Here's a clear caveat for all readers coming to learn the truth about this legendary adult epic - there is just too much about the making of (and battles over) Caligula to address in a single DVD review. In fact, whole volumes, and in-depth webpages could barely scratch the surface of the amazing and multifaceted story. It's a fiasco of mythic proportions, a bloated period piece populated with pornography to tap into the hardcore chic film fashions of the day. It represents director Tinto Brass at his most referential (this is pure faux Fellini, nothing more) and Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione at his most arrogant (he actually believed flesh fans would sit through a 155 minute feature with intermittent XXX material). Stuck in the middle were directionless actors, an incredibly pissed off writer - none other than Gore Vidal - and sets so spectacular they dwarfed the standard Hollywood design. It was cinematic excess as only the Italians could create and the foundation for a lineage of rumors and innuendo. So for those looking for context and gossip, Google will give you all the information you could ever want. This overview will focus on the film itself, and Image's decision to offer it in a brand new, three disc Imperial Edition. It turns out to be a label well earned.
After the death of his grandfather, Tiberius Caesar, Caligula becomes Emperor of the Roman Empire. A naturally paranoid personality who believes everyone is out to kill him for his crown, he immediate seizes upon the opportunity to clean court. With the help of his sister Drusilla (the two share a passionate, incestual love) and his right hand man Macro, enemies of the leader are accused of treason and put to death. As his hunger for power and control widens, he challenges the Senate and even murders his well meaning counsel. All the while, Tiberius' own biological grandson, Gemellus, and the boys' uncle, Claudius, wait in the wings. Raiding the coffers to give the citizenry popularity-promoting presents, Caligula brings the mighty realm to the brink of financial ruin. He hopes to recover the cash by creating a state sponsored whore house where common folk can fornicate with the wives of Rome's elite. All the while, advisor Longinus and General Proculus plot an overthrow. Even after he marries local harlot Caesonia, Caligula is still unstable. And in a world without loyalty or trust, such a state is fated to a decided dead end.
Like Satyricon gone slightly sour, or Salon Kitty where bare-assed Mediterraneans substitute for nude Nazis, Tinto Brass' ballsy, overstuffed Caligula is not some manner of forgotten masterpiece. It has its good moments, its visual grace and opulent sweep. It contains a couple of good performances and some horribly histrionic British thespianism. If you ever wondered what a movie about the debauched Roman Empire would look like with no limits, either within fiscal or fornication resources, this is it. There is nothing small in Caligula. Even the tender moments between the title character and his willingly incestual sister play out among backdrops so large it's like watching a couple copulate inside the Lincoln Memorial. It's clear that Brass likes big and over the top - human-dwarfing sets, far too many muscled men in the all together, human oddities stripped bare and blatant for all the world to gawk at. Why decapitate a man in the normal fashion when you can develop a building sized wall of death with rotating knives. The whole thing resembles an entire city block on the move. In these post-CGI days, when entire planets can implode and major metropolitan cities crumble at the stroke of some programming code, such spectacle seems trivial. But back when motion control was slightly above state of the art, this kind of production paradigm was unthinkable.
None of it makes Caligula a good film, though. Instead, it remains a deeply troubling and downright frustrating experience. You can clearly see the mixed intentions clashing onscreen. On the one hand is Vidal's desire for historical accuracy. The narrative is loaded with political and personal intrigue, all meant to symbolize the struggles buried within the complex Roman empire. But then Tinto Brass' supersized flourishes wander in and undermine the message. It's hard to take conversations about corruption and interfamilial murder seriously when naked freaks are groping each other on a savagely surreal Dali-esque tableau. Then there are times when Brass' bravado works. The aforementioned killing contraption has a real visual power, and the sequences where Caligula creates a state-sponsored brothel (fashioned after a ship) has a real kinetic texture. But when you add in Guiccione's sense of smut, when girls giving blow jobs and men polishing penis interrupt important conversations, it's the very definition of carnal cross purposes. Modern porn doesn't strive for narrative integrity. Couples meet cute and then screw like savages. But Caligula wants to be something more than just pickles and beaver. Sadly, it can't escape such a branding.
As for the performances, it's clear why Malcolm McDowell was once the top angry young man actor in the UK. After If... and O Lucky Man and A Clockwork Orange, he was a perfect choice for the anarchic demagogue. He carries evil well and even manages to sell the more leadership-oriented elements of the role. Sure, sometimes he appears like a toga-wearing Alex without his dedicated 'droogies', but he's a strong center for the film. Equally effective, though barely onscreen long enough to make a real impression, are fellow Brits Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud. The former is the syphilis-riddled Tiberius Caesar, the latter is the Emperor's adjunct Nerva. While their upper crust UK accents seem oddly out of place, their detailed portrayals do not. Rounding out the good are Helen Mirren as Caligula's whore of a wife, John Steiner as the oddly named Longinus, and Guido Mannari as overplayed pawn Macro. They all do the best with what they are given. On the completely pathetic side of things is Teresa Ann Savoy as Caligula's slutty sister Drusilla. Fatally unattractive (especially when compared to the numerous Penthouse Pets running around) and incapable of anything remotely invested when it comes to character interpretation, she's a stagnant cipher, a near non-entity in a movie that requires a strong female presence. She's supposed to be the obsessive bond that drives her brother to all manner of contemptible corruptions. Instead, she's a virtual void.
One last issue has to be addressed here, even for those who've already given up on this film. As hardcore sequences go, Caligula can't hold a candle to the adult material manufactured during or since its release. This is tame, tepid stuff, consistenting almost exclusively of lesbian loving, overlong oral workouts, and the rare shot of actual penetration. In a two hour and thirty-five minute movie, there is about 15 minutes of XXX sequences. Everything else is standard Brass softcore, full frontal and occasional manual manipulation illustrating the extent of his erotic designs. You can practically tell when the Italian filmmaker was carted off the set. The replacement footage is far too golden, draped in the standard satin light of passive flesh peddling. The women no longer resemble naughty native girls. Instead, they appear pealed from the centerfolds of Guccione's empire. It's impossible to say that Brass, if left alone, could have made all of this work. There seems to be too many discordant elements in flux for Caligula to function as a film. There will be those who can enjoy the royal backstabbing and games of regal one-upmanship outside of all the humping. But it's difficult to call the final result a success. Uneven is a far more appropriate marker.
While previously available in both an R-rated and Unrated version from DVD distributor Image (back in the formative days of the format circa 1999), this newest update of the title stands as one of the best digital revisits of the last ten years. As someone who actually saw this film when it was released in theaters (albeit, sans the XXX material), Caligula has never looked better. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is stunning, practically alive with controlled colors and defined details. Previously unseen elements - especially during a visit to Tiberius' depraved playground - come alive with visual vibrancy. The film found on Disc 2 (more on this in a moment) looks equally good, but Disc 1's high definition remaster is remarkable. It's a great looking picture.
On the sound side, we are treated to a relatively restrained Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, and a standard step back to the original Mono presentation. While the single speaker soundtrack is sharp and tinny, the new multichannel offering is much fuller and more appealing. The score (more or less an orchestra on steroids with some classical riffs thrown in for good measure) comes across with a great deal more power in the updated aural dynamic, and the dialogue is always easily discernible - even with massive post-production ADR and dubbing present.
Here is where things get really good. Image actually embraces the controversy that continues to swirl around Caligula, giving this Imperial Edition all the bang your bucks can manage. First, it's worth noting that there are actually two versions of the film here. The first is on Disc 1, and represents the hardcore take on the title. All the XXX material is present and accounted for in this elongated cut. Disc 2 provides the 1979 theatrical cut - sort of - with all the smut taken out, and some sequences included that were later removed before the final product hit the Cineplex. As stated before, the film has a confusing history. Yet you can still tell where the pornography has been excised. The footage turns grainy, and is even more disjointed than before. This is especially true of the expansive orgy in the brothel. Disc 1 only offers trailers as a bonus feature. Disc 2, however, is where the added content makes its stand.
As part of this package, Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren sit down for separate commentary tracks and each one is a stunner. Neither was aware of Guccione's hardcore intentions, and each one embraced Tinto Brass and his vision wholeheartedly. Their inside information and anecdotal substance create a "you are there" experience. As specific scenes play out, we learn of the trial and tribulations involved, and its interesting to hear how both actors now accept their participation in the film. Holding up Penthouse's place in the conversation is a third track offering the company's journalistic spokesman Ernest Volkman. On set for most of the production, he defends Guccione and the decision to "go porn". The fact that he literally 'phones in' his comments is rather irritating, since it belies the fact that he's more or less espousing the party line vs. actually addressing the film as offered.
Disc 2 also offers nearly an hour of deleted footage (some in color, some in black and white) and none of it is very crucial to the actual narrative presented. All of it, however, is mandatory for comprehending the scope and special problems presented by this production. When added onto the already elephantine length of the film, you can see the struggle to bring the entire project under control. It's a sentiment expressed over and over again on Disc 3's set of supplements. Perhaps the most amazing material here comes from the three newly crafted featurettes. John "Longinus" Steiner discusses his extensive career in Italian genre films, while Lori Wagner recalls her willingness to pee on camera and how it earned her a special place in Caligula history. The best bits come from Brass himself. Looking like a patriarchal hound dog, big fat stoogie sticking out of his meaty mitt, the director is very upfront in his disappointment. He was making a movie about an anarchist - at least in his mind. Guccione wanted more and more sex. The two ideals never meshed, and the unruly film that resulted continues to haunt the fabled Italian filmmaker to this day.
Believe it or not, there's more. A hour long documentary made at the time of Caligula's production is ported over from the original 20th Anniversary DVD release, and it's a hoot. We get lots of pompous pronouncements about the film's "importance", Guccione gets to martyr himself as a misunderstood maker of classy adult entertainment, and the actors all support the overblown ambitions of everyone involved. It's a campy, kitschy delight (it even includes a more or less cooperative Gore Vidal - this really must be from the mid '70s). Toss in the trailers, the various production stills, and a DVD-Rom version of Vidal's original screenplay, among dozens of other stand alone bonus features and you've got one of the most thorough and complete DVD packages ever. For this facet of the presentation along, Image deserves definitive kudos.
As a movie, Caligula lacks even the basics of believability. It's a flaccid fever dream stuffed full of exaggerated opulence and inherent insanity. If all one had was a digital copy of this catastrophe, a Rent It rating might be too generous. No matter the visual splendor, there are just too many facets of the narrative that just don't add up. But because of the terrific transfer and the Criterion level of context the DVD package provides, a DVD Talk Collector's Series tag is also up for grabs. The added material is just that good. Splitting it down the middle and taking into consideration the movie's marginal appeal, a score of Recommended is therefore affixed. It supports the sensational extras provided as well as keeping the film itself in proper entertainment perspective. Rumor has it that a well researched book on the entire Caligula debacle will be published sometime in the coming year. It's indeed the proper place for such background discussions. A review is only required to address what is present, and when it comes to this daring three disc set, it's a mighty mixed bag. The bonus features soar. The film itself stays a failure.
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