Monday 22 January 2024

Caligula: The Ultimate Cut (USA 1979/2024: Dir Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione, Producer Thomas Negovan)

I first saw Caligula when it was originally released into UK cinemas; I can't recall the exact date, but it would have been around October 1980. A friend had been in New York earlier that year and had seen it (before it came to these shores) and she wrote me a postcard that urged me to go feast my eyes as soon as I could. We'd parted ways in June of that year so I was unable to check with her whether the rather anodyne cut (with interval) that I witnessed at the Prince Charles cinema was the same as the one she'd seen.

Apparently not. The version she would have viewed was 155 minutes long, and by the time it had dragged itself through the British Board of Film Censors (as it was until 1984) Caligula had been reduced by a whopping eleven minutes, the body electing to remove the "...explicit sight of real sex but also scenes of violence and sexual violence that were felt to render the film potentially illegal..." including "... a scene of castration, a disemboweling, the rape of a virgin and sight of Caligula inserting his fist into a man's anus" (quotes taken from the BBFC case study for the film which usefully details its classification history; more is available within the original movie's IMDb entry).

I was underwhelmed by my first exposure to the film. I remember it to be a meandering movie lacking any pace, with an over the top performance from Malcolm McDowell which often made Caligula feel like comedy rather than historical epic.

Full disclosure; I haven't bothered to track down any of the subsequent, more complete releases, and wouldn't be writing this except that, as part of the BFI's celebration of the much missed Scala cinema (commemorated in the documentary Scala!!! Or, the Incredibly Strange Rise and Fall of the World's Wildest Cinema and How It Influenced a Mixed-up Generation of Weirdos and Misfits), Caligula: The Ultimate Cut screened to an unsuspecting audience as a surprise film.

The genesis of TUC is fascinating. Thomas Negovan, a film historian who looks young enough not to have been born when Caligula first graced our screens, accessed over 90 hours of footage filmed (and held by the owners of 'Penthouse' who continue to have a stake in the project), but not used in the original movie, and spent three years reassembling it using alternative takes. Why? Supposedly to present a single director cut, re-assembling the film to restore some dignity and maybe recuperate its reputation from the rather tarnished result of squabbles between writer Gore Vidal, Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione?

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the restoration/reimagining/re insert your own word here is the choice of alternative takes for the lead role. Caligula still emerges as batshit but some of the histrionics have been removed by choosing shots which demonstrate a more measured turn by McDowell. The other performance aspect - and one of the biggest changes to the original film - is Helen Mirren as Caligula's wife Caesonia. Rescued from her almost blink and you'll miss it performance in the original movie, Mirren is, thanks to Negovan, now a fully rounded character whose motivations and relationship with her husband add a depth to the character and the events onscreen.

The biggest excisions from the film are, basically, Guccione's. The violence has been reduced and the hardcore elements removed; to be honest the brothel scenes still pack a punch and the rather poorly filmed real sex sequences, filmed after hours by Bob and - some say - Brass, didn't add anything. The wedding rape scene, where Caligula deflowers a young newlywed couple, one after the other, is more explicit in this version, and provoked a few walkouts at the screening I attended. It's pretty shocking stuff, more so perhaps because the overall tone of the movie has become slightly more considered.

It is however (and literally) a film of two halves. The first part, chronicling Caligula's rise to power and culminating in the death of his sister/lover Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy) is still uneven and messy. It's in the second part that things improve; there's an overall tightness of plotting and less reliance on shock, making the climactic assassination scene more powerful. Also of note is the photography of Danilo Donati's set design; relegated almost to an afterthought in the original film, Negovan has deployed unused establishing shots of the impressive sets to give the movie more of a sense of scale and grandeur; the replacement of the original soundtrack with a contemporary downtempo score also contributes to the film's arguably more serious feel.

Caligula will never be a great film, and the labour of love that produced 'The Ultimate Cut' - reportedly the result of three years' work - does raise the question 'was it worth it'? I suppose you'll have to see for yourself when it's (re) released in the next few months. Maybe for his next project, and if they still exist, Negovan could poke around the unused - and reputedly calmer - takes of Jack Nicholson playing haunted caretaker Jack Torrance in Kubrick's The Shining which, according to legend, were ditched in favour of those showing the actor's more over the top delivery. See you in 2027 then. 

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