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Author Topic: Satyricon  (Read 26797 times)
Juan Miranda
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« on: October 19, 2007, 06:30:09 PM »

This 2 page review contains major spoilers.

In the summer of Love, following the massive financial success of his westerns A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD ,THE BAD AND THE UGLY, producer Alberto Grimaldi was keen to expand his portfolio due a lucrative deal with Warner Bros in the US, securing him a personal fee of a million dollars per picture. With legendary director Federico Fellini recovering from a near death illness, and estranged from his former funder Dino De Laurentiis, Grimaldi sensing an opportunity approached him with a deal. This lead to Fellini testing his creativity again on a short film TOBY DAMMIT, which Grimaldi co-produced and made money on, and then to a feature film set in ancient Rome.


City of night

Based on a novel by Petronius which has survived only in fragments, expectations of the sword and sandal epics so expertly churned out for decades by Italian cinema talent, including Sergio Leone himself, may have been anticipated.  Fellini confounds such notions however, as he largely ignores the archeological ancient Rome glimpsed in the likes of LA DOLCE VITA and ROMA, or the Classical look of BEN HUR, and instead puts on screen the world inside his own head, a place of gigantic baths, brothels and temples populated by selfish and cruel chancers.


Gitone. The heart of a whore

Split almost neatly in two halves, the script by Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi is itself fragmented like it's source text, consisting of a series of episodes which never quite flow together, in which characters randomly appear and vanish. Indeed some scenes could easily be shuffled to appear earlier or later without damaging what continuity exists. The first fifty or so minutes take place in Rome, almost entirely at night or twilight, in interiors. It follows the battle over a jail bait boy between two male characters who call themselves "students", but are really criminals and opportunists. In the second half we find they have all been captured as slaves on a galley ship, and following their escape from this fate they're embroiled in a series of picaresque adventures. This half takes place mostly in the open, on oceans, beaches and deserts in (often blazing) daylight.


The clown Vernacchio

The picture opens on a wall covered with scratchy Roman graffiti, in front of which stands the film's main character, Encolpio, who bewails the fact that his young lover Gitone has been stolen from him by his former best friend Ascylto. He tracks him down to a vast terme, and following a fight reclaims the boy, who has been sold to a grotesque theater company starring a bloated farting clown who amputates a quivering simpleton's limb live on stage. On the way back to Encolpio's room the reunited couple pass through a  titanic brothel, a sequence so packed with detail, incident, colour, light, squalor and camera movement that it could stand alone as a masterpiece of cinema, and leaves the viewer so bombarded with impressions  and sensations that both elation and near exhaustion are induced with the film barely seventeen minutes old.


In the brothel

That Fellini and his collaborators managed to top this sequence just a couple of scenes later is a minor miracle and propels SATYRICON into masterpiece status. After losing his catamite to Ascylto yet again, Encolpio meets the poet Eumolpo at a gallery, who takes him to a banquet thrown by a wealthy business man, the vulgar Trimalchio. It is at this feast that Fellini creates possibly his greatest sequence, with a whole parade of wonders, both hideous (with an acid palate of reds, oranges, blues and greens) and astounding in it's invention.


Tremalchio's guests enjoy his lake


Tremalchio's feast


Tremalchio and his children


Stalinist art

Like Trimalchio's stuffed and satiated guests we leave this banquet dazed, and the first "night" half of the picture ends, and we find ourselves in the horrors of the "day", with our trio of "heroes" enslaved, passive objects.

Like the galley in BEN HUR, Petronius's ship is commanded by a man of questionable sexuality. Unlike Jack Hawkins however, there is no ambiguity of taste about Lichas. Played by Alain Cuny, he is a huge, one eyed sadist who loves wrestling men to death. Taking a fancy to Encolpio he marries him in a ceremony in which he dresses as the "bride". It is following this pirate interlude that, I must admit, the film begins to flag and disintegrate a little. Gitone vanishes almost unnoticed as a spoil of war. Encolpio and Ascylto wander aimlessly, sharing a girl in an abandoned villa who's owners have committed suicide (the fate of Petronius himself), stealing a "demi-god" hoping to sell him, encountering a Minotaur and so on. The sets, costumes and extras become sparser, the whole thing quieter as even the dialogue slacks off.


Encolpio's wedding

« Last Edit: October 19, 2007, 06:31:16 PM by Juan Miranda » Logged

Juan Miranda
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« Reply #1 on: October 19, 2007, 06:30:42 PM »

part 2


Petronius's fate

Much of the plot centers now on Encolpio's sudden impotence and his quest for a cure. However, as he is a cowardly stooge with no redeeming qualities it's impossible to care for his fate. A sea monster and a La Saraghina like character are pushed on stage once more, but it feels a little desperate, il Maestro repeating himself to little credit, and one begins to wonder what, if anything he is trying to say anyway? He closes the proceedings though with a startling, beautiful and surprisingly tender image neatly mirroring the opening shot. Encolpio's voice over cuts in mid sentence and the characters who so vividly lived for us are reduced to nameless and forgotten figures in a fresco, painted on a ruined villa wall by a tranquil sea. Via this imagery we may go back and make some sense of what the picture is about.


