Arguably one of the costliest and most well-known exploitation pictures, Penthouse's epic retelling of the life of Rome's most notorious emperor is also one of Grindhouse cinemas most garish; boldly displaying its violent and sexual flights of fancy under the guise of literate historical drama. Yet, this condescension to "high art" is actually the film's strongest suit; playing up the lurid elements of Roman society brings a train-wreck quality to the proceedings. Although you're ashamed to stare at its perverted sex and demented violence, you just can't pull yourself away.
And boy is there a lot to stare at. Disembowelment, fellatio, decapitation, intercourse, castration, child birth, urination and fisting are just a portion of the many splendored things displayed on screen, often to the point where it seems like a plot is sparing for screen time with obscenity.
This transgression to "respectable cinema" was the biggest issue the critical mass had upon the film's 1979 release, most of whom saw it as little more than a big-budgeted geek show parading as entertainment. Yet, they seemed to miss the point. Caligula is a paean of gratitude and admiration to an ancient pervert from a contemporary one; a sort of spectacle dedicated to the unfettered libido and blood lust of a man who may have involuntarily inspired some of our modern sexual landscape.
Grandson to the emperor Tiberius Caesar and next in line to take the throne, Gaius Caligula is a playful and childish twenty-something who lives out his days necking with his beloved sister, Drusilla, and bedding his best friend's wife. Upon being called to the chamber of his grandfather (the syphilitic and clearly insane Tiberius), Caligula discovers the hedonistic lifestyle the emperor is accustomed to and is both intrigued and horrified by it. Possibly due to a mix of paranoia and his failing health, Tiberius attempts to poison Caligula, only to realize that his successor is much too smart and cautious to fall for his tricks.
After seeing the spectacle that is Tiberius' chamber, Caligula is determined to take over the throne, but Tiberius' imminent death is too long a wait. With the help of his beloved friend, Macro (who Caligula would later betray), he smothers Tiberius with a silken cloth and grabs on to his destiny with "both hands."
Initially, he tries to maintain a level of nobility as Emperor, removing power from the Senate and acting as a devoted leader to the people. Yet, his own lust for power and insatiability would only lead him to corruption; his first act of total ruthlessness being his rape of a virginal couple following their wedding ceremony.
This recklessness only worsens after his sister dies from a fever that he involuntarily gave her. As he lets Rome fall from grace politically, he ridicules his army by having them battle in the water for reeds and creates an imperial brothel with the senator's wives. It's not long before his days are numbered and his guards strike, brutally murdering him, his wife Caesonia and their daughter on the steps of his palace.
It is a disturbing finale to a disturbing film and most of its emotional heft is due to Malcolm McDowell's amazing performance. Despite occasional similarities to his iconic work in A Clockwork Orange (particularly the moments when Caligula is daydreaming of carnality), he plays the emperor like a man possessed, displaying a range of emotions from rage to delight to fear, often in the same scene.
His amazing supporting cast (including Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud and Helen Mirren) also turn in top-notch performances and this is undoubtedly the best cast to ever star in a film with unsimulated sex. Sadly, none of the name players participate in any steamy sex scenes; a bevy of Penthouse beauties handle most of the dirty work.
Despite the power of the performances and the unsettling tone, the film does have its flaws. One notable misstep is a hardcore insert interspersed between scenes of a paranoid and sick Caligula kissing and fondling his wife and sister. During this intimate moment, tacked on footage of cunnilingus and lesbian sex in an adjoining room is unprofessionally shoved in, totally ruining the mood and tone intended by the director.
The set design is also a bit disappointing, looking more like an amalgam of stage props than actual, lived-in residences. I realize that this period of history was quite regal and ornamental, but I still think that most of the film blatantly feels like it takes place in a studio and not in ancient Italy.
Despite these flaws, I feel that this film has woefully gained a negative reputation. It may not be the most realistic or poised interpretation of Caligula's life, but isn't it still fun to watch great actors and sexy porn stars play dress up in a dirty movie?
Reviewed by Mdeapo 02:14, 24 July 2009 (UTC)
Despite credit as "principal photographer," director Tinto Brass is responsible for all of the film, excluding any pornographic moments, which were directed and photographed by Giancarlo Liu and Bob Guccione.