Over the last couple months, there have been an inordinate number of art films with graphic sex scenes. Most recently was Godard’s Every Man for Himself, and not long before that was Don’t Look Now with the infamous “love” scene. The crème de la crème were Salò and In the Realm of the Senses. I haven’t intentionally looked for explicit films. That’s just the way it has worked out recently. Fellini Satyricon is more in the category of the latter two, yet does not quite reach the same depths of perversion. It is a depiction of pre-Christian Roman times and does not hold back showing the debauchery and depravity, which results in a lot of sexual activity.
I first saw Satyricon ages ago. I honestly cannot remember whether I saw it on video or cable, although I’m pretty sure it was one of the two. I watched it expecting humorous scandal, and ended up wondering what in the world I was watching. I may not have even finished it. Since that viewing, I have obviously studied film, and maybe not so obviously studies history, including a lot of ancient history. I never read Petronius’ Satyricon, which the Fellini version was “freely adapted,” from, as they point out in the opening credits. I did read a few of the peripheral sources from that time, including some Tacitus. Today, compared with my younger days, I have a firmer grip on Roman history and culture. In these two respects, this viewing was far more informed.
I usually do not get into transfers when writing about these films. Part of that is because Criterion has the reputation of putting out the best transfers available. At times there will be controversy that needs to be addressed, like with Lola, but rarely do I feel it is important to point how good a transfer is. That changes with Fellini Satyricon because this 4k restoration and Blu-Ray display might as well be another character. It is hard to imagine this movie looking any better. Every second is a visual spectacle. Even if some scenes are difficult to watch or incomprehensible, they look amazing.
On the other hand, sometimes the clarity of the transfer reveals the façade. Examples of this are when they are on a large set that is intended to masquerade as the outdoors, with a matte painting in the background. The above screenshot of the Roman Baths is an example of how this type of scene looks glorious with the format, as the upper half is a painting. On their way to the Baths, the structure of the set is more visible and it looks artificial. That is not really a gripe because it probably looked more realistic on other formats, not to mention it came out in 1969 and looked far better than most anything else from the time period. I enjoy being able to see these “flaws” in the production, even if it reveals more behind the curtain.
To say that Fellini Satyricon is ostentatious and brazen would be an understatement. Every shot has a mind-bogglingly large set, with costumes so decorous that they look partly authentic and also like a freak show. We can tell that Fellini is in love with these little worlds he has created as much as we are, as he has extended tracking shots that reveal the entire set with carefully choreographed acting. The make-up and costumes are so brilliantly exorbitant that it is a festival of riches and completely immersive. It is a blast to be hypnotized by the visual marvels. Trimalchio’s Dinner is the most notable of these, even if the sets are intentionally less decorative than the brothels or art museum. They are the best portrayal of the hedonism and excess that these wealthy Romans indulge upon. At times they are disgusting, while at others they are wild and upbeat, such as the many energetic dancing sequences. They are always entertaining.
After viewing the spectacle, the plot seems less important, but it is worth touching on. Encolpio (Martin Potter) is the central figure and we see most everything from his point of view. He is involved with Ascilto (Hiram Keller), Gitone (Max Born) and Eumolpo (Salvo Randone). Their escapades begin at the heart of Roman culture in the city of Rome. They are later taken prisoner via boat to the outer provinces where Encolpio has to overcome a number of challenges, including fights with mercenaries, Minotaurs, and a merchant named Lichas with a lazy eye (Alain Cuny). While there is a beginning and ending, and the characters are on a journey of sorts, this is more of a slice of Roman life rather than a narrative with a central plot. In other words, you cannot compare this with the three-act Hollywood formula. It breaks virtually all the rules.
There is abundance of lascivious content. The three younger male characters have androgynous looks, and there are hints of homosexual activity even if they are not shown on screen until Encolpio meets Lichas, and that shows just a kiss. We are given the impression that a great deal of homosexual activity takes place behind the scenes. There is plenty of female nudity and heterosexual scenes, beginning with the brothel, and culminating in Encolpio’s sexual rendezvous with a tied-up nymphomaniac. I’ve already compared it to some later movies where graphic intercourse was shown, but it holds back from becoming anything resembling pornography.
Fellini took a great deal of license with adapting Petronius’ work, filling up much of the film with his own research and, frankly, his wild imagination. Despite his embellishments, it still stands up as being much closer to authentic compared to other Roman depictions. This is not the Rome from your ordinary Cecil B. DeMille epic or even an HBO miniseries. This was the underbelly of Rome from during Nero’s reign, which Petronius was a witness to, and Fellini translated for a modern audience. It is carnivalesque mostly because this 2000 year-old culture is so foreign and distant to the one in which we live in. The reality is there was quite a bit of debauchery in pre-Christian Rome. Fellini Satyricon is not going to stand up as a historical document, but it is a better representation than a casual viewer (including the younger me) might realize. It portrays animal sacrifices, the brutality and abuse of power, pagan worship, and wild, erotic celebration.
I cannot say enough about how visually splendid this film is. This post has a lot more screen shots than most, and I could have included even more. Every frame has something interesting to the eye, whether it is the flamboyant and eccentric character, the fantastic make-up, costumes, set designs, gorgeous landscapes and last but not least, the photography. The use of locations and color are not only unparalleled for the time, but they hold their own against some of the more artistic projects created today with modern technology. I will not spoil the beautiful final shot because it has to be seen, but it punctuates the film both visually and thematically. It is up there with the best shots in Fellini’s career.
My expectations for Fellini Satyricon could not have been lower. In fact, I wondered why it was getting the Criterion treatment at all. Instead, I fell in love with Fellini all over again. He was a genius and versatile filmmaker, and this is yet another dimension of his fine career.
