Bright Lights Film Journal

Sexual Confusion, the Attractions of Moral Chaos, and the Contrarieties of Personality: Navigating the Vagaries of Fellini Satyricon (1969)

Ascyltus and Encolpius (screenshot)

He was the spectator at his own drama, like a person at a play he doesn’t understand. – Victor Hugo1

“On the other hand, I don’t want to do Petronius either: how can you satirize a world you don’t know? … Could you do a satire on Martians?” – Federico Fellini2

* * *

While Criterion’s catalog of Fellini films is very deep, their recent Blu-ray edition of Fellini Satyricon is a latecomer. But no matter; it’s here, and it’s wonderful. The film is not the Fellini favorite for many – nor is it for this writer – but I’m very grateful for its arrival. There are plenty of reasons to appreciate now what was considered, at its release, the director’s folly, and just as many reasons these days to ask questions of it.

In the mid-sixties – with a large body of mature work already behind him3 – Fellini was down in the mouth, both artistically and financially. His last project, Giulietta degli Spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits (1965)), had flunked at the box office; he was no longer the art film darling of the critics (the acclaimed “auteur” was perceived to have begun to repeat himself with Giulietta); and the font from which new ideas had always sprung seemed to have gone dry. Fellini began a new picture, The Journey of D. Mastorna,4 only to abandon it in mid-production, with a huge expensive set already built, amidst a kind of panic attack.

Fellini Satyricon was completed in May 1969. Before anyone had seen it here in 1970, the film sounded as if Fellini had swerved incautiously into an unlikely and risky production: a so-called loose adaptation of a fragmentary proto-novel attributed to Petronius Arbiter, an intimate advisor to the Emperor Nero. A victim of political wrangling within Nero’s court, Petronius took his own life in 65 CE. Scholars are still not quite sure if he actually wrote The Satyricon.

As produced by the adventurous Alberto Grimaldi, Fellini Satyricon was supported by plenty of advance publicity in the US. In press releases picked up by mainstream magazines like Time, Fellini – still boyishly optimistic in his late forties and apparently recovered from his Mastorna breakdown – spoke of his hopes for the new film, that he would like his adaptation of the Petronius classic to be a depiction of a culture so alien to us that watching the show would be like visiting another planet.

What’s left of Petronius’ novel is not such a tough read, but finishing up a heavily annotated but newish edition of The Satyricon (translated by P. G. Walsh, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996), you might question the wisdom of making a film from such a source, and I’ve no doubt most classics scholars would revile Fellini’s efforts – Mr. Walsh, in his introduction, quotes a couple of them in regard to the film (“ponderous and boring,” says one).5

Looming large in its resistance to adaptation is the fact that Petronius’ novel exists only in fragments; such a state only obscures the tone and intent of the work, and would make for an alarmingly inadequate film scenario. What remains of The Satyricon yields little of conventional plot. The original likely had a beginning and an end, but these are gone. Only bits and pieces of the middle, perhaps as little as 30 percent of the whole, remain. Then there’s the cultural remoteness of Petronius and his audience – which clinches, Walsh himself admits, the impossibility of a contemporary reader, scholar or not, seeing through to the core of The Satyricon.

Early in his introduction, Walsh lets us in on the meaning of the title: “A recital of lecherous happenings.” Also, that there is a whiff of a pun in “satyricon” that would lead a Roman to expect satire. And it’s clear that Petronius had satirical targets, among them organized religion, the emperor, the educational system, and the nouveau riche of freed slaves. None of the satire, once a reader is pointed in the right direction by Walsh’s notes, seems very subtle, and the overall impression gleaned from what remains of the book is that the intent is rather light, actually: a little titillation from many farcical episodes where sexual mishaps are played out broadly, sometimes in near slapstick, blended with a “riffing” on classical literary themes throughout.

A good example of the latter is the character Encolpius being under a curse from Priapus, a minor Greek god of fertility that for the Romans lent a giddy opportunity for pornographic murals featuring him with a gigantic erect penis. The god’s curse of impotence torments Encolpius throughout his picaresque adventures much like Odysseus’s curse from Poseidon follows the Greek in his wanderings.

On one level anyway, The Satyricon seems basically a ribald entertainment for the educated patrician gentleman of ancient Rome. So here comes this twentieth-century Italian auteur with certain autobiographical, fantasist predilections. Why did Fellini take on Petronius’ Satyricon as a career jump start?

Ballantine edition of the screenplay

The filmmaker appeared confident in his reasons for doing so and was not shy about stating them at the time,6 stating that what makes Petronius’ Satyricon most difficult as coherent literature is what most attracted him to it, i.e., its cultural obliqueness and its fragmented state.

If the strength of Fellini Satyricon lies in its image making, you could view the director’s choice as his seeking, provocatively, an “anti-narrative” onto which to hang his images, making his film a kind of experimental visual poem, the ultimate art film.

Fellini is on record for such a view: “I want to take all the narrative sequences of traditional cinema out of the story … its sequences should be there for one to contemplate …”7 To some extent, the filmmaker actually attempted this, but to say he achieved it with any kind of purity would be disingenuous. Fellini was never any kind of avant-garde provocateur: he wanted to please his audience as much as any mainstream director. And in the end, while considering the financial backing of any project, he couldn’t afford not to. He likely had producer Grimaldi sweating bullets over this one.

It seems obvious enough that, starting with 8 1/2, Fellini’s interest in framing his films as tightly scripted stories begins to wane; earlier films, like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, unfold like parables, with emotionally devastating denouements. 8 1/2 and Guilietta degli Spiriti evolve more intuitively, the narratives – which are about inner, psychic events – being structured with the visual element brought to the fore. In both films, the propulsion of the plot slows to the beat of these visual ideas. Watching these two films, it’s tempting to imagine Fellini working impulsively, almost improvising the whole thing on the set. But where it’s possible to watch Guilietta degli Spiriti as a sequencing of brilliantly mounted “set pieces,” there was a script.8 There is a story. And of course Fellini Satyricon has one, too, not to mention a fully developed script.

