Saturday, 19 August 2017

Movie Review: Caligula (1979)


One of the more insane cinematic experiences to ever make it onto the screen, Caligula is a stylized historical epic with a stellar cast and a furtive sideline of hardcore pornography.

In the first century AD, Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) is a prince awaiting his destiny. He frolics with his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy) and is aware that the head of the Praetorian Guard Macro (Guido Mannari) may be a rival for power. Caligula's great uncle, the half-crazed Emperor Tiberius (Peter O'Toole), is left without an ally when his closest confidant Nerva (John Gielgud) commits suicide. Macro soon helps Caligula dispose of the ailing Tiberius and the Prince ascends to Emperor.

Caligula moves quickly to eliminate perceived threats from Macro and his younger step brother Gemellus (Bruno Brive), elevating Chaerea (Paolo Bonacelli ) to the leadership of the Guard and installing Longinus (John Steiner) as his chief of staff. Prevented from marrying his true love Drusilla, Caligula instead selects Caesonia (Helen Mirren) as his bride-to-be provided she can provide him with an heir. Increasingly erratic in his behavior and then wracked by illness and personal loss, Caligula descends into a fog of madness fuelled by violence and debauchery.

An American-Italian co-production independently backed with a huge budget by Bob Guccione and his adult Penthouse magazine empire, Caligula is a grand-scale oddity. Undeniably compelling and gaudily artistic, the film presents a contorted tale of a young man's lust for power and subsequent implosion. Some of the narrative is inspired by history and most of it is imagination, and certainly the skimpy costumes and lavish sets are what a porn czar would want a godless empire to look like. Guccione's sheer audacity in going ahead and creating his vision is laudable.

The film went through a chaotic production cycle featuring multiple dueling visions, and was finally released without a recognized screenwriter, director or editor. It started life with celebrated writer Gore Vidal penning the script, but he clashed with director Tinto Brass and eventually disavowed the project. Brass himself then locked horns with Guccione, with Brass finally reduced to a Principal Photographer credit but only after delivering an initial partial cut. Guccione took control of the rest of the editing, a process credited to "the production".

Most controversially Guccione secretly recruited a few Penthouse pets and smuggled them onto the sets after hours. Along with Giancarlo Lui they filmed several scenes of explicit hardcore sex, and Guccione inserted that footage into the final cut (a hefty 156 minutes). He then proceeded to independently release the film by renting theatres and self-promoting the film, fanning the marketing machine by fighting high profile censorship battles wherever they materialized.

Given the background it is remarkable that the film works at any level. But while the barbaric violence, in-your-face nudity and unsimulated sex will offend many if not most, Caligula holds together enough to register as a controversial art piece. The themes of absolute power corrupting absolutely and the ruling elite of a pagan empire convulsing with conspiracies and corruption are hammered home with manic intensity.

Some of the scenes and visuals are unforgettable. The public wall of death machine is nightmare inducing, as is Caligula interfering in the post-wedding ceremony of an innocent couple. The full-scale indoor Roman vessel at over 50 metres long, 10 metres high and complete with 120 oars adds to the sense of lunacy, especially as a backdrop to a full fledged orgy.

Arriving as it did at the peak of the porno chic era, Caligula perhaps unsurprisingly attracted a cast of top talent. McDowell, O'Toole, Gielgud and Mirren were not aware that Guccione had plans to insert hardcore clips into his epic; they nevertheless signed up for a film produced by Penthouse and featuring full frontal nudity in almost every other scene. McDowell lets loose with a fearless performance that perfectly fits the psychosis milieu. O'Toole has just two early scenes, but they are substantive and pivotal in setting the context.

Sir John Gielgud infuses a sense of resignation to the inevitable before his character Nerva chooses his own departure time. Mirren, already a respected Shakespearean stage actress, manages to bring a quiet civility to the role of Caesonia while also participating in a softcore threesome with McDowell and Savoy.

A demented landmark, Caligula matches its subject matter in its abject insanity.






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