Wednesday, 11 April 2012



I first saw Tinto Brass' legendary epic of sleaze, debauchery and rampant nudity sometime in the early 1990s on its 18-certificate VHS release, on the Electric Blue label. That version, according to the BBFC's website, ran for 98 minutes and, as far as I can remember, I thought it was pretty raunchy. In those pre-Google days I probably had no idea that it was a mere ghost of the unhinged original, that the whole thing would run for nearly an hour more and that yer actual hardcore had been inserted in after the real actors had gone. Back then I probably didn't even know who Tinto Brass was although I'd seen Salon Kitty and didn't much like it. I might have seen Thundercrack! and Cafe Flesh at the Scala at this point and was mainly bored by the former but not the latter.

I was always more interested in horror movies than porn anyway but this was at a time when I rented more or less anything, and one of the numerous local video libraries decided to stock it as a rental title. Now Caligula is available again, but this time it's the legendary fully uncut version that runs for 156 minutes and has all the incest, rape, orgies and indiscriminate humping spliced back in. Hurrah. Ostensibly about the brief and spectacularly aberrant reign of Emperor Caligula from AD37 to AD41, it's really less about the consequences of giving absolute power to an egomaniacal whackjob and treating him as a god and more about trying to cram in as much flesh and filth as inhumanly possible.

Thus you get a fantastically insane Caligula in Malcolm McDowell, reliable hamming from Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud (who isn't in it enough, frankly), a giggling imbecile of a Claudius who looks terrifyingly like Christopher Biggins (but isn't), Helen Mirren as the most promiscuous woman in Rome... but every so often it grinds to a halt for a long orgy scene, a long brothel scene, masturbating, sucking and shagging (both gay and straight), the occasional sadistic murder, beheading or castration. To be honest I'd rather it wasn't there in such high-definition detail as it honestly distracts from the rest of the movie. Or: don't bother with any of the character stuff and just make a porn movie. Either one suits me. It's the combination that doesn't work. It's a steak and kidney and mint choc ice cream pie.

What survives the relentless focus on blowjobs and erections is actually quite an interesting movie about total corruption, total decadence and utter insanity. I don't know that it's 156 minutes of interesting, though. It's a film with a reputation that totally overshadows its qualities: it's frequently visually striking in terms of lighting and colour, it superbly conveys its atmosphere of sheer madness, and Malcolm McDowell is mesmerising. Sadly, the old trick of making your film seem more upmarket than it really is by needle-dropping classical music by Khachaturian and Prokofiev would probably have worked better if the selections weren't instantly recognisable as the themes from The Onedin Line and The Apprentice.

Ultimately I can't get that excited about the film in any way: I rather enjoyed it in places but got bored in others. In addition, I'm unconvinced by whatever reasoning the BBFC employed to justify the 18 certificate. The fully unrestrained Caligula is absolutely R18 territory and should not have been put into the general adult category. There's no artistic defence for the hardcore sequences: whatever merits the movie boasts in the amazing production design and photography and the quartet of reputable actors are cancelled out by all the thrusting and throbbing. Still, it's probably a better representation of the film than the hacked down version I saw about 20 years ago. Caligula is still a fascinating watch, it's absolutely worth seeing, but the overly graphic sex distracts and detracts, and it ends up as a massively flawed epic of astonishing lunacy.



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