The story Fellini ends up telling doesn’t come from Petronius; it comes from Fellini, and it’s consistent thematically with much of his work. It’s believable that what pulled him initially to the Petronius was, essentially, its strangeness, its unknowableness, the very elements of the work that its intended, ancient readership would not have found odd or bizarre.9 People talking differently, acting differently, within ambiguous, pre-Christian, moral boundaries – or, the total lack thereof.

There were moral boundaries, codes of conduct, for Petronius and his ilk, of course, such as Epicureanism and at least an outward obeisance to a Roman concept of family left over from the ideals of the Republic, but Fellini, a disenchanted Catholic perhaps, takes his cues from the unrestrained, amoral actions of the book’s characters. He disregards – because it’s disappeared anyway – the moralistic framework Petronius might have drawn around the book (or at least the one an ancient reader would have inferred). Instead, Fellini zeroes in on the novel’s variegated hedonism, which always seems tempered, or punished if you will, by woeful (yet comic) outcomes, abandonments, tricks of fate (fate is downright abusive in Petronius), and savage humiliation.

“An alien planet”

In his interview with author Alberto Moravia, the director proposes for his Satyricon a vision of ancient Rome entirely free from his own “projections.” It’s the “alien planet” idea again; Fellini states: “And then what’s left is this sort of immense tableau vivant whose meaning completely escapes us.” Fellini goes spinning off with his ideas of “alienation,” until Moravia – who is sharp as a tack – confronts him with his own idea of when antiquity became alien. This would be during the Middle Ages:

Christianity wanted, consciously wanted, antiquity to become alien and unknown, to be denied, ignored, thrust into obscurity. In order to achieve this result, it performed a very simple operation: it gave sin and damnation the face of antiquity; or rather, it gave antiquity the face of sin and damnation. The ancient world appears to you, as it did to the early Christians, as pure nature, but fallen into the lowest degree of corruption.10

In his responses, Fellini sounds a little outclassed. As Moravia persists, he brilliantly sums up – while still sounding enthusiastically in favor of it – Fellini’s use of imagery in this moralistic context.

All these monsters, whether hideous or beautiful, that you’ve crammed into your film … reveal, besides your own Baroque temperament with its inclination to wildly unrestrained imagination, the idea that antiquity signified nature without soul, sunk in the depths of irremediable corruption.11

Fellini admits that his friend’s analysis is penetrating, but he sounds unconvinced. For the purpose of the interview he wants to deny this aspect of the film, but Fellini had veered off in quite another direction in the preface to the original treatment, which is also included in the book Fellini’s Satyricon. Here Fellini’s thoughts for the film seem more in line with Moravia’s conception of how the Middle Ages viewed antiquity, from which the director wants to draw parallels to societal breakdowns in the twentieth century.

The date of this preface is not noted, but its intended audience was likely not the general public but the film’s producers and backers. It precedes a “treatment” – i.e., a sketchy scenario of the film written prior to the screenplay – and the tone of it is one that pleads the film’s case. There is a long paragraph proposing “disconcerting” similarities between the modern era and the pre-Christian one. “Then as now we find ourselves confronting a society at the height of its splendor but revealing already the signs of a progressive dissolution ….”12 All kinds of belief systems have crumbled, he says, only to be replaced by “a sick, wild and impotent eclecticism ….”13

Elsewhere in the preface Fellini speaks of the film’s response to the “youth culture” of the sixties. The free sex, the drugs, the (somewhat imagined) “everything is permitted” tenor of the times – all of this clearly fascinated Fellini.14 Mainstream critics in Time and Newsweek made much of this angle, and so did Fellini: “Encolpius and Ascyltos, two hippie students, like any of those hanging around today … moving on from adventure to adventure, even the most gruesome, without the least remorse, with all the natural innocence of two young animals.”15

“Denizens of pre-Christian antiquity behaving without moral strictures”

If such a connection resonated with audiences in the ’70s, it’s doubtful it would now, but Fellini is once again describing denizens of pre-Christian antiquity behaving without moral strictures, linking their actions and attitudes to the contemporary scene, a tack he often took elsewhere in media statements and interviews for the film.16 Here, though, he’s not speaking of “progressive dissolution” or “impotent eclecticism.” For Fellini the former Catholic adolescent, the youth of the ’60s, fucking and frolicking “without remorse” like “young animals,” were innocent because they were free of the shadow of the confessional. Do we hear middle-aged regret in Fellini’s paralleling his characters with contemporary unbridled youth, not to mention admiration for “hippie students” gaining such freedom?17

To me, none of the director’s ramblings reveals an intellect freeing itself from projections. And, throughout his career, Fellini’s Catholic background always came to rear its head. Ever the deeply conflicted sensualist, he is his own kind of moralist, after all. La Dolce Vita portrays a degenerate subculture and judges it. In 8 1/2, Guido’s audience with the cardinal induces memories more bitter than sweet of pubescent sexual awakening (dancing on the beach with the prostitute Saraghina) and its consequence (a Dickensian punishment by the Fathers: Guido kneeling, while wearing a dunce cap, on pebbles in front of classmates). In her film, Giulietta must free herself from haunted, nearly traumatic, memories of a Catholic girlhood, but her visions of carnality – the freedom on the other side of her repression – are often just the kind of naughty images (e.g., fishnet-clad whores wagging their tongues at you) that the nuns would have confiscated from the young Fellini. This is precisely the kind of imagery Pauline Kael, in her New Yorker review published March 14, 1970, could not abide.

No one, including myself, could argue that Fellini Satyricon stands within the front rank of Fellini’s oeuvre, but I thought it a brave film then, and I do now. At the time of its U.S. release, though, American critics were harshly dismissive, the highly respected Pauline Kael paramount among them.

In those days I adored Kael’s writing. The style was distinctive: intimate, conversational, but spiked with intelligence and a far-ranging knowledge, not just of film but of all the arts. She often seemed to internalize a film in a way that I believed I did, too. If I read her review before seeing the film, I hoped I’d agree with her; if after, I hoped she’d agree with me. Kael played favorites with some directors, offering reviews of their films that occasionally spun into overstatement, as in her take on Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972). If she disliked a film, the review could then spin in the opposite direction, in which she wrote as if she’d been personally offended by it, or even as if it had slapped her in the face.

