Summary: Characters show flesh, but never flesh out in another attempt to bring history to life
After his sister’s tragic death, Caligula (played by Malcolm McDowell), after declaring a month’s mourning, surreptitiously walks through the streets disguised as a beggar and witnesses the lawlessness and decadence of his people. When, in a show, two people dressed as Caligula and his dead sister Drusilla enact vaudeville, an outraged Caligula disrupts the event and is later thrown into a dingy underground cell where many other offenders of both sexes perform depraved acts of fondling openly. A greasy bearded man comes to him and asks for money but Caligula outwits the man and in turn wins his respect. When free, he finds the senate to be a corrupt quagmire swimming with offenders of all kinds, and extracts his revenge on them, also appointing criminals at the prison as Senate members. This was probably the only redeeming moment in Caligula; this is where I was able to appraise how far this film would have gone had it been told by a competent director and written by a capable writer. Unfortunately, Gore Vidal has written this film and Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione have directed it, and therefore Caligula, a biopic of one of the most notorious rulers in the Middle Ages, became Caligula, the most controversial film of the 20th century, now the most controversial film of the 21st century. Its fate is similar to Mommie Dearest’s and The Room – the makers themselves fear that they wouldn’t recover their money and therefore advertise the film in a different, crude way.
Caligula, as mentioned above, intended to show the rise and fall of the Emperor most known for his brutal executions, salacious and extravagant life and eventual madness. Thank god the filmmakers refrained from showing the ‘sawing’ method of execution otherwise it would’ve caused even more outrage. They however did pay particular attention to the ‘sex’ and the ‘violence’, and we do see Caligula giving orders, mostly irrational and bizarre, but that is all we get in the 156 minutes of the film. A quick read through Wikipedia should be more resourceful – it is believed that after Caligula’s accession, the first two years was marked with development. Caligula had passed many laws for the benefit of the people and therefore was respected by his countrymen. His mental debilitation was gradual, and many stories about his cruelty were debatable. Gore Vidal and the directors of the film aren’t interested in most of the facts, all they want is to depict an infinitely evil and barbarous Caligula and an equally filthy Rome.
The most unforgiving part about the film is that it always wants to reach the extremes of everything – sex, violence and corruption, and in the process, obliterates any space for true human feelings among the characters. Compare this with A Clockwork Orange and we find that Alex resided in a radical, dystopian society that resembled, in a metaphysical way, our modern, changing society. Caligula does not give this feeling at all, because it was written without much thinking by Vidal possibly while he was hating the world or feeling aroused. Sex in Caligula includes incest, fondling, rape, fisting, deep throats, oral sex, anal sex, ejaculations etc by straight, gays, lesbians and some weird humans. The nudity is so high, if the movie were released in India its runtime would be four minutes or even less. In fact, the movie makes you want to see more clothed people rather than the opposite! Most of it is exaggerated and depicts a pornographic version of ancient Rome, except that many of the models look hideous. The violence is offensive because it mostly includes genital mutilations rather than stabbing or poisoning. The Roman lifestyle feels highly exaggerated and the directors seem to have read the ‘excessive sex’ part only.
The movie also fails to have any dramatic element, unless sex is drama, which is very unlikely. Dialogues are asinine, and they make Caligula seem like a mad immoral teenager who doesn’t think of anything but sex. In fact, there are reviews that praise the part where he is about to die and a senator tells that he would give up his life for Caligula instead; hearing which the emperor eagerly accepts his proposition. I feel that such scenes make the drama reductive rather than ingenious; the only part that slightly impressed me is the one that I mentioned in the first paragraph. Helen, Toole, Teresa and Gielgud only present shadows or rather fleshes of their characters, and keep their speech to the minimum. The rest do mere skin show, though I do admire their guts for doing it for such a big budget, mainstream film.
While watching Caligula, my mind suddenly thought of Cleopatra, the movie that I had watched some time back. Both films depict fall of an emperor, two in the case of Cleopatra, and both are badly made. While Cleopatra is glossed up with extravagant costumes and over-the-top, affected performances, Caligula is replete with sex and very thin characters. In both I sensed an absence of human element and feelings that are required to hold the integrity of a film. Both the films required fictional aspects that were however built on reality, and better chemistry between the characters. But I would choose Cleopatra over Caligula solely because it stuck true to facts and tried not to rely on cheap tactics.
In a word, Caligula can be described as: Scrotum.