Michael Joshua Rowin on Satyricon
A “free adaptation” of Petronius’s fragmented-by-the-ravages-of-time, first-century mock epic, Federico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) is filled with constant, unexpected laughter. Unexpected because Satyricon (or Fellini Satyricon, as it’s often known) is an exceedingly dark film, one made during the apocalyptic phase of the Maestro’s career begun a year earlier with Toby Dammit, a short Poe adaptation for the omnibus Spirits of the Dead (1968) and ending in the bleakest and most disturbing of all his work, the overlooked masterpiece Casanova (1976). As the first feature-length film from this period, however, Satyricon initiates the full-scale, hallucinatory bacchanalia of Fellini-style eschatology with an uproarious, anarchic bellow of mirth. The ceaseless laughter one hears throughout the entirety of Satyricon—from the opening mockery of Encolpius (Martin Potter) by friend/rival Ascyltus (Hiram Keller) to the cackle of a young black man at a group of cannibalistic elders—may appear amoral as a reaction to the film’s depiction of ancient Roman decadence and decline, but it is also joyous, uninhibited, and delirious with the liberty that comes from an acceptance of chaos and the exhilaration of rebirth. It is laughter that, unleashed during the height of countercultural awareness and political tumult, is meant as a metaphorical proclamation of libertine solidarity; and it is laughter that, unleashed from the depths of a unique and boundless imagination, is infectious with hope and wonder.
It isn’t much of a stretch to read Satyricon as Fellini’s response to the social and cultural upheaval of the late sixties. The director explicitly stated as much in the preface to a book about the film published in 1970: “Man never changes, and today we can recognize all the principal characters of the drama: Encolpius and Ascyltus, two hippie students . . . Their revolt, though having nothing in common with traditional revolts—neither the faith, nor the desperation, nor the drive to change or destroy—is nevertheless a revolt and is expressed in terms of utter ignorance of and estrangement from the society surrounding them.” Like so many cult films of the era premised on or featuring consciousness-expanding “trips” (e.g., El Topo), Satyricon allegorizes the quest of a youth who must form his own values against the backdrop of a world rotting under the cynical, wasteful, exploitative, and violent rule of an older generation. Encolpius’s journey starts for us in media res, with his betrayal at the hands of brashly puckish Ascyltus, seducer and seller of Giton (Max Born), the angelic yet opportunistically flexible adolescent slaveboy who constantly sunders their friendship.
The majority of Satyricon, however, tours ancient Rome as a fiery furnace of decomposing culture: degraded theater (aging, pig-masked actor Vernacchio resorts to painful mugging, prolific farts, and real executions in order to garner audience approval); pompously displayed wealth (the feast held by petty, dilettantish lord and wannabe poet Trimalchio involves food-throwing, wife-insulting, and slave-threatening); and pointless, perpetual internecine conflict (a Caesar is hunted down and killed by the minions of his successor, and nothing changes for better or worse). These acts are all committed by clownishly demonic and foolishly cruel authority figures. In Fellini’s imagining of Petronius, the noblest characters over the age of thirty are a husband and wife (Lucia Bosè and Joseph Wheeler) who, in the film’s gentlest scene, free their slaves and see their children off before committing ritual suicide. Like Petronius himself—forced by political jealousy and intrigue to take his own life—this couple simply cannot belong to a hellish world of reckless leadership and crumbling decency. Encolpius and Ascyltus soon spy the bodies burning on a pyre as a legion of equestrian soldiers gallop past, either the agents of property confiscation feared by the couple or else wild marauders with no respect for the dead.
