Reviewed by: Tony Sullivan

"This is not an erotic movie, true there are copious scenes of copulation... but Brass doesn't linger on them long enough for them to become titillating, he has to show something gross and/or bloody in the same scene."

Tiberius' reign is coming to an end, the man has deserted Rome for the island of Capri, where he is celebrating the end of his life, riddled with 'orrible diseases, indulging in every possible (and impossible) vice. Caligula (Malcolm McDowell), son of Germanicus, and favourite with the army and people has been adopted by Tiberius (Peter O'Toole) as his heir, despite Tiberius acknowledgement that "he was rearing a viper for the Roman people".

When the BBC made I, Claudius they used the opportunity to put a good amount of nudity and questionable subject matter on the screen, since it was "true" to the story.

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In 1979, Bob Guccione and Penthouse magazine sprang what was, at the time, the first multimillion dollar home porno movie upon an unsuspecting world.

One can see what attracted Guccione to the project - the loose sexual mores of ancient Rome served up by a bevy of Penthouse pets. However, what makes this movie more than that is a quite literate script from Gore Vidal (more Gore than Vidal, as someone said) and Tinto Brass' visual sense was allowed free reign with such a budget ($17,000,000).

This is not an erotic movie, true there are copious scenes of copulation with many ladies and gentlemen with busy mouths and fingers worthy of the hottest uncut porno movie, but Brass doesn't linger on them long enough for them to become titillating, he has to show something gross and/or bloody in the same scene. So this is not for the regular dirty mackintosh brigade. Gladiator shows us a more noble, cleaner Rome, where at least some of the residents are good, but even the sleazy Commodus looks like a saint in comparison with Tiberius and Caligula.

The 18 certificate version of this film runs 102 minutes, the full unexpurgated version runs 156 minutes, there's hardly a scene that goes by without some piece of sleaze or gore on screen. The solution in the UK was to enlarge the frame so that the less wholesome activities of the characters disappear off the edge of the screen AND still the run time is truncated to 98 minutes. Claims that the hard core stuff was added in post production by Guccione seem to hold true for two major episodes, but there's an awful lot of X-rated business always going on in the background when the main actors are in shot, too. There are no holds barred, there are grotesque sex acts by the dozen (a bicycle wheel with severed tongues on it takes the prize here).

Despite all this I can't but help think that this is the most accurate portrayal of the seedier side of Roman life ever created. There's one incredible scene in which the servants/slaves clean up after one of Tiberius' orgies, carrying off the less fortunate and scrubbing down the palace which rings alarmingly true. Amazingly some of the more over the top bits of business are faithfully recorded by Suetonius and Tacitus as fact.

Malcolm McDowell gives his standard deranged angry young (or not so young) man performance that we've seen everywhere from Clockwork Orange to The Passage to Cat People to Star Trek: Generations. One feels Caligula deserves this, though, and he makes an unsettling, dangerous presence, his mad blue eyes glaring out of the screen. Peter O'Toole is suitably loathesome as the rotting Tiberius and appears to be thoroughly enjoying himself. Teresa Ann Savoy is actually quite charming as Drusilla. Helen Mirren wanders through the whole thing looking aloof and rather bored. In the making of documentary she gets the best line describing the film: "It's an interesting mix of art and genitals" and then gives the perfect smirk to camera. John Gielgud acts with disdain through his limited part, hard to tell whether he's acting or not.

A mention of the music at this point, the theme from Spartacus by Khachaturyan is used as a love theme, when the film was first released this caused laughter to break out, because this theme was overly familiar from the Onedin Line TV series. Prokofiev's Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet also lurks within. With the passing of years these now seem like ideal choices.

Reviewed on: 06 Jul 2008
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Graphic retelling of the story of the Roman emperor.
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Director: Tinto Brass, Bob Guccione, Giancarlo Lui

Writer: Gore Vidal, Bob Guccione, Giancarlo Lui, Franco Rossellini

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Peter O'Toole, Teresa Ann Savoy, Helen Mirren, Guido Mannari, John Gielgud, Giancarlo Badessi, Bruno Brive, Adriana Asti, Leopoldo Trieste, Paolo Bonacelli, John Steiner

Year: 1979

Runtime: 156 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Italy, US

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