YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


'Caligula' doesn't add to its excess

September 30, 2007|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

"CALIGULA," the notorious toga epic that scandalized audiences in 1980, is not one of cinema's finest moments, but it is one of its most fascinating monuments to excess. In keeping with that spirit of indulgence, this tale of the depraved boy emperor and the sexual appetites and torture techniques of 1st century Rome is being reissued on DVD this week in a curiously comprehensive (if wholly unnecessary) three-disc "imperial edition."

Produced by Penthouse Publisher Bob Guccione, "Caligula" was the logical endpoint of a '70s phenomenon -- the mainstreaming of porn that began with "Deep Throat" -- and a notably odd blend of unabashed sleaze and upscale pedigree. Gore Vidal served as screenwriter (indeed the film was initially titled "Gore Vidal's Caligula") and the cast featured a Shakespeare company's worth of classy British actors, from hot young things Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren to revered old-timers John Gielgud and Peter O'Toole. The film's Italian director, Tinto Brass, had a less-illustrious track record -- his best-known previous credit was the tawdry Nazisploitation flick "Salon Kitty," named for the premier brothel in '30s Berlin.

The controversies surrounding "Caligula" have mostly to do with the infamous extra footage. After the initial production wrapped, Guccione returned to the set to shoot more-explicit material, which he proceeded to have spliced into the film. Vidal pulled out and got his lawyers involved -- the project that once bore his name now contains the ridiculous credit, "Adapted from an original screenplay by Gore Vidal." Brass is credited with "principal photography," Guccione and an assistant director, Giancarlo Lui, with "additional scenes." Despite having no official director, the film was rereleased in 1999 in a so-called director's cut, which added 12 minutes to an already-bloated 2 1/2 -hour running time.

Upon its initial release, the film was savagely panned by critics: Roger Ebert, for instance, deemed it "sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash." But "Caligula" was a box office success, grossing more than $20 million, not least because Guccione had the nerve to charge $7.50 per ticket, about double the average price at the time.

Now that real sex is no longer such a rarity at the art house -- recent hard-core provocateurs include Michael Winterbottom, Vincent Gallo and Catherine Breillat -- "Caligula" no longer seems shocking. But it remains a distinctly unpleasant experience. There's a nihilistic lethargy (possibly unintentional) that infects both the sex and the violence. The orgies, amply stocked with Penthouse Pets, are uniformly joyless and solemn.

The filmmakers clearly had in mind two visions of baroque cruelty by esteemed Italian directors: Federico Fellini's "Fellini Satyricon" (1969), a film often described as an end-of-the-'60s allegory (and as the start of the master filmmaker's late-career decline), and Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom" (1975), a loose adaptation of the Marquis de Sade transposed to fascist Italy. (Danilo Donati, art director on "Caligula," worked on "Satyricon" and "Salo.") Both those films were dark philosophical ruminations on the loss of humanity. All the energy in "Caligula" seems to have been expended on dressing the sets and arranging the performers in maximally revealing poses.

McDowell and Mirren, both in a chatty mood, turn up to reminisce on the commentary tracks, which are more engaging than the movie. (The patient viewer will catch flashes of inspiration in McDowell's gamely histrionic performance -- in moments his Caligula seems related to the actor's two most famous creations: the rebel schoolboy of "If . . ." and his preening sadist in "A Clockwork Orange.") The best extra is a 1979 making-of documentary that has the tone of a deadpan parody.

But unfortunately missing among the copious add-ons is the best "Caligula" tribute yet, a mock promo made in 2005 by the Italian conceptual artist Francesco Vezzoli called "Trailer for a Remake of 'Gore Vidal's Caligula.' " (It has screened at the Whitney Biennial and the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles.) Filmed in a Roman villa in Beverly Hills, this six-minute short features original stars Mirren and Adriana Asti, alongside Benicio Del Toro and Milla Jovovich, camping it up in togas designed by Donatella Versace. The fake movie's Caligula -- as revealed in the hilarious punch line -- is played by Courtney Love.

Los Angeles Times Articles