Friday, November 18, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Fellini Satyricon

Fellini Satyricon (1969) ***
Directed by: Federico Fellini.
Written by: Federico Fellini & Bernardino Zapponi & Brunello Rondi based on the book by Petronius.
Starring: Martin Potter (Encolpio), Hiram Keller (Ascilto), Max Born (Gitone), Salvo Randone (Eumolpo), Mario Romagnoli (Trimalcione), Magali Noël (Fortunata), Capucine (Trifena), Alain Cuny (Lica), Fanfulla (Vernacchio), Danika La Loggia (Scintilla), Giuseppe Sanvitale (Abinna), Genius (Liberto arricchito), Lucia Bosé (La matrona), Joseph Wheeler (Il suicida), Hylette Adolphe (La schiavetta), Tanya Lopert (L'imperatore).

What can I say about Fellini Satyricon? I can’t say that I overly enjoyed the film, because I really didn’t all that much. But I was fascinated by the film. Here is a movie that is completely over the top with his violence and sexuality, which tells a story that keeps splintering off into side trips that have little to do with its main narrative. It is a film based on an epic, incomplete book written by Petronius during the reign of Nero, and is set during that time period, and yet it seems to be about a time and place that may never have existed. Fellini described the film as being a science fiction film looking backwards in time rather than forward, and that is as good as an explanation as any. Perhaps it’s best to look at the film as the sci-fi epic that Guido, the film director “hero” of Fellini’s 8 ½ tried and failed to make. The film seems to come from Fellini’s subconscious, and it contains some of the most beautiful, brutal and memorable images that the master filmmaker put on screen. Does it work as a movie? I’m honestly not sure.

The main thrust of the plot involves Encolpio (Martin Potter), who is very angry at losing his slave/lover Gitone (Max Born). This will happen again and again in the movie, and Encolpio will try to his boy toy back. First, he is stolen by Encolpio’s brother Ascilto (Hiram Keller), who has taken Gitone simply to screw with Encolpio, as he almost immediately sold him to a well known stage actor. Encolpio goes and gets Gitone, and brings him home, only to have him once again run off with Ascilto.

From there, the movie spins wildly off in many directions. We mainly follow Encolpio, but the movie makes many side trips. There is a banquet given by a wealthy man that contains him covering his wife in gizzards when she berates him for staring lustfully at two young boys, and also involves a poet being tortured for daring to suggest that the wealthy man stole his poetry from someone else. From there, Encolpio, now once again with Ascilto and Gitone, are imprisoned on a pirate ship, where eventually Encolpio has to marry an aging, ugly man. There will be more violence – the killing of a hermaphrodite for example, sex, a battle with a fake Minotaur and finally ending in cannibalism and the start of a new journey, that ends in mid sentence.

What one makes of all of this is up to them. To me, the movie was a little too needlessly complex – telling multiple stories within the story, and jumping around from one thread to another with sometimes little rhyme or reason. And yet, the film never ceased to fascinate me. Part of the reason is that this truly is one of the unique looking films I have ever seen. Filmed almost entirely in the legendary Cinecetta studio, the sets and costumes look almost like most Roman epics, but also distinctly different. There’s something off about them. The cinematography is gorgeous, but also somewhat otherworldly. The film doesn’t look like we imagine Ancient Rome to look, but like life on some distant planet. Even when I got lost in the film’s plot, there was rarely a moment when I wasn’t enraptured by the visuals of the film.

The film certainly does feel like a Fellini film – although his most extreme. Fellini started as a neo-realist, and his early films in the 1950s (like I Vittelloni, La Strada and Nights in Cabiria) certainly follow that mold. Starting in the 1960s though, Fellini started to move away from them – deeper into his subconscious and into his own fantasy world. We see moments in La Dolce Vita (my personal favorite of Fellini’s work), and it is certainly present in the two films that immediately precede Satyricon – 8 ½ and Juliet of the Spirits. All of those films are great – better than Satyricon in my mind – but they all seem to build to Satyricon, which is Fellini at his wildest, indulging every fantasy he ever had. Fellini would come back down to earth after this film, but this is one where he got to do anything he ever wanted to do.

In the end, I’m at a loss to try and explain this film, and whether or not it’s any good. I don’t know if watching it again would help to clarify the things that confused me, or that I didn’t like, or if it would simply bore me – so I don’t think I’ll try revisiting it any time soon. Yet, I cannot say the film is a failure. It is precisely the film Fellini set out to make – a film that looks back in time, although it feels like it takes place on another planet, and yet had messages about empty sexuality that resonated with people at the time was made. Fellini apparently viewed this as one of his personal favorites of everything he ever made. It certainly does feel like a film he felt he had to make. Whether you have to watch it or not is up to you.

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