American theatrical release poster, featuring an illustration of a coin depicting Caligula's face, which appears in the film's main title sequence.
|Produced by||Bob Guccione
|Based on||A screenplay
by Gore Vidal
Teresa Ann Savoy
|Music by||Paul Clemente|
|Edited by||The Production|
|Distributed by||Produzioni Atlas Consorziate (Italy)
Analysis Film Releasing (US)
|Running time||156 minutes|
|Box office||$23 million|
Caligula is a Italian–American biographical film focusing on the rise and fall of the Roman Emperor Caligula. It stars Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud. It is the only feature film produced by the men's magazine Penthouse. Producer Bob Guccione, the magazine's founder, intended to produce an explicit adult film within a feature film narrative, which made use of high production values, casting Penthouse Pets as extras in unsimulated sexual scenes filmed in post-production by Guccione and Giancarlo Lui.
Guccione hired screenwriter Gore Vidal to draft the film's script, and Tinto Brass to direct the film. Brass extensively altered Vidal's original screenplay, leading Vidal to disavow the film. The final screenplay focuses on the theme that "absolute power corrupts absolutely". Brass and Guccione disagreed over Guccione's use of unsimulated sexual content, which Brass refused to film. As the producers didn't let Brass edit the film, changed its tone and style significantly without consulting the director, in addition to adding hardcore sex scenes not filmed by Brass, he disowned the film.
The film's release was controversial, as the film was met with legal issues surrounding obscenity controversies over the film's violent and sexual content. Although reviews were overwhelmingly negative, Caligula is considered to be a "cult classic" and its political content was considered to have significant merit.
Caligula, the young heir to the throne of the syphilis-ridden, half-mad Emperor Tiberius, thinks he has received a bad omen after a blackbird flies into his room early one morning. Shortly afterward, Macro, the head of the Praetorian Guard, appears to tell Caligula that Tiberus, his great uncle, demands that he report at once to the island of Capri, where the Emperor has been residing for a number of years with Nerva, his close friend; Claudius, a dim-witted relative; and Caligula's younger stepbrother Gemellus. Fearing assassination, Caligula is afraid to leave, but his beloved sister and lover Drusilla convinces him to go.
At Capri, Caligula finds that Tiberius has become depraved, showing signs of advanced venereal diseases, and embittered with Rome and politics. Tiberius enjoys swimming with nude youths and watching degrading sex shows, often including children and deformed freaks of nature. Caligula observes with a mixture of fascination and horror. Tensions rise when Tiberius tries to poison Caligula in front of Gemellus. After Nerva commits suicide Caligula attempts to kill Tiberius, but Macro ultimately commits the deed himself, as Gemellus watches.
After Tiberius' burial, Caligula is proclaimed the new Emperor and he proclaims Drusilla his equal, to the apparent disgust of the Roman Senate. Afterward, Drusilla, fearful of Macro's influence, convinces Caligula to get rid of him. Caligula obliges by setting up a mock trial in which Gemellus is intimidated into testifying that Macro alone murdered Tiberius. After Macro is executed in a gruesome public game, Caligula appoints Tiberius' former adviser, Longinus, as his right-hand man while pronouncing the docile Senator Chaerea as the new head of the Praetorian Guard.
Drusilla endeavors to find Caligula a wife amongst the priestesses of the goddess Isis, the cult they secretly practice. Caligula only wants to marry Drusilla, but when she insists that they cannot marry because she is his sister, he marries Caesonia, a priestess and notorious courtesan, but only after she bears him an heir. Despite some reluctance, Drusilla supports their marriage. Meanwhile, despite his popularity with the masses, the Senate dislikes Caligula for what initially seem to be light eccentricities. However, darker aspects of Caligula's personality emerge when he rapes a bride and groom on their wedding day in a minor fit of jealousy and orders Gemellus' execution merely to provoke a reaction from Drusilla.
After discovering that Caesonia is pregnant, Caligula suffers severe fever; Drusilla manages to nurse him back to health. Just as he fully recovers, Caesonia bears him a daughter, Julia Drusilla. During the celebration, Drusilla collapses in Caligula's arms from the same fever he'd suffered. Soon afterwards, Caligula receives another ill omen in the guise of another blackbird. Despite his desperate prayers to Isis, Drusilla dies from her fever. Initially unable to accept her death, Caligula suffers a nervous breakdown and rampages through the palace, destroying a statue of Isis while clutching Drusilla's body.
