Caligula (1979)

Picture this for a moment. You have Tinto Brass working with an illustrious cast led by Malcolm McDowell, working with a screenplay by Gore Vidal, high production values, it seemed as if this film had all the right ingredients that made a classic, or a close approximation of one, so what went wrong? Well somehow the founder of Penthouse magazine, Bob Guccione, became the film’s producer. While Tinto Brass wanted to make the film as a political satire, Guccione simply wanted an extravagant, high class porno, and because the producers didn’t let Brass edit the film at all, Guccione was free to put in as much unsimulated sex scenes as he wanted, completely disregarding Brass’ original vision.

I’m no prude, but needless to say, I can understand why Roger Ebert walked out on this film. It seems to have no worth other than as an extravagant cavalcade of degeneracy, devoid of the meaning that Tinto Brass had hoped to bestow upon it. Seriously, I’ve seen some messed up stuff in films, but this film, with its lurid, feverishly graphic sex scenes that you’d now find only in the some of the more hardcore online pornography, stretches it for two-and-a-half long hours. If Guccione attended something arousing then he’s surely failed. He bastardised what could have been a truly great film for nothing.

As for the plot, it’s essentially sex-crazed retelling of the rise and fall of the infamous Roman emperor Caligula, who ascended to the throne after the death of his predecessor Tiberius. The film details some of Caligula’s eccentricities, but isn’t exactly historically accurate. It’s historically accurate to some degree, but I don’t recall Roman historical accounts of a red wall with rotating blades beneath it that chopped the heads off of anyone buried up to their necks.

I assume this is the film from which people get their assumptions of “pagan Roman debauchery”, some of them using it to say “this is why Christianity is better”. Keep in mind this was a film produced by Penthouse, a magazine that specialised in smut. Certainly that’s what Bob Guccione wanted out of Caligula, and in fact, much of the sex scenes, which are often stretched beyond belief and often seem like they interrupt the plot anytime something interesting actually happens, were filmed by him, rather than Tinto Brass. If you’re impression of Roman history comes from here then I don’t really know what to tell you.

The acting is actually quite good, but it’s Malcolm McDowell whose fine acting talents truly carry the film. In keeping with the garish, over-the-top interpretation of Imperial Rome that he is cast in, McDowell raises the level of his performance to match the gaudiness of it all. It tends to result in him overacting, but with McDowell it’s quite riveting. His charged performance really stole the show and made the film at least more tolerable to watch.

Another plus side to the film is its tremendous production values. The whole film looks extravagant and gaudy, the film is given a booming classical music score. I suppose this was part of the producers’ attempt to give the film an extraordinarily opulent atmosphere, but thanks to the frequently overstretched hardcore sex scenes and spates of gore, the film’s atmosphere has more of a grotesque opulence. Maybe that was intentional. To be honest, I’m not sure what parts of the film were Brass’ ideas or Guccione’s ideas.

On the whole, Caligula was, to put it bluntly, an overblown failure, both in its artistic merits and as a commercial product. To my mind, this was something that could have been a similar historical masterpiece to Ken Russell’s The Devils, but sadly it got into the hands of a lecherous porn producer, and what you get is a bloated, overstretched film that attempted to offer up a titillating Roman fantasy but instead leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

  • Score: 59%
  • Grade: D
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