Caligula (1979): Excess or Just Bad Taste, Starring John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, Peter OToole, and Malcolm McDowell

Excess for excess sake, or just a case of bad taste. A failure on any level, “Caligula” is a curiosity item, representing a minor footnote in film history as a decadent, over-the-tope picture that more than anything else indicates miscalculation, ineptness and poor judgment.

Over the years, there have been different versions: the unedited, unrated version and an abridged, R-rated version. However, years later, “Caligula” remains the preposterous picture that it’s always been, in both its short 1979 theatrical version and in its original, longer, self-indulgent version.

The budget allotted to this international co-production was $15 million, which, if adjusted by the inflation factor, would amount to at least three times as much at present. If memory serves, to compensate for its budget, tickets for “Caligulas initial run were $8, way above the norm then.

Who’s responsible for this mess, which qualifies as soft porn in its short cut and hard porn in its longer one?

The nominal director is Tinto Brass, but he was fired before completion, due to “creative differences” with producer Bob Guccioni, the editor of Penthouse magazine, who took over the chore. Guccioni then shot additional scenes and had a hand in the editing of the final cut.

Earlier editions touted “Caligula” as the most controversial film of the Century, but I think they confuse the meaning of controversiality with ineptness. Pretending to be a historical drama about the most corrupt emperor in Roman history, “Caligula” exploits the notorious exploits of the notorious ruler, and in the process, exploits the viewers’ good faith and patience.

The screenplay was written by the acclaimed author and scripter Gore Vidal, who has done adaptations of Tennessee Williams and other plays, and contributed (uncredited) to the historical epic, “Ben-Hur.” I doubt that much was left of the script by Vidal, who has also written a number of estimable historical novels and non-fiction, too.

The film truly wastes the talents of a whole cast of gifted British actors, including John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, and Peter OToole, and Malcolm McDowell as the title character. I suspect that there was no final script when the above talent committed to the project.

For the record, though you could not tell it from what’s on screen, the Roman emperor Gaius Caesar, better known as Caligula, ruled from 37-41 A.D. According to popular myths, he was certifiably insane, wasting the empire’s resources for various personal indulgences and mass spectacles.

Caligula exiled or killed in cold blood some of his family members. A sadist (with a touch of masochism, too), he enjoyed watching people tormented and then dismembered, while eating dinner and having wine. Proclaiming himself a god, he had slaves building temples and other monuments in his honor.

In an unnecessarily long scene, the movie shows him claiming his right to have sexual intercourse with a young virginal bride, then cut off her fianc’s penis and throw it to his dogs as a bonus. Caligula boasted about his incestuous affair with his sister, and forced his senators’ wives to procure and prostitute. In the movie, there are endless scenes of men having sex with men, women with women, acts portrayed graphically (often in close-up of erections), but without verve, joy, or imagination.

And everything that Caligula does seem to be in the public eye, even when it’s supposed to be a private affair. “Caligula” unfolds like one long bloody and sexual spectacle, sort of a gladiators fight the Romans used to have for the masses to detract their attention from more important issues.

I sat through the new long DVD version, only to realize–again–that the film has no redeeming values whatsoeverexcept as historical document of bad filmmaking that tries to be outr in flaunting graphic violence and frontal nudity (male and female), but is dull and repetitious, and fails even as bad porn.

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