She had the latter reaction to Fellini Satyricon. She despised the film: “I think it’s a really bad movie – a terrible movie – but Fellini has such intuitive rapport with the superstitious child in the adult viewer that I imagine it will be a considerable success.”

In some ways, read now, the review has a defensive edge to it, as if she anticipates, not only good box office, but critical acclaim for the film and she’s just not having it. “Fellini draws upon his master-entertainer’s feelings for the daydreams of the audience, and many people find this film eerie, spellbinding, and even profound.”18

I’m sure I imagined that this passage had been written for people just like me. I had certainly been spellbound by Fellini Satyricon, and, yes, many of its scenes were eerie. But did I think it profound? That was, and is, a trickier adjective to apply to the film, and Kael’s use of it to characterize someone’s response was a sucker punch to anybody in the audience she’d consider a pseudo-sophisticate, that is, any unfortunate person with a lack of real sensibility and insight. Was that pseudo-sophisticate me? Did the film merely appeal to the “superstitious child” in me? Maybe. But as Kael entitled her piece Fellini’s Mondo Trasho and lashed out at anyone who might enjoy it, I still wonder: is this a useful vantage point from which to assess this film?

The assassination of Caesar

Kael believed that Fellini signified moral decay with loaded shots of erotic depravity and physical deformity, much as Cecil B. DeMille used images of debauchery in his religious spectaculars to denote paganism running amok. She had a point, and it’s in line with Moravias position in the interview quoted above. Fellini, like DeMille, does present the Roman pagan world as wanton, amoral, and godless – a vision with the arrhythmic pulse of a fever dream, peopled with Fellini icons like the lascivious, tongue-lolling nymphomaniacs that perhaps make too many appearances in Fellini Satyricon.

The film certainly has its quota of wantonness, but Fellini’s spin is markedly different than DeMille’s. Take the scene in Rome’s Suburra district, where Encolpius and Giton stroll past the cribs of the prostitutes: the sequence gets its adolescent, voyeuristic punch from its tracking shot vantage, which is that of the two boys (and us) peeking into these little rooms and glimpsing the erotic high jinks going on in each. It may be the only tracking shot in the film, but it’s a good one full of intemperate life.

Kael’s demonstrative condemnation of Fellini’s conflicted moralism is simplistic and limiting. And one can take a comparison with DeMille only so far. Despite the overpopulation of overweight whores and circus freaks in Fellini Satyricon, the director brings something more complex and compelling to the pagan table than DeMille, whose behemoth religious films tend toward basic bible thumping.

Taking into consideration rumored or confirmed reports of nervous breakdowns, experiments in the occult (including seances), and hallucinogenic drugs (LSD), plus his well-known serial infidelity, Fellini’s psyche appears to have been a troubled one that nevertheless fed his films with vision and meaning. His films consistently present protagonists who struggle with demons within and without, and nearly all of them have some kind of “coming to terms” denouement waiting for them at film’s end – Fellini Satyricon, it turns out, has one too.

If you can meet him on this somewhat autobiographical battleground, Fellini’s imagery – which pictorializes his characters’ demons as much as Hieronymus Bosch’s rendered St. Anthony’s – need not be regressive and empty (in the sense that Kael meant) but alive to itself and invigorating.

In interviews and essays, Fellini spoke a lot about his desires to make Fellini Satyricon impersonal and detached, that Petronius freed him from the more overt autobiographical concerns of his last two films. But if the director was certainly grasping for a new direction, Fellini Satyricon did not end a period of “personal” filmmaking for him; it continued one.19

In this sense, as a personal film, even one not acknowledged as such by its director, Fellini Satyricon is not really an adaptation of Petronius’ work, not even a loose one. The novel simply doesn’t offer the kind of unifying viewpoint that Fellini needed for a film. Whatever his stated desires to make a film of abstracted, detached episodes, Fellini took what he could from Petronius, especially as the film begins, and then crafted a thread that would knit the mostly unconnected sequences conceived by him and Zapponi with a gathering sense of Encolpius’ rough and tumble sentimental education.20

With few exceptions, Encolpius (Martin Potter) is at the center of every scene and, like a Candide of the ancient world, prone to victimizing circumstance. His theatrical monologue, bemoaning the theft of his boy lover, Giton (Max Born), opens the film, and its text is directly from the Petronius, as is Ascyltus’s (Hiram Keller) subsequent monologue, with its Tarquin/Lucretia metaphor, detailing how he seduced Giton.

Giton and Encolpius

From the beginning, to distinguish him from his off-and-on friend, Ascyltus, Encolpius exhibits an emotional, reactive core that evolves throughout the film, while Ascyltus remains an unchanging, unrepentant sybarite. One of the two or three tender scenes in Fellini Satyricon – and genuinely tender scenes between two people are rare in Fellini’s films as a rule – is the brief lovemaking scene between Encolpius and Giton before Ascyltus takes the boy away. The scene plays out very much as it does in Petronius, but Fellini uses it as the portal from which the brokenhearted Encolpius, abandoned by Giton and alienated from Ascyltus, begins his individualizing odyssey.

The longest, most sustained sequence in the film, as in what remains of the novel, is Trimalchio’s Feast. Much of what happens in Petronius’ chapter is in the film, and Fellini and Zapponi take advantage of the feast to insert material that occurs elsewhere in the text.

Petronius’ most clearly rendered object of mockery, Trimalchio, is vividly realized by Fellini, who likewise sees him as a type. As portrayed by Mario Romagnoli,21 it’s all there – the boorishness, the mawkish morbidity, the vainglorious emperor-like affectations. Trimalchio is a freed slave who has become enormously, hyperbolically wealthy – his estates take up a good part of Southern Italy, and he’s got his eye on that section of Sicily he doesn’t own already. This kind of nouveau riche was apparently a real phenomenon in Petronius’ day, and the Arbiter’s extreme disgust at the vulgarity displayed by this new class is taken up by the film – if you can spot it amidst the neuronal assault engineered by Fellini.

Trimalchio tries for appearances, but can’t help showing his roots, especially in his light grasp of classical literature. He’s a thief, too: the transient poet Eumolpus catches him in the act of plagiarizing Lucretius. Or, even worse, he recites his own wretched poems. In Trimalchio, Fellini neatly compresses a major theme of Petronius: the ignorance and/or abuse of the classics. Eumolpus himself is a similar target in the Petronius, but Fellini engenders greater sympathy for him. During a mid-feast performance of a scene from The Iliad in the original Greek, he is seen reverently mouthing the words. Trimalchio, meanwhile, mouths banal, or downright mistaken, references to Homer’s epic.

Near the end of the feast, Eumolpus loses his patience with Trimalchio’s rape of the literary heritage and explodes in a tirade, whereupon Trimalchio orders him thrown into one of the ovens. Fellini’s brief, hellish scene, where the kitchen slaves torture poor Eumolpus, is an encapsulation of a comic thread in Petronius: the spontaneous, physical abuse that follows the rapscallion poet everywhere, especially when someone overhears his versifying. Fellini’s scene is not, however, played for laughs; the director, while allowing for the character’s propensity for issuing hot air, is on the poet’s side.

Trimalchio’s sluttish wife Fortunata is here, too, and so is her vulgar, exhibitionist dance. Her improvisatory writhing, which often seems out of synch with the percussive rhythms on the soundtrack, seems to turn Trimalchio on, but throughout the meal, husband and wife are mostly distracted from the other – he with playing with his favorite boy slaves, she with lesbian blandishments from a friend. Fortunata bickers with her husband for a time, until Trimalchio ends it by launching a large plate of tomato sauce at her face (Petronius dictates wine).

Making the most out of the orange-colored set, the lighting design allows the variously costumed and made-up performers to emerge forcefully here and there from the shadows, while the photography takes in bold and off-kilter compositions. Fellini’s unusual framing sometimes places the actors low in the screen, creating weighty negative space above them.

As much as the scenarists retain of Petronius’ satire at the feast, it is overwhelmed by the imagery. There are sweaty, nearly naked male slaves carrying platters of giant live eels past the reclining guests, many of which are made up, masklike, in blue or purple. A desultory shot has a patrician dowager wiping her hands on the hair of a slave. A quick cut reveals a circle of dedicated gourmets sucking at a giant blue-green phosphorescent dome of gelatinous something-or-other with six-foot straws.

At the very least, the satire suffers a sea change in tone. Trimalchio’s making a show of his household gods or holding up the preserved remnants of his first shave are played more for their oddness than for the biting mockery Petronius intended.

Fellini’s debauchery is visceral and otherworldly, not dry and bitterly familiar as the Arbiter would have it. Petronius was, after all, living it. And however “lecherous” the activities in the novel’s fragments, the framework for them is a literary one and, as such, at a comfortable, cerebral remove for its audience. Any intended belly laughs, or points understood and scored against this or that target, come from – first, the knowledge of those targets, of course, but also from the exercise of the reader’s intellect and the range of classical education stored there. Fellini wants us at the mercy of his image making, not playing aesthetic mind games on a rarefied, antique playing field. As Fellini states: “On the other hand, I don’t want to do Petronius either: how can you satirize a world you don’t know? … Could you do a satire on Martians?”22

After Trimalchio’s feast, there will be no more free lunches for Encolpius and only occasional nods to the Petronius source material.23 Dragging his dissipated friend into an empty field, Encolpius survives the revels along with Eumolpus, who because in his stupor feels like he’s dying in abject poverty, attempts to bequeath his new friend poetic intangibles: “I leave you love, tears, joy and the stars.”

Eumolpus

It’s a drunken monologue that the inebriated Encolpius may only receive subliminally, but the brief scene, taking place in one of the film’s evocative but unreal soundstage-fabricated landscapes, is an important stop along the way to Encolpius’ eventual awakening. If not to Petronius in his novel, Eumolpus’ influence on Encolpius is important to Fellini.

Significantly for the film, Eumolpus meets Encolpius in an art gallery, in which the poet extolls the art of the past before taking his new friend to the feast with all of its degenerate culture and bloated consumption. In the film’s closing scenes, when he reappears, suddenly wealthy yet at last close to his death, he provides Encolpius with a final lesson in the form of his actual, dictated will.

Encolpius awakens to be rudely shackled (along with Ascyltus and Giton, who have magically reappeared while Eumolpus has vanished) and taken to Lichas’ slave ship, a curiously designed craft that, though it bristles with oars, resembles nothing so much as a flat, low-slung Civil War ironclad.

Lichas and his ship constitute an entire chapter in the Petronius, but Fellini concocts a new story line here, with Lichas (Alain Cuny, from La Dolce Vita) a serenely malevolent thug employed by the emperor to gather “amusements” for him. With his disturbingly vivid glass eye, Lichas enjoys combing the pile of male flesh below decks to pick partners for impromptu, to-the-death wrestling matches. Lichas always wins. The priestess Tryphaena, played by an expressionless Capucine, her face entirely encapsulated in fresco-like makeup, reappears aboard ship as some sort of companion to Lica. Having made goo-goo eyes at Tryphaena at Trimalchio’s feast, Encolpius sees that she recognizes him, hopes for the best, but gets the worst when he is chosen for one of the wrestling matches. Yet he ends up not dead but wed, to Lica.

Ascyltus and Giton

Then, in a violent but brilliantly staged, cut-away vignette, the boy-emperor is assassinated on his island hideaway. The emperor, who is decidedly not meant to be Nero, is played by a woman, Tanya Lopert. In Fellini’s concept of decadence, the androgyny factor is high. A regime change in place, horned warships surround Lichas’, swiftly seize it, and a soldier summarily dispatches Lichas (a lurid decapitation), with which Fellini delivers the oneiric image of Lichas’ detached head momentarily floating face-up in the ocean waters.

After Lichas’ ship Encolpius and Ascyltus are together again (Giton has disappeared from the film) when they encounter an empty provincial villa with two suicides sprawled on the pink sand near its entrance. The preceding scene – meaningfully, the only one without any of the three principals – is one of the loveliest in the film. In it, a middle-aged patrician couple prepares for their double suicide. After they free their slaves, sending them off to safer havens further into the countryside, they say goodbye to their own children, and when Fellini fills the screen with the children’s faces, the film nearly stands still. The power of this short scene – it has the mysterious emotional pull of a sequence from a great silent film – is all in the eyes of the children.

