ON BLU-RAY: 27th April, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT’S ‘MASTERS OF CINEMA’ SERIES
RUNNING TIME: 128 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In first century Rome, student Encolpio loses his lover Gitone to his friend Ascilto, who sells Gitone to an actor. Encolpio storms the stage of a play Gitone is performing in and reclaims him, but that night is awoken by Encolpio with a whiplash. Since both share the tenement room, Encolpio proposes they divide up their property and separate. Gitone decides to leave with Ascilto. Encilpio decides to commit suicide but is saved by an earthquake which destroys the tenement. Encolpio subsequently sets out on a series of adventures….
Now this is one weird movie that I wholeheartedly recommend to fans of the strange and the offbeat, who shouldn’t be put off by the film’s ‘art house’ status. Federico Fellini is best known for his earlier classics like La Strada and 8 ½, films which helped make European cinema cool and trendy and sexy, though they’re also very much films of their time [which is not necessarily a bad thing of course]. His later work is generally considered to be more experimental and dreamlike, and except for Amarcord I have yet to explore it, though it’s something I may do now after seeing Fellini Satyricon, which the director himself considered to be a science fiction film. It’s a truly odd, sometimes [probably deliberately] alienating work largely consisting of a series of barely connected vignettes with its two main characters moving through an almost surreal Ancient Rome which seems to be on the verge of collapse from moral decline and decadence. Watching it, it seems like that, as with Le Dolce Vita, Fellini was commenting on the times he lived in, but, even more than with that film, his commentary seems very appropriate to the world of today. Of course like nearly all filmmakers dealing with this subject matter, Fellini doesn’t feel too good about the way things were going, but enjoys revelling it in it too, though the film is actually a master class in how to imply without becoming explicit.
The film is loosely based on the book Satyricon attributed to Petronius Arbiter, and dated to the time of the rule of Nero, 37-68 AD. The book is considered to be one of the first, if not the first, novels to have been written, but has only survived in fragments. Fellini’s adaptation saw competition from another film titled Satyricon, released the same year. When Fellini, influenced maybe by his experimentation with LSD which can certainly be seen in the finished product, and his producer Alberto Grimaldi started work on their film, rival producer Albertio Bini, who had already registered the Satyricon title, contracted Gian Luigi Polidoro to direct his own version. Grimaldi sued Bini to halt the competing film, but lost; as a result, Fellini’s picture was titled Fellini Satyricon to distinguish it. When asked why both the leading roles, both gay young men, were played by foreign actors and not Italians, Fellini replied: “Because there are no Italian homosexuals.” Like most Italian films of the time, it was shot silent and then post dubbed. For this particular picture, Fellini used a deliberately jerky form of dubbing that caused the dialogue to appear out of sync with the actors’ lips, in keeping with his intention of creating a profound sense of estrangement throughout the film, though I personally found it a bit jarring. This adds to the fact that the English language version, despite being a little quieter on Eureka’s Blu-ray, works just as well, especially as they used decent actors to do the dubbing. The film was a major international success, and can you imagine the director of such a peculiar film getting nominated for an Academy Award today?
I found Fellini Satyricon rather hard to get into with its opening sequence of Encolpio bemoaning his situation, not so much to himself as to the viewer, in a very theatrical manner on an extremely stage-like set, but it soon drew me in, largely because I hadn’t seen anything much like it in ages. Encolpio goes to a place where people are watching a play, a play where the lead actor, who is wearing a tail, pretends to fart whenever he bends down [which is a lot] and someone’s hand is cut off for real. He makes off with his lover Gitone, and they pass through a Roman underworld in quite a nightmarish segment full of folk either looking odd and perverse or indulging in some kind of sexual activity, though one aspect of Fellini’s genius in this film is to give the viewer a powerful impression of often rampant sexuality while hardly showing you anything. It’s one of those films that feels ‘dirty’, especially after you’ve seen it, but if you think about it it’s very subtle in what it chooses to let you see. Watching many of the set pieces in this film, it seemed to me that this film was a huge influence on Caligula, right down to its colour schemes and set design, but Tinto Brass, despite being more explicit, lacked Fellini’s wit.