Film Rating: 8.5/10
Commentary: This is a dramatic reading of Eileen Lanouette Hughe’s 1971 memoir On the Set of “Fellini Satyricon”: A Behind-the-Scenes Diary. This is a new type of commentary for me, and it is tough to keep up with while re-watching the movie. It usually does not correspond to what is on the screen, although it is usually relatively close. It also gives a wealth of information about every aspect of the production, so much that it’s impossible digest it all. I am listing a few tidbits that I found interesting.
- It came to be known as Fellinicon and was the most expensive of his films and the first with foreign financing.
- All 3 of the leads were young, unknown actors. Two were British and one was American. They represented hippie culture, which is a good fit for the Petronius’ style.
- There was a rival Satyricon in the works with a much lower budget. That is why this was named Fellini Satyricon. It was a way to distinguish between the two.
- Many of the sets and props had to be made quickly with short notice. A Venus statue was made overnight. Parts of the brothel set were built in a couple hours and shot in a way that makes them look larger. There are many other examples of this throughout the commentary.
- The Trimalchio dinner scene took three weeks to shoot. It was intended to show the residence as not being ornamented aside from the food, because Trimalchio was a poor landowner and former slave who worshipped food.
- The actor that played Trimalchio ran a restaurant that Fellini used to frequent until he started getting too fat. The actor was reluctant to appear in film and leave his restaurant alone.
- Fellini intended to capture the essence of a pre-Christian world, which he likened to capturing Martians. That is why this pagan world seems so foreign to us.
- The ship is designed with modern methods and is a bridge between the ancient and modern world. This was intentional.
- Petronius had Encolpio marrying a young girl, but Italian censors would not allow a marriage with a child. Instead he marries Lichas (Cuny), a male, but acceptable to censors.
- The suicide scene may have been a nod to Petronius, because he killed himself rather than be killed by Nero.
- The set was constantly crowded with four people writing books, a documentarian, photographers, and guests. It also required an enormously large cast and crew.
Ciao, Federico! – Hour-long documentary by Gideon Bachmann. It starts with Fellini directing a love scene, calling out orders as the camera tracks around a threesome. One of the great parts of him shooting without sound is you hear him talk loudly to the actors while the camera is rolling. They show many shots from behind the scenes, which they alternate with interviews and slices of life with Fellini. We see him totally in element, including him on a cussing diatribe railing against someone who is working on the production. We also see him angry, happy, content, serene, and focused. It was a good documentary, both intrusive and revealing, but they had a lot of access.
Fellini: A series of interviews. Fellini despised giving interviews, but he had trouble saying no. That was noted in Bachmann’s documentary as well. We’re lucky he said yes so often because he had a lot to say and was highly quotable.
Gideon Bachmann (audio), 1969 – 10 minutes. Starts with a good quote: “The ideal film is the one you are making.” Obstacles are stimulating, because they cause you to create. He calls Saytricon his most difficult film because he had to create a world and portray situations that are considered forbidden. It was a stressful film for him to make.
French Television, 1969 – This was a short interview of just over a minute. He talks about the morality, or lack thereof in Satyricon, and instead showed decadence and vitality.
Gene Shalit, 1975 – This was another short interview. It begins with a title card that reads “Perfection.” Shalit repeats a previous Fellini quote “A good picture has defects.” They have to be complete, vital, and cannot reach perfection. He makes fun of Shalit’s appearance because it is imperfect and outlandish, yet he likes him for those flaws. The same is truth with film.
Giuseppe Rotunno, Cinematographer: 2011 interview for the Criterion Collection where he discusses the challenges in filming this iconic film. They worked on a number of films together and became like school buddies. Fellini allowed a great deal of freedom, yet was precise as far as what he wanted. Rotunno set up lights for 360-degree views because Fellini also liked to be free and wanted to shoot from all angles. Fellini’s common question when discussing a shot: “But will it look real?”
Fellini and Petronius: New 2014 Criterion documentary with classicists Joanna Paul and Luca Canali. Tacitus describes Petronius as someone who played in the leisurely, seedy side of Roman culture. He was known as a scandalous figure. We are missing most of the books of the Satyricon today, with only having bits of three of them. Fellini makes the film fragmented to honor what we have of the original text. The book is very realistic, and the film contains elements of that realism. Trimalchio’s dinner is the only extended portion of the Petronius text that survives, yet Fellini exaggerates it. A lot of the content and characters come from Petronius, while others come from elsewhere, partly Fellini’s imagination and also other sources. Fellini does not reveal sources except for Horace and Ovid, because he was not trying to be academic, but he clearly did his research to prepare for the film.
Mary Ellen Mark: She was 28 when she was assigned the task of photographing production for Look magazine. This is a 2014 interview with her. She shot the sequences he did in the Roman Baths, which was a smaller set and then grew larger. She had total access, partly because people weren’t paranoid about leaks like they are now. She loved photographing Fellini. He was larger than life and seemed to enjoy being photographed. She called him a showman. He was so busy making the film that he was oblivious to being shot, but still allowed himself to be seen.
Felliniana: These are items from Don Young’s memorabilia collection. It is a series posters, books, programs, and so forth. It is interesting to see such various depictions of this highly visual film from different cultures.
This was quite a release. While the film cannot be considered a masterpiece, the amount of supporting materials that were created and used on this Criterion disc are staggering. With a heavy and detailed commentary, a terrific behind the scenes documentary, and several other odds and ends, this is one of the most complete releases I’ve seen in a long time.
Criterion Rating: 10/10