The story of the censorship vicissitudes of Caligula continues (the first part was here)
Caligula had already proven controversial at the advance screening, which took place at the “Cinema Nuovo” theater in Meldola, a village near Forlì, on August 14, 1979.
A citizen, Ciotti Carmine, filed a formal complaint against the film. After viewing Caligula, the Investigating Magistrate of the Forlì Tribunal, Dr. Maria Grazia Ruggiano, decided to reject it, since she didn’t detect any element of criminal offense in the film.
«The author’s intent», the judge wrote in the verdict, displaying an enviable critical sensibility, «does not appear to be aimed at a faithful historical reconstruction, but rather at obtaining – through the provocative use of the visuals – a tension on the part of the viewer, in which violence and oppression are perceived with absolute immediacy. These are the excesses of a world which, losing its dignity, endorses its own end. […] It is in this atmosphere of violence and destruction that the raw orgy scenes find their artistic legitimacy […]. But the most significant sequence – for the exclusion of the “obscene” content for which the film would be punishable – is certainly the one of the caresses on Drusilla’s dead body. Shocking caresses which search, ask for, and seek not the pleasure, but the lost sense of life and death. For all that’s been observed so far, it can be therefore concluded […] that Caligula is a work of art […]. The admittedly long sequences of libido and unbridled sensuality find their own precise functional placement within the expressive language of the movie, and never appear as an end but as means which the author used to reach the artistic aim he pursued. As such, no censorship can be performed on the level of the criminal law, since there has already been taken administrative action to limit the film’s diffusion by forbidding it to those under 18 years old.»
In November 1979 Caligula entered the normal distribution circuit in Italy. In Rome it was screened in six theaters, and had a tremendous success, despite the increased price of the ticket due to its length, which forced theater owners to schedule a lesser number of daily screenings.
The newspaper La Repubblica wrote on November 17: «30,000 viewers in Rome in a weekend, and almost 10,000 in Catania. 50 million lire grossed only in the Capital, on Saturday and Sunday. It’s a miracle. But even on Monday, it was all sold out.»
Newspapers reported of moviegoers being disgusted and getting sick because of the excessive gruesomeness of several scenes.
A few days later, two more complaints were presented to the Prosecutor’s Office in Rome: they had been filled by two right-wing MPs, Agostino Greggi and Aldo Sebastiani, both belonging to the neo-fascist party MSI (Movimento Sociale Italiano, “Italian Social Movement”).
Sebastiani, in his complaint, claimed that he the film featured «the most horrid and obsessive representation of genitals… a plethora of indecent images and slogans which continually hammer folk psychology and excite its morbid curiosity, its lower feelings, its most ignoble reactions. […]. Pornography is an incitement to malice, to delinquency, to the already rampant mental alienation.»
Greggi – a former member of the Democrazia Cristiana party who had been elected for MSI that year – had already distinguished himself with his battle against the “fumetti neri” in the 1960s and with some fervent moralizing campaigns, to the point that Alberto Sordi took him as inspiration to play the lead character in the satiric comedy Il moralista (1959, Giorgio Bianchi).
Regarding Caligula, Greggi asked «how the Board of Censors could have watched the film without reacting», and demanded, provocatively, the abolition of all censorship and the total liberalization of cinema, with a specific parliamentary question. «But Greggi, with a master move, also asks to abolish all the State benefits that the law offers since 1965 and will be granted until 1998», noted the newspaper Paese Sera. «No, this is not the way», the article continued. «What Greggi proposed is an even subtler form of censorship: to prevent anyone from making films which he and Sebastiani label as “morbid”, the chance to make movies would be abolished to everyone; that’s a way of declaring themselves egalitarian.»
As per practice, the complaints caused the film to be seized nationally, by order of the Prosecutor of Rome Giancarlo Armati, on November 16, 1979. The act was motivated by the «insistence and extension of certain scenes which go beyond historical interpretation of the moment, and display a character of obscenity in an autonomous way to the story.»
The producers’ reactions were immediate. Rossellini told the newspapers that it was impossible to develop a theme faithfully without adhering to the customs and uses of the historical period in which the action takes place. «No additions have been made to the film after the Board approved it», the producer claimed. «Caligula, in its grandioseness, is a historical reconstruction of an age which didn’t have the moral limits of our time. Even in their more austere days, in the beginning of their political and social evolution, the classic Greek-Roman tradition and the whole Mediterranean civilization had a very relative sense of decency. There was no offense in the pure and simple exhibition of nudity. In frescos and vases we can find love scenes depicted without any concern for obscenity. […]. More so in the period of decadence, scenes of orgies were frequent and were part of a historical context which in this film could not be faked without destroying the true content of the character of Caligula, with his rebellion against the court that surrounded him and the fake and treasoning world that had been revealed to him.»
