Caligula (1979)

Just a sack of bone, blood, and slime… ?

by Adam Miller


A variety of films contend for the title “most controversial” of all time. “Most controversial,” we should be careful to note, doesn’t mean the same say as “most taboo” or “most transgressive.” Controversy implies a film inspires widespread argument and debate usually pertaining to its appropriateness or value. So to be controversial a film has to be seen by enough people to generate a controversy. Am I getting redundant?

My point is that CALIGULA may very well be the most controversial film of all time but it is not necessarily the most taboo or offensive. In terms of our current value systems, one could argue there is more moral decrepitude in a film like BIRTH OF A NATION than there is in CALIGULA. Or,

Which is worse? A film that celebrates one of the most vile, racist organizations in our nation’s history or a film that graphically demonstrates all kinds of sado-masochistic practices of the human body?

CALIGULA is everything you’ve heard about CALIGULA. When critics describe it as graphic it’s because (almost) absolutely nothing is left to the imagination. When a guard is caught drinking on duty, his penis is tied shut with cord and a gallon of wine is poured down his throat. His stomach fills up and is then stabbed, exploding its contents everywhere. Another unfortunate character is raped (as is his wife) on his wedding day and ultimately finds himself dismembered in a torture sequence—his genitalia infamously fed to dogs. Then there’s the sex. Sure in the extended unrated edition there are lots of hardcore scenes intercut with the original film (yes there’s at least one very blatant money shot), but more even more provocative are the scenes of sex between physically deformed humans (like conjoined twins). Incest, furthermore plays a central role in the story line.

Critics have been quick to point to the above content as that which makes the film most vile. Roger Ebert calls the film “a nauseating excursion into base and sad fantasies,” and concludes, “CALIGULA is worthless.” Other critics, perhaps trying to seem more “hip”, cite the film’s lack of strong narrative and pacing as that which truly make it an awful film. Both criticisms are, completely valid. Less so the total evaluation. CALIGULA is far from worthless.

Rather, it is fascinatingly unique. As many have said, there will never be “another CALIGULA.” It will forever remain a singularity in the history of mainstream cinema. Its ostensible objective was to bridge the divide between art and pornography—trying mightily to prove that the latter was the former. The problem is that pornography, by its very definition (in the United States anyway) is devoid of meaning. (If you’re really into this, feel free to read my extended thoughts on the issue (pdf)). Thus CALIGULA is not porn but because of its pornographic elements many are likely to dismiss as not art; thus it has failed in its creator’s (it was produced by Penthouse) central objective.


But sometimes failure can produce some great material. In my opinion, the entire Modernist art movement was a failure (its goal was to make sense of the “widening gyre” of modernity, but ended up only reflecting the world’s confusion and fragmentation), but I have ceased to grow tired studying Modernism whereas I am quite done with 19th century literature after one sitting of MIDDLEMARCH. Failures such as these, where the intentions were bold and the circumstances unique, give rise the opportunity to examine why we dub certain endeavors failures. What criteria did they (fail to) meet?

Best to start with CALIGULA where almost every other critic does: the sex. Sex and eroticism were staples of film long before CALIGULA, and perhaps the first thing to get out of the way is the sexual content. The film depicts some gruesome and shameful (as we think of them today) sexual acts. Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) beds whomever he pleases, perhaps most horrifically a young soldier and his new bride, on their wedding night (yes, both of them). It’s gratuitous, but then, Caligula is gratuitous. He views himself as a god and his power is, for much of the film, totally unchecked. On the other hand, we never see Caligula get much satisfaction from these acts, merely the curiosity of a child experimenting with a new toy (in this case another’s body).

Another taboo act is Caligula’s incestuous affair with his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy). It is clear that she is the only person Caligula ever “loved” (or at least cared about). The scenes between the two characters are the most human, the most touching in the film—they are also incestuous and, ultimately necrophilic. After Drusilla dies of a fever Caligula roves her dead, naked body in a hyper-sexual act of grief. It’s the best scene in the film. Recycling my previous metaphor, we watch Caligula try to play with his most favorite, most beloved toy; now broken. We see him express what we might translate as grief, were his necrophilic act not so alien. So in a sense Ebert is right in saying that CALIGULA is lacking in titillation and eroticism and is rather a “cruel” film, but then, isn’t that exactly what Caligula’s life (as depicted) was?


The second complaint about CALIGULA’s sex is formal in nature. Namely, the sheer quantity of sex detracts from the film’s central narrative. To be sure, the movie is unnecessarily drawn out by extended pans across writhing naked figures. That said, the constant intercutting between Caligula’s scene chomping and random porn actors wrestling on the ground creates a unique effect.

There are some movies that are, I might say, infused with sex. Every scene crackles with erotic energy. TOP GUN, for example, is a movie that exudes sexuality. From the brawny, well-tanned bodies of the macho fighter pilots flying their phallic planes and firing their even more phallic missiles contrasted with the blue lit, silhouetted love scene between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis. TOP GUN is so saturated with eroticism that it is frequently parodied—an indication of either success or excess, one supposes.

The sex in CALIGULA could never be parodied in such a way. Rather than being infused with sex, sex is fused, welded, screwed (pun intended) to CALIGULA. The history of the making of the film is helpful—producer Bob Guccione ordered more sex scenes to be added after director Tinto Brass’ final cut. This extra sex footage was cut and pasted into pre-existing scenes—a literal fusing of footage. The effect is that in CALIGULA sex is presented as being “everywhere” but the sloppy montage produces the counter-effect that sex is explicitly “there, there, and there.” One shot focuses on Malcolm McDowell and his “warped” sado-masochistic energies which would be fine fodder for psychoanalysis, but whatever sexuality his character exudes is immediately obliterated by a cut to footage of hardcore pornography. The effect is rather like a sexual strobe light. Now you see it, now you don’t, ad infinitum.

Then there is the violence as described in my opening paragraphs. The violence is far better integrated into the film than the sex and thus only its content is particularly objectionable to standard taste. The acts are gruesome, but once again it is clear that Caligula’s psychology treats human bodies as toys. In one spectacular scene, a “traitor” is buried to his neck in sand and then beheaded by a whirling, twenty foot tall lawn-mower like contraption while the Romans cheer. It’s over the top, but is it, in nature, any different than other depictions of lions and gladiators? The destruction of the body is treated playfully. It is in some ways just a sack of slime, blood, and bone. That sentiment is no doubt offensive to many, and I don’t think it’s one that should today be advocated, but such a depiction does serve to historicize our own conceptualization of the body (as a vessel of spirit/soul/thought for example).

In Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR, for example, the sadistic mayhem of the gladiatorial arena is juxtaposed to Russell Crowe’s dream sequences of his soul returning to the fields of Elysium. In CALIGULA, McDowell insists that upon death one sees the goddess Isis. Early in the film Nerva (John Gielgud) slits his wrists before he ever serves someone as crass as Caligula. Consider the following passage:

Caligula: Nerva, what's it like?
Nerva: Warm, no pain… just drifting away.
Caligula: Can you see her?
Nerva: Who?
Caligula: The goddess, Isis?
Nerva: So you're one of those who believe…
Caligula: Do you see her?
Nerva: No.
Caligula: Are you sure? You're almost dead! What's it like, what's happening to you now?
Nerva: Slowly… drifting…
Caligula: Liar… you can see her, I know you can! What is she like?
Nerva: No… Slowly…
Caligula: LIAR!

Isis, or any other spiritual presence, is never depicted. Caligula is ultimately stabbed several times and tumbles down a staircase—the last shot of the film lingering on his bloody face. None of his betrayers bat an eye at his death. Perhaps, as Caligula believed, there is an Isis waiting, but as far day-to-day events are concerned, there is only the corporal.

From violence to sex, the corporal is exactly what CALIGULA depicts. This ambition seems far simpler than the lofty attempt to unite art and pornography, but it is far more profound. CALIGULA is a film about the body set in a civilization where the body is cared for not one iota. This is the central conflict of the film, and no doubt the discomfort it has created for many viewers. CALIGULA is incongruous and disturbing, but it is a powerful cinematic effort—even if it is a failed one.

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