Caligula At Cannes Classics 2023: “Irresistible Mix Of Art And Genitals”!
“With cinema we talk about everything, we get to everything.” The words of Jean-Luc Godard, total genius of cinema, to whom the 2023 Cannes Film Festival dedicated a large tribute within the Cannes Classics section.
What more effective synthesis to define this section which—alongside a restored vintage Hitchcock or a 1947 Ozu—also presented the discussed, troubled, and disputed Caligula – The Ultimate Cut (1979, USA/Italy), restored by Penthouse Films International under the supervision of Thomas Negovan, starting from the original negative and audio.
But the incurable contradiction of this operation lies in the exclusion of Tinto Brass, the film’s indomitable director, from the restoration. Exclusion perpetrated precisely by a festival that has always placed the author before everyone and everything, electing the director as supreme master of cinema, the only true author of the work. All this until yesterday.
Today, in the official communications of the Cannes Film Festival, the name of the director and its author has, incredibly, disappeared. That is Tinto Brass, who conquered the direction of Caligula thanks to the great success of Salon Kitty which, in the first half of the Seventies, arrived on the wave of films exploring the dualism “sex and power” in Nazi sauce, similarly to the Visconti’s The Damned (La caduta degli dei) and Pasolini’s Salò e le 120 giornate di Sodoma.
Tinto Brass had made his directorial debut in 1963 with Chi non lavora è perduto, before moving on to the Italian western genre. In 1976 with Salon Kitty, he definitively turned to the themes of eroticism and sexuality that would accompany him until the end of his career. Now 90 years old, after having also managed the legendary Locanda Cipriani in the Venice lagoon with his wife, he has not lost his position as a protester, declaring that he will take legal action to counter the illegitimate Caligula – The Ultimate Cut presented at Cannes Classics 2023.
It was Franco Rossellini, producer of various films by Pasolini, following the success of Salon Kitty, who thought of Tinto Brass, the “sinister filmmaker and likeable pig,” for Caligula, a film written by Gore Vidal for a planned television series under the direction of Roberto Rossellini. However, the project took a very different direction and at the first conflicts with Brass, Vidal left the set and asked to withdraw his name.
Franco Rossellini, Roberto’s nephew, then involved the American producer Bob Guccione, wealthy publisher of Penthouse (Playboy‘s great rival), who wanted to stake everything on more extreme eroticism. To this end he shot some pornographic scenes himself, to be included in the final cut from which Tinto Brass was later ousted. The only winner of this “singular duel” was, therefore, the powerful American producer Guccione, who manipulated the film—a super- production for the time—as he pleased, with an exceptional cast featuring Malcom McDowell (fresh from A Clockwork Orange) as the insane Caligula, Peter O’Toole as Emperor Tiberius, Helen Mirren as Caesonia, wife of Caligula, and Teresa Ann Savoy as Drusilla, sister of Caligula—a role rejected by Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris) for having too many sex scenes. And then John Gielgud, Adriana Asti, Leopoldo Trieste, Paolo Bonacelli and many others. The art direction was entrusted to the Oscar-winning Danilo Donati, who had already designed the scenographies of Imperial Rome for Federico Fellini in Satyricon; he set up a series of interiors that moved like machines to inflict pleasures and tortures in an erotic extreme featuring heterosexual and homosexual rape, necrophilia, incest, orgies, oral sex, and penetrations.
To accompany the film in Cannes there should have been one of the protagonists: Helen Mirren who, as she declared at the time, considers the work an “irresistible mix of art and genitals.” But at the last moment, although present on the Croisette, she did not attend the screening.
Caligula – The Ultimate Cut still stands today as an unsurpassed example of the encounter between the so-called “high” cinema and “low” cinema, between great actors who want to make a historical film, and a director who cannot keep the producer’s sexual impulses in check, with the end result a hybrid and schizophrenic film, an unrepeatable unicum in the history of world cinema.
In Italy the other producer, Franco Rossellini, was tried and sentenced to four months in prison and to pay a large fine, while Tinto Brass managed to get away with it as he had been ousted from the final editing. After the denunciation and the confiscation of the copies, in 1981 Franco Rossellini stitched up a new version of the 133-minute film.
At the end of so many travails of the film, it seems that seven different versions have been circulated around the world; in Cannes we saw Caligula – The Ultimate Cut in the new version of 173 minutes, 40 minutes more than previously seen. Even if the heretic maestro Tinto Brass, who turned 90 last March 26th, was canceled from Cannes, he remains a fighter who, despite everything, has left an indelible mark in the imagination of erotic cinema! To the one who spent so much to bring Gore Vidal’s screenplay within his creative perimeters, we wish you to win this authorial battle too!
Edited by Robert Horton
© FIPRESCI 2023