AKA Satyricon; The Degenerates
“…to eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination; to invent everything and then to objectify the fantasy; to get some distance from it in order to explore it as something all of a piece and unknowable.”–Federico Fellini on his motives for adapting Petronius’ Satyricon
DIRECTED BY: Federico Fellini
FEATURING: Martin Potter, Max Born, Hiram Keller, Mario Romagnoli
PLOT: Two students, Encolpio and Ascilto, argue over their dual ownership of the handsome slave boy Giton, whom Encolpio loves and Ascilto has sold. Encolpio seeks Giton through a series of adventures that take him across the ancient Roman world, encountering a pompous actor, a wealthy merchant who holds nightly orgies and fancies himself a poet, unscrupulous slavers, and other long dead satirical targets. Eventually Encolpio becomes involved in a plot to kidnap an albino hermaphrodite demigod, is cursed with impotence, and seeks the services of a witch.
- Petronius wrote the rambling, erotic, and highly literary “Satyricon” during the reign of Emperor Nero, 1st Century A.D. It is sometimes considered the world’s oldest surviving novel.
- The original Roman satire survives only in fragments, which explains the often incoherent nature of the story in Fellini’s movie. Fellini invented a few small details (and one major one, in the hermaphrodite character who replaces the penis-god Priapus’ role in the story) to bridge gaps or help the story flow in the direction he wanted to. The director refers to the fragmentary nature of the source narrative by allowing the story to jump forward in time, and even ends a scene in mid-sentence (as Petronius’ surviving work ends in the middle of a sentence).
- Fellini’s name appears in the title not out of vanity, but to distinguish the movie from a competing adaptation directed by Gian Luigi Polidoro which was also released in 1969. Polidoro registered the title Satyricon first. United Artists purchased the international distribution rights to both films and sat on Polidoro’s movie while they promoted Fellini’s more marketable name.
- Fellini used international actors for the main parts (joking that he did so because there were no Italian homosexuals). The director saw that dubbing into Italian was deliberately made slightly out of sync with the actors’ lip movements to create an additional feeling of strangeness.
- Boris Karloff was offered the small but important role of Trimalchio, but was too ill to accept it (Karloff died in February of 1969).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Picking a single image to represent Satyricon is like trying to single out one scene that captures the essence of a sprawling carnival. The film is a nonstop parade of extreme imagery, grotesque tableaux and freakish costuming. No one scene sticks out as more bizarre than another, and nothing is supposed to; everything inside the borders of the known world of Satyricon is as weird as everything else, from the whorehouse at the center of the empire to the blank spot at the edge of the map where monsters be. Forced to select something, we went with the image appearing five minutes into the film of the actor Vernaccio, dressed in a porcine pink helmet with a fin on top, carefully placing a tiny pill-like object on his outstretched tongue. It’s Fellini’s signal to the Summer of Love crowd that the movie is dosing itself right now—strap yourselves in for the trip to come.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fellini seizes upon the fragmentary nature of his classical source material as an excuse to fly off on flights of phantasmagorical fancy; he sets his camera to observe these imaginary denizens of gluttonous old Rome as if they were alien lifeforms. Satyricon is the work of a master filmmaker at his most self-indulgent—but when tremendous talent indulges itself, the results are typically spectacular.
John Landis on the trailer for Fellini Satyricon
COMMENTS: The surviving text of the Satyricon begins with randy bisexual student Encolpio in the middle of an argument about literature and education, jumps from one incomplete adventure to another, and ends in the middle of another scene as a Roman is justifying why his will requires his heirs to eat his corpse in order to collect their inheritances. The pseudo-surreal structure of the half-lost novel, along with its fantastic pagan eroticism, gave Fellini an excuse to indulge his weirdest impulses for a psychedelic age—all the while maintaining some deniability that that’s what he was actually doing. Satyricon may look like a sexually frank, big budget Technicolor drug movie, but the director could position himself as merely adapting a treasured piece of our shared cultural heritage in the only way that would honor the material. If that honor involved orgies of androgynous nude Romans engaging in kinky bisexual sex, hands amputated onstage for the entertainment of jaded spectators, and wild disorienting leaps in narrative logic, then that is the price that must be paid for Art.
