser actress. She had a great chemistry with McDowell and she manages to convey the affection of a sister and lover. And dare I say “Yum!”?
- John Gielgud only has a minor part, as Nerva, Tiberius’ advisor, but he acquits himself of it with all the professionalism and dignity that you’d expect. He grounds the initial part of the picture with his austerity.
Only Peter O’Toole spoils it. I’ve never liked him, truth be told, but he was said to be strung out on something during shooting, despite having stopped drinking before production; he just shouts his lines.
To make matters worse, his make-up is absolutely horrendous. It’s not his fault, but instead of looking 77 years old, he looks like he’s a rotting 45-year-old. Whoever approved that look needs to be shot.
Probably the next best part of the picture, after its august cast, is the music by Bruno Nicolai (under the pseudonym of Paul Clemente – hey, he needed to eat). He was able to balance the drama, the heaviness of the piece with the more tender and sexy moments, giving the picture some luster.
But, ultimately, ‘Caligula’ feels like a half-baked motion picture. It’s an ambitious production that suffered from too many cooks – all with differing visions. One can only imagine what it could have been if Vidal, Brass and Guccione all had made the film they’d envisioned. But it was not to be.
Fittingly, ‘Caligula’ was as troubled as it subject.
Date of viewing: July 9, 2016