One might disengage with its paganistic and hedonistic excess, but Fellini’s visionary work loosely based on Petronius’ Roman satire is a one-of-a-kind aural-visual extravaganza.
Dir. Federico Fellini
1969 | Italy | Drama/Fantasy | 130 mins | 2.35:1 | Italian & Latin
R21 (passed clean) for mature content
Cast: Martin Potter, Hiram Keller, Max Born
Plot: Encolpio roams high and low through every strata of Roman society in pursuit of a slave boy stolen by his rival, experiencing all manner of erotic, sadomasochistic and depraved escapades.
Awards: Won Pasinetti Award (Venice); Nom. for Best Director (Oscars)
Subject Matter: Mature – Hedonism
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Fellini Satyricon is quite the mixed bag, with some critics proclaiming it to be Fellini’s unsung masterpiece, while others have reportedly disengaged with its paganistic and hedonistic excess to the point that the viewing experience becomes meaningless.
It is surely one of the Italian master’s most polarising works, but there is something about it that is luring me back for a second viewing, yet I’m also resistant to seeing it again.
I do not necessarily like the film, but I appreciate where it is coming from—and not just from the fertile, imaginative mind of Fellini, but also from the ‘unconscious’, the reservoir where dark, repressive, perhaps oppressive thoughts ferment.
Perhaps this reservoir is a collective of just about everything grotesquely beautiful—Fellini’s visual magic (or in this case, sorcery); Petronius’ Roman-satirical source text imagined as a mythologised burlesque; 1969, the year of the film’s release, and its associated (counter)cultural psychedelia and uninhibited freedoms; and even that black pool of liquid that Scarlet Johansson lures men into in Jonathan Glazer’s nauseating Under the Skin (2013).
“Poets may die, Encolpius. But it doesn’t matter, if poetry remains.”
And like Glazer’s film, Fellini Satyricon feels very much like a science-fiction picture that seems to have come from the past (as several critics have pointed out); or might it be a work of the future that portends the sheer materialism of the decades after 1969?
Told in a rhapsodic manner that is also sometimes frustratingly fragmentary and elliptical, Fellini Satyricon centers on two young men who go on a series of ‘escapades’ where survival is sometimes at stake.
It is a cruel world, where violence and immoral behaviours like cannibalism are condoned; it is also a free world where homosexuality and gender fluidity abound.
Yet everything feels normalised, and it is to Fellini’s credit in creating this one-of-a-kind aural-visual extravaganza that one might even feel too ashamed to assert our own ‘modern’ moral values.
Alberto Grimaldi, the producer, would go on to help Pasolini realise his ‘Trilogy of Life’—The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974), which shares a similar view of life and existence, but perhaps with a playful quaintness that Fellini Satyricon doesn’t quite seem to exude.