Fellini Satyricon (1969) dir. Frederico Fellini writ. Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi (based on the writings of Petronious) cine. Giuseppe Rotunno sets Danilo Donati and Luigi Caccianoce music Nino Rota, Ilhan Mimaroght, Tod Dockstader, Andrew Rudin star. Martin Potter (Encolpio), Hiram Keller (Ascylite), Max Born (Gitone), Salvo Randone (Eumolpo the Poet), Il Moro (Trimalcione), Magali Noel (Fortunata), Capucine (Trifena), Alain Cuny (Lica), Fanfulla (Vernacchio), Luigi Montefiori (Minotaur), Joseph Wheeler (suicide: Petronius), Lucia Bose (suicide: P's wife), et. al.
figures in a fresco
The "theatre effect" is often the sign of primitivism in film drama -- except when it's Orson Welles or Frederico Fellini. Satyricon's sets are spectacular, neo-modernist constructions that combine both the pictographic art of the past with the angular sensibility of the present. Characters declaim their lines to phantoms beyond the screen or to decadent aristocrats in the burlesques that are frequently featured within the playhouses, feasts, tombs, temples and the other venues that carry the action of this mythical adventure.
The film begins with the "hero" Encolpio (Martin Potter) monologuing in front of a fresco, bemoaning his fate:
Encolpio: The earth has not dragged me into the abyss... nor has the tempestuous sea engulfed me... I have fled from justice, from the arena... I have even stained my hands with blood... to end up here, banished and abandoned.... Who was it that condemned me to this solitude? He who knows every vice... who himself admits he deserves banishment: Ascylitus!
Who is he speaking to? The obsolete convention of live theatre is resurrected by Fellini in order to break the alienation between the viewer and the subject, thus moving away from the aesthetic of cinematic voyeurism into audience complicity.
It's a clever directive, one which establishes not only the dramatic method but also the visual style. An atmosphere of history is integral to the audience's acceptance of the story. Proceeding as if the world is an art gallery is often the kiss of death in drama, but under Fellini's direction it's a brilliant fugue of modern expressionism and interpretative mythology.
"In Satyricon, I was influenced by the look of frescoes. At the end, these people, whose lives were so real to them, are now only crumbling frescoes." (Fellini)
Encolpio: student, pretty boy bisexual adventurer, and creature of fortune whose present misery is due to the theft of his boy lover Gitone by his friend and fellow student, Ascylitus. We are also introduced to Ascylitus (Hiram Keller) by way of a monologue and quickly learn that he's no sentimentalist:
Ascylitus: (hoarsely) Encolpio is looking for me, he wants revenge. (gloats) Friendship lasts as long as it is convenient.
They fight, and Encolpio holds Ascylitus's head over a steaming culvert.
Encolpio: Where is Gitone?
Ascylitus: (gasping) I sold him to Vernacchio the actor...
Their dispute over the boy-toy Gitone (Max Born) is another one of those peculiar passions that make love an illness, sex a disease. Gitone is a treacherous little ponce whose affections are political rather than spiritual, so we are forced to consider him as a symbol of Encolpio's cruel Fortune. While Encolpio's fascination with Gitone is pathetic, the masochism is part of the complexity of his friendship with A.
"Because of the picture's open, non-judgemental portrayal of homosexuality, some journalists seized upon the tempting notion that I myself must be a homosexual or at least bisexual...." (Fellini)
In one of the many great scenes, Encolpio confronts Vernacchio (Fanfulla), the actor who bought the boy and is training him for female roles ("Helen of Troy, the faithful Penelope, Cornelia..."). Typical of the Roman arts in the time of Nero, Vernacchio's playhouse stages not only obscene farces but also the "theatre of the real thing" -- a blasphemer has his hand chopped off as part of the evening's entertainment. The audience laughs at Encolpio's attempt to regain Gitone, begin bidding for him. But a Senator intervenes, and Encolpio is allowed to lead Gitone away.
They wander the city, which is a warren of the grotesque, a bizarre brothel, a merchant mall of the unconscious. A huge head is being dragged through an alley, a nightmare from a beheading, or an icon of the local Caesar (the megalomaniacal Trimalchio, as it later develops). They retire to Encolpio's room, make love, but in the morning are found by Ascylitus. Instead of fighting, they decide to go their separate ways, split their possessions, but when asked who he wants to be with, the faithless Gitone chooses Ascylitus. Encolpio barely has time to dwell upon this treachery when an earthquake hits, and the city collapses, blocks splitting from the huge dream walls, burying citizens, animals and the collective memory.
