If you’ve ever felt any uncertainty about precisely what the term ‘Fellini-esque’ means, then Satyricon (1969) is a definitive, two hour, larger than life, example. Denoting a particular variety of vacuous revelry, the director’s most celebrated works contain fleeting glimpses of it, but this is an audacious feature-length paean to debauchery and excess. Described by Fellini himself as a Science Fiction film, but set during the reign of the Emperor Nero – and based on a book written at that time by Petronius – it’s like a wanton phantasmagorical fresco scrawled on the wall of some imagined brutalist Roman temple. It’s both as stunning and testing as that sounds.
In the booklet that accompanies Eureka’s sumptuous new Masters of Cinema blu-ray release of the film this week, Fellini’s own preface to the script treatment is reproduced. In it he explains his intended analogy between Petronius’ Rome and contemporary society he observed around him – cynical, impassive, corrupt and frenzied. The Roman writer’s original text was lost for centuries and only ever recovered in fragments. Fellini opts to retain that essence by eschewing cohesion and constructing his narrative – for want of a better word – out of similarly dislocated sequences. Everything takes place against astonishing, monolithic sets, designed to displace the action and loom large over the players, casting them against sheer dark backgrounds of a claustrophobic and hellish Rome.
Further dissonance is created by the casting of Martin Potter, Hiram Keller and Max Born whose spoken English is then dubbed into Italian. The primary cast are there to represent symbols of masculine beauty amidst a troupe of satyrs, daubed in gaudy make-up and furnished with grotesque masks. What little plot there is sees Potter’s Encolpio wandering through feverish dreamscapes lamenting the loss of the alluring youth Gitone (Born), who has been stolen away by Ascilto (Keller). On his episodic travels, he becomes entwined in various depravities with grinning old reprobates caked in stucco. All the while, Danilo Donati’s staggering sets yank the action out of time, and tower over Encolpio like some nightmarish tomb. Imagine Tarsem Singh’s arresting city backdrops in The Fall (2006) – but far less salubrious.
One of the film’s many striking set-pieces involves the destruction of an tall and ominous tenement, raining chaos down on the populace. A man lies strapped beneath some rubble, and covered in fine white dust, mimicking a fallen marble statue. Fellini constantly plays with this notion of remembered history, and the lasciviousness underlying artistic expression – his cut directly from the man/statue to an art gallery is telling. Perhaps the only problem with Satyricon is that it manages to ape the crude scrawlings on a Roman wall almost too well. The visuals are uniformly overwhelming, but the atmosphere is also stifling and stagnant – something to be perused and admired as an extravagant illustration of one of the auteur’s enduring stylistic and thematic predilections perhaps, rather than something to be enjoyed.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson