Caligula has a wonderfully tainted reputation as an experiment gone awry. Borne into the world by Bob Penthouse Guccione and Gore Vidal, with help from some of the more respected acting talents of the day and a gaggle of Penthouse Pets, it is not what any one of its creators had hoped it would be. Guccione never gained widespread or critical acceptance, and Vidal and others found the seamier aspects of the industry undermining what could have been a credible drama although with the story and acting the way they are, such credibility is likely out of reach, as an R-rated version of the film clearly demonstrates.
Malcolm McDowell plays the Roman emperor Caligula, who assumes the throne rather violently when he learns that his grandfather Tiberius (Peter OToole) plans to kill him rather than see his line live on. After dispatching with the aged Tiberius, Caligula uses his power in attempts to shock an unshockable society. Considered mad by most historians, Caligula systematically did his best to offend or kill the more powerful members of Rome while maintaining popularity by giving away his wealth.
Very little of the political intrigue comes through in this version, but Caligulas madness is rarely in doubt. The film is a cavalcade of violence, sex (some of it even watchable), and other depravity, although rarely by the principal members of the cast. One of the more transparent attempts to introduce more sex into the film is the hardcore scene between two Penthouse Pets who are ostensibly spying on Caligula from the next room. In reality, Guccione sneaked onto the set at night to film these sequences and smuggled the negative out of Italy to thwart the country's laws giving the director authority over a movie's final cut.
The end result? Two and a half hours of badly edited and occasionally intelligible dialogue punctuated by random acts of violence, sex, and a lot of background nudity. Also, a lot of hurt feelings and lawsuits as the people associated with the film tried to back out. Vidal withdrew his name from the film, although he is still credited as writer of the screenplay from which the film is "adapted," and Tinto Brass, who directed most of the film, is touted as the principal photographer. The actors have since reacted to the film by trying to distance themselves from it, accept it with good humor (John Gielgud announced that, at 75, he had just finished his first pornographic film), or defend their performances, whatever the finished film may have looked like. It can hardly be denied that Helen Mirren spends the film trying to bring some dignity to the proceedings, no matter what kind of silly thing she is given to do.
An R-rated version of this disc is available with a running time of 102 minutes, MSRP $24.99. Don't bother.
The print is in very good shape, but even the greatest print of crap is still crap. It's likely that Guccione skimped on the film stock to save money after the back-breaking expense of the location shooting and extravagant sets, but even if that's not the case, the movie is dark for much of its running time. Whether it was deliberately underlighted for "historical accuracy" or merely to spare the modesties of the actors, who flounce around in not much of anything, is unknown.
The sound is actually pretty good, with the exception of the included documentary (see below), which sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of a well. Some effects have actually been remixed into Dolby 5.1, but this is a rare occurrence and you won't miss much if you watch it in the original stereo mix.
The menus are actually quite interesting, featuring Roman arch "windows" behind which each scene plays out in preview mode.
Included on the disc is a "making of" documentary, which was itself made during the film's production. The evidence of this is the presence of both Tinto Brass and Gore Vidal, who, while they had their differences during the making of Caligula, would later come to agree that they no longer wished to be identified with the movie. The featurette, almost an hour long, is full of wonderful quotes from the likes of Guccione ("this isn't pornography, it's paganography") and Helen Mirren: "[Caligula] has an irresistable mixture of art and genitals in it." While quite dry in some spots (such as the bit where Gore Vidal expostulates from his comfy armchair, pointing out pictures of himself with Billy Wilder and Charlton Heston on the set of Ben Hur), the documentary can be more entertaining than the movie itself.
The only other extra included on Caligula's DVD is a filmography list for the more famous actors, which look as though they've been copied directly from the IMDb, but it's still nice to have the info on-screen when the computer's not handy.
Chris Holland, 8/29/00