Cut to: an art gallery that looks perhaps a little too chic for the ancient world, but nonetheless sustains the film's neo-primitivist/moderno style. Here Encolpio meets up with the poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone), an older gentleman, also down on his luck. As the camera patrols the hangings:
Eumolpus: The masters in this gallery... are indicative of the apathy of our times. Nobody paints like this anymore.
Encolpio: What caused this decadence?
Eumolpus: Lust of money...
How did you get here? While the continuity is outstanding in terms of tone, the narrative progression is difficult to comprehend unless one is familiar with Petronius, recognizes the stories, the characters and the Fellini fictions. This isn't a major problem, as the action exists as a Fellini expressionism as much as it is a history, is a literature. Petronius' Satyricon is also a collection of fragments, memories of the original work, an incomplete oeuvre, like the plays of Sophocles or the writings of Cicero. In this sense Fellini's narrative imagery is internal, fragments of music from the id.
The next major scene is the feast at Trimalchio's, another Caesar who considers himself a poet, wit, bon vivant -- a subject of envy, contempt and rage from Eumolpus. The scene is raw, the characters coarse, the action bizarre to the point of revulsion. Eumolpus and Encolpio watch, participate, but are really observers in this casual orgy of sexual theatre, gluttony, and megalomania.
The aging Trimalchio (Il Moro), who, like Truman Capote, can do anything at his party, humiliates his slaves and his guests as dwarves stagger in with smoldering cauldrons of flesh -- ambiguous torsos from ambiguous creatures in an ambiguous universe. A pig is brought forth, gutted, releasing an avalanche of hens, snails, pigeons -- verily, all the small animals and fowl of the known world. The guests drink, dance, insult one another under a huge icon of the host. Trimalchio's belches, farts, snores are decoded as maxims of wisdom and divinations by a vulpine secretary. At one point Trimalchio denounces the drunken Eumolpus for having stolen his verses, orders that he be thrown into the ovens. Eumolpus is dragged up the steps to these open pits of hell, but allowed to retreat, intimidated and debased. Trimalchio is a tyrant of the flesh, the soul -- a tumorous ego.
His feast is a farce, as is the next scene, his rehearsal for death -- a play-within-the-play which is an existential homage to the occult.
The party adjourns to the plutocrat's tomb, a Roman theatre-set of heavy megalithic blocks, a stone garden of the soul. Here Trimalchio rehearses his funeral and internment, has his guests weep and deliver their sycophantic perorations as he lies smugly in the vault.
Telescoping the narrative within itself even further, Fellini now inserts the story of The Matron of Ephesus. A beautiful widow makes love to a young soldier who has been guarding a crucified thief on a nearby ridge. When the body of the thief is stolen, the widow aids her lover by replacing the thief with the body of her husband... which allows Trimalchio to proclaim his grandest witticism, "Better to hang a dead husband than a living lover."
Thus Fellini uses the theatre-effect to cobble together an episodic narrative that has the spacial architecture of consciousness, an anecdotal progression of memory, cause, and effect. Art can't exist without history. It exists as a perception of the Past, which in turn becomes an anticipation of the Future.
"It was like speculating about life on Mars, but with the help of a Martian, so Satyricon satisfied in me some of my desire to make a science-fiction film." (Fellini)
Now the dynamic changes, moving away from the closed, interior city sets of perpetual night into the open, exterior landscape of the ocean and the unknown. The transition here is thrilling, like arriving on another planet -- albeit as a prisoner.
A huge barge sits on the ocean, its black hulk a fantastic metaphor of evil, a contradiction in the face of Nature. The V.O. by Encolpio tells us "we had been taken prisoner by the terrible Lichas of Tarantum." By "we" he means himself, his friend Ascylitus and toy-boy Gitone. How? It doesn't really matter. As Encolpio moves, so goes his nightmare, so goes his fate.
These sequences are among the most brilliantly executed in all film drama to date. The photographic compositions isolate Nature and exalt the machine. The screen is sectionized into the geometrics of ocean horizon and the raised oars of the slave galley -- dramatic simplicities that give imaginative and emotional depth to the historical reality. No matter how fantastic the characters and their actions, there's a raw authenticity continuously seeping from the expressionism. This, says Fellini, is how it was.
