Encolpius (Martin Potter) looks towards the audience and begins Fellini Satyricon by rambling about the man who betrayed and stole a boy from him. It is, as with Woody Allen in Annie Hall, Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing, and, of course, classic theater of the Greek and Elizabethan Eras, wonderfully theatrical. Within this silly monologue is fury, rage, and frustration.
Encolpius soon retrieves the boy, after much difficulty, and the two make their way through what one might consider a phastamasgoric wonderland of sights– lurid and vulgar, and as silly as it is dark. As indicated by Criterion’s new Blu-ray release, Fellini’s creation of “a weird old world that feels like science fiction” is an apt description. What is science fiction for, other than world building and allegory?
It’s in his “world building” that the great Italian auteur Federico Fellini seemed to have been, inexplicably, an expert at. In Amarcord, he recreates the little town of Italy he grew up in, with each object a signifier of something past; in La Strada, the long and winding road encompasses the whole of the story; and in 8 ½, the film industry is as alight as Hell itself. In Satyricon, though, Fellini wants to plunge his audience into the very depths of Hades. Cavernous, fragmentary, ragged, and roughly hewn, but it’s the swell of emotions and desires that dominate this world.
Of course, it’s not entirely surprising that Fellini should draw a comparison between the modern world, perhaps modern Italy specifically, and Hell. After all, Satyricon is “freely adapted” from the Roman satire by Petronius, which indicted Nero and his reign. This lusty and extravagant vision is reminiscent of Robert Graves’ historical novel I, Claudius, just as critical of various Roman emperors, but, in good tradition, putting a soapy, sexy spin on it.
Hell, though, isn’t relegated to merely the ruinous caverns of the first 20 minutes. No, for Fellini, Hell can be anywhere. The ocean, around columns, in the desert. Hell is wherever you feel alone.
Satyricon’s sensational and episodic vulgarity would seem to precede the randy satire of Pasolini’s The Decameron (and, perhaps more generally, his Trilogy of Life). These loosely connected vignettes, though, all have the same sort of bite and the same kind of sensuality that rocks their core.
What’s missing though, in Satyricon, is emotion. It may be entirely beside the point, but however sexy and cutting its satire, however craftily built are its worlds, it does come off as rather hollow. Satire is only ever intermittently imbued with emotion and resonance, but when it is (Sunset Boulevard, Sullivan’s Travels, etc.), it’s shall we say, magical. Fellini hints at emotional power at the very beginning of the film, with Encolpius’s monologue of anger. Fellini shoots from afar (throughout the entirety of the film), creating distance between the audience and the character. It’s as if the character is so volatile, the camera must be at a distance, lest he lunge at the audience. But this little emotional rigor in the film is quickly drained, which is a shame since Fellini’s greatest strength is that kind of eloquence. One only need look at La Strada or Nights of Cabiria to understand that Fellini is able to brush his frames with intense romanticism.
While perhaps devoid of a real emotional pull, there’s still a sparklingly sexy wit about Satyricon all the same. The film is certainly aided by the homoerotic tension between Martin Potter and Hiram Keller’s Ascyltus, the former friend and lover who stole the boy from Encolpius, and the disorienting babble of Fellini’s language amplifies its mysticism.
The final note seems to argue, though, that magic is just a distraction from reality. And reality is rather disheartening.