Today’s review subject is one of the most notorious movies of all time, a movie widely regarded as one of the worst ever made. Yes, the infamous Caligula. Produced by Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse magazine. The conventional wisdom is that it’s simply the most expensive porn film ever made. It’s a movie that has been so savaged by mainstream film critics and subjected to so much vitriol that it’s difficult to approach it without being prejudiced. Reading the various reviews that can be found online it’s evident that very few people have even tried to approach it with an open mind. So extreme is the bias against the movie that many do not like to admit the unpalatable truth that it was a major box office success.
The problem has been compounded by the fact that the two cuts of the movie that have been available have been an R-rated version that was hacked to pieces, and an unrated version that is in effect the Guccione version, complete with extra hardcore scenes shot by Guccione himself that have very little relevance to the film. These additional hardcore scenes have been a gift for those wishing to dismiss the movie as porn. The situation has been improved by the release of the three-disc Imperial Edition. This includes the unrated version, but it also includes the previously unavailable so-called pre-release cut, which is claimed to be the closest in spirit to director Tinto Brass’s original vision. This pre-release cut is the version I watched, and it’s the version I’m reviewing.
Apart from being accused of excessive naughtiness and violence, most reviewers will also tell you that the movie is boring, incoherent and badly made, and a waste of superb acting talent. Perhaps this is true of the other versions, but it certainly isn’t true of the version I watched. And the accusation that the movie is nothing but porn is simply absurd. It’s not only an attempt to bring to the screen the Roman Empire in all its debauched glory, exactly as the historian of the time such as Suetonius described it, it’s also offers a highly original interpretation of the character of the notorious emperor Caligula. Malcolm MacDowell, in the charming, amusing and totally delightful commentary track he contributes to the DVD, says he was determined not to play Caligula as a mere madman because it would have been boring, and that director Tinto Brass agreed with him. Although he doesn’t say this I suspect he was also anxious not to merely reproduce John Hurt’s wonderful performance from I, Claudius.
MacDowell decided to play the character as an anarchist, a man in rebellion against, well against practically everything. Especially the governing classes of Rome. At one point he laments of the Senate, “I just don’t know what else I can do to provoke them.” MacDowell also brings to the role that mix of cruelty, capriciousness and cravenness that only he could bring to a performance. He also makes Caligula a surprisingly human monster, often vulnerable (in fact at times he’s still a scared little boy in a terrifyingly insane world), and showing genuine and quite moving grief at the death of his sister and lover Drusilla. By not making Caligula a madman MacDowell is able to turn him into a symbol of the corrupting influence of power.
Tinto Brass was primarily interested in making a movie about power, absolute power taken to the ultimate extreme, and I think he largely succeeds. The atmosphere of fear and paranoia of the latter days of Tiberius’s reign, when death could come to anyone at any moment for any reason, is conveyed extremely well. And Caligula himself shares this terror. It’s not only a movie about individual power and its corrupting influence, but also about a state that has achieved power beyond imagining and has been fatally corrupted by it. It’s unfortunate that while both the director and the screenwriter, Gore Vidal, were artists with a genuine vision for this movie, their visions were hopelessly incompatible. This led to a falling out, and that falling out made it easier for Guccione to take control and make unfortunate changes. Vidal wanted a naturalistic and ultra-realistic treatment of the subject; Brass was more interested in making a satire with a hefty dose of the surreal. somewhat in the style of Fellini’s Satyricon. It was Brass’ vision that won out, and the movie is visually both stunning and bizarre and does achieve a genuinely Fellini-esque feel. The imperial bordello in the shape of huge and completely land-bound ship is particularly memorable. There are some very Busby Berkeley moments as well. The sets are magnificent, and (despite the claims of many reviewers) it’s beautifully photographed.
MacDowell today has no regrets about doing the movie, and as his commentary track progresses he becomes more and more enthusiastic. Helen Mirren gives an excellent performance as his wife Caesonia, reputedly the most promiscuous woman in Rome. Mirren memorably described the film as “an irresistible mix of art and genitals.” The get great support from Peter O’Toole as Tiberius and John Gielgud (who adored the movie) as Nerva. John Steiner is deliciously sinister as Longinus. While it is a flawed movie, I’m inclined to agree with Malcolm MacDowell’s assessment that it was almost a great movie, and that at times it does go close to achieving that greatness. Even with its flaws it’s well worth watching. I recommend it.