Now in a deep depression, Caligula walks the Roman streets while disguised as a beggar; he causes a disturbance after watching an amateur performance mocking his relationship with Drusilla. After a brief stay in a city jail, Caligula proclaims himself a god and becomes determined to destroy the senatorial class, which he has come to loathe. His reign becomes a series of humiliations against the foundations of Rome – senators' wives are forced to work in the service of the state as prostitutes, estates are confiscated, the old religion is desecrated, and the army is made to embark on an absurd and hopeless invasion of "Britain". Longinus conspires with Chaerea to assassinate Caligula.
Caligula wanders into his bedroom where a nervous Caesonia awaits him. The blackbird makes a final appearance, but only Caesonia is frightened of it. The next morning, after rehearsing an Egyptian play, Caligula and his family are attacked as they leave the stadium in a coup headed by Chaerea. His wife and daughter are brutally murdered and Chaerea himself stabs Caligula in the stomach. With his final breath, he defiantly whimpers "I live!" As Caligula and his family's bodies are thrown down the stadium steps and their blood is washed off the marble floor, Claudius is proclaimed the new Emperor.
The men's magazine Penthouse had long been involved in film production, helping invest in films made by other studios, including Chinatown, The Longest Yard and The Day of the Locust, but had never produced a film on its own. The magazine's founder, Bob Guccione, wanted to produce an explicit adult film within a feature film narrative, which made use of high production values, and decided to produce a film about the rise and fall of the Roman emperor Caligula. Development began under the production of Franco Rossellini, the nephew of filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. A screenplay was written by Lina Wertmüller, but ultimately Guccione rejected Wertmüller's script and paid Gore Vidal to write a new screenplay. Vidal's screenplay had a strong focus on homosexuality, leading Guccione to demand rewrites which toned down the homosexual content for wider audience appeal, expressing concern that Vidal's script contained several homosexual sex scenes and only one scene of heterosexual sex, which was between Caligula and his sister, Drusilla. Vidal was paid $200,000 for his screenplay, which was written under the title Gore Vidal's Caligula.
Elaborate sets were built by production designer Danilo Donati who also designed the film's costumes, jewelry, hair styles, wigs and makeup, and several mainstream actors were cast, Guccione intending to make a film which he felt, like Citizen Kane, would be a landmark in cinematic history. Guccione offered directing duties to John Huston and Lina Wertmüller, both of which turned the film down. After viewing scenes from the film Salon Kitty, Guccione agreed to have lunch with that film's director, Tinto Brass, believing that Brass would be the ideal person to direct Caligula. Although Brass had a reputation for being difficult to deal with on film sets, Guccione felt that the film's epic scope would "keep [Brass] in line" and that Brass understood the concept of the film enough to direct it. Brass described Vidal's screenplay as "the work of an aging arteriosclerotic" and agreed to direct only if he was allowed to do his own rewrite of Vidal's screenplay. Brass' screenplay expanded the sexual content to include orgies, decorative phalluses, and much female nudity. However, Guccione asserted that Brass' rewrites were only out of necessity to the film's visual narrative and did not alter the dialogue or content.
Vidal gave an interview to Time magazine telling a reporter that in film production, that directors were "parasites" and that a film's author was its screenwriter; in response, Brass demanded that Vidal be removed from the set, and Guccione agreed. Guccione considered film to be a "collective effort, involving the input of a great number of artists and craftsmen", and the director to be the leader of a "team effort". Vidal filed a contractual dispute over the film, due to Brass' rewrites; Guccione claimed that Vidal had demanded 10% of the film's profits, but Vidal denies this. After Vidal distanced himself from the production, calling Brass a "megalomaniac", Brass publicly stated, "If I ever really get mad at Gore Vidal, I'll publish his script." Vidal's name was removed from the film's title, and the film's credits changed to state that the film was "adapted from a screenplay by Gore Vidal", crediting no official screenwriter. Guccione stated, "Gore's work was basically done and Tinto's work was about to begin."
Themes and significance
"What shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"
The film's primary theme is that "absolute power corrupts absolutely". Vidal's script presented Caligula as a good man driven to madness by absolute power. Brass' screenplay envisioned Caligula not as a good man who had been corrupted by absolute power, but as a "born monster". In The Encyclopedia of Epic Films, author Djoymi Baker describes Brass' screenplay as "an antiepic with an antihero, on a path of self-inflicted, antisocial descent." Guccione maintained that this final draft was more violent than sexual, stating, "I maintain the film is actually anti-erotic ... in every one of its scenes you'll find a mixture of gore or violence or some other rather ugly things."
