Bil’s rating (out of 5): B
Original Title: Caligola
Italy, 1979. Penthouse Films International, Felix Cinematografica. Screenplay by Gore Vidal. Cinematography by Silvano Ippoliti. Produced by Bob Guccione. Music by Bruno Nicolai, Renzo Rossellini. Production Design by Danilo Donati. Costume Design by Danilo Donati. Film Editing by Nino Baragli, Enzo Micarelli.
The phenomenon of pornographic films going mainstream in the seventies with the success of Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door led, not surprisingly, to a project concocted by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione to marry prestige narrative, epic filmmaking with the indulgent escapism of hardcore imagery; not surprisingly, a debacle was born.
The story of the Roman emperor famed for his excesses was deemed a suitable topic upon which to create no end of excuses for all manner of exploitation, you can barely turn a corner in the vast Danilo Donati sets without accidentally finding a bushy groin in your face. The dirtiest scenes were actually shot after principle photography had finished, as far as legitimate actors like Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren were concerned they were making a provocative and sexy but still respectable movie, but Guccione’s idea was to take Fellini Satyricon (a film clearly being ripped off here, including using the same production designer) and deliver more than just the suggestion of sexual amorality for your top dollar (and he wasn’t kidding about the top dollar, the theatres that showed this film charged more than double the usual ticket price).
The protagonist in question, played with skillful abandon by McDowell, witnesses the physical decaying of his grandfather Tiberius (Peter O’Toole) before ascending to the throne upon the old man’s death, and despite the fact that a mere glimpse at a Wikipedia entry can tell you that Caligula (or Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, when he’s at home) was embroiled in a number of political schemes and grand battles before his death at the ripe old age of 28, this film suggests that his acquiring a crown was an invitation to party hard and never stop.
The script by Gore Vidal was, as has been suggested, more than likely ignored (to say the least), and Tinto Brass’s direction (before he was fired) manages to capture some visual magnificence (a number of the sets, including the gruesome execution scene, truly are a wonder to behold) but otherwise has no interest whatsoever in character or conflict: McDowell utters a number of bland speeches and Mirren, as his wife Caesonia, manages to find some way to connect with him, but they’re lost at sea in the inanity.
On the subject of the smutty stuff, let’s just say what you already know, which is that showing sex doesn’t automatically make it sexy. For the rest, it’s a shame that something with such a vast visual landscape and a bold attitude towards all this rampant carnality and violence can’t also incorporate a deeper and more complicated examination of this historical figure. If it had, it would have actually accomplished Guccione’s goals in trying to marry two worlds (and by deeper and more complicated, I mean that even Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra-level of historicism would have sufficed).
As it is, it’s just an excuse for the explicit moments, not a context for them, and in presenting Caligula as strictly heterosexual (sure, sure) feels more like a painfully long, creative Penthouse video than an actual movie.