Caligula (1979)
By: Joe Lewis on November 14, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Image (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1. 156/153 minutes
The Movie
Director: 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
My name is Joe, and I am a fan of Caligula.

So, when the news that US DVD distributor Image and Penthouse were collaborating on a four-disc 'Imperial Edition' of Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione's epic sexploitation picture, I couldn't help but be excited. Since then, four discs have become three (a disc on the film's music couldn't be included and supposedly legal issues were responsible for its omission), however Image have still conjured up one of the finest DVD releases of an exploitation film around.

In the Imperial edition, two versions of Caligula have been included. One is the 156-minute Unrated cut, which has been reviewed here. This contains all of the sex shot by Guccione and Lui. More interesting is the 153-minute pre-release version. This is the product of attempts made by the people at Image to restore Caligula to as close to Brass' original vision as possible. This excised all of Guccione's sex footage (bar a few frames some have reported were left in; I didn't pick them up), including the lesbian tryst between Anneka and Lori and much of the Imperial bordello sequence. Furthermore, vault footage and alternate edits have been added. Caligula certainly benefits from these edits, and this pre-release version is the most coherent and artistically accomplished cut of the film I have seen. Though the edits could perhaps be seen as artificial (that is, they were not done by Brass himself and it is not said whether he indorses the edits), this is the best Caligula has ever played. For the censorship-conscious, no scenes of violence, including the infamous wine scene and the death and castration of Proculus, appear to be cut. It appears that further sexual footage has been included, particularly in the orgy of the freaks sequence at Tiberius' grotto, though all of these scenes are softcore.

Many allege that Caligula is the biggest, most star-studded, adult film ever committed to celluloid, costing some $22 million to lens thanks to the bottomless pockets of Penthouse chief Guccione. Written by Gore Vidal, the famed US novelist and playwright, Caligula was originally a project ala BBC's 1976 miniseries I, Claudius, and was picked up by Guccione, who was a friend of Vidal. After seeing Italian exploitation/softcore director Tinto Brass' notorious Nazploitation picture Salon Kitty, Guccione enlisted him to direct, as well as employing a number of notable stars such as Malcolm McDowell (who had become a star after Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange), Shakespearean actors Helen Mirren and John Gielgud, and the inimitable 'Lawrence of Arabia', Peter O'Toole. Produced in Rome's Deer Studios, Caligula also featured the talents of Oscar-winning art director Danilo Donati, who designed Fellini's sets.

On paper, the film looked like both a delirious slice of exploitation and a magnificent piece of cinema.

But it turned to debacle. After calling directors 'parasites', Brass threw Vidal off-set. Later, Guccione, displeased with Brass' work, sacked the director, re-edited the film with Giancarlo Lui and attempted to make the picture both closer to Vidal's vision and far more adult-oriented. When Caligula was released in 1979, it bore little resemblance to both Vidal and Brass' intentions. It could be argued that Guccione meant well – he took on Vidal's script and, as the money bank, he had the right to change Brass' vision if he didn't dig it, within reason. However, the other side of the coin is that Guccione was a money hungry bastard, eager only to capitalise on the emergence of hardcore as legit cinema (think Damiano's Deep Throat) and ignoring the intentions of two auteurs. Regardless of Guccione's objective, general consensus is that he fucked it up royally.

The basic plot of Caligula is to trace the events of the decadent Roman emperor, who ruled the empire for four years between 37 and 41 AD. Caligula is best known for his predilection for perversity and he is positioned by most sources as being a complete hatter, with stories of incest, pimping and other such depravities. In this respect, the film does particularly well in displaying these events. While perhaps not historically accurate by way of dates, events and figures, Caligula portrays the titular emperor in the way many historians have depicted him as – mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Caligula 's 'principal photographer' (no director is officially credited on posters and promotional material) Tinto Brass is one of those late-seventies early-eighties avant-garde pornographers – the man who can make tenderloin flicks without the punter being embarrassed seeing them. Brass is also well known for his technique of shooting pseudo-hardcore pornography, and this is exemplified in many of Brass' explicit sex scenes in the film. In the hardcore version of this film, it was Guccione and Giancarlo Lui who shot the material; locking Brass out of the editing room and letting the film's adult stars, Anneka Di Lorenzo and Lori Wagner, have some fun in front of the camera. Anneka and Lori partake in the majority of the Unrated cut's naughty-naughty bits, with Guccione bringing in his Penthouse Pets after complaining Brass' women were too ugly.

