Fellini Satyricon

Yasmeen Khan conducts an excavation of a Roman classic and uncovers layers of meaning.


The title Fellini-Satyricon says it all, really. Fellini is famous enough now, it says, and powerful enough to do what he wants. His film is an adaptation of the ancient Roman text The Satyricon, which was (probably) written the first century AD by someone who was (probably) called Petronius. But it will be viewed, the title says, because of its auteur, Fellini, who is now on a par with his Roman ancestors of 2,000 years ago. He can take their texts, their scenarios, appropriate them for his own, and do as he will with them. On the original film posters, Fellini even claimed, “This picture will be science fiction… a trip back in time… into an unknown dimension.”

This title, Fellini-Satyricon, is a powerful statement about authorship, but it’s important to remember that the film will go on to undermine the idea of a single author, populating itself with multiple points of view and overlapping narrations, stories within stories. This is also what happens in Petronius’ own text; the Satyricon we have is already a patchwork. Fellini’s film reflects this, joining seemingly disparate stories and fracturing further that entity that is so often seen as and perfect and inviolable (although they never are, of course) – the ancient text.

That’s not to say that we receive ancient texts as ‘whole’ – often, we only have fragments of something that was originally much longer, as is the case with the Satyricon. Rather, there is a tendency to view changing and adapting the contents of ancient texts as somehow wrong or sacrilegious, even, and often, the fragility of what survives tends to reinforce this feeling. But when new interpretations do decide to take a loose approach, the result can be more illuminating, not only of the text but its context and the context in which the interpretation’s being made. Fellini said, “Petronius wrote about the people of his time in terms we can understand now, and I wanted to replace those pieces of his mosaic that had fallen out and been lost.”

And “mosaic” is a very apt metaphor for the text, even before you remember only fragments of it survive. It’s a collection of elements, both formally and thematically. In terms of form, Petronius juxtaposes prose with poetry throughout, as the narrative requires. Thematically, the story encompasses everything from philosophy and business to old stories of werewolves, witches and cannibalism. It’s hard to see Fellini’s tale as not being “faithful” to the original, in these terms, however loose the adaptation of the actual content. The film and text are woven into each other, rich in thematic allusions to each other. Fellini’s “filling in” of the mosaic includes additions to the story – most notably, the tale of a hermaphrodite priest and an encounter with a Minotaur – but perhaps his metaphor is meant also as much in terms of visualisation of what was already there?

Fellini-Satyricon follows Encolpius (Martin Potter), who is actually Petronius’ narrator, on his search for his young love Giton (Max Born) whom he keeps losing through misadventure or faithlessness. Hiram Keller plays Ascyltos, a rival for Giton’s affections. They travel through settings related to those Petronius gives us, but Fellini usually gives them a new narrative twist. There’s the bathhouse, the picture gallery, the brothel staging an orgy dedicated to the cult of Priapus, Lichas the slave merchant’s pirate ship. The last scene follows the last fragment of Petronius we have, in which the poet Eumolpus’ will states that only those who agree to ritually consume his dead body will inherit his riches. The most famous location, though, in text and film, is the estate of the vastly wealthy freedman Trimalchio. It’s the setting for a ludicrously over the top dinner, indulgence and excess that Petronius used as a vehicle for satire on his fellow Romans’ vulgarity and ignorance. It’s a pivotal scene, bringing together the discordant noise and vivid colours of the first half of the film in some memorable images. When the debauchery is succeeded by Trimalchio’s mock funeral, held in the baths he’s having built as his monument, it also provides a transition into the somewhat more complex and subtler themes of the later sections of the film.

Fellini said, “If the work of Petronius is the realistic, bloody and amusing description of the customs, characters and general feel of those times, the film we want to freely adapt from it could be a fresco in a fantasy key, a powerful and evocative allegory – a satire of the world we live in today.”  Using the ancient world as if it were a fantasy setting is a popular and powerful idea, and it makes sense; we have access to some information about what life was like 2,000 years ago, but there are so many aspects we have to invent, and so many aspects  based on previous inventions that inhabit our imaginations. The image of the fresco works perfectly; these wall-paintings are the most vivid and immediate artworks that survive, and yet we have to piece them together ourselves and imagine what it was like to live in the architecture they decorated.

Fellini’s scenes of Roman people and places – the baths, the theatre, the dinner party – these are scenes of an imagined Rome painted on top of that piece of the ‘real’ Rome that is Petronius’ text. You could see the film as representing Rome as a kind of palimpsest; there’s ancient Rome, which has been erased and rewritten over and over. Fellini’s Rome is written on top of it, but the layers inbetween are visible, every kind of vision of Rome that Romans ever  reinvented in order to represent themselves through that lens of antiquity (the Fascists included, of course). There’s an old world and a new world within the film’s world, and then there’s the viewer’s world on top.

