Caligula (1979), or This Is High Art

27 05 2009

Wow… Rarely have I come across a movie that is so scornful of anything and everything. Caligula is that rare, once-in-a-lifetime kind of film that has everything going for it, and I mean EVERYTHING, and still falls into a mire greater than the heights it might have reached. It is a nasty piece of filmmaking, a hodge-podge of styles that resembles Buffalo Bill’s lady suit from The Silence of The Lambs, that eschews the trappings of a classic (trappings that it would have worn very comfortably) and becomes a blue moon, an oddity that people can “ooh” and “aah” at, but never be truly impressed by it.

The biopic on the allegedly mad emperor of Rome circa 12 C.E. and 41 C.E. feels like it came from a different universe altogether. With all the censorship that exists in our country (The Devils STILL has never been released in its entirety) and many others, it is truly insane to watch a film with Academy Award-winning actors inhabit the same scenes as hardcore sex. That’s right; Helen Mirren, Malcolm McDowell, and Peter O’Toole (!!!) are always mere inches away from some sort of lascivious behavior, which is often hardcore sex!!! I’m not completely shocked, or anything; I’ve seen my fair share of boobies before, but this is intense! I mean, we’re talking insertion!!! I still can’t wrap my head around it sometimes. In this day and age, there are some STEAMY love scenes (see The Reader), but I have never seen any X-rated porn footage like this in a major motion picture.

As I said, this film has everything on its side. Let’s run through the roll call list; we have Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, John Steiner, based on a screenplay by THE Gore Vidal, directed by THE Tinto Brass. Everything seems good, right? How could you mess this up? Oh, but who stepped in to produce the thing? Penthouse. Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione wanted to beef up the already hedonistic script with even more hardcore sex and debauchery. This resulted in the finished product; a 2 1/2 hour sack of cruelty, sex, and pain, with a spiteful British laugh coursing all the way through it.

There’s just something so foul about the movie that it doesn’t lend itself to words very well. There’s lots of raping, murdering, torturing, incest, infant death, and gore to go around, but it isn’t that per se. It’s just that there’s no point to it all. It’s pure and unadulterated exploitation, and on a certain level I respect that, but it doesn’t help the case for a film that should be great ending up so banal. Imagine Brokeback Mountain with lots of gratuitous gay sex and anal fisting, or Schindler’s List with minute long shots of skinny Jewish children being gassed. Is it art? Perhaps. Is it meaningful or thought-provoking? No.

It ends up being a mish-mash of bad feelings and hardcore sex, and nothing kills an erection faster than bad feelings. The script is well-written but hollow, the direction is only slightly better than an actual porn flick, and the actors were given too much room to ham it up, especially Malcolm McDowell, whose facial expressions remind me of a leprechaun who just found their pot o’ gold. It’s just too depressing to think how awesome this historical epic might have been, so I’ll just leave it at that. I give Caligula 3 1/2 epic insertions out of 10!

Tomorrow, finally, I explore the musical yet again with the much-beloved Grease!