A Science Fiction of the Past

Federico Fellini’s Satyricon gets a rare public screening in London next week. Niall Anderson welcomes it back.

Lights! Minotaur! Action!
Lights! Minotaur! Action!

Little dates faster than cinematic representations of the future; except perhaps cinematic representations of the past. Federico Fellini’s Satyricon (or, to use its pettifogging official title, Fellini-Satyricon) is ostensibly set in and around Nero’s Rome, but it couldn’t be more 1969 if it quoted Shelley while opening a big hamper of dying butterflies in Hyde Park.

A rarefied episodic adventure involving witches, cannibalism, mutilation and at least one character becoming a god, Satyricon is so committed to modish 60s estrangement techniques that the viewer is sometimes distracted from what’s really strange about it. Not the nudity, the gore, the jump-cuts, the spikily intrusive score, or the scenes that end mid-sentence; rather the bizarre calmness of the cinematography and a casual scenic beauty that constantly upstages the actual drama. Satyricon doesn’t play these aspects off against each other so much as it keeps piling them on, layer after layer. For all the deliberate dreamlike elaboration of its technique, Satyricon comes across as a very different dream to what Fellini may have intended.

Satyricon: a clear influence on Keith Chegwin's Naked Jungle
Satyricon: a clear influence on Keith Chegwin’s Naked Jungle

The plot is, in some senses, useless to recount. Two young Romans, blond Encolpio and brunette Ascilto, argue over who will have – in every sense – an androgynous slave-boy called Gitone. Unusually, they allow the slave to pick, and Gitone goes with Ascilto. Encolpio is upset to the point of suicide. Then there is an earthquake, and a seemingly random jump to an art gallery where Encolpio (still alive; though we don’t know when this scene is taking place) starts talking to a poet about money. There is a fight involving chicken gizzards and gravy. Encolpio is bequeathed the ‘spirit of poetry’. He wakes up imprisoned on a pirate ship next to his old enemy Ascilto and his old love Gitone. It all only gets stranger from there.

Satyricon, it should be clear, does not make much literal sense, but the juxtapositions of master and slave, rich and poor, capricious nature and decadent humanity pile up over two hours to produce a consistent portrait of … something. The jump cuts and chronological trickery are Fellini’s formal response to the fact that the novel he’s adapting – Petronius’s late first-century Satyricon – only survives in fragments. But one suspects that this was a disguise Fellini used to allow him to approach a completely new form of cinema.

Would you trust a man like this with a first-century satirical text? Federico Fellini on the set of Satyricon
Would you trust a man like this with a first-century satirical text? Federico Fellini on the set of Satyricon

A sometime gag-writer for satirical weeklies, and latterly a secondary figure in the rise of Italian neo-Realism in the 50s, by the start of the 1960s Fellini had begun to suffer from crippling depression. He tried Freudian therapy, he tried Jungian therapy, he tried spiritualism and séances. None of these things worked on their own, but cumulatively they seem to have provoked in Fellini a growing anti-rationalism, which began to manifest in his films. In 1964, under the supervision of Emilio Servadio, his sometime on-set psychoanalyst, Fellini took LSD. His 1992 description of the experience is the closest prose analogue of what his later films – and Satyricon in particular – would look like:

I was an instrument in a virtual world that constantly renewed its own meaningless image in a living world that was itself perceived outside of nature. And since the appearance of things was no longer definitive but limitless, this paradisiacal awareness freed me from the reality external to my self.

This is heady stuff, but it does communicate why Satyricon seems bent on communicating through patterns and repetitions, through scenes and tableaux rather than events. A good deal of Fellini’s post-70s work takes this method and refines it, or at least reworks it, as though the exercise itself is necessarily of value. But it’s only really in Satyricon and 1971’s Amarcord that there seems to be enough realistic ballast to allow Fellini’s fancy to function. Danilo Donati’s production design on Satyricon is a genuine masterpiece within a problematic masterpiece, and the film is worth watching for the sets alone – even if Fellini’s endlessly repeating visions of power and caprice sometimes fall flat.

Fellini-Satyricon is showing at Curzon Mayfair on 10 September. This restored 35mm Cinemascope version is presented by A Nos Amours.

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