Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Joe D'Amato's Caligola: La storia mai raccontata (1982)

"[Why did you make] your subsequent film Caligola: La storia mai raccontata?" asks an interviewer to Joe D'Amato in Spaghetti Nightmares. To this question, D'Amato tersely and succinctly responds, "That was commercial exploitation of the successful film by Tinto Brass."As such, only a cursory knowledge by the viewer of the history of Roman emperor Caligula is required, and perhaps more importantly, at least in terms of cinematic exploitation, the viewer gets treated to a depiction within Caligola: La storia mai raccontata (1982) of the traditional traits associated with the emperor's reign: egomania-cum-insanity, sexual deviancy, and indulgence. Caligola is a conduit film, leading its viewer to a long, indulgent orgy sequence in its middle from which its exposition inevitably leads. The orgy sequence buttresses the film, as D'Amato circuits Caligola's beginning and final act with a thin revenge plot line against the titular ruler.
Caligula (David Brandon) is having nightmares about his assassination. Domitius (Michele Soavi) attempts to murder him while the emperor is sleeping. Caligula's killing is thwarted by his bodyguard, Ulmar (Sasha D'Arc). While horseback-riding on the beach one day with Messala (Luciano Bartoli), Caligula sees a group of young people at the shore, one of whom is beautiful Livia (Fabiola Toledo). Livia belongs to a religious cult who do not worship the divine emperor as god. Caligula and Messala ambush Livia and her lover, and during Caligula's rape of Livia, she kills herself with a dagger. Caligula summons the senators, later, and tells them of his new architectural plans, so fitting for an emperor-cum-god. Unfortunately, Caligula does not have the funds to construct his opulent design, so an orgy is planned to raise the capital. Miriam (Laura Gemser), fellow cult member and friend of Livia, sees the orgy as an opportunity to avenge Livia's death so she decides to infiltrate. "What about the Caligula movie that you did?" asks an interviewer (from Flesh and Blood, Number Six, FAB Press, 1996). "I mean, half that movie is hardcore..." D'Amato responds [as to whether D'Amato shoots the hardcore inserts within some of his films]: "Yeah. Sure, sure, but Caligola was done like this--there are two versions, one soft version and one hardcore version...Yeah, I shot the hardcore version. In Caligola, yes. [note--The hardcore version, running at approximately one hundred and twenty five minutes is the version of the film here under review.]" While Caligola is not composed of half hardcore footage, the film certainly appears that way, as the viewer is led to its focal, middle orgy sequence by the emperor's violent and sexually deviant acts (and led out of the orgy sequence into another series of the same). Brandon's Caligula presides over D'Amato's most meticulous sequence: excessive wine-drinking and gluttonous eating are only the beginning. The sex acts begin with laughter, teasing, and fondling. A juggler walks in with fire batons. D'Amato heats the sequence up as the orgy truly begins. Two fighters enter and begin a fight to the death on the floor, donning spiked gloves. As the two punch and beat on each other, the blood sprays on the party guests. D'Amato relishes the close-up shots of the guests wiping the blood off of their faces to continue eating and drinking, as if the spraying blood was a minor party foul and totally expected. After one warrior dies at the fists of the other, after Caligula giving the thumbs-down sign, a horse and a woman are escorted in. "Watch this," says Caligula to Miriam. "It's a wonderful performance." It's an offensive scene. D'Amato finishes the sequence with his hardcore footage (Mark Shannon's inclusion is unsurprising here). A completely repellent and unerotic sequence.The commercial success of Tinto Brass's Caligola (1979) created a temporary market for films made in its wake, hoping to seduce more viewers by providing (and pushing the limits) of the sensational elements of the original. D'Amato's Caligola appears exactly that way--almost as if it's a temporary film awaiting completion, with a better narrative or more powerful compositions and visuals. To his credit, save the weaponry (which obviously look like costume props), the detail to the historic look of the film feels genuine. The costumes, the sets, and the armor, for example, all appear credible. D'Amato's own cinematography is professional and competent and sees little flare (save the middle sequence). Caligula's relationship with Soavi's Domitius is an engaging side plot and one of the more interesting touches of the film, as it really the most representative of Caligula's insane cruelty. (Soavi would cast Brandon as an ego-maniacal and somewhat cruel theatre director in his excellent directorial debut, Stage Fright (1987), a D'Amato Filmirage production). Brandon gives a very over-the-top performance as the emperor. Caligula's dream sequences contain D'Amato's best visual work. The masked, helmeted assassin is effectively haunting. D'Amato's signature hand-held camerawork is brilliant, as Brandon's Caligula wanders from the seashore of the beach, around the littered bodies of dead senators, up to a dune to encounter his killer. Carlo Maria Cordio's score is beautiful.Woefully underused are Laura Gemser and especially Gabriele Tinti, as the senator Agrippa. Tinti has a wonderfully emotive face and is an extremely talented dramatic actor. Tinti appears in few scenes (with two notably offensive scenes near the end, one involving torture). Gemser has never been an exceptional actress but is very charismatic and often brings an alluring air to her roles, adding a flare which only she can spark. She is not given much to do but to carry the thin revenge plot line, while her sex scenes with Brandon are completely unerotic (surprising from Gemser). Again, Caligola feels temporary, as if D'Amato and company wanted to shock its viewers into the theatres quickly before they forgot about Brass's original. Well, D'Amato succeeded in creating a forgettable film, himself.


Alex Bakshaev said...

Being a D'Amato enthusiast I sure will have to check out "Caligula" at some point, but it doesn't appear to be among his essential work.Still , would be nice to see another Michele Soavi acting appearance.Thanks for an informative review!

Mr.LargePackage said...

Great review, Hans. You know little boots? And that is large and in charge.