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Some people like their smut straight up. Others need historical context to rationalize watching pornography. Bob Guccione knew this when he helmed the 1979 epic Caligula. It has become one of the most notorious and sought after films of the 20th century. It’s long, it’s graphic, it’s absolutely ridiculous and the transfer on the DVD edition is mediocre at best. So why was I so G-D excited to see it!?

Here is a film about Caligula, the most notorious Roman Emperor of the Julian era who raped and killed at will and fell deeply in love with his horse. Add to that about two hundred Penthouse porn stars and a life size Roman temple built by world-renowned art director Danilo Donati. Finally, and this is really the part that gets me, it stars several of the most well regarded British actors of the time. Malcolm MacDowell, who had just come off his success as Alex in A Clockwork Orange, plays Caligula. Helen Mirren plays his wife, and Peter O’Toole his grandfather. Finally there is an excellent cameo by Sir John Gielgud. All of these exceptional actors stop at nothing to fully realize the dramatic schlock of the film. There is not an understated performance in the lot just as there is not a fully dressed woman in sight. Even Helen Mirren gets naked, (I know, you never saw that coming, right?)

I was worried I would be bored between the orgy scenes, and I definitely didn’t think the dramatic arch of the characters would hold my attention, but somewhere between the first orgiastic feast and the final three-way-BJ, a miracle happened; I came to sympathize with Caligula. MacDowell gives a captivating performance as Crazy Cal. Tinto Brass’ portrayal of him as revolutionary instead of madman may be confusing for history buffs, but I guess they just hadn’t heard about the psychotic effects of lead in Roman aqueducts while writing the film. It is unfortunate that MacDowell, as well as Gore Vidal, Tinto Brass, and Peter O’Toole all disassociate themselves with the film. Are they embarrassed at participating in what may be the most captivating, realistic, overblown porn movie in history? Maybe, but more likely they came down from the drug haze of the 70’s to find themselves faced with Reagan 80’s audiences who preferred the soft focus safety of Playboy.

If you liked Zardoz, In the Realm of the Senses, and Calender Girls, then you’ll LOVE Caligula! Just know this, we had to put it in Drama because we don’t have an Adult section.

- Mariah Klapatch

Of Note: The Whitney Biennial is currently showing Francesco Vezzoli’s Trailer for a remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula.