Not for prudish Americans. This film is rated X for extreme situations, sexuality and brutality. I’ve heard that some of the sex is actually real, and controversy has surrounded the film ever since Penthouse agreed to co-produce it. With a script written by Gore Vidal, this is pure mind blowing depravity from start to finish. Never again would such a film come together, one that reveals the decadence and the psychosis of a society so clearly, while pulling no punches, alleviating no concerns.
Caligula completely ignores the mores and taboos of its audience. It exists in another realm, another time and place without regard for the conventions of the multiplex set. Except for its English language tongue, the milieu is eerily authentic in its sadomasochism, torture, mass insanity and raw exercise of power.
Malcolm McDowell’s finest role in my opinion, and perhaps Peter O’Toole’s as well. This is top notch over the edge of the precipice stuff, and I really do shiver when thinking of this film. In an age of banal comic book boy scouts and robot battles written by the mentally retarded, a film like Caligula might as well have been produced on an alien home-world.
The British miniseries I, Claudius tells part of the Caligula story, in a less grotesque fashion, and each telling has its value and place. But to really tremble in awe of the empire, its power to dehumanize and to disembowel its opponents, Caligula is the cautionary tale for the ages.
The recent post on Phillip Zimbardo’s psychology of evil is relevant here. For that is where Vidal plumbed the depths. Beyond character flaws, beyond triteness and childhood pop-psychology, the ultimate power of the Roman Emperor and the society constructed around him, is what warps and degrades everyone involved. This lust for power and the terror of being on the wrong end of it form the situation that destroys the humanity of all concerned. It is Millgram’s experiment and Zimbardo’s prison writ large, a mega-experiment that ruled the earth for centuries. Versions of this absolute tyrant power linger on today, and to lesser degrees in so many other milieus.
I would place Caligula near the top of the list of the most important films of the 20th century. It’ll turn your guts inside out, but you won’t forget the experience, not for a long time, if ever.