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DVD Review: Caligula – The Imperial Edition

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Caligula is a movie that’s more interesting to read and talk about than to actually watch. The combination of some of our finest British actors, including Peter O’Toole, Malcolm McDowell, and recent Oscar winner Helen Mirren, with hardcore pornography would result, you would think, in something either great or entertainingly bad. However, despite some great moments, the film is a bit of a slog, neither highbrow enough to actually be good, nor trashy enough to be enjoyably bad.

One thing no one can deny is that this 1979 film is like nothing else you’ll ever see. Produced by Penthouse’s Bob Guccione, it’s a strange mix of grotesqueries. How many films can offer a penis getting fed to dogs, a giant machine that decapitates people trapped in the ground, or the intercutting of Helen Mirren and Malcolm McDowell with a hardcore lesbian sex scene? One might be tempted to imagine that McDowell and Mirren had been duped into appearing in the film, but even if you strip out the random hardcore sex, the main actors are still part of some crazy stuff, including a fisting rape by Caligula himself.

Despite all the craziness, the film keeps the audience at a distance. While Fellini Satyricon, clearly an inspiration, draws you into the strange world of Pagan Rome, here it always feels like we’re watching actors on a stage. That’s one of the problems with real sex in movies: it takes you out of the movie because we’re so unaccustomed to seeing it. In the 1970s there was a move towards integrating real sex into mainstream movies, of which this is the apex or nadir, depending on your opinion. But, watching it today, I constantly found myself wondering which shots were inserted after the fact, and generally how the movie was assembled.

The frequent long shots also serve to distance the viewer. I’m guessing that director Tinto Brass wanted to show off the sets, but the technique makes it hard to connect with the characters. Notably, the majority of the close-ups are in the inserted hardcore footage.

At 154 minutes, the movie is far too long and aimless. There are a few great moments, notably the scene in the imperial brothel, where the music, story, and even the intercut hardcore footage all work together well to create a dizzying sense of decadence. However, while the movie seems like it’s going to break out into camp excess, it never quite makes it there.

It’s a film that’s more interesting in theory than execution, and that makes this three-disc edition a welcome arrival. It includes two versions of the film, the one I referred to above and a pre-release version with fewer hardcore shots. The pre-release version has two fun commentaries, from McDowell and Mirren. They don’t love the movie, but don’t disown it either. And, lest you think Mirren has abandoned this kind of film, just take a look at the bizarrely misguided Shadowboxer, which puts her in an oedipal relationship with Cuba Gooding Jr.

The third disc has a bunch of documentaries. There’s an hour long documentary from before the film’s release, and new interviews with some of the key players. I would have liked a more thorough look at the film from today’s perspective – to see its failures and successes examined with hindsight. But this is still a pretty thorough set, and by the time you’re done going through everything, I doubt you’ll want to hear any more about Caligula.

Is the film a debacle? It’s certainly pretty close, but there’s the occasional spark of quality to keep you watching. And if you already like the film, this DVD is the definitive look at the making of a movie that never quite matched its own disparate ambitions.

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  • http://dracutweblog.blogspot.com Mary K. Williams

    I saw this so long ago, I barely remember… but your review does bring back some real bizarre stuff.

    Good work Patrick.