The bowels of this war barge are a hellhole of chained slaves working the huge chorus of oars as acrobats perform on the walkway between the bulkheads, musicans play lyres in droning harmony with the pitch and yawl... and Gitone sings in the tradition of the Arabic boy soprano. The master Lichas (Alain Cuny) amuses himself and his cast of cutthroats and slaves by wrestling selected victims in a sexual overture to death. His insane, reptilian eyes turn to Encolpio:
Lichas: (rasps) Come to me, O tender fawn...
The androgynous Encolpio is no match for the sadistic Lichas. But instead of snapping his neck, Lichas' death embrace becomes one of love. "What eyes, what clear blue eyes," he intones as he pins Encolpio to the deck and kisses him. And this is no mere one-night stand -- Lichas and Encolpio are married in a hastily convened ceremony on the top deck and celebrate their love with the slaughter of a young calf. Lichas wears a veil in a peculiar gesture of submission and dominance, as if he is both male and female, his homosexuality a primal twining, an omnivore from the deep.
Time passes... the ship is seen passing through sleet and snow. A sea-monster is captured, raised to the deck, butchered. Then, as they draw close to the island where the young Caesar has his home, armed vessels surround them. As they watch, the young Caesar is hunted along the shoreline onto the sculptured white rocks where, cornered, he draws his sword and kills himself. His body is then impaled on a pike to the cries of "The Tyrant is dead!" The invaders confront Lichas on his ship, sneer, "We've drowned your emperor like a pig!" A sword is drawn and -- in one of those cinematic moments you forever recall in your dreams -- Lichas is decapitated, his head flying into the ocean where it sinks beneath the waves, his broken eyes rolled upwards in a frozen moment of ecstasy.
You last see Gitone being hustled away ("We'll keep him") as you expect Encolpio and Ascylitus to either die or remain in chains. But no... here Fellini changes the mood dynamic again.
You see an enclave bounded by a rock face, a sand garden adjoining the villa of Petronius, which is where he slits his wrists after freeing his slaves and sending away his children. You don't know it's Petronius, although Fellini has said elsewhere that's who it is. Does this matter? You know suicide was a Roman option, an occultic solution to a political fait accompli. Again, the episodic narrative emulates dream, articulates history.
In this broken paradise of softly falling water, chirping birds and frescos, they find a beautiful Ethiopian slave girl hiding in her kennel, share her for the night. Encolpio awakens at dawn to sound of departing horsemen, and the roar of flames. The bodies of Petronius and his wife are being immolated on their funeral pyre.
Cut To: Another desolate landscape where the wind stirs the dust around some tethered horses near a covered wagon. This is the encampment of the Nymphomaniac, who lies bound in the wagon, writhing in a perpetual state of indiscriminate arousal. Her position is more cruciform than missionary, her desire more occultic than mad. A crone tells them her husband is taking her to the "Hermaphrodite" at the oracle for a "cure"... but in the meantime he would be pleased if the young men would help soothe his wife's hermetic fever. Forever the incorrigible opportunist, Ascylite is only too happy to oblige, and he mounts the Nymphomaniac in an act that simulates ecstasy, but seals his fate.
They journey with the husband to the Oracle. The plan is to steal the Hermaphrodite, a sickly grotesque who lies in a crib beside the healing pool in the cave. The Hermaphrodite is a transgendered being who mirrors our origins, realizes our fears, fixes myth with biological fact. All come to this "demigod" seeking a cure for what ails them. War amputees, seniles, the insane... and the wandering voyeurs of history. Encolpio stabs and kills the old man who is the Hermaphrodite's guardian, and the trio flee with this sacred creature lodged on a hand cart. But like some fragile experiment from the stud farm, the Hermaphrodite dies, and the nympho's husband, enraged, attacks Encolpio and Ascylitus.
What now? Fellini's complex, episodic narrative continues to scroll.
Somehow Encolpio finds himself rolling down a slope into a crude arena, the lair of the Minotar. And, true to form, his "friend" Ascylitus is somehow the grinning intimate of the Caesar and his entourage who will watch this piece of mythological theatre. The Minotar is a seven foot giant wearing a bull-ram headpiece, and awaits his trophy in his labyrinth. Once again Encolpio finds himself on-stage against his will.
