Thirty minutes into the notorious art-porn movie Caligula, distinguished actor John Gielgud plays a suicide scene. As Gielgud fades away, he turns to fellow thespians Peter O’Toole and Malcolm McDowell and declares, “From evils past and evils yet to come, I now choose to escape.”
It’s a tough call whether the old actor was referring to ancient Rome or to the daily rushes he might have been privy to on the set of Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione’s chronicle of the depraved Roman emperor, Caligula. Guccione had a point to make with Caligula, and his message came through loud and clear: People can be pigs. The only question is whether the pigs were in Rome A.D. 40, or behind the cameras on a soundstage in 1979.
Nothing is implied in this movie, not when grotesque and graphic footage can be used. Why hint that some poor slave has been castrated, when the actual snipping and gushing can be filmed in living color? Why suggest sex is afoot when it can be shown in gynecological detail? If there’s a bodily fluid or secretion with which you are unfamiliar, it’s all here for your edification.
It’s easy, maybe too easy, to trash a film like Caligula, particularly when so many people involved in it have distanced themselves from the production (along with Gielgud, O’Toole, and McDowell, astute viewers will spot young Helen Mirren). You could argue that this kind of depravity exists in human nature and we all need reminders lest we fall from grace. Look what happened, you could point out, when the survivors of Auschwitz and Treblinka began to die off — a lot of people went into denial about the reality of the Holocaust.
But there is a point where you say, “OK. I get it. Enough is enough.” Guccione assembled big stars, a renowned writer (Gore Vidal), expensive and admittedly gorgeous sets (the budget was $22 million – a fortune in 1979). All that talent, and yet Guccione’s “lesson” is no different from what I learned in kindergarten as I watched kids torment other kids: People can be pigs. Grade: D+
Director: Tinto Brass Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren, Adriana Asti, Mirella D’Angelo, Guido Mannari Release: 1979
Watch the Trailer (click here)
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