Image Entertainment // 1979 // 156 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 15th, 2009
"I am all men as I am no man and therefore I am a God."
Alright, it's time for a pop quiz. Here are some names:
* Gore Vidal
* Helen Mirren
* Malcolm McDowell
* Tinto Brass
* Bob Guccione
Which of these names doesn't belong? At first you might think Gore Vidal, the famous man of letters doesn't belong with a bunch of cinema people. Or perhaps it's Helen Mirren who is misplaced, since she has won an Academy Award, something which has eluded the others on the list. But no, finally we must come to that last name on the list, Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse magazine. Perhaps a more interesting question to ask would be what brings these names together, and for that there is only one possible answer: Caligula. Gore Vidal wrote a screenplay as a meditation on madness and Tinto Brass brought his particularly Roman sentiment to the idea, while Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren brought the mad emperor and his wife to life. Finally, it was Bob Guccione who turned it into smut. Trounced upon its release, the film has gained a cult status as one of the most controversial movies ever made. In 2007 a Three-Disc Imperial Edition which presented the film in a cleaned-up transfer with a host of contextual extras was released. Now that release has finally made it onto the Blu format as Caligula: Imperial Edition (Blu-ray), although I'm not sure the added resolution does the film any favors.
Gaius Caligula (Malcolm McDowell, If...) was the third to wear the mantel of emperor of the Roman Empire, and his excesses are legendary. He replaced his grandfather Tiberius (Peter O'Toole, The Ruling Class) and carried on a passionate affair with his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy, Salon Kitty) even though he marries Caesonia (Helen Mirren, The Queen) to produce an heir. As his madness grows, Caligula becomes more and more perverse, hatching schemes to keep control of the Senate and balance the state budget.
For those who've clicked on this review out of curiosity or by accident:
Yes, Caligula is as bad as you've heard. There's rape (against both men and women), incest, hardcore male and female nudity, various sex acts, tortures, perversions, and a litany of scenery chewing performances from some of the best British actors of their generations. The film is depraved, disgusting, and lacking in any redeeming social, moral, or cinematic aspects to comfort the viewer. This is the extreme of the human condition presented without pity. Sadly, it's also the extreme of the human condition presented without a point. There's a ripe opportunity for political or social commentary here, but those moments are sadly lacking in Caligula. Instead, we get two-and-a-half hours of the worst of humanity. If you have the slightest hesitation about seeing graphic nudity, sex, or violence, avoid this film completely.
For those who are on the fence concerning the infamous Caligula:
Honestly, if the premise or the reputation of the film at all interests you, give the film a chance. Although it's a horrible example of filmmaking, filled with disgusting acts of depravity, and lacking in any sort of narrative drive, I found the film a hypnotic experience. I don't know if it was Malcolm McDowell's eyes, Danilo Donati's wondrously multilayered sets, or just the sheer variety of human cruelty on display that kept me completely engrossed until the film's last 30 minutes or so. As I said above, the film is everything you've heard about it. There are all kinds of penetration, oral sex, and various combinations of people, including male and female homosexuals. And yet for all that, there wasn't a single arousing moment in the entire film. Perhaps that's what makes it so fascinating: Caligula is a film composed entirely of opposites. It's filled with sex but unarousing. It's got some of the best actors in the world, but some of the worst acting. These contradictions make the film so much more compelling than it has any right to be. It's not a pleasant experience, but Caligula is an interesting one.
For those who are old hands concerning Caligula:
This is a simple port of the Three-Disc Imperial Edition that was released in 2007, and this set consists of a Blu-ray disc that mirrors the first two discs of that edition, along with a standard DVD which contains the extras from the third disc of the previous edition. I have to say that Blu-ray is not particularly kind to Caligula. Penthouse (and much soft-core photography) is known for its use of soft-focus photography. Couple that with a grimy, dingy view of Caligula's Rome, and you've got a recipe for hi-def disaster. Certainly the Blu-ray looks more detailed than its DVD counterpart, but there isn't as much detail there to recover because of the soft look of the picture. Instead, the grime and the grain stand out a little bit more, making the film somewhat more depressing to watch. The audio was given an upgrade with DTS-HD Master Audio, but it's a bit of a waste. The mix is fairly poor, making the dialogue difficult to decipher at points (which isn't helped by a lack of English subtitles). Luckily, there's a mono mix as well, for those who don't want the cries of the suffering to roam around the room.
For those who missed it the first time around, the Imperial Edition of Caligula is a treat. Besides the smut-filled version of the film, there's also an alternate pre-release cut that removes the hardcore stuff and reorders some of the scenes for narrative clarity. This version features three commentaries, one each by Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, and Ernest Volkman. All three tracks are engaging, and filled with production information. Everyone, but especially McDowell and Mirren, is remarkably frank about their work on the film. There are also a number of deleted and alternate scenes, along with behind-the-scenes footage. There are also two versions of "The Making of Caligula" and a number of interviews, including one with Tinto Brass. There is also an extensive gallery of photographs from the set. DVD-ROM extras include a copy Vidal's screenplay, a number of Penthouse features on the film, and an interview with Bob Guccione. The case which houses the discs also contains a booklet with an informative essay detailing the film's difficult history.
My only complaint with this version of the Imperial Edition is that the luxurious packaging of the DVD edition was not also brought over. Instead we get the standard blue keep-case which doesn't look nearly as impressive on the shelf.
It's very difficult to know what to make of the mess of Caligula. It's fascinating as a document of '70s excess and what can happen when a film falls in the wrong hands. However, actually watching the film is not a particularly enjoyable experience, aesthetically or erotically. Obviously avoid this release if you've no interest in the depths of human depravity. For those with an interest in the darker side, Caligula may satisfy, but that's doubtful. The real tough decision is for those who've already bought the Imperial Edition on DVD. The increased resolution doesn't do much for the film, so I would recommend against an upgrade. If, however, you're new to Caligula (or have the old Image single-disc edition), this is the way to experience the film.
Caligula obviously deserves a verdict of guilty but insane.
Review content copyright © 2009 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.00:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.0 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 156 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Pre-Release Cut
* Deleted/Alternate Scenes
* Theatrical Trailers
* Photo Galleries