Judge Mike Pinsky reviews this 1969 Italian film from the merry prankster, Frederico Fellini.
"The masterpieces you see in this gallery confirm our current lack of energy. Today, no one would know how to paint like this."—Eumolpo (Salvo Randone)
Federico Fellini is so well known for his idiosyncratic films that scholars even use the term "Felliniesque" to characterize his mix of bizarre, circus-like imagery, sexual symbolism, and artistic pretension. But Fellini even out-Fellinis himself in Fellini Satyricon, a film that pushes all of his obsessions so far over the top that they take flight.
Facts of the Case
This is a story about love: Ascilto (Hiram Keller) steals away the heart of the beautiful slave boy Gitone (Max Born) from his best friend Encolpio (Martin Potter). Always looking for a quick fix, Ascilto sells the boy to an actor.
This is a story about art: the actor Vernacchio (Fanfulla) pleases the masses, strutting and farting his way across the stage, chopping off a prisoner's arm. When Encolpio storms the stage to demand Gitone back, the gleeful audience starts offering bids to purchase the boy.
This is a story about an apocalypse: haunted faces glimpse out from behind corners, grotesque criminals and prostitutes lurk in the shadows, and an earthquake buries Encolpio and his world in dust and rubble.
This is a story about history: the decadence of Rome under Nero, where extravagant pleasures, violent uprisings, and angry gods taint the landscape. Stories intertwine, pull upon one another, and fly apart.
This is a story about dreams…
Fellini's "free adaptation" of The Satyricon of Petronius is a fragmented narrative. The episodes do not connect: one moment Encolpio is buried in an earthquake, the next he is walking through an art gallery. The film even ends in mid-sentence, as if unfinished. But this is Fellini's intention. His source material is also fragmentary. Petronius' satire is an unusual work. Almost nothing is known about the author, other than that he was a sort of fashion designer for Nero (and even that cannot be confirmed). Only fragments of his picaresque comedy survive, a strange fusion of Homeric parody and contemporary social critique—a satire of hedonism by an avowed hedonist. The Satyricon takes gleeful pleasure in its own excesses. Its hero, Encolpius (which roughly translates to "crotch") rambles through a series of bizarre erotic escapades.
Fellini Satyricon is a carefully sustained deconstruction of Petronius. Rather than attempting to forge a clean narrative from the fragments, Fellini allows his film to unravel at every turn. Petronius himself even appears to commit suicide midway through the film, as if to mark Fellini's control over the narrative. For Fellini, the story is as much about the decadence of Rome as about the apocalyptic fall of all human culture (perhaps the next stage of what he began in La Dolce Vita): slaves haul a gigantic shattered stone head through the streets, decrepit bodies encrusted in makeup thrust toward the camera, funeral pyres rage, and even the film's resident artist, Eumolpo (Salvo Randone), is eaten by his relatives. Nina Rota's music for the film seems to collapse in on itself, reduced to animal pulses.
In this sense, Fellini Satyricon is as much science fiction (an idea Fellini suggested himself) as it is history: a look ahead toward the collapse of all civilization into ruined art. Vernacchio's art is a grotesque travesty meant only for the squalid poor. The wealthy pretend to patronize art, but their own artistic pretensions only produce doggerel. At Trimalcione's banquet, the decadent host (Il Moro) has Eumolpo hauled off to the kitchen to be tortured when the poet catches him plagiarizing.
But have no fear: even through Eumolpo dies in the following scene, he comes back later in the film good as new (just in time to take Encolpio off to a brothel), only to die again shortly thereafter (and demand in his will that is relatives eat him, as noted earlier). Confused? Fellini's narrative unfolds like a series of dreams. Particularly Freudian dreams. In one sequence, Encolpio is driven into a labyrinth, where a minotaur chases him, while Encolpio keeps asking, "Who are you?" Ascilto and the crowd taunt our hero, while he begs for mercy and offers his love to the minotaur. The minotaur takes off his bull head, and the man underneath declares his love and friendship for Encolpio. The whole affair was a prank, and Encolpio is praised for playing along. Everyone laughs heartily, and our hero is offered public ritual sex with the pageant's Ariadne. Unfortunately, he is impotent, and the crowd humiliates him…
None of this can be taken seriously as history, although Fellini's lavish design is probably more accurate than traditional Roman epics like Cleopatra. Fellini Satyricon operates as a self-destructing dream-narrative built out of symbols, much more like the films of Jean Cocteau than most of Fellini's own works. In a sense, the film acts as a distillation of all of Fellini's usual obsessions—social class, aging, sex, art—free from the narrative constraints of his other films. Arguably, the film lacks the psychological complexity of 8 1/2 or the relevance of La Dolce Vita, but its visual construction is impeccable. Fellini's sense of timing and his ability to construct striking visual images is clearly at its peak in Fellini Satyricon, his most successful and freewheeling celebration of his own unconscious.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, MGM provides little extra content for such a puzzling film. There are no extras, other than a briskly edited theatrical trailer. Some comments by Fellini from his autobiography, or maybe a critical essay from a film scholar, would be welcome. I have an old audiotape of a witty interview Fellini did in 1970 about the making of the film, and I am sure that other commentary sources are available. But MGM does not offer anything apart from the trailer. The film itself is presented in anamorphic widescreen, with a few nicks and scratches, but otherwise a richly colored print. Both audio tracks (the original Italian and an old English dub from the 1970s) are in mono. Strangers to Fellini's later work may be puzzled by the fact that the Italian dialogue is all dubbed in post-production, and not just because few of the lead performers are Italian (Martin Potter is British). But the occasionally mismatched dialogue only seems to add to the surreal quality of the film. The English dub seems a bit muted compared to the original, and the British voices make the film sound like more of a particularly odd Monty Python sketch at times.
Linear narrative? Characters with whom we can empathize? Fellini Satyricon is filled with powerful and puzzling images, but it contains none of the trappings of comfortable narrative filmmaking. Every scene is memorable, if cryptic, and you will likely find yourself trying to solve this film as if it were a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. If you are looking for something easy, avoid Fellini.
Fellini Satyricon marks the ultimate distillation of Fellini's film art, a broad and perverse portrait of apocalypses past and future, as well as a visionary attempt by Fellini to reach beyond his obsessions into the realm of myth. Since most of Fellini's best work (including 8 1/2) is not available on DVD (mostly his later, weaker films which followed this one), Fellini Satyricon should satisfy Fellini fans and lovers of a good cinema challenge until the rest come along.
May the gods punish MGM for dishonoring the work of a brilliant artist by releasing this bare-bones disc. Caesar honors Fellini and company with a great feast and plenty of dancing girls.
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