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Blu-ray Reviews

HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: Caligula (The Imperial Edition)

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#1 of 11 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted January 10 2009 - 03:10 PM

Caligula (The Imperial Edition)

Studio: Image

Year: 1979

Rated: Not Rated (Uncensored Version)
Not Rated (Alternate Version)

Length: 156 minutes (Uncensored Version)
153 minutes (Alternate Version)

Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1 1080p

Languages: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0, English Dolby Digital 5.0,

Subtitles: Spanish

The Program

Now I know what a woman feels like when she’s been raped. -Caligula star Malcolm McDowell, upon seeing the final cut of the film

What is one to make of Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione’s gruesome, semi-pornographic epic of ancient Rome? With an estimated budget of $17.5 million, a screenplay by Gore Vidal, and featuring the acting of such classically-trained thespians as Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud and Helen Mirren, one might expect to see at least a competent film. Indeed, there are moments of brilliance here, including a wonderful performance by Mirren as Caesonia, Caligula’s wife. But the end result really is something of a mess – overlong, at times incoherent, and lacking in real drama. It seems clear that Guccione’s intent was to shock rather than surprise and enlighten.

Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) is the grandson (by adoption) of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (Peter O’Toole). Caligula’s father, Germanicus, was the adopted son of Tiberius, so Caligula and Tiberius are not blood relatives. Nevertheless, the elderly Tiberius chooses Caligula to succeed him, even though he also has a grandson by blood, Germellus. Tiberius is not troubled by the fact that Caligula is having an incestuous affair with his sister, Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy). The emperor realizes that he is going to die soon. His trusted advisor, Nerva (John Gielgud), has grown weary of living as he has watched Tiberius become increasingly cruel and despotic. Caligula, sensing that he will need to be protected from political rivals, forms an alliance with Macro (Guido Mannari), the prefect of the Praetorian Guard.

When Caligula becomes emperor, Drusilla tells him that he has to marry and produce an heir. Caligula is in love with his sister, but she knows they can never marry (although such an arrangement apparently would be acceptable in Egypt). He then selects Caesonia to be his bride, with the actual marriage taking place on the same day as the birth of their daughter. It is around this time that Caligula begins what appears to be a descent into madness. He executes real and imagined enemies, subjecting them to public beheadings. When Caligula becomes seriously ill with a fever, one member of his inner circle proclaims that he would give his own life if the emperor could be spared. Caligula unblinkingly takes him up on the offer. When his extravagant spending threatens to bankrupt the treasury, Caligula sets up a royal brothel with the wives of Roman senators acting as prostitutes.

The story contains many dramatic possibilities, but by and large they are unrealized. A rivalry between Drusilla and Caesonia for Caligula’s affections is hinted at, but nothing comes of it. Another deficiency of Caligula is the absence of a sympathetic protagonist. Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, whose maneuvering to survive the purges creates the dramatic center for the miniseries I, Claudius, here is reduced to an ineffectual imbecile. It appears that Gore Vidal’s screenplay was significantly altered by Guccione and director Tinto Brass to incorporate some comedic touches, which do not juxtapose well with film’s grittier elements. Vidal was originally going to have his name in the title but ended up disowning the film.

This Blu-ray edition contains two versions of the film. Although the running times differ by only three minutes, there are substantial differences. The most apparent is that the uncensored version includes several minutes of what Leonard Maltin calls “not bad hard-core footage.” The hard-core scenes were directed by Guccione and Giancarlo Lui after principal photography was completed. During the editing process the new footage was integrated into scenes which had been shot by principal director Brass. The chronologies of the two versions differ, as well. For example, the pastoral scene of Caligula and Drusilla frolicking in the woods which serves as a prologue in the uncensored version does not appear until the 55-minute mark of the alternate version. However, one should not assume that the alternate version is completely sanitized. In fact, it too likely would not have qualified for an R rating, and viewers likewise should not confuse it with the 105-minute R-rated version which was seen in some theaters and on home video.

The subsequent claims by some of the film’s participants that they did not realize what Guccione was making do not seem to me to be entirely credible. The hard-core action which was filmed after the fact undoubtedly took them by surprise, but there was plenty of sexual action during principal photography, such as the two scenes of Caligula fondling the naked breasts of Macro’s wife, Annia (Adriana Asti). Full frontal nudity, both male and female, is on display throughout the film. Helen Mirren relates that much of this was in Vidal’s original script, so the actors clearly knew that they were not making a Disney film.

Still, for those who are not turned off by the excesses of Caligula, there are things to admire, and I am not referring only to the famous lesbian love scene involving Penthouse pets Lori Wagner and Anneka DiLorenzo (a former “Pet of the Year,” DiLorenzo famously sued Guccione for sexual harassment years later, claiming among other things that her involvement in Caligula had ruined her chances for an acting career). The principal actors are very good and the sets are sumptuous and impressive. The problem is that the occasional good parts do not add up to anything approaching a satisfying whole.

The Video

The 2.00:1 1080p transfer (a rather unusual aspect ratio) is an improvement over the standard definition DVD versions, but it is not even close to reference-quality. This appears to have more to do with the original elements than with the transfer. Although some scenes are fairly sharp, much of the film is in soft focus. Compounding that problem is the fact the Caligula has a drab and dreary look to it. This may be how ancient Rome actually looked, but it does not make for an especially pleasant viewing experience. On the plus side, flesh tones are accurate, an important consideration in a film which displays as much flesh as this one. The level of film grain is not excessive, but transparent vertical lines are evident. I observed an occasional speck of dirt, but for the most part the film appears to be in decent shape, allowing for its inherent shortcomings.

