A Review of Caligula

It seems that every single modern critic does a review, at some point, on two films. One is Armageddon. The other is Battlefield Earth. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s to sharpen their nerves against bombs. Battlefield Earth, if you can withstand it, certainly does protect your nerves against the usual crap. But then, Battlefield Earth is not the biggest disaster of all time. There are other films even more ambitious than that bomb.

This year, I am going to take on the big guns. One is Heaven’s Gate. That will be posted later. The other is this precious little disaster. This is a hardcore pornographic film that has become favored amongst cult enthusiasts for its camp sensibilities. This is the film that will truly test people’s sensibilities and their sanity.

Oh, where to begin? The film is an absolute mess, but never is it a boring one. It takes a special type of film to use the line “all those who say aye – say aye” in absolute seriousness. Rather, Caligula becomes the sort of definition of the anti-film. Every single decision that the film makes is the wrong one. The acting, the script, the art direction, the editing – it all culminates into this fascinating example of how NOT to make a film.

Dadaism on film. This would be a sort of surrealist masterpiece of any of it had been deliberate.

The film is about the reign of the Roman emperor Caligula (played by Malcolm McDowell). He murders his mad father Tiberius (Peter O’Toole -yes, really) and becomes the emperor himself. Then he does pretty much what you think he would do – organizes orgies, marries the most promiscuous woman in Rome (played by Helen Mirren –  I couldn’t make this up if I tried) and desperately wants to marry his sister. As you can imagine, there are many who wish to stop him and his bizarre antics before he takes the Roman government down in one bizarre swoop.

I can start right with the basics – the film looks terrible. The world that Caligula and his contemporaries exist in looks like a very small stage. No one is really given free reign to move around the city. It is as though the art director was told to make it as though the film were a play. On stage, I can easily imagine this looking like a triumphant spectacle. On film, it looks hopelessly artificial and silly.

Also, the fact that the entire film is blurry and dark does not help. I am not sure if the film originally looked this way, but other reviews from the time said it did.

But it goes beyond that – the film has no clue what it is and what it wants to be, Essentially, it thinks that showing Caligula’s sexual practices were enough to make a film on. Maybe, if this were some sort of late night TV Special. This has more nudity than any film I’ve ever seen. Even when characters do put clothes on, the tunics are usually so short and so translucent that they should not have even bothered. It was frankly rather distracting.

But this is not me trying to criticize the film’s taste. Anything can have artistic merit if it is made well. Anything. I, for one, would have been deeply interested in how Caligula reached the point that he did. Did power drive him mad? Was he always mad? The film does not bother to examine these questions at all. Caligula is just a nasty man from beginning to end, with nothing more to be said. All of the characters do not evolve beyond a few basic attributes. It is all pushed aside to make more room for shots of boobs (those are mostly nice, if that is all you are interested in).

The biggest crime the film commits is in its casting. Caligula’s cast is the equivalent of inviting Johnathan Swift for dinner and then instructing him only to tell knock knock jokes for the duration of the evening. The cast does the film no favors, either over acting or barely even having the courage to try anything at all. But I know it is not their fault – these are some of the finest of any generation. Yet none of them bother to try. Malcolm McDowell scampers around the scenes like a twelve year old, O’Toole spends his time in the film mostly yelling, and Helen Mirren does…absolutely nothing. I simply do not understand what is going on and why these people signed on for the film. Maybe the idea of participating in a giant orgy for a few months appealed to them. But that is not where their performances should have ended.

A film should never make me ask why it exists. Well, Caligula still does need to exist. As I have said before, the film makes for an interesting case study as to what happens when everything goes wrong. I can seriously understand why the film has continued to fascinate people for decades. I sort of shared in that fascination while watching it, simply because I could not believe that it existed. This was a serious attempt at making a mainstream, pornographic film. A worthy endeavor, but it didn’t work at all – mostly because the filmmakers thought that simply titillating everyone was enough. I am not criticizing Caligula for its taste. I am criticizing it for the fact that it felt it had to pretend to have some with its cast and its attempts to look like it has a large budget. It almost feels like one is being lied to.

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