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Caligula: Imperial Edition
cast: Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole, and John Gielgud

director: Tinto Brass

156 minutes (18) 1979
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Andrew Darlington
The past is another planet. Those who watched BBC-TV's Rome saw character motivations and loyalties that were comfortingly familiar to us all, fused with grotesque levels of barbarity and repellent alien strangeness to recoil from. We think we know pagan Rome. We don't. When it comes to fantasy empires, nothing that Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, or Robert E. Howard could contrive comes close to this stuff. I, Claudius illustrated exactly how emperors exerted apparently limitless power without restraint, consequence, or conscience - but, equally, how they did so at the whim of the Praetorian Guard who could dispatch them, and their entire family in a coup the moment they proved inconvenient. And in an age of epic excess, Caligula's rule has become a byword for gargantuan perversities. He was an 'extraordinary' man according to Gore Vidal, "some think the most wicked young man who ever lived." He's also one whose story has been retold in the guise of multiple interpretations all the way through to MegaCity One's insane 'Judge Cal' in 2000AD. Through Robert Graves' eyes Caligula's horrific debauches seem to be more a way of testing out those constraints, taunting Rome's endurance recklessly. His 'expedition' to Britain results in his soldiers attacking papyrus reeds on the shores of a nearby lake, and then triumphantly returning with the spoils of looted seashells. A jape that mocks the military, the credulity of the populace, and the pretensions of imperial Rome itself - forcing limits to the tipping point that would provoke response, inviting lethal retribution.

Although most of this movie is conjecture, it follows assumed general knowledge... Caligula succeeded his mentor, Tiberius, on the former emperor's assassination, inheriting the city, the empire - the world. Ancient historian Suetonius who documents his perversities suggests Caligula may have murdered him. In this version, when Caligula loses his nerve, Macro does it for him. In a scene perhaps intended to echo one in The Fall Of The Roman Empire (1964), Macro holds his hand in a naked flame to prove his loyalty to the new emperor, which doesn't stop Caligula having him executed soon after in a giant mechanical contrivance for lopping off and harvesting heads. Tacitus adds detail. But the writings that survive were not subject to the rigorous objectivity we expect from modern historians, they all had their own axes to grind.

The bare truth is, Caligula - nicknamed 'Little Boots', ruled from 37-to-41 AD, starting off well until a near-fatal midpoint illness - possibly the result of poisoning, knocks him off-course. His sister-lover Drusilla is the only thing he really cares for, and her death shoves him further into ultimate madness. Deep in decadence he instigates the 'Imperial Brothel' staffed with senator's wives, each five-gold-piece they earn going to balance the civic budget. He makes his horse - Incitatus, a consul. Until his bloody assassination becomes inevitable, with Caligula's expression fixed somewhere between exultation and amused vindication as it happens. To Gore Vidal, he "plunges into death" as "the last great trip." His killers kick a severed head aside contemptuously, as Incitatus rears and canters away, a symbolism probably intended to represent Caligula's untamed spirit escaping. His stuttering club-footed uncle Claw-Claw-Claudius immediately succeeds him.

Following this timeline - as related in the generous bonus DVD of extras, Caligula started out from a script by Gore Vidal, who had already done un-credited script-work for Ben Hur. Later, the movie became Bob Guccione's prestige project, with the 'modern publishing emperor' bringing in Italian director Tinto Brass, banked by the overflowing Penthouse coffers, with the bought-in power of A-list stars, the louche access to 13 attractively bare 'Penthouse pets' (including 'pets of the month' Lori Wagner and Jane Hargrave), and the historical subject-matter to justify it all. In protest at the Tinto Brass 'Hollywood-on-the-Tiber' excess, Vidal subsequently insisted his name be deleted from the credits.

Ponderous Prokiev and weighty Katchaturian set the portentous tone, undermined only slightly by such gaffes as the geographically exact modern European map on the palace wall. Malcolm McDowell is at his most malevolently cherubic as Caligula, using the evil charm he perfected in If... and A Clockwork Orange, and is still capable of unleashing in Star Trek: Generations or Heroes. At one point his Caligula casually continues his conversation as he breaks off to urinate into the drapes. Peter O'Toole invests the vile syphilitic Tiberius with a sense of sinister reality, with his Capri grotto of speaking-statues, freaks and sexual gymnasts. And John Guilgud is Nerva, the patrician old pragmatic with republican sympathies. Long suppressed, the film has been derided as up-market art-porn, opulent sleaze, and big-budget smut. What Helen Mirren calls "art and genitals." And yes, it's all that, the elaborately staged sex and orgy scenes are unexpurgated, explicit. The violence is stomach churning. But there's a palpable air of madness, which to Guccioni is merely part of its 'historical accuracy' - not pornography but what he insists is 'paganography', and hey, that's the way it was. The past is another planet.
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