With the story so deeply buried that we can’t possibly reconstruct it, Satytricon becomes an almost entirely visual film; it’s like studying an ancient fresco on a wall with large chunks missing. The decadent, exotic, and very weird look of this mythological Rome is so crucial to the experience of the film that it wouldn’t have been totally out of line to give costume designer Danilo Donati a co-directing credit, along with the makeup department and the set designers. Since the movie contains little to dig into in the way of overriding themes—the satire on greed, lust and general hedonism is fairly obvious—-and even less to discuss in the way of story, it’s best to survey and to savor the film bit by bit, scene by scene, as if looking at a collection of scattered relics in a museum.
The “brothel stroll” sequence is a good encapsulation of what’s going on in this movie; it’s a tour through a gallery of grotesques, alien creatures hiding behind strange smiles and stranger kinks. With the help of a Senator, Encolpio has just “rescued” his slave lover Giton from life as a drag queen working for an arrogant actor. Suddenly, in one of the movie’s many unannounced flash-forwards, the pair are holding hands, walking down a dark street in a nameless city (which appears to be a giant catacomb). They look down an alley and see a chariot dragging a giant stone head. They see an old woman they recognize, and ask her, “do you know where we live?” She tells them “you live here;” just then the Senator from the previous scene shows up with a small coterie of followers, one of who points at them and announces “there they are!” The old woman invites them to visit the “little sisters” and waggles her ancient tongue at them seductively; they hustle through the oversized doors, looking behind them at their pursuers with concern. Inside, they walk past a man telling fortunes with sheep livers and take a long stroll past a series of stone alcoves inside which (frequently obese) men and women lounge in lingerie. One contains a couple of women side by side, waggling their nude rears at the camera in unison; inside another room a swarm of small children jump on a grandfatherly man. A woman in a gold bikini wears a giant cubic headdress; outside her cubicle, her pimp leans against the wall in a see-through lavender nightie. The pair tramp along exhibiting little concern and only passing interest in the carnival of degenerate humanity, while the soundtrack mixes science-fiction theremin noises with flutes and drums and nonsense chants delivered in a mixture of Latin, Italian and gibberish by the people they pass. Each person they pass sports unique makeup, an eccentric costume and/or elaborately sculpted hair, usually all three. Suddenly they pass from the red light district into a stable district where livestock roam the streets; down one cubicle in this quarter a nude woman sleeps next to a grazing goat. They eventually make it to a secluded room, where they prepare for a night of lovemaking.
What makes this sequence a perfect microcosm of Satyricon is that there’s little purpose or sense to this entire journey, other than to let us soak in the sights of the bizarre world Fellini has painstakingly created for us. We are sightseeing in a strange land; people watching in a world entirely populated by decadent freaks. The “brothel stroll” sequence comes early in the movie, so that the audience knows what it’s getting into; however, the film never really becomes this weird again. The outlandish costumes and amoral pagan antics persist throughout the film, but things do calm down and become a more grounded. The Trimalchio segment was the keenest moment of satire in Petronius’ original novel (his mocking of the rich and perverse boor who believes himself a poet may have been a disguised attack on the emperor Nero). Fellini keeps the original language and satire of the famous scene intact in his adaptation, but makes Trimalchio’s dinner a centerpiece of a different sort. Knowing we can’t taste the roasted hog stuffed with whole sausages and hens the merchant proudly serves his guests, Fellini turns the scene into an exotic feast for the eyes and ears instead. The party starts outside, under a painted sky of orange, as a field of dozens of naked people bounce up and down in a giant bath. The action moves indoors for the banquet, where women with massive headdresses (to cover their massive hairdos) and men with faces painted silver and blue (like rabid fans of ancient Rome’s most effete sports teams) lounge in robes of red, green and purple and chat as slaves serve them roast doves and wine. There are more drums, theremins and chanting, and at one point a woman’s voice drones over what sounds like an ancient loudspeaker. Drunken painted matrons in see-through gowns dance provocatively. Trimalchio recites (plaigirized) poetry, and orders a real poet tossed into the giant oven along with the roasting chickens. Guests verbally assault each other for sport. Triamlchio’s wife sneaks lesbian pecks with her companion when hubby is not looking, but complains when he convinces a pretty slave boy to play horsey with him. She gets a heap of abuse and a face full of tomato pulp for her concern. The hedonistic bash wears on until we feel tipsy and bloated from the rich visuals we’ve drank. The soiree ends at dawn under another painted sky, with Trimalchio rehearsing his own funeral so that he can enjoy hearing his eulogy. This segment is very true to the original story, but Fellini adds a sumptuous visual decadence that Petronius could not supply in prose.
