It’s somewhat surprising that in 1971, Federico Fellini was nominated for a best director Academy Award for Fellini Satyricon. To say the least, it’s a very un-Oscar type of film, especially by today’s standards. But it is a film, an exceptional one, that truly from start to finish conveys the creative imagination of its directorial guiding force. So perhaps in that regard, the nomination makes sense. This very rationale is also the reason why Fellini remains one of the greatest of all film directors, and why Fellini Satyricon, though not at all his best work, nevertheless remains so fascinating and precious. As its title suggests, the movie explicitly expresses the personal vision of its director—more than his name above the title, Fellini’s name was the title. (It also had to do with some legal wrangling concerning the rights to the title). See also the movie’s tagline: “Rome. Before Christ. After Fellini.” How many recent films have had this type of promotion or identification solely on the basis of its director? There is a lot that happens in Fellini Satyricon, and multiple collaborators made it possible, but in the end, Fellini is the star of the show here. And what a show it is.
“Freely adapted” from portions of Petronius’s Roman novel of the first century AD, Fellini Satyricon is an episodic chronicle that has as its primary narrative thrust the ill-fated romance between Encolpius (Martin Potter) and the young Gitone (Max Born). Into this drama enters Ascyltus (Hiram Keller), who also has affection for the boy. Over the course of more than two hours, Fellini essentially follows the three on their various paths, while making more than a few digressions along the way, none of which attain this basic plot’s albeit minor emotional resonance. The other individuals who appear are essentially “types” more than fully-formed characters, their generic, basically illustrative purpose evident in their broad uncredited roles: Transvestite, Black Slave, Fat Woman, Brothel Girl, Participant in Orgy Sequence, Nymphomaniac.
I can’t pretend to suggest that everything that occurs throughout Fellini Satyricon actually makes sense. In an interview on the new Criterion Blu-ray, classicist Joanna Paul remarks on the intentionally complex fragmentation of the film and its source. But more often than not, and even if it doesn’t all add up, it still looks wonderful.
Arguably the most remarkable aspects of the film are the costumes and especially the sets, both by renowned designer Danilo Donati. These glorious constructions are astonishing in their intricate, picturesque design. Monuments and statues pop with expressive adornment of every conceivable color. The claustrophobic darkness that shrouds labyrinthine underground corridors gives way to stunning exteriors, both natural and fabricated. The geographic layout of these sets may belie any logical sense of space, but it’s an arrangement that emerges all the more pronounced and impressive when you see just how people actually do inhabit the locales, with heads and bodies peeking in and out of portal-like frames.
In classic Fellini style, there is recurrent singular imagery, that is, carefully and clearly arranged images of prominent aesthetic value; a shot that may not have narrative necessity or significance, but is nevertheless still striking. One sees this in any number of forms, from some of the aforementioned structures that look amazing simply because they are so extravagant (giant stone heads, towering facades, ornate murals), to quick, random inserts of particular people and their flamboyant makeup and attire. In Fellini Satyricon, we see as clearly as in any other Fellini film the director’s cartoonist background still informing his visual sensibilities. The landscapes and sets, some genuine, some clearly created via matte processes, and, even more than that, the cast of characters, are all colorful (in every sense of the word) and they radiate with exaggerated animation. Many of the people—disfigured, grotesque, strange, captivating, beautiful—have a physical presence that can only be described as “Felliniesque.”
There is, especially at the start of the film, but resurfacing throughout, crude and occasionally gallows humor, complete with fart jokes and all sorts of randy behavior. The decadence depicted includes unbridled sexuality and gluttonous ingestion, with unabashed exuberance in both cases. Everything is flesh and fornication and voracious desire. In speaking about the film, Fellini proposes that he sees true morality in vitality. If this is the case, Fellini Satyricon is a notably moral film, as rarely does any character do anything without great gusto. Along these lines, and not at all uncommon with Fellini’s carnivalesque sense spectacle, there is an emphasis on showmanship, on theatricality and storytelling; stories within stories and performances that lead to extraneous plot lines while simultaneously illuminating the narrative proper.
The dialogue, while often admittedly opaque in terms of substance and meaning, does on occasion allude to more profound issues regarding the power and class struggles of the period, as well as a general recognition of the times these individual live in, for better or worse. Art and economy are at odds, slavery (sexual and otherwise) is rampant, and looming destruction (an earthquake) causes concern. It’s also a world of superstition, cruelty, and violence, a world that seems so foreign and otherworldly—thanks in large part to Fellini’s envisioning of it—that the film is frequently spoken of in terms of a science fiction picture.
Federico Fellini was never one to hide the artificiality of his films; indeed, at times he seemed to revel in it. And this is certainly the case here. Just how synthetic Fellini Satyricon is can be seen in Ciao, Federico!, probably the highlight bonus feature of the Blu-ray. This hour-long documentary shows with candid insight what went on behind the scenes, how the settings were actually assembled, and how Fellini himself directed: barking instructions, physically dynamic, humorous, and very hands-on. (You even see Roman Polanski drop in on set for a visit.) Where other elements of the movie may falter, the scope of the film’s pure creation never does. According to director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno, Fellini Satyricon was one of two films Fellini regarded as “fully realized” (the other being Casanova, 1976). Even Rotunno admits he’s not quite sure what the director was saying with this comment, but in rewatching Fellini Satyricon, and with the benefit of the new 4K digital restoration, one can reasonably surmise that Fellini was alluding to how intricately and elaborately crafted each and every element of the film was, and how fully it came to express his own distinctive vision, a vision unlike any other.