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Notorious for attempting to meld the art film and porn worlds, an admirable task in concept, the film was a glorious failure, full-frontal nudity and penetration aside. A slew of top-tier actors made up the cast, including McDowell, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, and Peter O'Toole as the emperor Tiberius, and they all do their best with the material, written with a heavy hand by Gore Vidal. Still, this vision of Rome and its supposedly honest portrayals of the joy of orgy and the torture that went with it is far more enjoyable than the HBO TV series, Rome, while not nearly as bizarrely intriguing as Fellini's Satyricon. One thing it has that neither of those had is the talent of Penthouse Pets, including Lori Wagner and Adriana Asti, who seal the deal in a steamy lesbian sex scene that would fit right in on late-night Showtime. But that's nothing compared to the all-out orgy-ing that is shown in all its unequivocal splendor - fellatio, intercourse, even ejaculation - thanks to re-shoots done by Bob Guccione. These scenes are now here for your viewing pleasure in the uncut version, and while it's basically softcore porn that goes the extra mile, it's a hell of a lot less shocking than it must have been in 1979. Kids today see far more on the Internet on any given day of the week.
I guess it would be remiss not to discuss the plot of the film, and it's an interesting one (if slightly clichéd) that focuses on power, corruption, and decadence. McDowell is spirited in his performance as Caligula, a man obsessed with taking power from his dying grandfather, Tiberius, and madly in love with his sister, Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy). Pagan Rome actually looks like it might have been a pretty good time, as portrayed in the gaudy production design from Danilo Donati, although Caligula seems to spend more time watching than participating in the partying. As he takes power and proceeds to backstab his friends and allies, he also begins to lose his mind until, as seems to have happened quite a bit at the time, he is literally stabbed in the back and murdered. It's a story of the ages, and Vidal's writing is alternately inspired and insipid, but lifted by the more than capable cast when it bogs down.
Bonus features of the 3xDVD set include several documentaries, interviews with actors Lori Wagner, John Steiner, and director Tinto Brass, two "Making Of" featurettes, both featuring interesting footage shot during production, and commentaries from Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren. There's a treasure trove of material available for those fascinated with the background and significance in pop culture of this film.
"I can do anything I like to anyone," says Caligula before turning on the faithful Macro and a brutal scene in which he rapes a newly married couple. In other words, he lives up to this comment at every chance he gets, and McDowell seems to relish these scenes, playing them with an offhand humor as well as an underlying viciousness. These are elements that make Caligula worth watching, even if it is neither the artistic masterpiece nor the cheap skin flick that some purport it to be. The power grabbing goes well with the ass grabbing in this expanded DVD edition, but for all the bonus material, the faults still stand fast and strong. SEE ALSO: www.caligulathemovie.com
Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.
See other articles by Jonah Flicker.
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