Renowned actors were cast in the film, including Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and Sir John Gielgud and Maria Schneider was cast as Caligula's doomed sister Drusilla. Schneider became uncomfortable with appearing nude and in sexual scenes, and left the production, to be replaced by Teresa Ann Savoy, who Brass had previously worked with on Salon Kitty. Gielgud was originally offered the role of Tiberius, which he declined, as he felt Vidal's script was "pornographic"; however, he later accepted the role of Nerva. Director Tinto Brass cast his own acquaintances as senators and noblemen, including ex-convicts, thieves and anarchists. Guccione cast Penthouse Pets as female extras in sexual scenes.
Shooting began in 1976 in Rome. Actor Malcolm McDowell got along well with Tinto Brass, while Peter O'Toole immediately disliked Brass and John Gielgud and Helen Mirrin were indifferent to Brass, focusing on their own performances. O'Toole had quit drinking alcohol prior to filming, but Guccione described O'Toole as being "strung out on something" and said that the actor was not sober during the entire filming schedule.
During the film's production, McDowell took members of the film's production to dinner at an expensive restaurant to celebrate when England won a football match against the Italian team, but left the choreographer to pay for the meal, saying that he had forgotten to bring enough money. At the end of the production, McDowell gave his dresser a pendant which bore her name, but it was misspelled, and she gave it back to him, who offered her a prop from the film, a signet ring which she refused, as it belonged to the production company.
Brass decided not to focus on much of Danilo Donati's elaborate sets, and intentionally kept the Penthouse Pets in the background during sex scenes, and focused instead on women which Guccione considered to be unattractive. Brass and Guccione disagreed about the film's approach to sexual content, with Guccione preferring unsimulated sexual content which Brass did not want to film.
Filming concluded on Christmas Eve, 1976. Guccione claims Brass shot enough film to "make the original version of Ben-Hur about 50 times over". Brass started editing the film himself, but was not allowed to continue after he had finished editing approximately the first hour of the movie. His rough-cut was disassembled afterwards, and the film was edited again by different editors, changing its tone and structure significantly by removing and re-arranging many scenes, using mostly different takes, a slower editing style and different music than Brass intended.
A few weeks after filming had concluded, Guccione and Giancarlo Lui returned to Rome with several Penthouse Pets. Guccione and Lui "hired a skeleton crew, snuck back into the studios at night, raided the prop room" and shot hardcore sex scenes to edit into the film. Brass ultimately disowned the film.
The film was scored by Bruno Nicolai under the name Paul Clemente. In his book Film and Television Scores, 1950–1979: A Critical Survey by Genre, Kristopher Spencer writes that the score "is gloriously dramatic, capturing both the decadent atmosphere of ancient Rome and the twisted tragedy of its true story. The score also featured music by Aram Khachaturian (from Spartacus) and Sergei Prokofiev (from Romeo and Juliet). In November 1980, Guccione formed Penthouse Records to release a double album soundtrack to Caligula. The album featured Nicolai's score, as well as a love theme, "We Are One", which did not appear in the film, in two different versions, one of which is in a disco style.
Because the film was intended to be released in English and much of the dialogue was recorded in Italian, the film's audio had to be looped. Peter O'Toole was reluctant to re-record his dialogue, and kept out of distance from the film's producers until he re-recorded his dialogue in a Canadian recording studio. The final production cost of the film was $17.5 million.
Guccione refused to submit Caligula to the MPAA, because he did not want the film to receive any rating, even X, which he considered to be "demeaning". Instead, Guccione self-applied his own "Mature Audiences" rating, instructing theater owners not to admit anyone under the age of 18. The film premiered in the United States on February 1, 1980 at the Trans Lux East Theatre, which Guccione had rented to exclusively screen the film, changing its name to Penthouse East.
Rather than leasing prints to exhibitors, the distributor rented entire theaters which specialized in foreign and art films for the purpose of screening Caligula exclusively, in order to keep the film out of theaters which exhibited pornography.
In 1981, the Brazilian Board of Censors approved the establishment of special theaters to screen In the Realm of the Senses and Caligula, due to the fact that they were international box office hits.
Caligula went on to gross $23 million at the box office, becoming the highest grossing pornographic film ever produced independently. The film was a financial success in France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland and Japan. An R rated version without the explicit sexual material was released in 1981, running 105 minutes.
Legal issues surrounding the film
In 1979, when Guccione attempted to import the film's footage into the United States, U.S. Customs officials seized it, but ultimately federal officials did not declare the film to be obscene. When the film was released in New York, an anti-pornography organization, Morality in Media, unsuccessfully filed suit against these federal officials.
