Director: Federico Fellini
Screenplay: Petronius, Federico Fellini, Bernardino Zapponi, Brunello Rondi
Starring: Martin Potter, Hiram Keller, Max Born
Running time: 129 minutes
BBFC Certificate: 18
The press release for Eureka Masters of Cinema describes Fellini – Satyricon (1969) as a science fiction film that ‘looks back to the past’. It is loosely based on a satirical novel by Petronius Arbiter (27-66AD), a courtier to the Roman Emperor Nero.
Italian film director Federico Fellini is perhaps best known for playful, dreamlike films, such as La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963). These, and other of Fellini’s well known films – La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1956), Juliet of the Spirits (1965) – in some ways followed on from, and in other ways departed from, his apprenticeship as script writer for the Italian neo-realist film director Roberto Rossellini.
Fellini-Satyricon opens with the character Encolpio lamenting the loss of his younger lover / friend, Gitone, to their mutual friend, Ascilto. Encolpio walks through a bizarre landscape of pyramids, ascending staircases, earth, stone, fires, and wandering cattle. It transpires Ascilto has sold Gitone to a famous actor named Vernacchio. Encolpio finds Gitone performing in a play staged by Vernacchio, the play is titled ‘Emperor’s Miracle’. A key scene in this play involves a real life slave having his hand cut off with an axe, to be replaced with a gold one. Encolpio manages to reclaim Gitone, and they return home, passing through a brothel on the way. The brothel reveals a display of women, all shapes and sizes, in colourful and unusual costumes. The stock circus troop entourage, often found in Fellini films, play, gambol and jest anarchically in the background. The set design of vivid colours on dark and earthy backgrounds seem to be inspired by the works of artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, William Blake, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico. The atmosphere is further enhanced by the soundtrack, which blends modern classical, Gamelan, percussive African, free form jazz, electronic, oriental and asiatic sounds. The total effect is immersive and impressive.
Some background information on Petronius, writer of the novel on which the film is based, seems highly relevant, and will be of help to any viewer approaching this film. Petronius was devoted to a life of pleasure. Scholars see Petronius’ novel Satyricon as a valuable, if fragmentary source for gaining a better understanding of the workings of Roman society in Nero’s reign. In Satyricon, Petronius used his own personal taste as the only standard to view the world; often direct and critical of those around him. He eventually upset Tigellinus, the commander of the emperor’s guard. Faced with sentencing for death, according to Tacitus (senator / historian of the time), Petronius took the decision to take his own life by cutting his veins, and whilst the life literally drained from him, he conversed with friends, who indulged him in a banquet, light poetry and playful verses. Right up to his dying hour Petronius refused to shy away from his direct and un-restrained critique of the world in which he lived, and rather than seeking pardon, he sent an account of the shameful excesses of the court, written under his own seal, to the Emperor Nero.
In Fellini-Satyricon the narrative of the film is revealed in further fragments, and fragmentation. One fragment involves Encolpio attending a banquet held by a rich business man who surrounds himself with artists and performers. An elderly poet, Eumpolo, discusses the themes of money, power, and corruption. The banquet involves scenes of excess, debauchery and torture. The film has a sub-narrative, which seems to suggest the purifying role of poetry, as personified in the character Eumpolo. The rich business man humiliates and beats Eumpolo in front of his audience at the banquet. Encolpio helps Eumpolo escape, and there is a subsequent scene where they lie exhausted near a pool of water, once again alluding to the purity of poetic conduct.
Another fragment of the film narrative takes place on a pirate ship where Encolpio and his friends have been imprisoned. They are later subjects for entertainment to the court, forced to engage in homoerotic wrestling matches and a mock ceremony of same sex marriage involving the host. Encolpio and his friend Ascilto escape, they find a form of sanctuary in an abandoned villa, which leads to further scene of debauchery with a nymphomaniac African slave girl.
The film’s narrative goes on to include a hermaphrodite (supposed demi-god), kidnapping, labyrinths, a minotaur, escape, the festival of Momus (the Greek god of satire and mockery), male impotence, an Earth mother character, and the restoration of the male sexual prowess.
As viewer, I approached the film with some trepidation. My recollection of Fellini films was from first watching La Dolce Vita, which really sucked me in to finding out more about European art house directors of the time. I thought La Strada had an innocent whimsy about it, that was endearing. With films such as 8 1/2 and Julia of The Spirits, whilst amazing technically, post-modern, and radical; for my tastes, they were over pre-occupied with a psycho-analytical world view, which seems to be redundant in today’s society. An increasing flavour of sadism and humiliating certain characters seems to have come to the fore in those films, which in my view can give them an un-savoury quality.
This sadism can also be seen in Fellini-Satyricon. It could be argued Fellini used sadism, and the shadowing function of masochism, as narrative devices for transgressing the taboos of society, to some how reach the pure truth of the poet. But it could also be argued Fellini lost himself in his preoccupation with debauchery and excess. Perhaps this film seeks to expose the sickness, violence and greed which, possibly, live beneath the superficiality of perceived ordered and peaceful society.
With regard to originality, acting, design, concept and having your mind blown, this film receives a glowing 5 stars on all counts. But alongside Salò (1975), directed by Pier Paolo Passolini, this is one of the most challenging films I have ever watched. I think Fellini-Satyricon needs to be approached with some preparation; it’s unlikely to hold your attention without knowing a little bit about the background of the story, and perhaps the personal and social challenges Fellini faced as a film director.
Fellini-Satyricon is released today on Blu-Ray in the UK as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series.
Review by Alex Porter.