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The Artistic and Cultural Dimensions of Caligula by Tinto Brass.

“Caligula,” also re-released in Italy under the title “Io, Caligola,” is a 1979 historical pornographic film directed by Tinto Brass. The movie features explicit scenes of nudity and sexuality filmed by Giancarlo Lui and Bob Guccione, the editor of Penthouse magazine and the film’s producer. The script was written by Gore Vidal and co-financed by the adult magazine Penthouse. Produced by Guccione along with Franco Rossellini, the film gained notoriety for its explicit content and remains banned in multiple countries.

Plot Summary

The film portrays Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, commonly known as Caligula, who is the young heir to his great-uncle, Emperor Tiberius. Caligula is summoned to the island of Capri, where the increasingly paranoid and venereally diseased Tiberius resides. The Emperor, known for his hedonistic lifestyle, treats Caligula harshly, torturing a soldier for drinking before his duty as a lesson in fear.

The tension between Caligula and Tiberius escalates after Caligula witnesses Tiberius’ genuine affection for his young cousin Gemellus. Eventually, Tiberius attempts to poison Caligula but fails. Disgusted by the Emperor’s tyranny, the wise senator Nerva commits suicide, leading Tiberius into a catatonic state. Believing Tiberius to be dead, Caligula tries to take his imperial ring, but his plan is thwarted when Tiberius awakens. Caligula’s ally, Macro, suffocates Tiberius, leading to Caligula’s ascension as Emperor.


After Tiberius’ funeral, Caligula is officially proclaimed Emperor and is popular among the people who despise the late Tiberius. Caligula initially appoints Macro as a close aide but soon feels threatened by his growing influence and has him publicly executed. Caligula chooses Longinus, a bureaucrat from the previous regime, as his personal assistant.

Caligula’s sister Drusilla, who is also his lover, tries to find him a wife among the priestesses of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Caligula marries Cesonia, a promiscuous courtesan. As Emperor, Caligula’s behavior worsens, mirroring that of his late great-uncle. His actions range from raping a newlywed couple to nominating his horse as consul and priest.

His deteriorating mental state becomes evident when his sister Drusilla dies of the same fever that earlier afflicted him. In a fit of madness, he vandalizes statues of Isis and humiliates public officials, forcing their wives to become prostitutes. Longinus and another aide, Cassius Chaerea, plot against him. Caligula, along with his wife and daughter, is eventually assassinated, their bodies desecrated. Claudius, a timid relative who witnesses the murder, is seized and declared the new Emperor, providing an opportunity for his manipulative aides to control the empire in his stead.


The film has attracted considerable attention for its controversial nature and remains a topic of discussion due to its explicit scenes and complex characters. It has been the subject of various legal challenges and is currently banned in several countries. Despite its notoriety, the film also has a cult following and has been analyzed for its depiction of the complexities of power, corruption, and moral decadence.


Production Background

The film “Caligula” has a complex production history that dates back to an original script by writer Gore Vidal. Initially, the screenplay was designed for a television miniseries focused on the life of Roman Emperor Caligula. Italian director Roberto Rossellini was slated to direct, but the project never materialized. Franco Rossellini, Roberto’s nephew, later rekindled interest in the script, envisioning it as a low-budget historical film. Gore Vidal was able to secure financing from Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse magazine. Guccione agreed to fund the project on the condition that the film would have a strong erotic tone to serve as promotional material for his magazine.

Casting and Crew

Prominent figures were involved in the film’s production, making it a high-profile venture. Danilo Donati, a regular collaborator with Federico Fellini, was responsible for set and costume design. Talented actors like Malcolm McDowell, Maria Schneider (later replaced by Teresa Ann Savoy due to creative differences), Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and Sir John Gielgud were cast. The producers initially considered directors like John Huston and Lina Wertmüller, both of whom declined. Ultimately, Tinto Brass was chosen as the director, mainly because of Guccione’s impression of his previous work, “Salon Kitty”.

