(1979) * 1/2 Unrated
156 min. Penthouse Films International. Cast: Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole, Helen Mirren.


Destined to go down in movie history (no pun intended), Caligula was intended by mastermind Bob Guccione to change the face (and tits and ass and loins) of cinema by joining legitimate film and hard-core pornography. Caligula became more infamous for its widespread ineptitude than for its artistic innovation, but the title has proved lucrative from its initial release to its numerous re-releases on home video. Though it keeps making money, the film hasn't gotten much better in any of its extant versions; fans hold out hope that more footage will become available that will somehow bring the whole mess into focus.

The film had the potential for greatness in a script by Gore Vidal, but director Tinto Brass clashed with Vidal over rewrites, leading the writer to quit and demand his name be removed (though it would no longer be called "Gore Vidal's Caligula," the writer still receives the unusual credit "adapted from an original screenplay by Gore Vidal"). Caligula's tortured development included a bizarre disconnect between art director Danilo Donati and the demands of the script, hard-core reshoots directed by Guccione (and Giancarlo Lui), and an international legal battle over the right to edit the film. Every stress fracture can be felt in the "finished" film (now available in equally disjointed "unrated" and "pre-release" versions), an explicit fantasia seduced by its own astonishingly stylized take on pagan Rome, circa 37 AD-41 AD.

In fulfillment of Guccione's mandate for stars, Malcolm McDowell plays Caligula, the third Emperor of Rome; Peter O'Toole plays his father, the Emperor Tiberius; and Sir John Gielgud plays their wary advisor Nerva. Then-up-and-comer Helen Mirren plays Caesonia, Caligula's wife ("the most promiscuous woman in Rome"), and Teresa Ann Savoy plays his nubile sister (and love interest) Drusilla. Incest is only the tip of Caligula's naughty iceberg: Brass represents Rome's depravity as spawning tortures both straightforward (mostly justified paranoia) and bizarre (hellish deformations). Intense sex and violence emerge as havoc wreaked in pain and pleasure on the human body. Disembowelment and genital mutilation get featured scenes, and the scores of full-frontally nude extras of both sexes seem downright tame compared to the pornographic sequences of intercourse, oral sex and yet more creative activities.

The film's intent to bridge legit and XXX cinema is epitomized in the sequence intercutting a softcore sex scene with McDowell and Mirren with a hardcore lesbian sex scene. The very next scene contains an apt metaphor for the film: a plate-spinning act. The long-lens photography of Donati's sprawling sets has a decidedly surrealistic effect, and a distancing one. So does Brass' approach to the film's opulent, operatic spectacle, which can be sumptuous in its crackpot way (and occasionally accompanied by cuts from Aram Khachaturian and Sergei Prokofiev).

Narrative deficits, continuity errors and a protracted pace can make Caligula a chore, but what's wrong with the film has less to do with what's in it (the Ken Russell-esque overkill) and more to do with what's left out: Vidal's dramatic sophistication. Social commentary and character development are sidelined in favor of rambling set pieces, and only isolated lines express any thought or carry dramatic impact. "They lust for power and pleasure," Tiberius says of his people, though since the Emperor's face is ravaged by syphilis, it's a case of the pot calling the kettle black. McDowell does a typically credible job of embodying Caligula's childish impatience, petulance, sadistic whimsy and ultimate descent into madness, but his dialogue never gets more pithy than "I can do anything I like, to anyone." As a product, Caligula remains a fascinating footnote, but as a work of art, it's about at the level of a velvet painting at the flea market.

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Aspect ratios: 2.00:1

Number of discs: 0

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0, Dolby Digital Mono

Street date: 1/6/2009

Distributor: Image Entertainment

The fantastic Blu-ray edition of Caligula includes everything you always wanted to know about the movie but were afraid to ask (includng everything from the previous 3-disc DVD set). The feature is presented in the unrated theatrical cut (156m) and an "alternate pre-release" cut (153m). Both look roughly the same, and though the image is literally rough, the deficiencies of the transfer seemingly owe to the source. It's difficult to imagine the film looking any better than it does here without some form of restoration, but don't expect spectacular results from Blu-ray on this particular title. Audio gets a definitive presentation that likewise won't blow anyone away: the original mono track is happily included, as well as a new DTS HD Master 5.0 track that maximizes the source.

The jewel in the crown of Image's "Imperial Edition" is the commentary with Malcolm McDowell and Nick Redman. The frank and funny McDowell has a terrific memory: he shares amazing anecdotes peppered with spot-on impressions of his director and co-stars. A second commentary features Helen Mirren in conversation with writers Alan Jones and James Chaffin; Mirren is similarly laconic and good-natured in dishing about the infamous film. A third commentary is actually a 94-minute audio interview of on-set Penthouse writer Ernest Volkman, talking by phone with Image Entertainment's Nathaniel Thompson. Volkman is able to be perhaps a bit more objective than the actors (though he was still representing Penthouse), so his perspective on how the project developed and developed is also worthwhile.

Disc one also includes "Deleted & Alternate Scenes" (47:59, SD)--rough and mostly without audio--for those trying to wrap their heads around what footage is still extant (and this isn't even all of it); a "Theatrical Trailer" (1:52, SD), a "Teaser Trailer" (1:09, SD), and the "R-Rated Release Trailer" (1:02, SD).

Disc Two of the Blu-ray edition is a DVD including all of the remaining previously issued bonus features. "My Roman Holiday With John Steiner" (24:21) is an interview with the actor who played Longinus, who oddly proves less forthcoming than the stars who seemingly have more at stake. "Caligula's Pet: A Conversation With Lori Wagner" (28:19) allows the Penthouse Pet of the Century to add her two cents, and "Tinto Brass: The Orgy Of Power" (34:27) is a revealing interview with the hapless director of Caligula.

The vintage documentary The Making Of Caligula (1:01:45) and the vintage featurette "The Making of Caligula" (9:56) date to 1980, and are fluff pieces belying the film's troubles. Nevertheless, they're fascinating for their historical value and not a little humorous. The disc is rounded out with behind-the-scenes footage and a large Gallery of production photos and candid shots.

Via DVD-ROM, fans can access various press kits, cast and crew bios, two versions of Gore Vidal's screenplay, four Penthouse feature reprints (including an interview with Bob Guccione), and the movie tie-in novelization. Certainly Caligula: The Imperial Edition is among the most impressive special editions ever compiled; most would say the attention lavished is disproportionate, but the film's many cultists will disagree.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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