Fellini represents the patriarchy-led perdition of Satyricon as an episodic pageant overwhelming and otherworldly, but its spectacle remains heavily qualified, a unique “trip” in which the viewer is heavily and repeatedly discouraged from full immersion. Satyricon might be the ultimate anti-spectacle spectacular. As if the silhouette-drenched expressionistic lighting, relentless African-flavored soundtrack, and quasi-sci-fi art direction and costume design weren’t strong enough alienation effects (making the film, the Maestro once said, was like “speculating about life on Mars, but with the help of a Martian”), Fellini has his actors perform direct address pantomimes as well as unsettlingly varied and sui generis theatrical gestures, all while extras strategically positioned at the margins stare directly into an unpredictable tracking camera as if to challenge the viewer’s gaze. (Of Vernacchio’s theater Fellini wrote: “The audience must not give a feeling of compactness but rather of disunion; in fact, each person behaves in a different way from the next . . . in short, somewhat the atmosphere of a lunatic asylum.”)
Rather than completely eschew visual sumptuousness, Fellini subverts the absorptive splendor inherent to the cinematic period piece by encouraging the viewer to focus on the social function of spectacle—both within the film and of the film itself—rather than any sort of “pure aestheticism” that could be so derived. His compassionate concern for and even love of excess always exquisitely signifies expiring beauty, but Satyricon also emphasizes the malleability of social relations organized around galvanizing spectacles that harness communal energy while atomizing its radical potential in dissipating displays of self-indulgent exhibitionism and voyeurism. Too hallucinatory in its artifice and self-reflexivity to invite uncritical consumption (the film has absolutely nothing in common with the usually undistinguished swords-and-sandals epics with which it bears only the broadest generic affiliation), Satyricon continually calls attention to the constructedness of its world and not some dubious historical “reality” to which it must faithfully adhere. The history Satyricon recreates is the history of aesthetics, from the art of antiquity to modern pop—a multi-strata collage invoking a sort of cinematic and spectacular archeology.
Just as Fellini reframes the cinematic spectacle, so does he undermine conventional representations of sexuality. This is because among its many unique aspects there remains the question of the “gayness” of Fellini’s adaptation. The Maestro rarely dealt with homosexuality before or after Satyricon (a notable exception is Leopoldo’s naïve, shocked discovery of Sergio Natali’s preference for young men in I vitelloni), and yet what remains remarkable about the film is not so much its recurrent depiction of male eroticism but rather the nonchalant affection with which this eroticism is depicted—and this from one of the most phallocentric heterosexual directors in the history of the medium (not an easy title to claim). In fact, homosexuality in Satyricon comes off as neither titillating nor threatening because Fellini doesn’t appear intrigued by homosexuality per se, at least not in its psychological, historical, and cultural implications. Instead, with Satyricon Fellini for the first time brings fully out into the open his fascination with the utopian possibilities of what today might be called “polymorphous perversity.” Though pederasty, bestiality, and sexual servitude are clearly linked with the depravity of ancient Roman (and, metaphorically, our) mores, the joyful sexual experimentation of Encolpius and Ascyltus—alternately friends, lovers, and bedroom rivals/partners (at one point they share a tryst with a beautiful Ethiopian slave)—suggests an unrepressed playfulness with the body in opposition to the power-oriented use of sex among their older countrymen. The greatest obstacle Encolpius must overcome in the course of his adventures is not homosexuality or bisexuality (in favor of a normative heterosexuality), but impotence. One could make a counter-argument that Encolpius is sexually reborn via the fire-generating vagina of a witch (Donyale Luna) while Ascyltus simultaneously meets his doom. But it’s not as if the priapically restored Encolpius gets rewarded at film’s end with a bevy of toga-clad female beauties. Instead he leaves the mainland behind with a ship entirely comprised of similarly rootless young men—bound, perhaps, for shores unencumbered by sexual categorization and competition.
