Fellini Satyricon | Federico Fellini | Italy | 1969 | 129 minutes
In his program notes, Cinesthesia programmer Jason Fuhrman explains how Federico Fellini added distancing techniques to familiar stylistic flourishes in his dreamlike excavation of imperial Rome, Fellini Satyricon.
“I am examining ancient Rome as if this were a documentary about the customs and habits of the Martians.” — Federico Fellini in an interview, 1969
Federico Fellini stretched his already strong predilection for surrealism, extravagance and amplified caricature into hyperdrive with this deliriously dreamlike look at love and death in imperial Rome. A lush, fragmentary, apocalyptic spectacle for contemplation, Fellini Satyricon is loosely based on Petronius’ classical Roman novel, written during the reign of Nero.
The film follows the lurid adventures of two roguish, pansexual young men—Encolpius and Ascyltus—as they wander through a phantasmagorical landscape of decadence, endless feasts, sexual licentiousness and cruelty. With one grotesque tableau after another, Fellini creates a dehumanized, chaotic and disintegrating pagan world that feels more like a remote planet than a historical reconstruction.
Fellini had never read Petronius’ work when he proposed to adapt it and signed the contract for the film. What intrigued him most about the text was precisely its fragmentary nature, the vast gaps between the extant parts of the book and the mysterious pieces forever lost to us. He saw his task as that of an archaeologist who is forced to recreate the form of an ancient work of art from only a few remaining shards. Fellini stated, “Before filming Satyricon I interviewed university professors, experts on ancient art, priests, magicians, astrologists, experts on the occult . . . The things they told me, the things I saw, were more fascinating than the film.” His objective was to achieve a portrait of the Roman world that went beyond the false information in history books.
Petronius’ satire was a springboard for Fellini to evolve his highly original cinematic style. Fellini described the possibility of creating “sparse fragments, in large part repressed and forgotten, made whole by what might be called a dream.”:
Not [made whole] by a historical epic reconstructed philologically from documents and positively verified but by a great dream galaxy sunken in the darkness and now rising up to us amid glowing bursts of light. I think I was seduced by the possibility of reconstructing this dream with its puzzling transparency, its unreadable clarity.”
The most striking aspect of Satyricon, which is essentially descriptive rather than narrative, is its visual richness. Almost all of the film’s sequences were shot in the spacious studios of Cinecittà, even many locations that seem to have taken place outside. This permitted Fellini to play with exotic and unusual combinations of non-natural colors. The director wished to convey a sense of unfamiliarity and aesthetic detachment in his evocation of pre-Christian Rome with the intention of distancing the characters and their lives from contemporary moral judgment. Fellini described Satyricon as “a science-fiction film from the past.”
Several of his colleagues have described Fellini’s strategies to make the audience feel uncomfortable, to compel viewers to observe history from a totally alien perspective.
Peter Ammann, a Swiss psychoanalyst of the Jungian school who assisted Norma Giacchero, Fellini’s script girl, with continuity, noted that Fellini constantly attempted to distance himself from his narrative material. Fellini’s director of photography, Giuseppe Rotunno, added that this same kind of cold detachment was the goal in both the camera work and the lightning.
Bernardino Zapponi, who co-wrote the screenplay, remarked that Fellini employed a strange, jerky, and incomprehensible form of dubbing, thus deliberately causing the lips of his actors to move out of synchrony with their dialogue.
Rino Carboni, director of makeup, commented that Fellini had instructed him to aim for hallucinatory, spectral, and haunting effects. Furthermore, set and costume designer Dani Donati was directed to produce surroundings and clothes that expressed a timeless and unreal quality.
Finally, Nino Rota’s musical compositions were guided by Fellini’s order to provide music that explained nothing and that avoided, above all else, sentimentality and emotional involvement. Rota’s almost completely arrhythmic, atonal score combines metallic sounds produced electronically, Afro-Asiatic instruments, and conventional orchestral instruments whose sounds are distorted electronically. In addition to Rota’s contributions, Fellini Satyricon features folkloristic music from Japan, Africa, Afghanistan, Tibet, and Hungarian Gypsies, as well as twelve-tone classical compositions and other unidentified pieces.
Fellini said Satyricon was not a film he “wanted to be friends with,” and he always noted how profoundly different it is from his previous work. Paradoxically, it is also the most Felliniesque of Fellini films. According to film critic and Fellini confidant Tullio Kezich, the director thought he was making “a lush, customized film inspired by market calculations and aiming for the American audience,” but, moreover, he was immersing himself in history, drawing hundreds of faces and scenes, and creating “the biggest studio production in Cinecittà after Ben-Hur.” In other words, he was in his element, and the result is an epic movie that deals in visual excess like no other, while imparting to us a complex, eerie fascination.
Illustrator Edward Kinsella, who designed the package for the 2015 Criterion Collection release of Satyricon, describes the film as “classical . . . but very bizarre. It is a bloated, overflowing, disgusting masterpiece, where everything and everyone is falling apart.” Fellini’s bleakly baroque vision of ancient Rome is a bold, singular work of art and a journey into the unknown. Yet, the twenty-first century spectator may easily recognize himself or herself in the decadent atmosphere, the surrealistic imagery, the lurid, stylized makeup, and the discontinuous, fractured narrative.
Fellini Satyricon premiered on the last night of the 30th Venice Film Festival (Thursday, September 4, 1969). Fellini was welcomed with full honors and attended a crowded and controversial press conference during which he refused to back down in the face of a large group of protestors, responding to their taunts in kind. The screening of the film was so packed that a second showing was organized after midnight, for which the tickets disappeared almost immediately and were in turn sold at outrageous prices on the black market.
The audience at the opening received Satyricon with “somewhat stunned bewilderment”, as Kezich wrote. Many critics drew comparisons with Fellini’s biggest hit, La dolce vita (1960); indeed, some reviews of the earlier film foreshadowed the future by labeling it the Satyricon of the twentieth century. Satyricon performed well at the box office in Italy and won four Nastro d’Argento awards: Best Supporting Actor (Fanfulla), Best Colour Photography, Best Set Design, and Best Costumes. Fellini was also nominated for Best Director at the 1971 Academy Awards.
One of the memorable scenes surrounding Fellini Satyricon was a 1:00 a.m. screening at Madison Square Garden in New York City following a rock concert with an audience of more than 10,000 young people (“dropouts, hippies, ragamuffins”), amidst the odor of marijuana and hashish. Fellini recounted the event:
The show was a knockout. The young people applauded every scene; many slept, others made love. Amid total chaos the film went on relentlessly on a giant screen that seemed to reflect an image of what was happening in the hall. Unpredictably, mysteriously, in that most improbable ambience Satyricon seemed to have found its natural site. It didn’t seem mine any more in that sudden revelation of secrets understood, of subtle, unbroken links between the ancient Rome of memory and that fantastic audience from the future.
Cast: Martin Potter, Hiram Keller, Salvo Randone, Max Born, Il Moro, Magali Noël, Capucine, Alain Cuny, Fanfulla, Danica la Loggia, Lucia Bosé, Joseph Wheeler, Tanya Lopert, Hylette Adolphe, Gordon Mitchell, Luigi Montefiori, Marcello di Folco