The Audio

The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is adequate, but nothing more. The film does not contain much in the way of ambient sound, but the dialogue is clear and intelligible. The Dolby Digital soundtrack seems to offer a bit less punch, but that is not saying much. On both soundtracks the musical score sounds slightly tinny at times.

The Supplements

There is no shortage of extras on this Blu-ray set.

Disc one includes both features and three commentary tracks. The commentary tracks are on the alternate version of the film. The most interesting commentary is from Helen Mirren, who is joined by film writers Alan Jones and James Chaffin. Mirren makes no apologies for her participation in the film, and she seemingly has no qualms about the film’s overt sexuality. However, she confesses that she cannot watch the beheading scenes. She relates some amusing anecdotes, including one about her mother sitting on the set between two giant phalluses while surrounded by dozens of naked Italian extras. There is another commentary with Malcolm McDowell and film writer Nick Redman, and the third commentary features writer Ernest Volkman.

Also on disc one are three trailers and some silent alternate and deleted scenes.

Disc two, which is a standard definition DVD, contains two “making of” featurettes. Also included is “My Roman Holiday with John Steiner” (Steiner plays the crafty Longinus in the film), an interview with director Tinto Brass, and a half-hour interview with Lori Wagner. You will also find behind the scenes footage and a still gallery. DVD-ROM features include cast and crew biographies and a copy of Gore Vidal’s original script.

A 16-page booklet contains interesting perspectives on the troubled production of Caligula and suggests that there may be film elements somewhere which could allow the film to be restored to something which more closely resembles the original vision for it.

Other Features

I found the main menu to be somewhat difficult to navigate. For example, to activate one of the commentaries the user has to click on “Alternate Feature,” then click on “Audio Commentaries,” and then scroll down to the desired commentary and click it. Then it is necessary to click it a second time, then scroll down to “Alternate Feature” again. It seems to me that the process requires about two clicks more than necessary.

It should be noted that some sites are claiming that this set includes the much shorter R-rated version of Caligula, but they are mistaken.

The Packaging

Both discs are secured in a standard Blu-ray keepcase.

The Final Analysis

Caligula certainly isn’t for everyone, and particularly not for those who are offended by graphic violence and explicit sex. However, it retains a certain amount of fascination to many film buffs, and in that respect bears some similarity to Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Both films had bloated budgets (for the era) and were notable box office flops. Ironically, this “Imperial Edition” of Caligula is available now because Bob Guccione lost control of the film in bankruptcy proceedings a few years ago.

Equipment used for this review:

Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable

Release Date: Available now (apparently it was released as an Amazon exclusive on November 4, 2008 but now is widely available)

Rich Gallagher

#2 of 11 OFFLINE   Phil Carter

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Posted January 12 2009 - 01:04 AM

Thanks for the review, Rich! I've heard stories about this one for years. Might be worth a rental via Netflix if they have it in stock.... cheers, Phil
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#3 of 11 OFFLINE   Stephen_J_H


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Posted January 12 2009 - 01:20 AM

I was just reading Roger Ebert's review of this in his book "I Hated Hated HATED This Movie." Hilarious.
"My opinion is that (a) anyone who actually works in a video store and does not understand letterboxing has given up on life, and (b) any customer who prefers to have the sides of a movie hacked off should not be licensed to operate a video player."-- Roger Ebert

#4 of 11 OFFLINE   Josh Steinberg

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Posted January 12 2009 - 02:33 AM

One of the very few films that Ebert admits to walking out on. Can't say I blame him, although much like a car accident or train wreck, I can't look away from this movie--my guilty pleasure.

#5 of 11 OFFLINE   Felix Martinez

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Posted January 12 2009 - 04:37 AM

Just got my copy via Netlfix. It's a movie I watch every ten years or so, just to shake my head in disbelief. Last time I saw this was on laserdisc in '98 or '99 so I had to see what this steaming pile will look like on HD.

#6 of 11 OFFLINE   Ethan Riley

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Posted January 12 2009 - 05:24 AM

It seems like for any film about the Roman Empire--they focus on the negative aspects of it--the excess, the sex and the decadence. They never make movies about how simple farmers created an Empire that lasted about 1000 years and was more or less the basis for Western Civilization as we know it still. They always are trying to make the analogy that the fall of the Roman Empire has parallels to our own supposedly bloated, excessive and decadent society. Whatever.


#7 of 11 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted January 12 2009 - 05:34 AM

I have to admit that this is the first time I have actually sat through the entire film in one sitting.

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#8 of 11 OFFLINE   Robert George

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Posted January 12 2009 - 07:15 AM

Yeah. A once strong, vibrant society built by moral, ethical people with hard work and good intentions eventually brought down by the corruption, greed, and excess of its leaders. That doesn't sound at all familiar.

#9 of 11 OFFLINE   Josh Steinberg

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Posted January 12 2009 - 07:26 AM

And you lived to tell the tale! Does your brain hurt? (I don't think I've ever made it all the way through in one sitting. Two sittings is about right, that is, if I even bother to put it back on once I turn it off.)

#10 of 11 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted January 15 2009 - 09:25 AM

Not any more, but thanks for asking! I've started to read Vidal's script, and it is easy to see where the filmmakers went wrong. Most of the events which are inscrutable on screen actually make sense in the script. It appears that lines of dialogue and expository scenes were cut willy-nilly (probably to make room for the porn footage), leaving large gaps in logic and motivation.

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#11 of 11 OFFLINE   Peter McM

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Posted January 20 2009 - 10:07 AM

I have never seen this (in)famous motion picture, yet have read numerous reviews of it. I believe, Mr. Gallagher, that your analysis is by far the kindest of them all.
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