9 February 2019

Review: Caligula (1979)


Caligula is a film that you either love or hate - while no masterpiece it is a classic example of out-of-control filmmaking with a controversial production history that easily matches its over-the-top content.

Written by Gore Vidal, directed by Tinto Brass, produced by Bob Guccione and starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud, John Steiner and Paolo Bonacelli it is a two-and-a-half hour mix of historical fact, fantasy, extravagance, violence and pornography.

With tales of the writer demanding for his name to be removed from the credits, the director being locked out of the editing suite while the producer inserted hardcore footage that had been clandestinely filmed, and just about everyone wondering what the Hell they had got themselves into the story of the film is far too long to get into here.

In terms of the film itself, Caligula tells the tale of Rome's third emperor, Gaius Caesar Germanicus (Caligula being a nickname meaning 'Little Boots'), who ruled from 16 March AD 37 to 24 January AD 41 and is often regarded and portrayed as an insane tyrant, famous for making his horse a senator, prostituting the wives of his senators, having an incestuous relationship with his sister and virtually bankrupting the empire.

The film begins with Caligula being summoned to Capri by the ailing Emperor Tiberius, where he is aided in seizing power by his friend Macro (Guido Mannari), and follows his descent into madness and immorality before he is assassinated by the Praetorian Guard (along with his wife and child).

McDowell turns in an astonishing performance as Caligula portraying the Emperor not as an insane tyrant, but as an out-of-control child whose behaviour becomes more-and-more excessive as he gains power. He is ably supported by O' Lucky Man co-star Helen Mirren as his wife Caesonia.

Tinto Brass' direction is workmanlike, and his use of three cameras to simultaneously capture the action maintains an immediacy and continuity missing in many productions. However, it is difficult to tell what his original vision was as the film was so heavily reworked prior to release by Guccione (the inserted hardcore footage is glaringly out of kilter with the rest of the film).

The set design by Fellini regular Danilo Donati is astonishing. It looks as if no expense was spared on the production with some truly extravagant, and cavernous, sets. Of particular note is the infamous killing machine that decapitates Caligula's dissentors - a great example of fantastical design that bears no relation to reality but is accepted in the context of such an excessive film.

Caligula is an almost hallucinogenic viewing experience. Its content makes me wary about issuing any recommendations, and it certainly isn't for anyone of a nervous disposition or who is easily offended. But if you are feeling brave why not take a look.
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