Caligula (1979)

Caligula is one of film history’s greatest follies, colossal trash of a truly epic kind, and the further away we get from it in time, the more batshit mad the whole enterprise looks; I don’t suppose it could ever have been made except at that particular time. So much about it is just jaw-dropping, including the fact that Roberto Rossellini, of all people, wrote the very first treatment for it, the fact that seemingly no one knew producer Bob Guccione intended it to be hardcore XXX, and the fact that it was released at all in whichever of its many versions, given the, well, difficulties of its making, the clash of sensibilities at work, and the welter of lawsuits that attended the process. The production was out of control and so was the “finished” product, if such a thing exists when you’re talking about Caligula. But most bizarre is the fact that, you know, it looks incredible. Amidst all the reams of pornography (sorry), you can’t deny that it looks every cent of the $17m or so it apparently cost (this being when $17m was still worth something, of course). Indeed, I only discovered tonight that the film’s art director Danilo Donati was one of Fellini’s regular collaborators, their first film together having been Satyricon, which makes weirdly perfect sense somehow. It may be a fucked-up mess, but what a bizarrely handsome one. I like Caligula far more than I probably should, but then again I don’t think I’ve ever professed to have impeccable taste in films; if I ever did, be assured I was lying. As extravagant as the recent “imperial edition” release is, I don’t think it exactly reveals an unheralded masterpiece as such,  and I’d always hesitate to actually recommend the film (I don’t think the DVD will exactly make converts of the previously unconvinced). Still, I remain somewhat in awe of its very existence, as a relic of a time that—perhaps mercifully—may never quite come again…


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