“The eyes of the children”

A freed slave helps the children into a wagon, and the whole group of them disappear into an unearthly, artificial landscape, which, there’s no doubt, has been constructed on a soundstage. The little waterfall and the oversized flowering plants that look like feather dusters are, indeed, fake. Like all of the fabricated sets in the film, the suicides’ villa, along with its landscaping, declares its artifice outright. In his earlier films up through La Dolce Vita, Fellini shot traditionally on location and/or with sets designed to appear as the world we live in, but from 8 ½ onward he begins to demand a kind of equivalent universe from his designers.

There is a distinct lack of standard “movie magic,” for example, trees and sunsets that ask to be accepted as the real thing. Even when he films outdoors in Giulietta degli Spiriti, he often has fake trees and flowers placed in and around the landscape to skewer the sense of “realness.”24 Much of the quality wished for by Fellini of the “otherness” of an alien world is granted by these abstracted, contrived landscapes by Danilo Donati. They also evoke a kind of austere beauty that underlines the loneliness of Encolpius’s journey to discover a world beyond mindless hedonism and violence.

Skewering the sense of “realness”

Donati also designed the sets for that unique cinematic experience Caligula (1980). The designs recall, possibly deliberately so, those of Fellini Satyricon’s. But in Guccione’s hands they are inert and expressionless backdrops for the hardcore goings-on. The sets for Fellini Satyricon are never merely decorative. The director makes them inhabited and expressive. Fellini’s acquired skill as a filmmaker was probably at its peak in the mid-sixties, and the combination of sureness and joy Fellini must have felt is palpable as you watch his camera roam and discover delights within Donati’s creations.

Throughout the suicides’ sequence, everything has an elegiac deliberateness – and a dignity – lacking from the rest of the film. The soundtrack is hushed and nearly silent, with only what sounds like wind chimes and a reedy, solo organ to emphasize the undertow of coming death. Donati’s set design here is exquisite; most of the color is low-key, with none of the clashes of saturated color that characterize the other episodes, and the architecture of the understated Roman house appears less fantastical than (possibly) historically accurate. One of Trimalchio’s chief sins, for Petronius, was simply bad taste, and Fellini, in possible homage to the author, provides two people living, and dying, in simple elegance.

Like an afterimage, some of the lyrical gravity of the suicides’ segment bleeds into the next. When our two miscreants enter the darkened courtyard, they come locked in each other’s arms, creeping sideways around the suicides’ bodies in an oddly staged mime-like depiction of terror.25 Then the mood changes, and they start behaving like a couple of high school kids left alone for a weekend. Exploring the spookily empty villa, they have a charming interlude with a young slave girl (Hylette Adolphe), who is extraordinarily pretty and chatters, at a quicksilver pace, in a strange musical language. Both Encolpius and Ascyltus seem eager for sex with the girl, but in the end are more interested in each other, an outcome that amuses the slave.

Encolpius

At one point amidst their partying, Encolpius finds himself sitting alone in an atrium’s pool. Looking up, the atrium is open through the compluvium to the night sky, and he regards a swath of stars twinkling in the black firmament. His gaze into the heavens lasts a total of seven seconds, but it’s a memorable pause and a subtle development in Encolpius’ character. Are these the stars Eumolpus bequeathed to him? Dimly, like a caveman reaching past his need to fill his belly like an animal, he is beginning to perceive a world outside his own sensual gratification.

No such personal growth is allowed for anyone in Petronius’ novel. And Fellini steps further from his source to make Encolpius a witness – not just a mindless, hapless participant – to the bizarre events that enfold him. Outside of its pleasures, the ancient world is a dangerously mutative, inhuman, and catastrophic place, Fellini is saying, and with a deft touch here and there, he insinuates the idea that Encolpius has begun to take notice of it outside of his mere endurance or sensual partaking of it.

Fellini’s ongoing contempt for religious hysteria (see the pilgrimage to the Virgin in Nights of Cabiria, or the media circus created by the children’s purported sighting of the Virgin Mary in La Dolce Vita) is played out in the film’s next sequence, a depiction of the sick and the maimed gathering at a grotto to worship a hermaphrodite oracle, played by a prepubescent albino boy with, I assume, fake breasts but a real penis.26

“A strange numinous vibe”

The hermaphrodite and its caregiver/huckster companions have taken up residence in a former temple of Ceres, which appears to be at the bottom of a small valley. Glimpsed through an opening in cavernous walls, the steep, ascending walls of the valley look to be planted with rows of bright green vegetation. It’s another fake landscape that, through its artifice, throws off a strange numinous vibe.

His last few adventures with Ascyltus run the gamut of murder, kidnapping, and, finally, a last dose of humiliation, which lands him in the grip of sexual despair. “My sword is blunt!” he cries to Ascyltus when, in an obscure, exotic locale during something called the Festival of Mirth, Encolpius is unable to publicly fornicate with the priestess/prostitute, Arianna, whose disgust at his limp state promptly ends the Festival’s hilarity. When the poet Eumolpus suddenly reappears, he sends Encolpius packing to a plush brothel called the Garden of Delights for a cure. Encolpius’ cure, which consists mostly of girls whipping his bare buttocks with long switches,27 is a failure. While Ascyltus, grinning like a satyr, cavorts with several prostitutes on a giant swing, Encolpius’s sword remains blunt.

A more occult cure is sought from the African witch Oenothea. The source for this episode is Petronius, but its tone and outcome differ significantly. In the novel, Oenothea and her attendants are merely con artists out to fleece Encolpius, providing another burlesque pratfall for the book’s hero, who ends up holding the same limp noodle as before. With Ascyltus and Encolpius being ferried through haunted marshes to her lair, Fellini goes instead for hallucinogenic gloom. There’s something desperate about the ferryman, and a skin disease has gnawed at half his face. Before encountering Oenothea, a crone delivers a potion for Encolpius to drink, which renders him immobile. He is, in effect, tripping.28

Crouched in a corner of Oenothea’s hut, Encolpius gazes through a window to see the ferryman draw a knife to assault Ascyltus, who cries out to the stoned Encolpius for help. Eyes glazed and uncomprehending, Encolpius instead moves toward his mystic copulation with the witch, whom he has hallucinated, variously, as a desiccated mummy, a beautiful young black woman, and now finally as a naked, rotund Venus of Willendorf-style earth mother. He confesses the crimes that he believes brought on his curse: the desecration of the hermaphrodite’s temple and his coldblooded murder of its attendant. When the witch opens her giant breasts to him, he hurls himself between them.

