DVD Review Of Satyricon

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/24/07


  The best way to understand director Federico Fellini’s audacious 1968 film Satyricon (also known as Fellini Satyricon, because 1967 saw the release of Satyricon by fellow Italian filmmaker Gian Luigi Polidoro) is within the context of its year of release. That pivotal year saw the release of such indelible film classics as The Graduate, Planet of the Apes, Night Of The Living Dead, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Satyricon is very much in league with all of those films. It is even more sexually daring than The Graduate (especially homosexually), as politically subversive as Planet Of The Apes, as relentless as Night Of The Living Dead, and as far out as 2001: A Space Odyssey. I would also add that it is as symbolic as that landmark of television from the U.K., The Prisoner. But, is it a great film? I’d say no, although it is a very intriguing film, and not nearly as bad a film as its worst critics claim. That said, it is not the cinematic masterpiece its boosters claim, even if it had undoubted influence on such later films as Bob Guccione’s sadomasochistic Caligula.

  It has an odd, but strong, pull though. Despite its lack of narrative, or very thin narrative, there is doubtless a pull that its images weaves, or a spell, and in this way it resembles a film by Michelangelo Antonioni- say Blowup or The Passenger, even if it achieves that resemblance by going to the other end of the austerity meter. It is very close to being that ideal of the cinema auteur- pure cinema. But that still does not make up for its manifest deficiencies in narrative nor character development. The films defenders pawn off this fact by claiming that Fellini and his co-writers, Bernardino Zapponi and Brunello Fellini, were merely echoing the structure of the First Century picaresque tale written by the ancient Roman, Gaius Petronius Arbiter, about life under the Caesars during Nero’s reign. While it is true that The Satyricon by Petronius is picaresque- largely due to the fragmentary nature of the surviving episodes, it is a bit more than what the film is, at least in terms of traditional literary styling. But Fellini’s film’s sumptuous visual extravaganza- among the most memorable in the history of film, more than compensates for the narrative lapses, and more closely resembles High Modernist poetry. In fact, the closest parallel to this film would be Ezra Pound’s ode to London, England, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.

  What is most curious is that, compared to typical Hollywood sword and sandal epics of the 1950s and 1960s- from the Biblical to Spartacus to the Ray Harryhausen stop motion action takes on Classical myth, Satyricon- despite its satirical nature, rings truer, in many ways, both to the work it derives from and reality. No, I’m sure most of the young men in ancient times were not as ‘pretty’ as the film’s putative hero, Encolpio (Martin Potter)- which is Roman slang for genitalia, nor his assorted male lovers, his roommate Ascilto (Hiram Keller), and their under-aged slave boy Gitone (Max Born), but the film’s over the top hedonism is perfectly in accord with much of the then contemporary Roman literature and description of the mores of the day than the aforementioned films that were from that era. And as the disconnected scenes relentlessly pile upon one another for the full 129 minute running time, it is difficult to not want to continue to be bombarded with the images, even if they disgust, for they fascinate as well. Fellini is well aware of the human desire to watch pornography and scenes of suffering. It all reminded me of the scene in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, where Little Alex is forced to watch horrible scenes of violence to cure him of a desire to commit violence, except that the agent of force that kept me watching was somewhere deep within myself.

  That said, it was not because I was seeking to decode the film nor its supposed meaning, but simply that the barrage of images and bizarre human behaviors is so astounding, and not too far off of reality- always the sign of a good satire, that it is not too far off the mark. Also, the cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno is flat out incredible. It is as if every scene is a lush Renaissance canvas come to life, only even more colorful- especially the scenes of nature, than the Old Masters could conceive of painting, filled with sexy males and depraved lascivious, predatory females- often grotesquely obese women. There are also dwarves, syphilitics, grave robbers, lesbians, lepers, a legless and armless man, a hermaphrodite, an albino, and many other freaks, all of whom engage in brutal and bizarre behaviors- from slavery and farting to decapitations and animal cruelty, and ending with cannibalism.

