Possibly the ultimate treatise on the decadence of English actors cut loose on Italian studios. (Fellini's Toby Dammit anticipates it opulently.) The original treatment was a Rossellini miniseries, reshaped then by Gore Vidal as political satire along the lines of The Best Man (vestiges of it, such as the literalization of the pyramid of politics, are still spotted); Tinto Brass had Satyricon in mind (plus footage of Von Sternberg's I, Claudius, certainly) and funding came pouring out of Penthouse magazine, the finished film came out scrambled and padded with "additional scenes by Bob Guccione and Giancarlo Liu." It's a momentous work all the same, not so much the culmination of '70s porn-chic cinema as its purposefully degraded last hurrah, with iconography (Sign of the Cross, The Last Days of Pompeii, etc.) readjusted to fit the impending new decade. Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) is quite mad, in his own mind divinely appointed ("Jupiter loves me") and a giant among toady fornicators: the role cries for mad comic inspiration and McDowell supplies it, from the Emperor's walk-like-an-Egyptian nude strut under pouring rain to his zipping through bureaucratic work in order to get back to the orgy. Peter O'Toole as putrid Tiberius and John Gielgud as Nerva pass through with the kind of drollery only British actors seem able to muster in the face of trying times; Helen Mirren's Caesonia is picked from a Sapphic lickfest and proposed to during a bit of buggery, her wink sails past the camera and over to the viewer. The looming sets give a whiff of disintegrating chintz, the voices are disembodied, the ubiquitous steam might be sulfur: Aberration in both sex and violence is the presiding norm, not even Drusilla's (Teresa Ann Savoy) lifeless body escapes becoming a spread-snatch shot. To excoriate the movie for being repellent is to condemn it for succeeding on its goals -- better to marvel at the ejaculatory launching of the Imperial Brothel and witness the genesis of Las Vegas. (Only Showgirls could touch it, really.) With Guido Mannari, Giancarlo Badessi, Adriana Asti, and Leopoldo Trieste.
--- Fernando F. Croce