Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bob Guccione's Caligula (1979)

The movie Caligula (1979) is an attempt to use cinematography to recreate life in the Roman world as it was before the arrival of the first messengers of Christ to the City.

Modern times in many ways resemble the Roman period and we are fascinated about the Romans we know so much about.  Yet, truly crossing from the Christian world back to pagan Rome is extremely difficult and requires very hard work.

I think that the powerful novel by Robert Graves I, Claudius (1934) and the 1976 BBC TV series made of it succeeded in recreating Rome. Similarly, the powerful 2005 TV series Rome created by Bruno Heller, John Milius and William J. MacDonald does a good job in this and is almost like a documentary. But here the work on historical sources, on characters and their motivations and behaviour shows.

Bob Guccione (1930 - October 10, 2010)
Bob Guccione was perhaps inspired by I, Claudius to make something about the Roman period. But his interest in making the movie Caligula were less in historical accuracy as in depicting a truly licentious person and his life style in Penthouse style. The movie was written by Gore Vidal and directed by Bob Guccione and Franco Rosselini. Malcolm McDowell acted as the emperor and other well-known actors John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole and Helen Mirren joined in.

It helps to understand the movie when we remember that Guccione was the founder of the Penthouse franchise in England 1965 and USA 1969 that was built as competition to Hugh Hefner's (1926) famous Playboy. His approach to the competition was to expose - to expose beautiful women more explicitly than the in Hefner's magazine; to expose sensational scandals and misdeeds by significant public figures of his times.

Caligula is an exposé of emperor Caligula's scandalous late years and first full-length movie containing explicit sex thus fits the Penthouse "revealing the secrets" style in both aspects. 

Caligula and us
There is a very deep ravine between the reality of classical Rome and its genuinely pagan world and modern Christian or post-Christian world. Making the jump from today's civilization, Western world and its morals or lack of ethics to the world before Jesus Christ came requires very hard work.

I think that Bob Guccione and his team did not work hard enough on the authentic Roman sources that describe Caligula and his times and give us a glimpses on how his contemporaries viewed him. What we know about Caligula's debauchery surely can inspire all kind of ideas about violence, adultery, orgies and deprived behaviour by murderous men and women. But this is not historical research but rather us reflecting our not so sublime feelings about total carnal freedom and the secret desires of our hearts to another time and place.

In Guccione's Caligula we are reflecting ourselves and our deep evil desires using ancient Romans as the mirror rather than exposing accurately what those Romans really were and how they felt about morality and humanity.

Caligula quotes
Emperor Claudius (37-41)
British Museums treasures - a reference coin 
Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum 
produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Suetonius gives in Twelve Caesars the famous sentence
Oderint dum metuan. 
I scorn their hatred, if they do but fear me.

As far as I know, the often quoted esoteric sentence in the movie Caligula is not history but modern fiction by Gore Vidal:

"I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man and therefore I am... a God. I shall wait for the unanimous decision of the senate, Claudius." (Caligula movie 1979)

It is, nevertheless, in line with what Philo wrote about Caligula in On the Embassy to Gaius:
"But the madness and frenzy to which he gave way were so preposterous, and so utterly insane, that he went even beyond the demigods, and mounted up to and invaded the veneration and worship paid to those who are looked upon as greater than they, as the supreme deities of the world, Mercury, and Apollo, and Mars."

Philo lets us understand that normal Romans considered Caligula nothing but a deprived mad, he was not considered a normal healthy human being by the classical authors. Emperor Caligula was not Rome as little as Marquise de Sade was Rococo France.

But in the eighth month a severe disease attacked Gaius who had changed the manner of his living which was a little while before, while Tiberius was alive, very simple and on that account more wholesome than one of great sumptuousness and luxury; for he began to indulge in abundance of strong wine and eating of rich dishes, and in the abundant license of insatiable desires and great insolence, and in the unseasonable use of hot baths, and emetics, and then again in winebibbing and drunkenness, and returning gluttony, and in lust after boys and women, and in everything else which tends to destroy both soul and body, and all the bonds which unite and strengthen the two; for the rewards of temperance are health and strength, and the wages of intemperance are weakness and disease which bring a man near to death.
Philo. On the Embassy to Gaius, II, sec. 14. 
Translated by C. D. Yonge.

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