Caligula

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Caligula

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Caligula

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Reissued just short of its 20th anniversary with the tag, "The most controversial film of the 20th century is now the most controversial film of the 21st century," Caligula is now, and always has been, more interesting as a high-profile bit of foolishness than anything else. For much of the early '70s, the mainstreaming of porn raised the question of whether a "real" film would be released that featured actual sex. Inspired by an in-the-works screenplay by Gore Vidal, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione decided to answer that question, making an expensive epic that stands as a vision of a particular kind of excess seen only once in film history. A $15 million chronicle of one of the less successful rulers of Rome's Golden Age, Caligula stars Malcolm McDowell in the title role, a young man who seizes the reins of power and runs mad with them. The film also stars Peter O'Toole, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, and a legion of naked extras, including some Penthouse Pets flown to Rome as ringers. Just about everything in Caligula that can go wrong does. The expensive, elaborate sets never look like anything but expensive, elaborate sets, director Tinto Brass brings no character to the project, and everyone except Gielgud overacts hideously. A notoriously fractious production, Caligula found Vidal pulling his name from the project once known as Gore Vidal's Caligula (it now bears the cryptic credit, "adapted from an original screenplay by Gore Vidal," with no further attribution) and Guccione sneaking onto the set after dark to shoot hardcore sex scenes without Brass' knowledge. Inserted almost at random, these scenes—the only element that really sets Caligula apart from the Fellini Satyricon rip-off it is at heart—gained Caligula its notoriety. Unfortunately, they suffer from a tragic lack of sexiness, making sex in the Golden Age of Rome look as unappealing as the brutal violence depicted so lovingly elsewhere. Even as kitsch, it hasn't held up, aside from isolated instances of McDowell chewing scenery in his wicked-boy role, as if appearing in an unofficial prequel to A Clockwork Orange. (Much funnier is the 1979 documentary The Making Of Gore Vidal's Caligula. Included on the DVD, it features Vidal talking ambitiously about the film and Guccione lounging about in a robe that would never make it into Hugh Hefner's wardrobe.) As a one-of-a-kind marriage of the historical epic and the porn film (the former only a slightly more reputable genre than the latter), Caligula deserves a look. But it might be better to let Guccione's savagely unpleasant folly fade into the century that spawned it.

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