Some describe CALIGULIA as “the” most controversial film of its era. While this is debatable, it is certainly one of the most embarrassing: virtually every big name associated with the film made an effort to distance themselves from it. Author Gore Vidal actually sued (with mixed results) to have his name removed from the film, and when the stars saw the film their reactions varied from loudly voiced disgust to strategic silence. What they wanted, of course, was for it to go away.
For a while it looked like it might. CALIGULA was a major box-office and critical flop (producer Guccione had to rent theatres in order to get it screened at all), and although the film was released on VHS to the home market so many censorship issues were raised that it was re-edited, and the edited version was the only one widely available for more than a decade. But now CALIGULIA is on DVD, available in both edited “R” and original “Unrated” versions. And no doubt John Gielgud is glad he didn’t live to see it happen.
The only way to describe CALIGULIA is to say it is something like DEEP THROAT meets David Lynch’s DUNE by way of Fellini having an off day. Vidal’s script fell into the hands of Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, who used Vidal’s reputation to bankroll the project and lure the big name stars–and then threw out most of Vidal’s script and brought in soft-porn director Tinto Brass. Then, when Guccione felt Brass’ work wasn’t explicit enough, he and Giancarlo Lui photographed hardcore material on the sly.
Viewers watching the edited version may wonder what all the fuss is about, but those viewing the original cut will quickly realize that it leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. There is a tremendous amount of nudity, and that remains in the edited version, but the original comes complete with XXX scenes: there is very explicit gay, lesbian, and straight sex, kinky sex, and a grand orgy complete with dancing Roman guards thrown in for good measure. The film is also incredibly violent and bloody, with rape, torture, and mutilation the order of the day. In one particularly disturbing scene, a man is slowly stabbed to death, a woman urinates on his corpse, and his genitals are cut off and thrown to the dogs.
In a documentary that accompanies the DVD release, Guccione states he wanted the film to reflect the reality of pagan Rome. If so, he missed the mark. We know very little about Caligula–and what little we know is questionable at best. That aside, orgies and casual sex were not a commonplace of Roman society, where adultery was an offense punishable by death. And certainly ancient Rome NEVER looked like the strange, slightly Oriental, oddly space-age sets and costumes offered by the designers.
On the plus side, those sets and costumes are often fantastically beautiful, and although the cinematography is commonplace it at least does them justice; the score is also very, very good. The most successful member of the cast is Helen Mirren, who manages to engage our interests and sympathies as the Empress Caesonia; Gielgud and O’Toole also escape in reasonably good form. The same cannot be said for McDowell, but in justice to him he doesn’t have much to work with.
The movie does possess a dark fascination, but ultimately it is an oddity, more interesting for its design and flat-out weirdness than for content. Some of the bodies on display (including McDowell’s and Mirren’s) are extremely beautiful, and some of the sex scenes work very well as pornography… but then again, some of them are so distasteful they might drive you to abstinence, and the bloody and grotesque nature of the film undercuts its eroticism. If you’re up to it, it is worth seeing once, but once is likely to be enough.