Caligula

I’ll cheerfully admit it, I’ve watched the film “Caligula” more than ten times, and right after that I’ll say that its a bit of a flawed fuckup of a film. This is not the slightest bit surprising. What is surprising is that through the thick cludgy layer of fuckup, a very decent, and rather powerful film lies waiting for those willing to look past the obvious and see the real.

“Caligula” started in the mind of Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse magazine (a somewhat racier version of “Playboy”) when porn was printed on paper and the internet didn’t exist. Put bluntly, “Penthouse” was making money like crazy and Guccione was looking to expand into a new market. He decided that an erotic film that had the credibility to play in mainstream theatres could bring in money the way that “Deep Throat” or “Behind the Green Door” had – and “Deep Throat” had been the Mafia’s biggest earner the year of its release. He thought a lot and decide that Ancient Rome was the perfect “frame” for his film; being historical it had credibility and gravitas, and anyway none other than Federico Fellini had recently made an “Adult” film about Rome which had received high praise and Guccione thought it could have been made far ruder – after all, why should the public have to use their imaginations? Wasn’t that what erotic literature like “Penthouse” was all about anyway?

And so, like some mutant ‘Frankenstien’, “Caligula” was born. Who would direct? Fellini, the maker of “Satyricon” was in his eighties, very strong – minded and insulted by the approach. The second choice was Tinto Brass, he was Italian and credible, with a big portfolio of “naughty Italian romp” films in his back catalog, also being far less successful than “Il Maestro” he couldn’t afford to be picky. And so it was, the film went ahead, bankrolled by Penthouse, to be directed by Tinto Brass who, Guccione thought, “had gotten the idea.”

Penthouse magazine spruiked the coming film for literally months, until anticipation ran at fever pitch. Then the film arrived and the shit hit the fan. “It wasn’t any good!” howled the critics. It wasn’t even “dirty” moaned eveyrone else who’d been primed to expect the greatest porn extravaganza, since, well, ever. Bob Guccione was hopping mad. The magazine’s cash reserves were gone and he had doodly squat to show for it, and it was all the fault of that wop, Tinto Brass who’d gone off to make the “Gone with the Wind“ of porn – and forgotten to put the porn in. Guccione used his magazine to howl down curses on the Italian director – who simply responded that he did not make shit. If Guccione wanted shit, he said, he should make it himself – he was doing a fine job with his shitty magazine, he said; and the newspapers, who loved a nice public fight, printed it. Guccione responded with some unprinted but imaginable oath, and shot hard core porno sequences, which he cut into the film, making something closer to what he’d wanted all along. Tinto Brass just about shit a brick, very loudly and very publicly. The media went into another frenzy. ‘Current Affairs’ shows like “Willesee at Seven” conducted interviews with exiting patrons – the new version won the grudging support of people who’d seen both. It won my support too. The original film was truthfully pretty dull, but jazzed up with racy bits, it fairly bounced along from one moment of outrage at the decline of modern civilisation to another, and, amid all the hoo-ha it seemed that very few people noticed the solid script, great cast and thundering performance of Peter O’Toole as Tiberius. In fact if you’re enough of an adult not to have an attack of the vapours at the rude bits, “Caligula” is a rare gem, and to be treasured.

Copyright(C) Alex Rieneck 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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