Emerging into the daylight, Encolpius makes it clear that the curse from Priapus has been lifted. Good for him, but I’ve always found this a confusing moment in the film. Large, lusty women or prostitutes are sexual coming-of-age symbols from 8 1/2 to Amarcord, but having him recapture his prowess in such a manner with Oenothea – who may be a hallucination after all – points back to the way in which he discovered his impotence: his failed attempt at sex with a woman, Arianna.

It’s a given that both Encolpius and Ascyltus are bisexual, but Encolpius begins his journey toward selfhood when, after a session of lovemaking with Giton, he’s rendered heartbroken over the boy choosing his friend as lover. The opportunistic Giton – who is actually nothing more than a street hustler – haunts Encolpius through the first half of the film and then vanishes. With his cure, has Encolpius entered his own delayed sexual coming of age – and what would that mean exactly?

The death of Ascyltus

In a brief exchange, Eumolpus had advised Encolpius that he’s under a curse from Priapus, but lacking the satirical, literary context Petronius gives it, Encolpius’s sudden affliction and subsequent cure feel like a somewhat contrived way to propel Encolpius into a new life that may mean a shift in his sexuality. You wonder if it’s meaningful that he becomes virile in the arms of a gigantic earth mother just as his colluding companion and occasional lover, Ascyltus, lies dying from wounds inflicted by the thieving ferryman.

As Ascyltus passes, still grinning his sensualist grin, Encolpius is standing – just a little too symbolically – next to a twenty-foot-tall, and very phallic, standing stone. Encolpius’s brief eulogy over his friend’s body is touching, but it sounds too as if he might be saying farewell to a way of life. Was Encolpius’ bisexuality merely part of a decadent phase that he’s now past? Has sex with a witch also cured him of his taste for young male prostitutes? The film, of course, gives us no clue. Fellini’s treatment of gay encounters in the film appears unencumbered by judgment or anxiety, but these images and juxtaposed outcomes make you wonder if he wasn’t just a little muddled by it all anyway.

Encolpius’ last stop in the film is a rendezvous with Eumopius, who’s been planning a voyage to Africa. Arriving at the windswept29 beach where the ship is docked, he finds his last friend dead and tightly bound in a winding sheet, the funeral over, and the reading of the will about to begin. The terms of the will, suggested by a passage in Petronius, are grisly: to wit, that anyone who wishes to benefit from the poet’s estate must devour pieces of his corpse in front of all present.

As he takes in the sardonic instructions, the camera lingers on Encolpius’ face. Smiling inwardly, Encolpius gets the joke and declines to accept the will’s injunction, but it has plenty of takers anyway – a batch of gnome-like old men – who proceed to unwrap the body and dig in. It’s the last, woeful image of depravity in the film and, for once, Encolpius is not a participant and/or victim in the proceedings. Instead, he’s an observer.

In the original screenplay, the instructions for Encolpius’ reaction are specific and underlined with a description of the character’s new way of seeing things: “Encolpius has followed the scene very seriously and attentively; now he laughs. It’s a weary laugh, and rather crazier than his usual one. A laugh of understanding, of comprehension, of acceptance.”30 As filmed, the only difference is that Encolpius’ laugh is toned down to a smile that’s more weary than crazy. The word “acceptance” is important; it’s an attitude that infuses both Guido (8 1/12) and Giulietta (Giulietta degli Spiriti) at the end of their films.

Encolpius turns his back on the sad business on the beach to join the ship’s crew, a group of young men, and he takes them up on their offer to join them on their upcoming voyage. In spite of some ominous harmonies on the soundtrack, this feels like one of Fellini’s bittersweet endings, where the hero finally comes to terms. And so it is, but Fellini botches the film’s final image and with it, a final frame of meaning the director wishes to fit around his picture, an idea that sadly feels half-baked to begin with.

In a voice-over, Encolpius speaks – with the sunlit sea at his back – from somewhere in the middle of the voyage, narrating their itinerary, strange places he’s seeing for the first time. Then, stopping in mid-sentence, his image freezes – and this much feels appropriately mysterious, poignant, even – but Fellini doesn’t finish the film with the freeze frame. He allows it to merge into a painting of Encolpius, a fresco on the wall of a ruin, from which his camera pans back, revealing all the other characters from the film painted on there, too, frozen in time, left to crumble on some obscure hilltop in Italy. Once past the flimsy concept itself, the worst miscalculation is the quality of the paintings themselves. They look like bad poster art, a halfhearted mockup, perhaps, for a billboard advertising the film itself. The images – which are thrown together haphazardly – have a literal, banal contemporary look that puts them on the wrong side of timelessness.31

In spite of being turned into a bad fresco, Encolpius joins a long list of Fellini protagonists who are alone with their thoughts at the end of a film. Zampano in anguished solitude on the beach, Cabiria rejoining the tide of life, Guilietta walking free of her demons, Guido directing all his characters in the passerella di addio. But above all Encolpius reminds me of another participant/observer set loose in a decadent world: Marcello Rubini of La Dolce Vita, who ends that film staring uncomprehendingly at Fellini’s symbol of innocence, the pretty young girl waving and shouting at him from a distance. Marcello is perhaps too far gone to ever bridge the gap, but by the time of the freeze frame at the end of Fellini Satyricon, you’re hopeful for Encolpius.

Encolpius

* * *

A word about the film’s music, which differs significantly from that of any other Fellini production. Fellini stalwart Nino Rota is of course on board as the composer for Fellini Satyricon, but this time he’s not alone. In fact, the only Rota piece I can truly identify is a barebones melody, only several bars long, with a distinctly oriental, even Far Eastern, modality. There’s a sense of it being a kind of archaic folk song, and it’s obviously meant to be The Theme to Fellini Satyricon. Giton sings it in the bowels of Lichas’ ship, as does the slave girl in the empty villa while the boys sleep it off. Early on, as Giton and Encolpius ascend the steps of the mammoth apartment building, they pass a bearded youth plucking the melody, like a pop tune of the day, on a Grecian lyre. The audience hears it last over the closing credits.

