The genesis and filming of Caligula, which Tinto Brass started shooting in September 1976 for producers Bob Guccione and Franco Rossellini, based on a script written by Gore Vidal, are notorious. But its censorship vicissitudes were nothing short of an ordeal that went on for years. We will discuss them thoroughly in this three-part essay.
Caligula represents the ultimate result of an extreme season in Italian cinema: a big-budget epic, produced by a world-famous adult brand (Bob Guccione was the founder and publisher of Penthouse) and written by one of the most prestigious writers around, Gore Vidal. It would combine high and low, culture and cum, famous film stars (Malcolm McDowell) and Shakespearean thespians (Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud) on the one hand, and nudity and explicit sex on the other.
Caligula was born as a film of contrasts. To Vidal, the story of the Roman emperor who became notorious for his madness and cruely «should be the first realistic study of the Roman Empire ever put on screen», but Tinto Brass – chosen by Bob Guccione after John Huston’s rejection and preferred to Lina Wertmüller – created an abstract, stylized Rome, colorful even at its most atrocious, reminiscent of of Fellini-Satyricon but more Pop, and therefore anachronistic, almost musical-like.
In its grandiose artificialness, Caligula’s Rome works as yet another, perhaps unconscious, allegory and parody of Cinecittà, which by then was already in disarray. Brass’s film is an ideal evil twin of Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, a sign of the end of an era, and likewise surrounded and followed by a small bunch of low-budget productions which, like parasites, fed on its waste and lived in its shade.
Shooting didn’t go smoothly. In an interview for Time Magazine, Vidal labeled directors as parasites, and Brass got so furious that he asked Guccione to remove the writer from the set. The protagonist Maria Schneider left the film because of the many erotic scenes, and was replaced by Teresa Ann Savoy. The shooting plan concocted by Guccione and Franco Rossellini turned out to be inadequate, and art director Danilo Donati had to change and simplify the elaborate original set design, with markedly theatrical results, while Brass improvised new sequences (such as the opening one with McDowell and Savoy in the woods) so as not to waste time and money. The director made extensive changes heavily on the original script, and at the end of the shooting Vidal distanced himself from the result, labeling it «easily one of the worst films ever made»; he also overturned his initial judgment on Brass’s work: Salon Kitty, which the writer had initially praised in its full version, received the same brand of infamy as Caligula.
Caligula was finally submitted to the Board of Censors on July 9, 1979, in a copy of 4151 metres, divided in 8 reels, for a running rime of 2 hours, 31 minutes and 19 seconds. It was presented by Francesco Orefici of Felix Cinematografica s.r.l., a production and distribution company headed by Davide Costa and Franco Romano Rossellini.
However, the request for the censorship visa riseked to remain stalled, since the film seemed to have been legally blocked by the Praetor (magistrate) of Rome, Giovanni Giacobbe. A note dated July 10, 1979 and sent to the 5th Cinematographic Division at the Ministry of Spectacle read:
«We thereby inform the division that, as of today, this office is informed of a pending civil lawsuit regarding the prohibition of the use of the material shot for the film in question, and the issue of an order from the Praetor of Rome, dated July 7, 1977, which inhibits Felix Cinematografica from said use. The writer is unaware of any further court decisions or traditional arrangements between the parties.»
In order to reconstruct the story mentioned in the papers, it is necessary to go back in time, and precisely to April 18, 1977, the date when Brass, who was then busy editing the film, received a letter of dismissal signed by Bob Guccione. The producer was dissatisfied with the work done so far, and wanted to export the film footage from Rome To London, and entrust the editing to a technician of his confidence.
«Guccione doesn’t like the film at all», Irene Bignardi wrote in La Repubblica, «because, that’s Brass’s explanation, it wasn’t shot according to the “Penthouse” aesthetics, that is, sex “Grand Hotel”-style adjourned to the 1970s permissiveness, and aimed at a petit-bourgeouis and voyeur audience.» And, as Brass himself remarked, «my film, which brings to its extreme consequences the logic of power through the story of a character, Caligula, who could dismantle its institutions, is not enough glossy, not “obscene” enough.»
However, the director did not accept the dismissal passively, and through his lawyer, Golino, he sued Penthouse and Felix Cinematografica, demanding the film to be seized. In August 1977, the Court of Rome accepted the director’s demands: the production companies could not use the material filmed by Brass, and the author was the only one capable of completing the editing. Nevertheless, as some articles noted, the ruling was nothing more than a compromise, because it affected only the countries which signed the Berne Convention on copyright, but had no effect on other territories, where Guccione could safely release his own version of Caligula.
In short, the ruling basically damaged only the Italian companies, Felix and Pac, the latter entitled to distribute the film in Italy. After the Judge of the Second Section of the Civil Court of Rome, Ragusa, rejected the producers’ request to revoke or modify the ordinance with an injunction, Felix Cinematografica ran to shelter and settled an agreement with Brass.
As Franco Rossellini wrote to the “Ministero dello Spettacolo” (Ministry of Spectacle), on July 12, 1979, reassuring the Board on the legitimacy of the application for a certificate from the board of censors:
«Our company, on the basis of the court order, repeatedly asked Mr. Brass to complete the work, and, in the absence of collaboration, sued him in Court so that he would fulfill his committment. Subsequently, in the last month of May, a mutual agreement was reached and both parts agreed to renounce to the ongoing judgments. Therefore the situation between us and the director is now completely settled, with mutual satisfaction.».
Caligula could therefore be reviewed by the Board, and, contrary to all previsions, the 7th Section of the First Instance Committee did not reject the film, but requested only two cuts be performed, acknowledging the film’s artistic value: «The Board notes that the sex and erotic scenes, albeit extremely raw and violent in their expressiveness, manage to be—with the exception of the two which are requested to be cut—absorbed by the significance of the context itself.»
The cuts affected «the lesbian intercourses of the two woman who look through the hole in the wall and the final fellatio», for a total of 22 metres (about 47 seconds).
It looked like the end of a stalemate, but it was just the beginning of the ordeal.
 “Will the real Caligula stand up?,” Time Magazine, January 3, 1977.
 In Italy, until 1998, Praetor was a magistrate with particular duty (especially in civil branch).
 Grand Hotel was a popular Italian photonovel magazine.
Special thanks to Peter Jilmstad