Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Tinto Brass, 1979
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole, Helen Mirren, Teresa Ann Savoy

If anyone ever wants to know why I got into film, what excites me about it, and what I keep going back to time and time again, this Caligula pretty much has all the answers. It's a cinematic experience unlike few others... perhaps with good reason.

I love it, despite its occasionally glaring flaws, and you should probably go into this review knowing that. When I was between a teenager I undertook one of the most major literary experiences of my life: reading the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. While it can be seen as boring, repetitive, and completely unworthy of serious literary study, it is an exercise in true perversion. I'm still scarred by some of the things I read (snot sucking, ick) and it probably should never be counted among anyone's formative encounters with the wide (too wide in many cases here) world of sexuality.

Larry Flint has been trying all these years in Hustler, but he will never, ever beat Sade. 120 Days chronicles some of the most disgusting, perverse and unnecessary acts of sexuality perpetrated on one group of humans by another. Caligula attempts to be part of this school. As Pasolini understood in many of his films, sex is power. The body is a desolate, delicate landscape simply waiting for a world of pain, humiliation, and domination by another, more powerful body. In the most interesting and complex works, that more powerful body is ideological and concerned with issues like commerce and national identity. Caligula is of that ilk, but due to a complete disaster of authorship, unfortunately doesn't reach the cinematic bar created by films like The Devils and Salo.

This very long film charts the history of Gaius Caeser Germanicus, third Roman Emperor. He is better known as Caligula, meaning "little boots" in Latin. Caligula, in a history-making, career-destroying performance by Malcolm McDowell, was basically an insane tyrant after a few years of ruling, inflicting his perversions on one and all. This film focuses less on actual history (hey, he did build some aqueducts) and more on his disgusting reputation. It makes for a mind-blowing film viewing experience, just don't watch it with children, relations, vulnerable friends, or, most importantly, dates.

Caligula was essentially the first film to include a large, Hollywood budget, lavish sets and talented actors, with explicit sex scenes, some of them hardcore. A lot of these scenes are so elaborate, extravagant, and lushly sexual that it's difficult to concentrate on the action and stars. For example, the long scenes in the palace of Tiberius (Peter O'Toole, playing the previous emperor) are beautiful in a mind-numbing sort of way.

What's so fascinating about the film from a historical perspective is its extremely complicated authorship. There were a hundred hands in the pot, most of them talented. The film was originally conceived and written by Gore Vidal, the famous American novelist and playwright. He planned to make an elaborate, but reasonably budgeted costume drama based on a Roberto Rossellini mini-series that never came to fruition. When he couldn't raise any money for it, he, for reasons completely unknown to me, went to Bob Guccione of Penthouse magazine for funding. Guccione said, "yes, that sounds great, except we're adding porn. Hardcore porn." Guccione somehow convinced Tinto Brass to sign on to the project. For those of you unfamiliar with him, he's known for his lovely, erotic Italian films like Salon Kitty and Cosi fan tutte. Danilo Donati, Fellini's art director, was also convinced to work on the project and is responsible for the truly amazing sets.

What a clusterfuck. Gore Vidal threw a few public temper tantrums and Tinto Brass had to rewrite some of the script at the last minute, weirdly with help from McDowell. There were also problems with funding when the studio realized (they didn't figure this out before it got the green light?) that the director and producer were relatively inexperienced with filmmaking. One of the lead actresses dropped out once she realized what was required of her and had to be replaced. It seems like a lot of people got involved with this movie without reading the script, presumably except Brass and McDowell.

Finally Brass and Guccione had a major falling out to the tune of several law suits. Brass was removed from the project after he had already shot a serious amount of film (hours and hours worth) and Guccione went back in to do all the final editing and included several ridiculous scenes of hardcore pornography featuring Penthouse Pets. They are really easy to pick out and obviously don't fit in with Brass's shots. And, sadly, they're boring.

The controversy doesn't stop there. There are many different releases of the film, though I am reviewing the single-disc unrated DVD, which is a whopping 150-minutes long. Good luck. Also available, which I highly recommend, is the three-disc "imperial" version. It has a lot of special features and will probably answer most of your questions about the controversy surrounding the film. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to end this review by listing some of the controversial things included in the film itself: castration, rape, orgies, hardcore oral sex on both genders, fisting, gay sex, straight sex, decapitation and, everyone's favorite, incest.

Happy viewing. You might want to keep a box of tissues handy, because you're going to have some sort of visceral reaction, whether you're throwing up in your hand, crying hysterically, or cumming your pants. Possibly all of the above.

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