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USA 1979
Directed by
Tinto Brass / Bob Guccione
156 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
David Michael Brown
3 stars


Synopsis: Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) is the heir to the throne of Rome. After his father Tiberius (Peter O’Toole) is killed, Caligula becomes Caesar. Unable to marry his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy) he takes the hand of Caesonia (Helen Mirren) who bears him a daughter. Under the pressures of ruling Caligula starts to unravel in an orgy of sex and violence. Determined to usurp the upper classes and give Rome back to the people Caligula taunts the Senate, ordering their wives to become whores in his Imperial bordello and sending the army on a farcical trip to invade Great Britain. Soon, enough is enough and order is restored as Caligula’s family are brutally slain.

How on earth did actors of the calibre of Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole and John Gielgud become involved in a piece of glorified smut like Caligula. Critics and audiences alike were appalled when the film was unleashed into the world in 1979. Whilst the film is an exploitative fictionalisation of the life of the infamous Roman Emperor that pulls no punches when depicting the sexual excesses and violent morays of the time, the truth is that it was originally intended as an authoritative history rather than porn masquerading as art.

Written by Gore Vidal and directed by Tinto Brass, fresh from his Nazi sleaze epic, Salon Kitty, the film was produced by Penthouse publisher, Bob Guccione, and this is where the problems start. Having already fired Vidal, Guccione gave Brass his marching orders after the director went over budget. After seeing some of the shot footage Guccione flew over twelve Penthouse pets to beautify some of the orgiastic scenes and increased the film’s sexual content by inserting explicit hard core scenes throughout the film. It is these moments that caused the film censorship problems and brought controversy wherever it was released. Not that there wasn’t plenty of sexual shenanigans going on during filming before Guccione got his grubby hands on it. The claim that some of the actors had no idea about the actual sexual activity going on around them is obviously a fallacy when watching the uncut print. Not that it is only the sex that is shocking; the film is catalogue of grotesqueries that will turn off many viewers. The decapitation machine, the soldier who is forced to consumer gallons of wine before having his stomach perforated with a sword, Caligula’s violation of a newly married couple and the slaying of the Emperor’s family on the steps of the Senate; all these moments only add to the outrage.

Whatever your thoughts, however, on the fusion of mainstream cinema and the world of adult entertainment, you have to marvel at the breathtaking scale and sheer audacity of the filmmakers. The sets are huge, the extras are plentiful and the cast astounding. McDowell channels his Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange and Mike Travis from Lyndsay Anderson’s If!... into a venomous child-man thrust into the status of a God and mentally spinning out of control after the death of his one true love, his sister. It’s an off kilter and uninhibited performance that you can’t imagine many other actors embracing. O’Toole, playing Caligula’s syphilis-ridden father Tiberius chews the opulent scenery, Gielgud looks uncomfortable, only Mirren manages to maintain any sense of class during the sleazy proceedings.

The question is, in reality, is there a decent film hiding beneath the trashy veneer of sex and violence? The answer is not an easy one. Some films are just as fascinating as much for what goes in behind the scenes as in front of them. The film’s production history, combined with the pure bravado Guccione showed in making the film is fascinating. He somehow got Hollywood actors to degrade themselves in the name of celluloid and produced a “historical” drama on a scale rarely seen nowadays. Caligula is a one of a kind and essential viewing for anyone with an interest in exploitation cinema. Whether it’s a worthy film has to be left to the beholder but any way you look at it, it’s one of cinema naughtiest guilty pleasures.




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