What can I say that hasn't already been said about the glory, the splendor and the sheer audacity that is the 1979 spectacle, Caligula? But after all the hubbub I made about two of this year's Oscar nominees having starred together in this unholy mess of a movie, I sure couldn't pass up the chance to check out Caligula: the Imperial Edition. How best to make heads or tales of such an epic disaster than to immerse myself in a three-disc set full of extras? Right?
Well, what I found not only impressed me, it delighted me. Now that's not to say that everything on these discs is well done. There are interviews that go on way too long and include far too little information about the making of the film itself (like a 25-minute talking head interview with John Steiner in which he talks about working on Caligula for only a few minutes) but what this all does, when taken together, is tell an incredible story. As you dig deeper and deeper into this set you find it impossible to not get drawn into the weird twisted drama surrounding the film.
You have a talented, visionary director given a daunting project. A screenwriter offered the chance to make a film in which his name is billed above everyone else. A group of actors taking a chance on a mammoth undertaking merging classic filmmaking with adult filmmaking. And tying it all together is a brilliant showman of a pornographer, Bob Guccione, hell-bent on making an absolute spectacle (by repeating the word controversy as many times as possible). When all of these elements are mixed together the result is one of history's most notorious films. And this DVD collection sets out to tell that story, warts and all.
But when the dust clears and all is said and done you realize that it wasn't the writer, director or actors that did this film in, it was Guccione himself (although the DVD never points the finger at him). After watching all the extras (a daunting task under a time line) I sat down to watch Caligula for the first time in years. And it became a very, very different movie right in front of me. I felt sad for what happened to it. I found myself seeing where the genius of it lay, just beneath the surface. I even found myself liking it. Warts and all.
Sure, it is still a complete mess of a film. There are random shots of exposed genitalia mixed into very serious scenes. There are editing errors out the yin yang. And there are sex scenes that although were filmed on the same sets seem to belong in a completely different movie. Make no mistake; this set isn't being released for the sake of dropping even more debauchery on us. It has a laser beam like focus. This is a set for cinephiles and fans of the film, to pull back the curtain on a small and fascinating moment in movie history when art truly got rear-ended by the quest for money.
What this set really does is show you that what was considered one of cinema's greatest jokes was instead the tragic red-headed stepchild of the movie world, a film that could-have-been but instead became a should-never-have-been. A quick tip if you pick this up: be mindful to read the booklet that accompanies the set, as a number of special features seem ridiculous without it. Until you know about Tinto Brass's never before seen rough edits, the hour and a half of silent footage seems like wasted space. Instead it is an unbelievable treat for fans and a glimpse into what this film really could have been, had Guccione not been trying so hard to make a sex film.
This is a set that should not be missed by anyone who loves immersing themselves in special features or has a fondness for film history. Be warned, though. If you're unfamiliar with Caligula, do a little research before picking this up. As fascinating as this is, it still isn't for everybody. And it is still as deliberately offensive today as it ever was. Anyone who honestly believes that movies today are far less puritan than their predecessors hasn't ever seen this.
C. Robert Cargill - - - Email Me
Austin-based Cargill, who not only loves but owns The Cutting Edge, writes on movies and DVD five times a week.