Caligula (1979)
By: Joe Lewis on July 11, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Image (USA). All Regions, NTSC. 1.85:1 (Non-anamorphic). English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0. 156 minutes
The Movie
Directors Tinto Brass
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole
Screenplay: Gore Vidal
Music: Paul Clemente
Tagline: The most controversial film of the twentieth century has just become the most controversial film of the twenty first century.
Country: USA/Italy
The real Caligula was a funny sort of a fellow. Emperor of the Roman Empire for four years until 41 AD, Caligula had a number of habits that strayed from what could be considered normative behavior, including incest, prostituting his senator's wives and appointing his beloved horse as Consul to the Senate. He was also excessively cruel, having famously declared 'if only Rome had one neck'. It comes as no surprise that Caligula was assassinated after a relatively short rule. Caligula, the 1979 film based upon a script by renowned author Gore Vidal, emulated the real-life Emperor's perversity with relish, causing it to be reviled the world over. Considered to be one of the most controversial films of all time, Caligula was a production plagued with rumour and almost destroyed by disagreements in post-production. Disowned by Vidal and director Tinto Brass, who had previously helmed softcore romps such as All Ladies Do It, Caligula was banned across the world as a result of its pornographic sex scenes and graphic violence.

Caligula is indeed one of the most explicit sexploitation films ever filmed and, with a final budget of twenty million dollars, certainly one of the most expensive. The film begins with Caligula (Malcolm McDowell, in a powerhouse performance) playing in a forest with his sister Drusilla (Savoy), and the notable absence of underclothing and amorous touching suggest that their relationship is far from above-board. After a menacing monologue by Caligula, we get into the film in earnest. Currently ruling Rome is Caligula's granduncle Tiberius (O'Toole) and, in order to claim the Empire for himself, Caligula suffocates Tiberius in his bed. Having now ascended to the position of Roman Emperor, Caligula must now find himself a wife and, aided by Drusilla, he selects Caesonia (Mirren, in the role that should have won her the Oscar). Initial apprehensions regarding Caesonia's promiscuity are dispelled, and they are married in a lavish ceremony. From here, things take a turn for the worst and, with Caligula's insanity growing, he becomes more and more volatile and paranoid, before his climactic assassination in the film's final minutes.

There's no doubt that the controversy surrounding Caligula stems primarily from the graphic sex inserted by producer (and then-president of Penthouse, the film's primary financers) Bob Guccione. These scenes, totaling about five minutes, were allegedly filmed in post-production after Guccione thought Brass failed to make the film 'sleazy' enough. Rumour has it that, after principal photography was completed, Guccione locked Brass out of the editing room and, with the assistance of a number of Penthouse Pets (notably Anneka Di Lorenzo and Lori Wagner) he filmed the hardcore scenes on the sly. According to most accounts, Brass filmed no pornographic footage except for a brief scene of fellatio. Further adding to the controversy are the reports of a 210-minute version screening in Cannes, which included more deviant sexuality, extreme violence and an unsimulated bestiality scene. Needless to say this version has never seen the light of day on VHS or DVD, and reports of theatrical screenings are scant.

As an exploitation film, Caligula is entirely satisfying although a number of features set it apart from other pictures of its genre. First and foremost is the sheer deviant overtone within the film – everything from incest, fetishes, hetero and homosexual rape, bestiality and child murder is amply covered. The only other film I've seen that comes on par with this is Joe D'Amato's Emanuelle in America, a similar Italo-sleaze fest. Interestingly, it was D'Amato who directed Caligula's unofficial sequel Caligula 2: The Untold Story. The big budget, presence of reputable and well-respected actors (O'Toole and McDowell had been previously nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for Lawrence of Arabia and A Clockwork Orange respectively) and lavish sets also makes this a unique exploitation film. Thus the question arises: would Caligula be more respected without Guccione's inserts? Perhaps not – the film would be perceived to be far too sleazy (even without the inserts) to be anything but a tacky, obscene sexploitation picture. This is unfortunate considering the obvious work many cast and crew members did on the film.

A brief note regarding the DVD: while this review concerns the most uncut 156 minute Unrated version of the film, Image have released an R-rated cut, which is severely truncated at 102 minutes. Warner Vision has released this edited version for Region 4, which has none of the extras included in the unrated edition.
Caligula is presented in the 1:85:1 aspect ratio but the picture itself is quite grainy. The French 2-disc special edition, with its anamorphic transfer, is supposedly much better.
The Image DVD offers us two English soundtracks – a Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. The 5.1 cleans most background static up and is generally quite crisp. Some scenes have dull moments of sound, but this does not detract from the overall impact of the picture. The overpowering orchestral opening, from Sergei Prokofiev's play Romeo and Juliet, ranks as one of the best themes in exploitation cinema. Further unoriginal music for the picture was by Russian composer Aram Khachaturian, and Bruno Nicolai wrote the film's original pieces.
Extra Features
A 57-minute documentary titled The Making of Gore Vidal's Caligula is the highlight on this disc, and it consists of interviews with key cast members and Bob Guccione, though predictably no one-on-one with Brass is included. The audio/visual quality of this making-of documentary is quite poor. Cast and crew filmographies are also included.
The Verdict
An extremely lavish production, Caligula has the aesthetic of a big-budget play, albeit one with lots of sex and violence. The sets are magnificent, Brass' directorial flair is evident and the acting is generally very good. It's a shame then, that Caligula is considered among the higher-echelons of filmgoers as being the cinematic equivalent to a particularly nasty virus – to be desperately avoided at all costs. Both the Unrated and R-rated versions of the film have their merits and it depends entirely on the strength of your stomach as to which you select – aside from sexual content, the Unrated disc showcases some stomach-churning violence, including the infamous 'wine scene'. Although it tends to get bogged down in triviality some of the time, Caligula is undoubtedly the ancient history lesson we've all wanted to have.
Movie Score
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