– Summary –
Director : Tinto Brass (Additional scenes by Giancarlo Lui & Bob Guccione)
Year Of Release : 1979
Principal Cast : Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, Teresa Ann Savoy, John Steiner.
Major Award Wins : Absolutely none whatsoever.
Approx Running Time : 156 Minutes
Synopsis: Caligula, a hot-headed and opportunistic young Roman heir to the throne of Emperor, murders his uncle to ascend the throne and rule Rome by force – even though he’s half mad, incestuously involved with his own sister, and debauched in just about ever sense. He chooses a wife, chooses to send the husbands of the women he wants to sleep with away to the frontier, and seeks to bring Rome to its knees with his childlike rule – his plans, however, are nothing compared to those of the people who seek to bring him down.
What we think : If you enjoy good porn, this isn’t the film for you. Like watching somebody vomit outside a pub, Caligula is best appreciated by not seeing it. Filmed with the ability of a 2-year old child, a cast of legendary performers deliver some of the most appallingly written dialogue and ghastly portrayals of “real” historical people, interspersed with the hard-core porn filmed by Penthouse supremo Bob Guccione. This is barely titillating, and never once erotic – it’s less a work of art and more an atrocity. Calling it a film is to call shitty films good.
Harken back, if you will, to a brief moment in cinema history whereby a genre known as “pornography” slipped across from the dingy backrooms of sleazy screening dungeons and into the mainstream. The time of Deep Throat, perhaps the most iconic of all porn films (how on earth people fell for the misappropriation of the term “mainstream” when describing a film based solely on the concept of a woman having her clitoris in the back of her throat still staggers me!) saw a weird influence take place on Hollywood – suddenly, porn was chic. Instead of strolling down to the local cinema to catch the latest Disney animated feature, you’d ditch the kids and sneak away to catch the latest blockbuster release involving full-screen penetration and copious body fluids posing as “art”, perhaps hoping to instil in your partner a somewhat sordid level of eroticism which would lead to… well, an imitation of said film later on back home. Caligula, a film ostensibly a historical peice about a violent period on ancient Roman history, was released hanging on the combination of big-name stars and raunchy, explicit sex, most of which featured a bevy of that year’s Penthouse Pets – thanks to Penthouse founder and publisher Bob Guccione’s input. I don’t know whether to be impressed with his balls at putting out a film this convoluted, or whether to simply cringe in embarrassment to all involved.
To try describing the plot of Caligula is to try understanding what on Earth Malcolm McDowell and Helm Mirren were thinking by associating their names with this trash. McDowell, who’s star had risen high thanks to a starring role in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and Mirren, who would go on to win an Oscar playing Queen Elizabeth many years later (do you imagine the Queen ever sat down to watch Caligula?) are quality performers, as are Sir John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole, who appear in the same shots as a plethora of naked men and women all engaging in something akin to a sexual frenzy. McDowell brings his a-game to the title role of the insane Roman Emperor Caligula, giving the role his all in spite of the terrible scripting and deplorable character development. Mirren, as the uppity and aloof Caesonia – who would later become Caligula’s legitimate wife – is also up to the task, even though she’s badly filmed and terribly underwritten, and it’s easy to see how her magnetic screen presence eventually won her an Oscar in years to come. John Gielgud looks for all the world like he’s lost in a different film, like he’s wandered onto the wrong set and the completely wrong movie. I feel for the man, I really do, because his role of Nerva is a thankless one. Peter O’Toole, an actor who once played f***ing Lawrence Of Arabia, must have been hard up for cash to sign on for the role of Caligula’s uncle Tiberius.