Rota, who died in 1979, shares the music credits with three other contemporary composers: Illan Mimaroglu (1926-2012), Tod Dockstader (1932-2015), and Andrew Rudin (1939- ). All three have composed electronic music and/or le musique concrete, a hip idiom in the late sixties pioneered by earlier avant-garde composers like Edgar Varese. Rudin was notorious as the first to compose long, serious pieces on and for the Moog synthesizer. It’s easy to pick out their contributions, which give several segments of the film a sci-fi edge, for example, the open-air bathing scene preceding Trimalchio’s feast. A third and more prevalent musical source for Fellini Satyricon consists of what is known today as world music. The credits only cite one title: Drums for the Niegpradouda Dance, but there is plenty of this genre, much of it African or Indian, I would think, on the soundtrack.

After the American release of the film, an album of some of the music was issued, but, if I remember correctly, it left off the electronic compositions of Rudin, Mimaroglu, and Dockstader, possibly for contractual reasons. Fellini/Rota compilations put together by CAM, the Italian label that holds the rights for nearly all of the Fellini soundtracks, include the brief theme by Rota, a little over two minutes of music.

* * *

Criterion’s recent Blu-ray edition of Fellini Satyricon amounts to visual rapture, a vast leap in clarity and color balance from the MGM DVD from 2005, which seemed good enough at the time but, now we know, wasn’t. The new disc touts a new 4K restoration supervised by the film’s cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno.

Special features are extensive. Especially revealing is a vintage, hour-long documentary, Ciao, Federico!, shot by Gideon Bachmann on the set and clearly intended to stir U.S. interest in the film. In spite of its rather less than respectful attitude toward its subject,32 the film is quite valuable in its reveal of Fellini’s mode of directing, at least on this project. Bachmann begins his film with a voice-over of Fellini’s mother (!) reminiscing about the child Fellini’s puppet theater. Not long after, we see the director treating his actors exactly like … puppets! There were no opportunities for star turns here. Or input from actors, or happy accidents, or ad-libs. Wanting only “unknown faces … abstract and unnerving masks,”33 Fellini stuck to unknown actors or non-actors. There were no parts for Marcello Mastroianni, Giulietta Masina, or any American actor of the sort that had wandered into previous films, such as Richard Basehart in La Strada (1954) or Broderick Crawford in Il Bidone (1955). Playing the nearly silent role of the priestess Tryphaena, Capucine – former model and star of North to Alaska (1960) and The Pink Panther (1963) – was nearly unrecognizable under layers of makeup.

Bachmann films the director, before shooting, telling and showing his performers exactly what to do, sometimes actually moving arms and legs around himself to indicate precise gestures. Since, even for Italian distribution, all dialog was dubbed post-production, Fellini most often had actors recite random number sequences – so much for line readings. (Although it does appear those in major roles are mouthing the text; e.g., Martin Potter, in his initial monologue, appears to be reciting the Italian lines dubbed PP, but was more likely declaiming them in English.)

Bachmann truly invades Fellini’s personal space, and the director allows it. With his wife Giulietta Masina sitting not so far away, Fellini appears at least once to be propositioning a young female extra on the outdoor set of Lichas’ ship.

A newly filmed interview with esteemed photographer Mary Ellen Mark provides further insights into the director at that stage of his career; Mark, at the beginnings of her own career, was assigned to document the progress of the film – many of her images are shown while Mark reminiscences quite fondly about her encounters with Fellini.

An unusual idea for an audio commentary features a selective reading of Eileen Lanouette Hughes’ memoir, On the Set of Fellini Satyricon. The disc also contains vintage interviews with Fellini and a new interview with cinematographer, Rotunno. A single, folded-out sheet contains an essay by film scholar Michael Wood.

* * *

Italy/1969/130 min./Color/Monaural in Italian with English subtitles/2.35:1 OAR. Released on Blu-ray disc and DVD in 2015 by The Criterion Collection.

Note: all images from the film are screenshots.