  Yet, in trying to define the film, perhaps the best definition came from Fellini, himself, when he called the film a science fiction film projected into the past. Undoubtedly, given the sci fi tinged electronic music concocted by Nino Rota, this is true; although there are other scenes where the soundtrack is mere animalistic grunting. The film that immediately came to mind was the obscure black and white B sci fi film from 1964, starring John Carradine, called Horrors Of The Red Planet- both in its bizarre musical and singular visual cues. Fellini’s film also delves into horror and the supernatural, including a scene, near the film’s end, where, upon a heath, Encolpio and Ascilto encounter a rock that bares a strong resemblance to the black monolith at the center of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Earlier, on a slave boat that the pair, along with Gitone, are kidnapped onto, there are bizarre things that seem futuristic or out of place on a Roman era slave ship.

  However, one could also argue that the film is a comedy- witness the scene where Encolpio and Ascilto fall out and argue over who gets Gitone, or when Encolpio marries the slave ship’s master, Lica (Alain Cuny), and becomes his ‘husband.’ There are the obvious sex scenes for romance- including one where a humongous fat black woman is used by Encolpio to cure his impotence. The scene of him falling on top of the mound of flesh is both disgusting, yet anticipates recent scenes in several Eddie Murphy fatso comedies. There are battle scenes for adventure, and the film can also be seen as a Post-Apocalyptic film, as much of the action is dreamy and takes place after an earthquake devastates Rome. That the next scene, in a quick cut, is of Encolpio in an art gallery discussing philosophy, lends to this interpretation, as well. Or, it could all be Encolpio’s moment of death fantasy. There are also several other scenes that make direct attacks upon poetry and painting, such as when former slave turned rich vulgarian Trimalcione (Mario Romagnoli), recounts his ascent, and claims himself a poet simply because. That such declamations would become standard issue in the PC Era we live in shows that Fellini was visionary in his satire, not only criticizing what was about him, but what was destined to result from it.

  The film is also a grotesque because not only does it feature grotesques, but in Fellini’s mind’s-eye, not only is sex rote and dull (the film so de-eroticizes all forms of sex that critics who say it focuses on sex in the extreme miss Fellini’s point that that is the way to cure people of their obsession for it), but so are art, politics, science, religion, and all of life. This was true then- in Roman days, during the heyday of the Vietnam War- when the film was released, and certainly in today’s cyber-age, where narcotized youths prefer to play video games than enjoy a beautiful day in the park.

  The film was praised by Time magazine, the New York Times, and critics like Roger Ebert, even as it was banned in many parts of the nation. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture, and Fellini got an Oscar nod for best director, as well. It was filmed in several languages, but the DVD, put out by MGM, in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, comes with English and Italian options, with or without subtitles. This is a great plus in enjoying the film. It only features a trailer, when this is one of those films that cries out for a great film commentary.

  Satyricon is a film that is nightmarish, but more so for its disjunctive plot than for its images, although many of them are truly disturbing and harrowing. It is not an easy work, but that fact alone makes it neither terrible nor grand. It is the depth of Fellini’s occasional Surrealism (that often overused and misdefined term) and the power of his satire, which save this film from being an epic failure, or a camp disaster along the lines of Elizabeth Taylor’s similar vehicle, Cleopatra, or a pretentious work of bilge along the lines of a Jean Cocteau film. In fact, Satyricon is everything that a hack like Cocteau could never do, but which a master of film like Fellini could do, even when not at the top of his game. It is not his best film, nor even a great film, but it is a singular and personal triumph, and one of the most indelible films in the history of the medium; one whose power and imagery will nag at you long after you wish it would evaporate, and one which, inexplicably, has had virtually no influence in its art form. Not a single great filmmaker of the last four decades has picked up the mantle that Fellini tossed down.

  In a sense, if one were to imagine the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, after Dave Bowman enters the black monolith around Jupiter, and add a bit of satire and sexuality to it, then extend that fifteen or so minutes by two more hours, one would have Satyricon. Thus, if one was lost by the ending of the great Kubrick film, forget about trying to ‘get’ this film, for its pure cinema, visual poesy, and Keatsian Negative Capability are well beyond the realm of a film viewer not weaned from the Lowest Common Denominator tripe of a Steven Spielberg nor George Lucas, nor the faux Joycean logorrhea of many wannabe ‘edgy’ independent filmmakers of recent vintage. Federico Fellini was that great rarity in art- a great rarity, even when his rarity trumped his greatness.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the NewCritics website.]

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