In Boston, Massachusetts, authorities seized the film, provoking Penthouse to take legal action, partly because Guccione felt that the legal challenges and moral controversies of the film would provide "the kind of [marketing] coverage money can never buy." Penthouse won the case after a Boston municipal court ruled that Caligula had passed the Miller test and was not obscene. While the Boston judge felt that the film "lacked artistic and scientific value" due to its depiction of sex and considered it to "[appeal] to prurient interests", he declared that the film's depiction of ancient Rome contained political values which enabled it to pass the Miller test in its depiction of corruption in ancient Rome, which dramatized the political theme that "absolute power corrupts absolutely". A Madison, Wisconsin district attorney declined an anti-pornography crusader's request to prevent the release of Caligula on the basis that "the most offensive portions of the film are those explicitly depicting violent, and not sexual conduct, which is not in any way prohibited by the criminal law."
Atlanta, Georgia prosecutors threatened legal action if the film was to be screened in the city, but experts testified in court on behalf of the film, and Atlanta, too, declared that the film was not obscene. Citizens for Decency through Law, a private watchdog group which protested against films which it deemed immoral, sought to prevent the film's exhibition in Fairlawn, Ohio on the grounds that it would be a "public nuisance", leading Penthouse to withdraw the film from exhibition there to avoid another trial. CDL's lawyer advised against attempting to prosecute Penthouse for obscenity and instead recommended a civil proceeding, because the film would not be placed against the Miller test. The Penthouse attorney described the Fairlawn events as being driven by conservative morality reinforced by Ronald Reagan's presidential victory, stating, "Apparently, these extremists have interpreted a change by administration to mean a clarion call for a mandate to shackle the public's mind again."
In 1981, Anneka Di Lorenzo, who played Messalina, sued Guccione, claiming sexual harassment. After a protracted litigation, in 1990 a New York state court awarded her $60,000 in compensatory damages and $4 million in punitive damages. On appeal, the punitive damages were determined to be not recoverable and the court vacated the award.
The film received generally negative reviews. Roger Ebert gave it a rare zero stars rating, calling it "sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash". Ebert stated "In the two hours of this film that I saw, there were no scenes of joy, natural pleasure, or good sensual cheer. There was, instead, a nauseating excursion into base and sad fantasies." Rex Reed called Caligula "a trough of rotten swill". Jay Scott, reviewing Caligula for the The Globe and Mail, claimed that "Caligula doesn't really work on any level". New York critic David Denby described the film as "an infinitely degraded version of Fellini Satyricon.
Although the film is considered to be a "cult classic", Caligula continued to garner negative reception long after its release, but it has also been reappraised by some critics, with review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes giving the film a score of 24%, based on 29 reviews. Leslie Halliwell asserted that Caligula was "a vile curiosity of interest chiefly to sado-masochists." Time Out London called the film "a dreary shambles". Positive criticism of the film came from Moviehole reviewer Clint Morris, who gave the film 3 out of 5 stars, calling it "A classic in the coolest sense of the word". In a video essay, Cole Smithey gave the film a B, saying "If ever there was a filmic guide to pagan Roman debauchery - real or imagined - Caligula is it." Earlier, Smithey gave the film a rating of 3 out of 5. Fernando F. Croce of Cinepassion also gave the film a positive review, writing, "To excoriate the movie for being repellent is to condemn it for succeeding on its goals -- better to marvel at the ejaculatory launching of the Imperial Brothel". New Times critic Gregory Weinkauf gave the film 3 out of 5, calling the film "Kinda dumb and tacky, but at least it's a real movie." Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reviewer Philip Martin also gave the film 3 out of 5.
Writers for The Hamilton Spectator and St. Louis Post-Dispatch claimed that Caligula was one of the worst films they'd seen. Writing for The A.V. Club, Keith Phipps claimed that "As a one-of-a-kind marriage of the historical epic and the porn film ... Caligula deserves a look. But it might be better to let Guccione's savagely unpleasant folly fade into the century that spawned it".
Actress Helen Mirren once described Caligula as "an irresistible mix of art and genitals". In 2005, a fake trailer for Gore Vidal's Caligula was produced by artist Francesco Vezzoli for an alleged remake as a promotion for Versace's new line of accessories, starring Helen Mirren as "the Empress Tiberius", Gerard Butler as Chaerea, Milla Jovovich as Drusilla, Courtney Love as Caligula, and Karen Black as Agrippina the Elder and featuring an introduction by Gore Vidal. The fake trailer screened worldwide, including a showing at New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art's 2006 Whitney Biennial.
Caligula was released on DVD and Blu-Ray in an "Imperial Edition" which featured the unrated theatrical release version and a new version of the film which features alternate sequencing from the original theatrical release and removed the explicit sexual content shot by Guccione. This edition also featured audio commentaries featuring Malcom McDowell and Helen Mirren and interviews with the cast and crew.
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- [IT] Caligula and the Italian censorship