Caligula (1979, dir. Tinto Brass) is a sprawling historical epic of the life of the Roman Emperor Caligula (Malcolm McDowell). Beginning from his carefree youth, before he became the infamous Emperor, this film tells the story of Caligula’s rule over Rome and his eventual spiral into madness and depravity. The overall theme of this film is that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and we see that in this film as Caligula’s newfound power causes him to become more and more ruthless and perverse.
Caligula is known as one of the worst and most controversial films in human history, yet also due to its provocative nature, is also a cult classic. Possibly what this film is best known for, apart from the sex scenes (I’ll get to that later), is its massive scale and the massive amount of scene chewing by Malcolm McDowell. In playing the lead character who is also an antihero, McDowell plays this corrupted individual as a strange combination between his other classic characters, Alex from A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Mick Travis from if…. (1968); but with a lot more rage and unpredictability, if you can believe it. There is little to no subtlety here. His acting as Caligula almost reminded me of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981) – no wire hangers, ever! And the same can be said for Peter O’Toole, surprisingly, whose over-the-top portrayal of the syphilitic Emperor Tiberius was painful to watch.
Luckily, there are some great performances in this film, such as Helen Mirren’s as Caligula’s wife Caesonia. Caesonia is illustrated as a wanton woman and priestess who is highly complex, and Mirren’s gifts as an actress are apparent from her first scene. I also quite enjoyed the performance by Teresa Ann Savoy as Caligula’s beloved sister Drusilla. But other than these two, and apart from the occasional flashes of brilliance in Malcolm McDowell’s three-hour long scene-chew-a-thon, most of the performances are cartoonish and ridiculous. It is a shame that the screenplay is quite cheesy. The storytelling suffers as a result, and the way the story progresses seems aimless and repetitive. How many sex scenes and decapitations can one film have?
The set and costume design is pretty amazing. However, some of the most elaborate and grandiose sets often take over from the acting that occurs on screen. For example, during one scene there is this huge killing machine that is constructed out of a gigantic, decorative red wall that travels across a field decapitating people whose bodies are buried upright. This scene is just massive. It’s almost stunning to see, and totally distracting from any of the Roman political happenings – however, as with most of the film, it contains a lot of gratuitous violence. Due to the huge scale of most of the sets, and the intricacy of most of the costume design, when watching Caligula you almost feel as if you’re watching the filming of a stage play. Every time the camera focuses on one character or element of a scene, there is the sense that the entire space of the film is approximately the size of an airplane hangar, if that makes sense. This makes the film slightly awkward to watch, and gives it an amateurish quality. The direction by Tinto Brass (plus Bob Guccione and Giancarlo Lui, though they are uncredited) is really nothing to write home about.
So, what I have so far neglected to say is that this film is basically pornography with a vaguely interesting story surrounding it. I don’t necessarily have a problem with gratuitous sex scenes if a film is actually good (read: Blue is the Warmest Colour). But the levels of sex and violence (and often a combination of both) are absolutely ridiculous in this, to the point of hilarity. I would say the sex scenes amount to at least a third of this entire film, and a vast majority of them are unsimulated, so watch out if you’re not a fan of that. They have nothing much to do with the plot, except to perhaps show that “power corrupts” and that Caligula developed into quite the perverse ruler, but really, we already knew that by the time the forty fifth sex scene happens. It is just completely dumb and transparent, and by the end of the film none of it is surprising or edgy anymore. It just looks like porn. Which, considering that men’s magazine Penthouse was involved in the film production, probably shouldn’t be a surprise.
What is this film trying to say with its historical retelling peppered with ridiculous amounts of sex and violence? I suppose it was attempting to show the corruptible nature of a young man who rose to the highest political power at the time, with an unflinching eye on the grotesque elements of life during the rule of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Roman Emperors. For me though, this film was a failure. Even as someone who is easily swayed by the visuals of films, the amazing set and costume design wasn’t enough to redeem this mess of bad vibes and awkward sex scenes. It’s probably best to avoid this, unless you really feel like watching it to see why it’s one of the most controversial films of all time.
Watch the trailer here.