Production Challenges

The production faced numerous hurdles. According to an interview with Guccione in Penthouse in 1980, there were constant disagreements between Vidal and Brass. Tensions escalated, leading to Vidal being ousted from the set by Brass. Brass found Vidal’s script unsatisfactory and made several changes, sometimes improvising scenes on set. There were also issues with actress Maria Schneider, particularly regarding the nudity and sexual content in her role, which led to her leaving the project. Further conflicts arose with set designer Donati, mainly due to dissatisfaction with the completed sets.

Post-Production and Legal Issues

The post-production phase brought additional challenges. Unhappy with the footage, Guccione took complete control, sidelining Brass. He re-edited the film, adding explicitly pornographic scenes, in hopes of box office success. Both Brass and Vidal later filed lawsuits against the film and Guccione, delaying its release. Vidal, initially promised a $200,000 fee for his script, publicly disavowed the film.

In 1981, Anneka Di Lorenzo, who played Messalina, filed a sexual harassment suit against Guccione. The case was finally resolved in 1990, with a New York court ordering Guccione to pay $60,000 in damages and $4 million in legal fees.

Release and Reception

The film received an 18+ rating and premiered on August 14, 1979, at the “Cinema Nuovo” in Meldola. It was later distributed in Rome and Alessandria but was seized by legal authorities within six days for obscenity.


On-Set Anecdotes

Filming began in Rome in September 1976. While Malcolm McDowell reportedly got along well with Tinto Brass, Peter O’Toole disliked the director. John Gielgud and Helen Mirren remained indifferent to Brass, focusing on their performances. Notably, O’Toole had quit drinking before the shoot, but Guccione claimed he was “always high on something” during production. An anecdote about McDowell reveals that he took some crew members out to dinner to celebrate England’s football win against Italy but left the bill for the choreographer, claiming he had forgotten enough money.

The relationship between Brass and Guccione also deteriorated over disagreements about the sexual content in the film. Guccione wanted real, pornographic sex scenes, which Brass refused to shoot.

The film’s production is a tale marked by artistic conflicts, legal troubles, and a multitude of changes that steered it away from its initial vision. Despite its star-studded cast and high-profile production team, “Caligula” remains a controversial film that strayed far from its original intent.

Legal and Censorship Issues

In 1981, a judicial amnesty absolved the crime of obscenity, allowing producer Franco Rossellini access to the film’s negatives stored at the Technicolor lab. Despite an ongoing trial and a previous confiscation order from the judges in Bologna, Rossellini reached an agreement between Felix Cinematografica and the French company Gaumont to re-release the film. The new version, titled “Io, Caligola,” was cut to 133 minutes and approved for release, albeit still restricted to viewers over 18, on March 29, 1984. However, on April 3, 1984, the Chief Prosecutor of Forlì, Mario Angeletti, ordered the film’s confiscation nationwide, citing its “obvious obscenity” which included unnatural sexual relations and violent scenes.

Influence and Derivative Works

In 2005, artist Francesco Vezzoli showcased a five-minute film at the 51st Venice International Film Festival called “Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula.” Intended as a hypothetical remake of the 1979 film “Caligula,” this short film featured an ensemble cast including Milla Jovovich, Benicio del Toro, and Courtney Love, with costumes designed by Donatella Versace.

Cultural Impact

The film’s influence extends beyond cinema, inspiring other directors and even performances in different domains. Director Joe D’Amato drew inspiration from this film for his 1982 adult film “Caligola – La storia mai raccontata.” Additionally, a scene involving a severed penis fed to dogs was replicated by Eli Roth in his 2007 film “Hostel: Part II.” Actor Leonardo DiCaprio also mentioned that he was inspired by the film’s portrayal of Caligula for his role as Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013).

Source: wikipedia

Topics: Impact of Caligula on Modern Cinema, Francesco Vezzoli’s Remake Trailer, Legal Struggles of Caligula, Cultural Legacy of Italian Films, Caligula and Gore Vidal

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