He escapes death by appealing to the Minotar's humanity:
Encolpio: Dear Minotar, I will love you if you set me free...
The Minotar removes his headpiece, smiles, laughs, addresses the crowd:
Minotar: (to the pro-Consul) This isn't cowardice... it's the commonsense of an educated youth!
They embrace and instead of being killed, Encolpio is given Ariadne, a trophy harlot who lies willing and able on a stone bed nearby. But Encolpio finds himself incapable of performing and is tossed contemptuously into the surrounding trench by the disgruntled Ariadne. And as he crawls out, who should appear on a travelling litter, reborn as a wealthy noble with an entourage of women? His old mentor Eumolpus, The Poet... in a crazy reversal of Fortune that makes him the heir of Trimalchio!
They retire to Eumolpus' harem, a fantasy quadrangle of the senses. Encolpio has his bum smacked by a bevy of voluptuaries in a futile attempt to restore his potency as Ascylitus stands arrogantly on a giant swing, riding it back and forth in a vulgar foreplay as infantile as it is theatrical. This respite -- like an interlude from One Thousand and One Nights -- is brief, and presently Encolpio journeys beyond the Great Swamps in search of the Witch who will restore his lost sexuality.
Oenothea is a plump negress, another vagina on a slab. Her magic is to morph into fire in a basic metaphor of potency. Once again Encolpio is invited to perform -- and this time he seems to have better luck. As Ascylitus lingers outside by the river bank, he is attacked and killed by a man who might be the Nymphomaniac's husband or merely a bandit who preys on the clients of the Witch. Ascylitus calls out to Encolpio as he's fatally stabbed, then mysteriously enters the Witch's cave, urges Encolpio to leave. Delighted with his restored powers, Encolpio follows the ghost, finds Ascylitus dead in the saw grass. The incident is contradictory, occultic, and left unexplained. The scene closes with the shocked Encolpio framed against a solitary stone megalith.
The final episode sees Encolpio encounter a ship heading for Africa. The Master lies dead on the shore, surrounded by crates, friends and retainers. The Master's will is read, the lucky inheritors told that they will have to eat his body if they want to share in in his wealth. Meanwhile the crew invites Encolpio to join them, and as they run happily over the dunes towards the ship, the Master's body is eaten. Although there's no Christian intent, the situation appeals to the cynical who will recall The Last Supper.
The film ends with Encolpio's V.O. telling of his odyssey, the islands, the cities... then, in a lap-dissolve, he and his friends transmorgrify, become figures in a fresco on a broken wall in a set of ruins.
"'What a pity,' some archaeologist laments, upon viewing something called Fellini's Satyricon. 'It seems to be missing its beginning, middle and end. It is so strange... what kind of man could this Fellini have been? Perhaps he was mad.'"
Fellini's narrative has an interesting image/symbol sub-text, one which integrates the action in a series of loops. There is the head, at first a mysterious icon in the street, later a mural at the Feast of Trimalchio, finally the severed head of Lichas sinking below the waves. Lichas is first seen wearing an animal head piece, a totemic mask similar to that worn by the Minotar. There's the white horse, sleeping on its feet in a sunken court prior to the earthquake, a thing of beauty and innocence in a city of polymorphic decadence. Horses recur in elegant pursuit of the horizon or in captive poses, more beautiful than the human, closer to the Gods, never grotesque, never decadent. Women on their backs: the Nymphomaniac, Ariadne, the Witch. Always on altars, sexual transponders of Fortune and reincarnation. And the frescoes....
paganism: religious order and the secularization of form
The pagan form is episodic, mythical, anthropomorphic, open. The religious form is determinist, codified, atomic, closed. Fellini Satyricon is the perfect post-modern testament, a de-construction of the determinist model in which the hero is the author of his fate in favor of the episodic model where Fate is a subject of Fortune etc. By interpreting the past, it predicts the future: the end of religious order, the secularization of Form. When a priest posted a black edged bulletin of the door of his church denouncing Fellini as a sinner, he was responding instinctively to the heresy of art and the fatal movement of history. But Fellini is only the messenger, not the messiah.
*Fellini quotes from I, Fellini by Charlotte Chandler
© LR 29/5/99
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