Sunday, November 28, 2010

Caligula (1979)

"I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the heavens.  Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula I am all men as I am no men.  And so, I am a god."
The infamous Caligula has a history almost as fragmented and complicated as the man who bore the same name.  Caligula was originally intended to be a television mini-series produced by Italian director, Roberto Rossellini.  When that production fell apart, Gore Vidal wrote a screenplay based on the original treatment. Vidal, and Rossellini's nephew, Franco Rossellini, could not gather the necessary financing for the film so Vidal approached Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione.  Guccione agreed to finance the production if the script was modified to include more sex and nudity. The entire film was to become a much larger, more lavish production than originally intended.
Almost from from the very beginning, the film was cursed with difficulties. Guccione hired Tinto Brass as director.  Vidal and Brass clashed immediately.  Vidal thought Brass should follow his script to the letter and Brass was more interested in his own interpretation.  Brass also disagreed with Guccione about the level of sexual content in the film.  Finally, Brass banned Vidal from the set and Vidal began to distance himself from the film that was originally entitled Gore Vidal's Caligula. Brass and actor, Malcolm McDowell, began to re-write the script.  Once principal photography was finally complete, Guccione fired Brass and took over editing himself.  He and Giancarlo Lui then shot extra scenes with explicit sexual content to add in.  Almost no one was pleased with the final results.
It may have been an omen that Caligula was shot at Dear Studios in Rome where Cleopatra, another troubled epic, had been shot thirteen years earlier.  Despite its many problems, Caligula does have some things working in its favour.  It has a terrific cast.  Malcolm McDowell creates an unforgettable and unique performance as Caligula and the first act of the film is grounded really well by Peter O'Toole as Tiberius and John Gielgud as Nerva.  Helen Mirren also does a great job as Caligula's fourth wife, Caesonia.
The film features fantastic art direction and costume design by two-time-Oscar-winner, Danilo Donati.  Unfortunately, from the way the film is shot, not much of it makes its way to the screen clearly.  Over 3500 costumes were made for the film and the cast wore over 5000 pairs of handmade boots and sandals.  Donati also designed the largest prop ever created for a film at the time; a full-scale Roman ship that was 175 feet long and 30 feet high with 120 hand-carved oars.  With a final budget of about $22 million, this was the most expensive independent film made at the time.
The story begins in 37 CE when the Emperor Tiberius (Peter O'Toole) dies and is succeeded by the young Caligula (Malcolm McDowell).  The film chronicles Caligula's rule which was less than four years long.  It's a story about power and corruption.  I think the film does a good job of showing Caligula as a very young man who has lived a very strange life and has power thrust upon him at too young an age. It details his descent into paranoia and madness and ends with his assassination in 41 CE.
The film suffers from really poor direction and awful camera work.  I have a feeling that Brass and his director of photography, Silvano Ippoliti, were trying to parallel Caligula's mental deterioration in the style of the film.  If that's the case, it was almost entirely ineffective.  The film comes across as almost amateurish.  It's filled with strange zooms, shaky frames and soft focus.  The additional shots by Guccione don't help much.  There's an overall sense of inconsistency that makes the whole effort a bit haphazard.  As mentioned above, the few shining moments are when Donati's epic sets are allowed to be seen.
Caligula is mostly controversial for the inclusion of explicit sex.  I, for one, don't see this as especially controversial except that it was practically unheard of for American cinema of the time.  The filmmakers were trying to recreate pagan Rome before the onset of Christian mores.  Sex was a huge part of Roman life and what little we know about the historical Caligula suggests that he may have been even more open than most about sexuality.  I'm not attempting to evaluate the moral implications of mass-produced pornography or its treatment of women but, as a matter of historical record, it's appropriate to include sexual content in a film about the life of Caligula.  I think the film includes too much sex and I wish it were shot better but I disagree with those who say it has no place there.
There are about a dozen different versions of Caligula.  It has been edited and re-edited so many different times for different countries and to remove sex, to include more sex and to re-arrange story-points that it is impossible to point to a definitive version.  The version that is most often seen is the unrated 156 minute version.  This is the only version I have seen and I own it on the 2002 DVD release.  In 2007, a new three-disc DVD was released by Image Entertainment.  That DVD includes two cuts of the film with audio commentaries by Mirren and McDowell and a bonus disc featuring Vidal's original script.  Someday I'll pick up that version just for the bonus features.
The version that I have includes an hour-long bonus feature from 1981 entitled A Documentary on the Making of 'Gore Vidal's Caligula.'  It's an interesting enough historical document that mostly features an interview with Bob Guccione with bits from Gore Vidal, Tinto Brass, Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren.  There is some behind the scenes footage that I always find interesting.
I don't think that Caligula is any way a great film but I must admit it has grown on me with successive viewings.  The first time I watched it I was as turned off as most people.  The structure is so poor that it takes multiple viewings to pull the story out from the extraneous sex and bad photography.  If you enjoy historical epics then I'd say Caligula deserves to be watched at least twice and cinephiles will have to see it, if for no other reason than as an historical document.
Caligula lived a short, tragic life.  I think that a good modern comparison might be Michael Jackson.  No one could live the lives of those men without becoming a little twisted.  They were famous from childhood, born into families that used them and abused them.  No one could live those childhoods without becoming traumatized. And, as young adults, they lived completely sheltered and isolated lives because of their fame and eccentricities.  Yet they were always, always in public view and unable to make a single move without being watched and judged from all quarters.  This is bound to create a sense of paranoia and maybe a little madness in anyone.

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