“The quintessential Fellini film. There are orgies, murders, abductions, rituals, all presented coolly, without editorial comment—as might a Warren Commission Report from Mars.”—Vincent Canby
Although Fellini Satyricon (1969) has already made the List, its re-release as a Criterion Collection Blu-ray warrants additional coverage. The previous MGM DVD Edition was threadbare, and although it thankfully kept the film in circulation, you can now donate your copy to a Fellini virgin (although making Satyricon your first would be unwise).
Actually, my MGM DVD has proven quite handy over the last decade, being one of my most coveted films for the bourgeoisie to walk out on. More than once it has been useful in ridding myself of unwanted guests, or those who have overstayed their welcome. Rather than repeatedly looking at the Seiko on my wrist, all I had to do was slap Satyricon into the player and within a half hour I would, without fail, find myself alone enjoying the company of my dear, beloved, beautiful late Siamese cat, Betty.
The last time I pulled it out was possibly the most beneficial to me: a family member, for some reason, decided to drop by; which would have been fine, except that he brought with him his hopelessly constipated Bible-beating fundamentalist girlfriend, who proceeded to “enlighten” and “warn” me about the upcoming rapture, lest I be “left behind.” I neither argued nor even looked at my watch. I merely smiled, popped in Satyricon and—bam—in a record time of seventeen minutes, sister So-and-So was outta my door. I gave Betty her trout and lay back, thanking both St. Federico and MGM. Although Betty broke my heart by suddenly, and without warning, flying off this mortal coil, she can now join Federico and my wife and I (in spirit), looking down from trout heaven at a crystal clear Criterion Satyricon. I am willing to bet that, with this release, I can beat my seventeen-minute record the next time an uptight cinematic illiterate or artless boob darkens my door.
Of course, the film was loosely based on Petronius’ ancient satire, and all that history is covered here. As with Roma (1972) Fellini includes his name as part of the title, not out of ego, but to inform the view that this is Fellini’s personal interpretation of the satire, not Petronius. Conventional wisdom says that with Satyricon Fellini entered a whole new plane of eccentric (some would say excessive) personal filmmaking, daring to produce a work which does not strive to be populist. Fellini counted this, with 1976’s tragically unavailable Casanova, as his most perfectly realized film.
Director of Photography Giuseppe Rotunno supervised Criterion’s digital restoration, which renders the viewing experience an entirely new film. The difference is almost akin to seeing a painting in the flesh as opposed to looking at in an art history reference book. From the rich pigments of the clothing to the caked face paint of the extras, the vivid background colors, reddened skies, bluish serpentine caverns, and even the subtitles (a new and improved English translation), this is a radical improvement over MGM’s release. As a product of the late 60s, Satyricon is mesmerizingly psychedelic. The fabric of Fellini’s hellish milieu never looked so sumptuous and inviting. Additionally, its absurd dialogue, spoken in multifarious languages, and the Nino Rota score are at their most cacophonous.
Starting with the audio commentary track, the extras are aptly idiosyncratic. Not recorded directly for the Blu-ray release, it is instead an expansively informative “Behind the Scenes Diary,” recorded in 1971 by Eileen Lanouette Hughes. She covers Fellini’s original vision for the film, how that vision evolved during production, provides behind the scenes descriptions, the history of the film’s funding, explains Fellini’s processes and casting decisions, and compares Petronious’ satire to Fellini’s finished adaptation.
“Ciao Federico,” is an hour-long documentary produced by Gideon Bachmann in 1970. Showing the behind the scenes interaction between director and cast, it reveals Fellini as something of a taskmaster, albeit one who quickly apologizes for belittling his actors. Among the visitors to the set, we see Roman Polanski and his doomed wife, Sharon Tate.
The director discusses everything from the latent morality of the film (aka godless violence) to Gene Shalit’s waxed mustache in a series of interviews. An interview with DP Rotunno reveals the director’s aversion to creating a realistic ancient Roman world; he desired instead a mythical, artificial look.
Classical scholars, film consultants Joanna Paul and Luca Canali expand on Hughes’ commentary in the “Fellini and Petronious” supplement. On set photographer Mary Ellen Mark amusingly recounts anecdotes of working with Fellini (and the director’s sycophants).
“Felliniana” is a hi-res slideshow from Dan Young’s epic Satyricon memorabilia, including a collection of provocative posters.
An extensive essay booklet by film scholar Michael Wood accompanies the original theatrical trailer, closing this release. It is enough for several nights’ worth of cozy, entertaining, academic foreplay before consummating with the film itself. A wholeheartedly recommended, essential release.