Fellini Satyricon was the first Fellini film I ever saw. And what a thrilling introduction it was to that great Italian director’s work! It delighted and fascinated me at the timethat would be 1970confirming as true the wildest rumors of his directorial excess. Here was the magical Fellini world in all its wonderful grotesquerie, populated by an incredible spectrum of humanity, from striking, golden-haired young men to poor creatures lacking arms and legs, all set in a brilliantly realized foreign land out of a filmmaker’s dreams. I’d simply never seen anything like it. Perhaps owing to this vivid first impression, Satyricon has always seemed to me the ultimate Fellini movie.
The film is very loosely drawn from the surviving fragments of a satirical novel by Petronius, written in the time of Nero. It tells of the adventures of two randy young students, Encolpius and Ascyltus, as they wander a debauched ancient world in turmoil. The film at least is also a story of the search for love. Early in the picture, Ascyltus steals Encolpius’s young loverso much of the rest of the story is strung on Encolpius’s pursuit of the lost boy. He faces many colorful distractions along the way.
The film has never satisfied those who want it to conform to conventional expectations. Its structure is fragmented, as is the novel’s, moving from episode to episode with only the vaguest sense of story connection or development. But the plot is clearly not the point. The film’s look is likewise the antithesis of Hollywood epics on the order of Cleopatra or Fall of the Roman Empire. No clean, marble-columned temples here. Fellini’s ancient Rome is deliberately messy, lived in, and unfamiliar. (Credit the splendidly imaginative sets and costumes of Danilo Donati.)
Part of Satyricon's brilliance is that it is so successfully alien. It reminds us how little we can really know those who lived a thousand years ago, under different manners, morals, and gods. The characters in Fellini Satyricon are like figures glimpsed only in part on a shattered vase or crumbled frescowhich is exactly what they become at the end of the film. This is Rome “before Christ, after Fellini.” It’s also moviemaking that boldly looks beyond the conventions of theater and literature in pursuit of something more purely cinematic.
It remains surprising to me that this famously eccentric and most personal of filmmakers came out of the Italian Neorealist movement of the 1940s. It’s instructive to follow his artistic development from I Vitelloni, La Strada, and Nights of Cabiria through La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, and Juliet of the Spirits to Satyricon, Amarcord and Cassanova. It’s also ironic that, much as Fellini wants to, he can’t shake off the strictures of his very Catholic upbringing. Satyricon strives mightily to be bawdy and liberated in its portrayal of Ancient World decadence, but even by DeMille standards is almost quaintly chaste.
“If Petronius’ work is a full-blooded description of the atmosphere of those times, the film that I adapted from it is a panorama, an allegorical satire of our present-day world. It is a science-fiction film projected into the past, not the future, a journey into the unknown.”Federico Fellini, Time 9/12/69
“People always go to the movies to understand. That is not important always. Music brings an emotion and film can do the same. Satyricon is to be felt, not understood. A creator has an instinct to communicate. He cannot be conditioned to be understood by everyone or he loses his spontaneity. You cannot speak to everyone. You would become banal, very vulgar. I make pictures because that is what I like to do. I try to be honest with myself. I sort out personal confusion. I don’t pretend to be clear, I prefer to be sincere.”Federico Fellini, Los Angeles Times, 2/8/70
At right, Fellini Satyricon memorabilia from the Teegarden/Nash Collection: a Japanese program, lobby card, movie still (stars Martin Potter and Hiram Keller as Encolpius and Ascyltus), and making-of book.