On December 15, 1979, the General Prosecutor in Bologna decided to prosecute the case and summoned the defendants before the Tribunal of Forlì, for the trial to take place with “giudizio direttissimo” (direct trial). The defendants were Franco Rossellini (producer), Tinto Brass (director), Luigi Lirici (attorney for PAC), Raffaele Landi (distributor for the region of Emilia Romagna), Pietro Bregni (administrator for PAC): all of them were accused according to article 528 and 110 of the Penal Code, that is, obscenity and contribution in the making of an obscene spectacle.
The serious accusations levelled against the film were the following: «Obscene content and the reproduction of orgiastic collective scenes, featuring shots, also in close-up, which describe sexual intercourse, oral coitus, lesbian cunnilingus, male and female masturbation with introduction of fingers in a woman’s vagina, with repeated displays of genital organs, sodomizations, emasculations, rape and necrophilia.»
Rossellini asked that the film be released from seizure, and declared that he was willing to obscure the more controversial footage, but the Judge of the Forlì tribunal, with a verdict dated April 28, 1980, accepted the prosecutor’s requests, judging Caligula to be devoid of any artistic content and condemning Rossellini and Lirici to four months’ imprisonment and the payment of a 400.000 lire fee in addition to procedural costs; on the other hand, he acquitted Brass, Landi and Bregni for not having committed the crime.
Brass’ acquittal was thus argued: «Brass Tinto Giovanni: he is a defendant in the capacity of “director” of the film and for having directed the “shooting of all sequences.” Brass disputed both counts of his indictment. In fact, he has disowned the film, and even taking legal action, since he was excluded by the producers during the sensitive editing phase and the preparation of the “final draft” of the film. Moreover, Brass denied having directed all the footage, and claimed that some inserts featured in Caligula were filmed directly by the producer, and Rossellini himself confirmed this version. The defendant strongly denied that he was the author of the sequences because these […] are the result of editing work. And it is in fact through its arrangement in a certain order, that the filmed footage becomes part of a sequence and assumes the desired meaning. […] The images that were shot have a “neutral” nature, and are not destined immediately to the public screening, but they must be selected and used to edit the film that will be screened to the audience. Therefore, the editing is the moment of creative choices, which qualify the work as it will appear on the screen; it is the choice of which shots to use, which sequences to drop, which length each shot will have, the juxtapositions, counterpoints, etc… which drastically condition the final result. Brass actually shot 160,000 metres of film, and from this footage, scenes were edited and arranged to form the final edition of the film. It is therefore evident that, with the conspicuous material available, several very different films in terms of edits, approaches or purpose could have been “assembled”.»
On November 21, 1980, the Bologna Court of Appeal annulled the first instance ruling and the verdict against Rossellini and Lirici, reinstated the proceedings before the Tribunal of Forlì for a new trial against them and ordered the suspension of the trial against the other defendants. But the General Prosecutor promptly appealed against the judgment, and on May 12, 1981 the Court of Cassation incredibly annulled the verdict made by the Court of Appeal for breach of law, and returned the case to another section of the Court for a new trial.
On April 28, 1982, the new section of the Bologna Court of Appeal confirmed the seizure of Caligula. It underlined «the extreme obscenity – in the literal meaning of the term, which connotates lecherous, indecent acts or objects, to the point that they are irrepresentable or tarnish the dignity of man – of the overwhelming majority of the film», and ventured into a minutious description of the more risqué sequences, including the one between the two lesbians (Anneka Di Lorenzo and Lory Wagner) which should have been absent in the film, but which was actually included. A demonstration that, contrarily to what Rossellini claimed, the cuts demanded by the Board of Censors had been reinstated before the theatrical release.
As if it were not enough, the judge now condemned the director as well, systematically dismantling all the arguments that had determined his acquittal in the previous grade of judgment. «It is precisely Tinto Brass whom we accuse, specifically, to have directed the shooting of all the sequences in the film, an activity that concerns precisely the moment of production of the obscene film itself […]. In other words, his responsibility was shaped in the moment in which he produced the material (the shooting) with the obvious awareness of its characteristics and its natural destination, and then he placed it at the disposal of the editor or the producers.»
On the other hand, the charges against Rossellini and Lirici were dropped.
The definitive verdict was pronounced by the Supreme Court of Cassation in February 1984. Even though the sentence against Brass was annulled, because of the principle that «the director who has been ousted during an essential phase of the making such as editing, cannot be held criminally liable for the film being judged obscene», the seizure of the film was definitively confirmed, with the motivation that «the viewer cannot grasp any significant message other than the solicitation of the most degraded sexual instincts.»
All the 12 circulating copies of Caligula were therefore destroyed by order of the judge, and the version released for just a few days in Italian cinemas in 1979 would never be seen again in the country.
Special thanks to Peter Jilmstad