  1. Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables, translation by Julie Rose. New York: The Modern Library, 2008. p. 934. []
  2. Fellini’s Satyricon. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970. p. 8. []
  3. A group of perhaps his greatest films: La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1957), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963), and Guilietta degli Spiriti (1965). []
  4. For Fellini’s personal take on this crisis, see his A Director’s Notebook (1968), an hour-length documentary shot for American television. In some ways advance publicity for Fellini Satyricon (it shows Fellini’s open casting call sessions for the film among other aspects), the short also contains a sequence using the big, still-standing set for Journey, which involved a near life-size model of the Cologne cathedral and a mock-up of a passenger jetliner. The documentary is packaged as an extra in Criterion’s edition of 8 1/2. []
  5. For their edition, Criterion chose scholars more sympathetic to the film to comment in separately filmed interviews. The youthful Joanna Paul beams enthusiasm for it, and the elderly Lucas Canali actually worked as a consultant for Fellini Satyricon, having been at one point directed by Fellini to translate the screenplay’s dialog into Latin – a concept happily not used in the completed film. []
  6. Fellini was one of those artists who always say they hate interviews, but who, once the talking gets underway, can’t shut up. One such interview, led by the Italian author Alberto Moravia, was published in Vogue in July 1969, not long after the film was completed. It’s included in Ballantine Books’ edition of the screenplay, published in 1970 under the title, Fellini’s Satyricon []
  7. Fellini’s Satyricon, p. 20. []
  8. Fellini’s original screenplay for Giulietta was published in 1965, first in Italy and then in America by Orion Press the same year. By comparing its scenes to the completed film, you get a good lesson in the Fellini method at the time. It also contains the Long Interview, a back and forth between the maestro and journalist Tullio Kezich during December 1964 and January 1965. At the time Fellini was still finishing up Giulietta, and was pretty pumped up and needed to talk; there’s some crunchy and informative stuff here. []
  9. See the Fellini/Moravia interview, essays, and prefatory text included in Fellini’s Satyricon for Fellini’s outlining of this concept. It sounds like it was there from the beginning. []
  10. Fellini’s Satyricon, pp. 28-29. []
  11. Ibid., p. 29. []
  12. Ibid., p. 43-44. []
  13. Ibid., p. 44. []
  14. See the Spanish Steps sequence in Roma, where Fellini “interviews” some languorous flower children, and, also, the aforementioned Director’s Notebook, in which Fellini encounters (or plants) gypsy-like hippies living in his discarded set. []
  15. Fellini’s Satyricon, p. 44. []
  16. In a parallel with Cecil B. DeMille, in his silent version of The Ten Commandments (1923), the director split his film in two, with the story of Moses and the Israelites linked to a modern day melodrama of sin and how you pay for it. []
  17. For a time, the three principals in the film were rumored to be taken, and cast, directly off the street, as if they were hippies and, thus, real-life, contemporary realizations of Encolpius and Ascyltus. As it turned out, though, young actors Martin Potter and Hiram Keller – English and American, respectively – were cast in these roles. Keller had been in the original cast of Hair. The only real, non-actor, “hippie” was the English, seventeen-year-old, Max Born, who plays Giton and who was, reportedly, pulled off a commune by Fellini. In the film Ciao, Frederico, Born can be seen between takes accompanying himself on the guitar in a very respectable run-through of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” []
  18. It’s telling that, in her Satyricon review, she writes that a decline began for Fellini with La Dolce Vita, reaching its nadir with Satyricon. Elsewhere she’s on record for tagging Nights of Cabiria as the director’s greatest film. The preeminence of Nights notwithstanding and whatever the failings of Fellini Satyricon, it’s hard to fathom her dismissal of La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, and Juliet of the Spirits. []
  19. In the two television films Fellini made after his SatyriconThe Clowns (1970) and Fellini’s Roma (1972) – he seemed to be sketching a kind of memoir, and it was in these modest, seemingly tossed-off projects, that Fellini’s newly gained, highly intuitive approach was most successful. When he followed these in 1974 with his lyrical, episodic meditation on his childhood, Amarcord (1973), he had a hit and an Academy Award in his hands. []
  20. Encolpius is the first-person narrator of the novel. []
  21. The non-actor Romagnoli was a Roman restaurateur known as “Il Moro.” []
  22. Fellini’s Satyricon, p. 8. []
  23. When translator/commentator Walsh cites a scholar’s review of the film in the introduction, other ancient sources for the Fellini/Zapponi scenario are mentioned, e.g., Juvenal, Tacitus, and Catullus. []
  24. His desire to construct a fantastical “mind world” becomes overreaching in his late career, until, for the 1984 film And the Ship Sails On, he shoots exclusively on the stages of the Cinecitta, manipulating painterly symbols of suns and moons and battleships like a De Chirico turned filmmaker, eventually allowing the camera at the end of the picture to swing down and reveal the mechanical functioning of the careening ship deck. It’s a mysteriously poignant moment in an otherwise troubled and rather empty film. []
  25. Fellini goes in for this stagey, mime gesturing at several points in the film. When Giton leaves with Ascyltus, the director freezes Encolpius in an attitude of despair, arms outstretched. The soldier in the Matron of Ephesius episode uses a pantomime gesture when he overhears the moaning of the widow. With this kind of direction, I think Fellini mostly wants to add a layer of cultural oddity to the proceedings, but he may also be tipping his hat to the tradition of mime theater in the Roman world. At the time of Petronius, a kind of “low” theater (as opposed to the highfalutin, literary one of the Greeks and Roman tragedians like Seneca) was perhaps part of the mainstream. The escapades of the characters in Petronius’ Satyricon are often made to behave like those in low theater, and Fellini actually conjures one up in his film. Vernacchio and his theater are not from Petronius, but the crude, miming theatrics displayed on its stage might not be far removed from the antique reality. Throughout his career, Fellini never strayed far from his love for low theater, as seen in the traveling troupe in Variety Lights, the street performances of Zampano in La Strada, the magic show in Nights of Cabiria, the music hall episode in Roma, etc. []
  26. This episode is not from Petronius, but the novel makes it clear that the two boys, with Giton in tow, enjoy sacking a temple from time to time. An early chapter gleefully shows the consequences of one such raid: the priestess of the cult and her henchmen show up at their apartment and sexually humiliate all three of them. The mock wedding involving Giton and a little girl that climaxes the chapter shows up in the original screenplay, inserted as a vignette on board Lichas’ ship, but the scene was never shot. []
  27. The same practice occurs in the poolside scene just before the feast, where a male slave is shown whipping the bare cheeks of an ecstatic elder. I’d like to know where Fellini got this idea. []
  28. In the Long Interview, published with the aforementioned script for Giulietta degli Spiriti, Fellini talks about his recent experimentation with LSD (see also the BBC interview included on Criterion’s Juliet of the Spirits). The director is a bit cagey about the effect the drug may have had on Giulietta’s use of color, but we acidheads could certainly see it at the time. It appears it may have informed this scene in Fellini Satyricon. []
  29. Fellini’s use of the sound of a gusty wind blowing through open space is so ubiquitous in nearly every film he made, you wonder if he kept a stock tape of it under his desk. The wind always sounds the same, and whenever the director places a scene in a desolate outdoor setting, you can be sure of hearing it. []
  30. Fellini’s Satyricon, p. 273. []
  31. You can imagine the problems this held for the film’s art direction, which was quite capable of dressing sets, e.g., the interiors of the suicides’ villa, with either copies of actual antique mural paintings or believable faux versions of them. But how do you turn a still photograph of Martin Potter’s face into something stylistically resembling a face from a wall in Pompeii? []
  32. The worst offender is the film’s soundtrack, which relies on circus music. Fair enough, it would seem, considering Nino Rota’s extensive use of it in many Fellini films, but here it seems to imply that Fellini’s set, and his command of it, is full of slapstick, pratfalls, and just plain weirdness, as opposed to what a messy collaborative creative endeavor like the making of any challenging film must look like if you wander into it and start shooting film. []
  33. Fellini’s Satyricon, p. 11. []