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.