Blu Ray Review: Caligula



The Blu Edition

Arrow Video





The story behind the production of Caligula is almost as controversial and sleazy as the movie itself.

Caligula was produced by Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse magazine.  He hired Tinto Brass, an Italian director famous for his near-pornographic erotic films, to direct the movie from a script by Gore Vidal.  They hired Malcolm McDowell to star as Caligula and Helen Mirren as Ceasonia, his wife.

Upon completion, Guccione was unsatisfied and recut the film, and added six minutes of hardcore sex scenes for good measure (I didn’t time it myself, for the record).

You’d assume, then that the movie would have ended up an incoherent mess; but it actually isn’t.

There’s a lot to debate about the merits of  Tinto Brass, but on thing’s for sure, he has a great eye (of course, that takes on other meaning when we’re talking about an erotic film maker).  His shots are lush and extravagant.    Orgies extend through multiple levels and rooms, and Brass manages to films them in a way that exploits all the ‘goods,’ without seeming exploitative (the same can not be said of the insert shots (which is also a double entendre when it comes to this film)).  We really get a sense of the grandeur of ancient Rome in Caligula, one that is equal parts magnificent and decrepit.

I looked up the true history of Caligula, and it turns out that aside from the orgies, he was actually a pretty dull emperor whose greatest accomplishing was commissioning the construction of two new aqueducts.  This is reflected in the movie, which deals entirely with Caligula’s extravagances.  There’s a very stark disconnect between the ruling class and the people of Rome.  Perhaps Caligula’s disconnection with the people has disconnected him with humanity.

Malcolm McDowell is wonderfully creepy and scary as Caligula; but we don’t really learn much about the character.  The film opens with a scene in the home of the then-current Ceaser, Tiberius (Peter O’Toole), who we see is just as perverse and decadent as Caligula would one day be.  The movie seems to suggest that this kind of behavior was inherent in the position (or perhaps the family).  Tiberius waxes on about the people he killed to win power, his speculation that he too will be killed soon, and the inevitability that Caligula would face the same fate.

The movie doesn’t stray far into why Caligula is the way he is (though personally, I like when writers don’t feel the need to give pop-psychology explanations for everything).  The similar behavior of his grandfather Tiberius would suggest that it’s a case of absolute power corrupting, though Caligula is also shown to suffer hysterical fits of paranoia.

Caligula does not have a strong narrative structure, owing mostly to the source material.  Instead, we get a collection of vignettes from the emperor’s life as he slowly plumbs the depths of depravity.

Setting the infamous six minutes aside, the rest of Caligula, while graphic, is not that much worse than an average episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand.  I think Caligula has finally caught up with the times.

The acting is spectacular.  For all his cruel perverseness, McDowll manages to make Caligula fairly likable.  The visuals are as extravagant as ancient Rome itself.  The movie has little plot or character development, but still manages to be engaging.

This Blu Ray is imported from the United Kingdom.  The movie is playable on any North American player  The video is solid, but not spectacular.  The movie is presented in its full, uncut form, running 156 minutes.