One of the most interesting things about Caligula is that, despite its obvious exploitative tone, it appears to entirely transcend the whole sexploitation – or, perhaps more severely, pornographic – vibe that has been attributed to it. The sets are magnificent and the whole thing is just so grand. But it just can't shake the porno image, which is a shame because that was neither Vidal, nor Brass' intention for the film. Alas, Caligula is sixth on IMDb's top Adult titles list, a notch under Debbie Does Dallas and two under Deep Throat, both of which have hardcore sex as a pivotal plot point. The sex in Caligula that could be deemed pornographic clocks in at just under six minutes worth (in the Unrated version, not the pre-release cut, which is probably all of three seconds) – precious little in a film that runs over two and a half hours. And it is, at least in the pre-release version, artsy stuff – Guccione's Unrated party, however, comes off as totally unnecessary. Lurid advertising hasn't helped legitimise the film either in this regard.

However, what works best about Caligula is its satirical view on the Roman Empire. McDowell acts the part with conviction, often injecting doses of black comedy into the proceedings. Brass himself intended to make the film a political satire, and colluded with McDowell to realise this vision – Vidal resented the two for it, wanting a far more straight-down-the-line historical approach, which would have undoubtedly become tedious. Caligula is a far more intelligent film than most people give it credit for, at least theoretically. It's clear what Vidal and Brass intended, and these aspects show up in the narrative, but Guccione's shoddy job of editing the film together without Brass' approval makes these allusions jumbled and, at times, altogether incoherent. Image's reedits make the proceedings significantly better in the pre-release cut. Furthermore, the sheer depravity of the film – insofar as it depicts everything from infanticide, elaborate executions, castration, rape, incest, allusions to bestiality et al makes it a refreshing (if such a word can be used) departure from the uber-politically correct norm.

The most controversial film of the twentieth century? With such a fantastic release, now you can truly decide.
Both films are presented in anamorphic widescreen with the original aspect ratio 1:85:1 with 16:9 enhancement. Both versions look pretty good, though the pre-release cut slides a few notches higher than its Unrated counterpart by way of crisp, clear quality – it looks simply fantastic. Visually speaking, this film is an absolute treat. The sets, the decadence, the sheer scale – it may be sleazy, but Caligula really does look like a God. Full kudos to Silvano Ippoliti's sweeping cinematography and Donati's marvellous sets.
Both films are presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital and the audio quality is a vast improvement on its predecessor, with sound generally richer and more audible. The music of Caligula is also fantastic, with prolific Italian exploitation composer Bruno Nicolai providing the film's original pieces.
Extra Features
This release is more of a features showcase than anything else, and Image have gathered together a plethora of significant and eye-opening extras for the humble, trenchcoated Caligula fan to enjoy, and possibly beat off over. The first disc has a theatrical trailer and teaser trailer, as well as a trailer for the R-rated version of the film. The Unrated cut is on this disc.

Disc 2 features the pre-release cut of Caligula, which is accompanied by no less than three commentaries. The first is by Caligula himself, Malcolm McDowell, and is moderated by documentary and music producer Nick Redman. Incredibly insightful, McDowell provides some amusing anecdotes about the frivolous on-set antics by some of the cast and crew, as well as the problems faced in every stage of production. The commentary is very frank considering McDowell is currently an established, well-respected actor talking about a picture whose reputation has been endlessly dragged through the mud for almost thirty years. Newly adorned Oscar winner Helen Mirren provides a second commentary, which is moderated by two film critics. Mirren doesn't provide as much genesis as McDowell does, and is prodded along a fair bit by the moderators. Ernest Volkman, one of Caligula's on-set writers, includes a final, older commentary. Twelve deleted and alternate scenes have also been included, of varying audio/visual quality.

Disc 3 is a features disc, the bulk of which is a documentary entitled The Making of Gore Vidal's Caligula, which was included on the former Unrated 2-disc DVD. Two versions of this doco have been included. There are three lengthy interviews with John Steiner (who stared as Longinus); Lori Wagner and, most interestingly, Tinto Brass himself, who speaks about the film and its cult infamousness. There are also fifteen behind-the-scenes vignettes, including 'filming the Bordello ship' and Tinto in the director's chair. A still gallery with innumerable images has been included.

There are many DVD-Rom features on this third disc, including Penthouse featurettes on Anekka and Lori, two working versions of Vidal's screenplay, a novelisation, an interview with Guccione and other such newspaper and magazine excerpts.

The discs come in a fold out cardboard digipack, and two essays on the film have been included in a booklet insert.
The Verdict
A film that would never be green lit today, Caligula is absurd, perverse and surreal. Vidal the historian, Brass the satirist and Guccione the pornographer and businessman probably could have created an amazing and well-renowned film had it not been for the quibbles that plagued the set, and all stages of production. This lovingly compiled release skirts the sublime, ridiculous and everything in between, but the best feature about it is the fantastic pre-release cut and the commentaries with it. With all of its obscene content, coupled with the controversy that has maligned it throughout the years, Caligula is required viewing for every exploitation fan.
Movie Score
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