We now examine a third segment, a late arriving portion of Fellini’s own invention that, unlike many of the other sequences, creates a plot arc that carries through from one episode to another. What’s remarkable about this segment is that it feels completely organic; at least, as organic any adventure in a work this fractured can be. Without being told about it, you would assume that the tale of the hermaphrodite demigod appeared in the original novel; the satirical themes of selfishness, greed, and the triumph of the profane seem to come straight from Petronius. By this point in the story, Encolpio has been reunited with his old friend and romantic nemesis Ascilto. Traveling through the desert in a distant province after escaping from slavers, they hear tales of a man-woman demigod(dess) who cures the sick from miles around. They enter his/her temple and find another menagerie of Felliniesque weirdos waiting on healing: spastics, the legless, morbidly obese men with laughing sickness, and a trio of sheep. The hermaphrodite god is owned by an old man who charges admission to those seeking cures; the divinity itself an albino with breasts and is so sickly it can’t stand up without help from his owner. With the help of a rogue they meet inside the temple, Encolpio and Ascilto decide to kidnap the god and sell his services themselves; they’re willing to murder to get their hands on him. But the deity proves too fragile to survive the trip through the desert, and dies in a spectacular location, a natural rocky bowl with a dry cracked floor and walls of dusty grey stone. Blaming his young companions for the god’s death, their partner in crime assaults the two younger men with his sword; they barely escape.
In the next scene Encolpio, his companion having again disappeared, is being thrown down a hill by uniformed tribesmen. It’s another elision of the type we’ve become accustomed to; but, we’re still in Fellini’s original material. In a perverse tribute to Petronius, he’s deliberately lost part of his own script, and he now jumps to a scene of his own creation that will eventually pit the hapless youth against a minotaur, and then against the even greater horror of erectile dysfunction. Fellini is no longer adapting the novel faithfully; now, he’s just playing with us. But the additions are as seamless as can be in a story that’s gets a large part of its character from its visible seams, and so we don’t feel tricked or cheated. As a fantasist, Fellini proves himself Petronius’ equal; the uninformed spectator can’t tell where the ancient Roman ends and the modern Italian begins.
Despite its high culture sheen, this is a different, more visceral and shameless style of moviemaking than we typically associate with this highly intellectual arthouse director. Its nudity, violence, and frank exploitation of taboos like homosexuality, along with its trippy countercultural appeal, made Satyricon a huge popular hit. There’s none of Fellini’s usual philosophizing, no deep meanings beyond the implicit “look at these grotesque caricatures from a world long past… how like us they seem!” This is Fellini going fully, fearlessly weird. The results are audacious and a stunning success, even if the film is ultimately a curiosity in this director’s most curious canon. Fellini Satyricon is as shallow and degrading—and as enticing and unmissable—as an orgy staged by a modern Trimalchio.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Fellini draws upon his master-entertainer’s feelings for the daydreams of his audience, and many people find this film eerie, spellbinding, and even profound. Essentially, though, it’s just a hip version of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross… We seem to be at a stoned circus, where the performers go on and on whether we care or not…”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)
“It has the quality of a drug-induced hallucination, being without past or future, existing only in a present that, at best, can be survived… a surreal epic that, I confidently believe, will outlive all its interpretations.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Fellini Satyricon (1969)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Fellini Satyricon – Roger Ebert’s measured 2001 entry on the film for his “Great Movies” series (the article also contains a link to his original more ecstatic review)
Lawrence Russell: Fellini Satyricon – Short annotated analysis by Russell discussing the film from a postmodernist perspective
The Satyricon of Petronius – a 1930 public domain translation of the original Roman satire by Alfred R. Allinson
DVD INFO: The good news is that MGM has kept Fellini Satyricon in circulation (buy) with a fine print that brings the vibrant colors across with just a touch of weathered grain to add dignity and character. The bad news is that because this DVD is released by a major studio, Satyricon doesn’t receive the gala treatment that a boutique label like Criterion would provide. The theatrical trailer and an option to watch the film dubbed rather than subtitled are the only special features. Nor is MGM likely to make placing this prestige picture on Blu-ray a priority. A pity.
(This movie was nominated for review by “zosia.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)