The focus of the film seems to be an indelicate balance of sex, violence and political maneuvering, none of which makes for a cohesive whole. The sex is indeed explicit, although only one scene is actually erotic in any way (a lesbian sequence midway through the film is pretty well filmed) and the smattering of incest, fisting, masturbation, rape and, in a finale to make your eyes pop, an orgy involving everything from midgets and quite hirsute ladies performing fellatio rounds out what can only be described as a film devoid of recognizing social taboos. An addendum at the opening of the film, in which the “realism” of the film is pretentiously pointed to as being factual, ensures that any kind of act of depravity can be overlooked as “from that time” – as if that’s enough to abrogate the directors and producers of this trash from their moral obligations towards their audience. Blood and gore also propagate the screen in a variety of moments of cruelty – once more it’s less about the story and more about shock value – while the drama is sucked from every scene by a tepid, uniformly insipid directorial style.
That’s if you can all Tinto Brass’s use of camerawork and framing on this mess a “style”. According to industry legend, Brass was fired from the production of Caligula after running up huge cost overruns, leaving ring-ins Giancarlo Lui and Bob Guccione himself to add in all the explicit porn. The film is shot as if it were a stage-play, with only the most minimal inventiveness behind the camera for framing and shot selection. The long tracking/dolly shots that Brass uses, swinging his camera around the cavernous Roman sets at Italy’s Dear Studios, and his resistance to use cutaways and insert shots (he does, but only sparingly), give Caligula a languidness the film cannot overcome – to its detriment. The film lacks energy (even with all the naked flesh on display) and spark, the script feels like a a sermon of arrogance and pomposity, and the direction of the actors within the film itself seems restrained, as if Brass is afraid to really cut loose. The look of the film itself is also dull and lifeless. The sets, magnificent as they probably were, look for all the world like high school play scenery, a weird wooden vibe that reeks of backroom porn production value. The filmmakers have gone for opulence, and ended up with something approximating the term “try-hard”. With such an atrocious script, terrible filming technique and a criminal abuse of the stars at their disposal, it’s hard to imagine the producers of this mess actually being able to hold their heads up at the premiere.
The film was dogged by controversy prior to release, outside of the inter-producer quarrel between original writer Gore Vidal, producer Guccione, and director Tinto Brass. A number of performers, McDowell included, were appalled when they learned that the film has been re-cut to include hard-core pornography, something they’d not signed on for originally. The material itself is quite explicit, ensuring the film received an X rating for release – thereby limiting its commercial appeal. While the prospect of plenty of flesh might appeal to some (or, many), the way it’s presented in Caligula is about as arousing as open heart surgery. Those hoping for a glimpse of Mirren’s assets will be rewarded, and she does share a brief threesome with McDowell and co-star Teresa-Ann Savoy, but as far as sex scenes go, it’s not really that great. The films major…. set-piece, if you will, is a massive all-in orgy in the latter third, in which we bear witness to midgets, giants, freaks and Penthouse Pets cavorting in a writhing, seething mass of latent lesbianism, heterosexual fantasies and hard-core porn. It’s meant to be erotic, I think, but ends up just being confusing and pointless, the impact of such a sight lost on all but the most straight-up viewer thanks to director Guccione’s prolific use of close-ups and impersonal shot selection. Hmm. A lot like actual porn, I guess.
You know, I remember hearing stories about Caligula while watching films in my formative years (that is, in my early teens), with an older boy at school seeing a slightly cut down version (a more R-rated version, if you will) of the film on a bootleg copy – of course, the legend of the film grew in my mind’s eye as a Holy Grail of must-watch films, until I actually got to watch it. Remember that line in Notting Hill about how folks “go to bed with Gilda and wake up with me…”, as an analogy of how the reality is never as good as the fantasy? Well, that’s certainly true of Caligula. Sure, there’s plenty of ribald action and raunchy porn going on here, mixed in with a pretty decent cast doing their utmost to elevate some seriously terrible scripting, but the overall effect of porn and legitimate performances is skewed towards the porn no matter how hard they try. It’s hard to watch this in any light other than a curiosity, and even those with more liberal mindsets, as well as an adventurous cinematic taste, could well find themselves agreeing with me regardless of their acceptance of the material. Caligula is a film you could genuinely call a disaster in every sense.