Such openness is also manifest in the dreamlike narrative structure and mythological trajectory of Satyricon. Organizing his film according to associative connections instead of linear storytelling logic (“Our film,” the Maestro wrote, “through the fragmentary recurrence of its episodes, should restore the image of a vanished world without completing it, as if . . . summoned for us in a trance, recalled from their silence by the mystic ritual of a séance”), Fellini uses the framework of Petronius’s already disconnected text for his own picaresque flights of fancy, poetic digressions, and stories within stories. One of his most notable additions is the theft of a fragile, bleach white-skinned hermaphrodite who acts as an oracular healer to traumatized cripples, demented plague victims, and other forsaken castaways of a decaying society. Hoping to possess his/her beneficent powers solely for themselves, Encolpius, Ascyltus, and a scheming stranger unintentionally deprive the hermaphrodite of water while traveling through the desert, where he/she dies of thirst. Deeply influenced by Carl Jung, Fellini infuses this scene with mythic symbolism. As a living embodiment of harmonious masculine and feminine characteristics the hermaphrodite cannot survive in a barren landscape where greed and lust dominate over trust and compassion.
The point is made all the more poignant due to the landscape’s function not only as an allegorical element but also a sentient field of metaphysical being—Fellini doesn’t want viewers to simply understand his symbols but to viscerally intuit them. (Obsessed with the stimulating possibilities of color, Fellini repeatedly links chalky paleness in Satyricon with the moribund. One need not become conscious of this link—it is felt physiologically.) Thus the film’s singular push-pull between intellectual distance and emotional instinct (the Maestro once described Satyricon as “the documentary of a dream”), and thus the reason Fellini’s vision, seemingly gathered directly from the unconscious, remains utterly irreducible to written explanation. Indeed, the greatest sections of Satyricon—Encolpius and Giton’s pilgrimage to a freak-show brothel, Encolpius’s losing battle against a costumed minotaur in a practical joke labyrinth—situate the viewer in a realm of sensation where rationality is not so much discouraged as completely reinvented. Fellini’s cinema is one of recurring oneiric images—the decapitated heads of statues and people, the portentous appearance of wild beasts—and elements: fire (Trimalchio’s group steam bath and roasting ovens), water (the ocean as military playground and vengeful grave for tyrannical nautical commander and youth-devourer Lichas), earth (the unquenchable desert where Encolpius and Ascyltus meet an insatiable nymphomaniac), and air (the ubiquitous howling wind heard throughout the entire film) feature as mythical characters equal in intensity and purpose to the human ones at the center of the tale.
And just as the elements of the universe never die but are ceaselessly transformed, so too does Satyricon—like most of Fellini’s films—never truly end. Encolpius’s travels through the inferno have as their penultimate destination the grotesquerie of avaricious beneficiaries making good on the unusual will of dead poet-turned-rich man Eumolpius (Salvo Randone) by ingesting his remains. Yet Fellini concludes by interrupting the voiceover narration of Encolpius, who refuses the androphagous feast, mid-sentence and dissolving the character’s visage into a fresco bearing his likeness. One more fourth-wall-toppling moment, this denouement considers the ephemeral and infinite potential of mythic storytelling, and the necessity for the viewer to create his own such adventures in order to continue its legacy. Ever mutating into surprising episodes, motifs, and colors, ever evolving its protagonist from helpless victim to amused/repulsed observer to carefree lover to wanton murderer to enlightened seeker, Satyricon encourages the viewer to develop its next chapter in his or her mind just as it emphasizes the protean possibilities of human endeavor over static fatalism.
Satyricon marks Fellini’s first film not told through the point of view of a protagonist who remakes the world via a strong inner life. Instead, the fantastic, mysterious, disorienting world of Satyricon simply exists onto itself, and without conventional narrative justification—its outlandish and destabilizing fiction communicates particular symbols and emotions, yes, but also proves the limitless and extra-rational power of the artistic imagination, and the limitless and extra-rational power of the cinema to realize it. Thus Satyricon is less a film about endings—of epochs, of principles, of innocence—than beginnings. It is the rare film that challenges the viewer to reflect on this world even as it simultaneously inspires him to dream of another; it is the rare film that laughs at the absurdity and terror of existence even as it raises that existence to the grand heights of exuberance upon which all great art makes its name.
Satyricon played August 11 and 12, 2012, and November 20 and 21, 2021, at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.