After Ascilto has taken possession of Gitone and Encolpio has been saved from suicide by a convenient earthquake, Encopio begins to have various adventures and experiences. The film’s principal theme is soon explicitly stated by a poet who bemoans how mankind has become corrupted and there is little place for art, though throughout the whole picture there also seems to be underlying themes of mortality and aging, as if these Romans are desperately trying to stave off death by indulging in every vice they can think of. The film stalls badly during a section at a feast, which really could have done with being cut down, but it soon picks up again as Encolpio eventually bumps into Ascilto on a slave ship and they have a series of almost phantasmagoric encounters, often sexual, which strange folk in strange locales, from a re-enactment of the Theseus and the Minotaur myth to kidnapping a hermaphrodite God. There’s a strong homosexual aspect throughout, this being one of the first major films to have as its main protagonists gay men and depict homosexuality in a casual, ‘matter of fact’ fashion, though there’s much ‘straight’ sexuality too, but again not graphically depicted, the camera usually choosing to fade out and then cut to the next scene [in fact the most graphic sexual material consists of some pictures on a wall] before things get too graphic, though the ‘18’ certificate the film still gets is still probably fitting as there’s a strong sense of un-bridalled carnality throughout and there’s also some bloody violence around the middle of the film, some hacking and slashing followed by an unforgettable, quietly powerful suicide scene which made a strong impression on me as being one of the best staged and handled of its kind.
The settings, whether artificial or natural, are very varied [one scene seems to take place in what seems the top of a volcano, while other bits take place on a totally bizarre ship which has all the things a ship should have and yet seems designed by aliens] and often employ audacious colour schemes, like the afore-mentioned death scene which takes place amidst mauve and purple hues. Combined with the gaudy costumes, this helps make Fellini Satyricon a glorious feast for the eyes. I will remember for a long time one incredibly beautiful shot of a candlelit gathering under a blood red sky. In those days before computers became what is now an essential tool in putting together a film, such things would have taken ages and ages to get right. Guiseppe Rotunno’s cinematography is so stunning that almost every shot is impressive, while the music, by Nino Rota and three others, is sometimes positively uncomfortable, and sometimes redolent of Arabic and Oriental influences in an odd and effective way. The downside to Fellini’s whole approach to the film is that it’s hard to care very much, even at the end where tragedy strikes, and sometimes the artifice gets a bit grating, such as when Encolpio looks up at the night sky and for a second you see no stars, then suddenly lots of them. Having the film, in imitation of the book which only survives in fragments, leave gaps between events and even stopping in mid-sentence, is infuriating, and Fellini even has some characters speak in gibberish, as if it were a dead language that no longer exists.
The nature of the dubbing undermines the performances somewhat, and it’s odd how so many of the women seem to be made up to look as unattractive as possible, but Fellini Satyricon remains an astonishing experience, a bold, brave fever dream, as if some aliens landed on earth during Ancient Roman times and filmed what they saw reflected through their own minds and viewpoints. Eureka’s stunning Region B Blu-ray uses the same 4K restoration, overseen by Rotunno, as Criterion’s Region A release. Apart from a small number of grainy shots [though usually where matting was used in a scene, and therefore unavoidable], the print is extremely sharp and with some of the best image depth I’ve ever seen in a Blu-ray release of an older film, meaning that Eureka’s Blu-ray of Fellini’s audacious, peculiar trip into his own subconscious really is an essential purchase for the open minded movie lover.
* New 1080p presentation of the film, from a new 4K restoration
* Optional English Language Track
* Original theatrical trailer
*36-page booklet : Preface to the Treatment by Federico Fellini; Fellini: Subversion by Excess by Sabrina Marques; Felliniscope by Pasquale Iannone; Fellini-Satyricon-Dossier; and technical credits