Encolpio at the gallery

The first "night" half is filled with evocations of the arts. Theater is performed, painting is discussed, poetry is declaimed, huge complex dishes are cooked, sculptures are carted around the city, architects are consulted. All of this is absent in the second "day" half which instead is full of war and gods who turn out to be false. The kidnapped "demi-god" is a sickly hermaphrodite albino who dies wretchedly of thirst. A Minotaur is just a man with a bull's mask. The bloated statue of a goddess squats in the dust minus it's head. Government consists of a squabbling line of  Caesars, throwing the land into chaos. In a pre-Christian age, there is no promise of salvation for any of these characters. Their actions and behavior have no consequence beyond what they can get away with. There is no heavenly reward for virtue, and no hell to punish the sinner.


The dead gods

Art and poetry stand as activities to be enjoyed in civilization, but barely exist outside the city. Both can be appropriated too and twisted by the rich and powerful but tasteless, like Tremalchio, or the base, like Encolpio, who claims he himself is a poet. Art can also be controlled by the state, as the theater Gitone is sold to is threatened with destruction by a sinister official, for poking fun at  Caesar. Without art there is only war and sex, and in it's sexual politics SATYRICON remains ahead of it's time. Released in 1970, it features a trio of homosexual characters without feeling the need to comment on their sexuality at all. This would have seemed quite novel, new and shocking at the time to mainstream audiences. Gay cinema, such as it existed was confined mainly to the gallery, produced by the likes of Andy Warhol or Kenneth Anger. To have three scantily clad youths as the focus of an entire feature was audacious to say the least.  Just six years later, the clearly disgusted English critic Michael Parkinson would describe Derek Jarman's SEBASTIANE as "about a bunch of bloody Nancy boys poncing about in the desert". Critic Parker Tyler later called SATYRICON "the most profoundly homosexual movie in all history".



This I think is an exaggeration on Tyler's part, as both Ascylto and Encolpio are shown enjoying sex with women too, indeed Encolpio is cured of his impotence by a woman. The characters are pansexual, gender is never an issue. Encolpio is only mocked once for his sexuality and even then it's by his sometimes lover Ascylto, for his forced marriage to Lichas. As an aid to interpreting the movie further it's worth looking at where Fellini found three actors willing to play these roles.


Keller as the "evil" Ascylto

All were total unknowns in the movie world, partly as an aid to the totally alien feel he wanted on screen, but partly too through his fear of working with big star names. Fellini began the project in 1968, a period when he became fascinated by hippies, being especially attracted to the bisexual look of young men with long hair. He describes them as "like puppies" in ROMA and featured them first in TOBY DAMMIT, even throwing in a John Lennon look a like. Gitone was played by seventeen year old Max Born, a real hippy Fellini met in Chelsea, describing him as "this little whore with an angel's face". His co-star was another British actor, Martin Potter, as Encolpio. In New York Fellini found the third member of the trio in the uber-hippy musical HAIR. Hiram Keller impressed Federico with his satyr-like leer, giving him the simple direction, "you are evil and you lay everything in sight".






More sci-fi than Classical

A Rome full of hippy youths indulging in free love. A climate of political turmoil. Laments over the decadence of contemporary art. The dearth of the presence of God. An existential malaise in a city “full of bars and brothels, gaping provincials, paralyzed traffic and speculative building”, as  Bernardino Zapponi put it, more sci-fi looking than Classical. Fellini's SATYRICON was as much about our world as that of the ancients, with art as the only dubious compensation we can cling to, art, which came to Fellini at night as he slept, filling his dream books.


« Last Edit: October 19, 2007, 06:45:28 PM by Juan Miranda » Logged

cigar joe
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« Reply #2 on: October 19, 2007, 10:02:12 PM »

I never liked this film, saw it in a theater long ago and am not inclined to see it again. It reminded me of something that Catholic Nuns & Priests would come up with in their dream fantasies if they were describing decadent Rome.  Shocked

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« Reply #3 on: October 19, 2007, 11:32:59 PM »

Tried watching it on cable in 1980. Could not abide it.

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« Reply #4 on: October 20, 2007, 05:47:44 AM »

Another thing that struck me was the flimsyness of all the sets everything looked as if it could be blown over in a sight breeze but I suppose in all fairness it was fantasy & wasn't supposed to be compared to the big budget S&S films of the day like Ben Hur.

It was sort of an anti-Rome anti S&S film, Afro

« Last Edit: October 20, 2007, 05:50:13 AM by cigar joe » Logged

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« Reply #5 on: October 20, 2007, 06:43:04 AM »

Unintelligible and extremely hard to watch. Couldn't make by the end.

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« Reply #6 on: October 20, 2007, 08:54:32 AM »

I plan to give it a shot one day, just because it's in my 1001 Movies to See Before You Die book. I've never seen a whole Fellini, but I've seen a lot of La Dolce Vita. I liked it more than the bits I saw of 8 1/2. I don't agree with all the choices in that book. Ferris Bueller's Day Off? That was pretty funny, but one of a thousand movies you need to see b4 u die? I don't think so. Unless of course I'm missing something in the edited TV version.
Anyways I'm Off Topic now.

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« Reply #7 on: October 20, 2007, 04:25:59 PM »

Not Fellini's best, but good anyway. I can't think of any other movie set in Ancient Rome better than this, be they Hollywood's kolossals or the unpretentious S&S. Discontinuous narratively (that may depend on the literary source) but Fellini's visual genius comes to the fore in the isolated episodes. I surely liked it better the second time around (a few months ago) than the first one. I think I'll rewatch it, even only to watch again Gordon Mitchell's entry, which always scared me to death.   

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