For example, take the gallery scene. The poet Eumolpus says no one in his time can paint anything like the Greek masterpieces in the museum because of Roman culture’s lack of energy and obsession with money. Having Romans look at Greek art in the same way we do at both Roman and Greek art is disconcerting; it fractures the setting into layers of past and present that demand the viewer . At Trimalchio’s feast, people are framed in front of recreated Roman frescoes, as well as styled and posed as if they were part of those frescoes.

Satyricon 2

The narrative structure, in which stories are told within stories, supports and is supported by this sense of old and new worlds coexisting. At any moment, someone might puncture the noisy surface modernity by telling a story from the old times, talking of folk beliefs like witches, werewolves and oracles.

Some “classical” “Roman” values get played up by in the modern imagination, like military efficiency and order, building straight roads and clean, monumental buildings. Indeed, Trimachio’s household gods are the incredibly modern Business, Satisfaction and Profit. Read almost any Roman text, though, and you see how the pagan sits with the classical, how animistic beliefs in the spirits of the natural world underlie and mingle with the approved rituals of the state religion. Fellini was aware that this hasn’t fundamentally changed that much. Look at the oracle scene, for example, the story Trimalchio tells at his mock funeral. The temple of Ceres, goddess of crops, is walled with both tree roots and shining crystals, the pagan, chthonic disorder overlapping and woven in with the clean stone of the new. The ancient labyrinth containing the lurking Minotaur and the neat corridors outside, the Priapic orgy in the brothel and the dignified bathhouse architecture are two sides of the same coin, not opposing forces. These ritualistic scenes have the sense that they are grounded in something earthly, that strangeness and otherness that isn’t precisely the accepted vision of classical Rome.

Theatricality permeates Fellini-Satyricon, appropriately enough. It’s another way for stories to fit within stories. There’s the early scene at a Roman comedy play, crude satire the order of the day; there’s the ritualised political playacting on board the ship; there’s poetry and dance, and, of course, throughout it all people telling stories. Look at how the story of the hanged man, the funeral scene-within-a-scene, is undercut by the audience’s hysterical laughter. That’s a common thread here – nothing, no matter how grandiose and overblown the poetry, is not for laughing at.

Fellini-Satyricon shifts in tone as it does in place, although it retains a dreamlike surreality throughout. Sometimes, it’s hard to watch. There’s the loud brashness of the orgy, the shrieking, cackling, twitching grotesques, the glimpses into rooms containing disturbing vignettes, the horrible clanking music. There’s the excess of Trimalchio’s dinner, which is overshadowed by grandiose memento mori (literally, in a beautiful scene in which a tiny skeleton statuette casts a vast shadow on the wall). Even calmer scenes are given a surreal tone, in framing as well as incident – a bizarre scaffold filled with people passes through the background of the gallery scene without explanation. Then there are the more Pasolini-esque evocations of ancient Greece, all muted earth tones, wind whistling in barren hills, stark, dramatic silhouettes, strange flutes, draped veils and stately vigil lamps.

The film is visually striking throughout.There’s great beauty in its compositions and vivid colours, and the way these make use of the widescreen format, which was unusual for Fellini. It takes visual risks; for example, sometimes the person speaking is in the shadows, the spotlight on extras on the other side of the frame. It also supports its themes visually, the hectic colours of the Roman scenes underpinning the evocation of the ancient frescoes we’ve seen in museums, their volcanic skies full of warning, or the bright, pitiless sunshine of the scenes at sea and in the desert reflecting both the escape from the city and the harshness of those environments.

Given Fellini’s poster claim, it is worth wondering in what sense this could be science fiction, apart from the fact that Fellini said so. If this is science fiction, it’s in its loosest possible sense, and perhaps the term fantasy would do just as well. It’s a strange statement. Indeed, elsewhere, he watered it down a bit, saying that making the film “satisfied in me some of my desire to make a science-fiction film” and that it might help him actually go on to make one for real, which suggests that the poster quote was provocative. Nevertheless, the idea that Fellini-Satyricon is as much science fiction as it is adaptation of Petronius has retained a lot of traction. Fellini also said making the film “was like speculating about life on Mars, but with the help of a Martian.” The sets are composed with a careful weirdness – strange chunks of marble and swirling smoke that could evoke a distant planet as well as they do the distant past. And perhaps that conflation of possibilities is the key to understanding the science-fiction claim. Of course, that far classical past is as inaccessible to us as life on another planet. We can speculate all we wish, underpinning our imaginings with the evidence available, but this is as close as we can get. It might as well be science fiction, in other words.

Feellini Satyricon is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka.

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