In first century Rome, two student friends, Encolpio and Ascilto, argue about ownership of the boy Gitone, divide their belongings and split up. The boy, allowed to choose who he goes with, chooses Ascilto. Only a sudden earthquake saves Encolpio from suicide. We follow Encolpio through a series of adventures, where he is eventually reunited with Ascilto, and which culminates in them helping a man kidnap a hermaphrodite demi-god from a temple. The god dies, and as punishment Encolpio becomes impotent. We then follow them in search of a cure. The film is loosely based on the book Satyricon by Gaius Petronius Arbiter, the "Arbiter of Elegance" in the court of Nero. The book has only survived in fragments, and the film reflects this by being very fragmentary itself, even stopping in mid-sentence.
OSCAR Nominee for Best Director
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Fellini-Satyricon from 1969 is Fellini's most self-indulgent creation. After exploring contemporary Rome with La Notti di Cabiria and La Dolce Vita, he decided to look back to ancient times and adapt Petronius's Roman novel Satyricon. Adding his own name to the title in order to make sure it wasn't confused with another version released the year before (as if it could be), Fellini used the ancient Roman setting to create his most visually sensual and surrealistic film yet. It's also probably his most ridiculous and baffling film. It's a wild 60s exploration of an ancient time with an abundance of parties, orgies, and feasting, along with death and slavery.
This film's narrative is almost non-existent; the plotline of 8 ½ is much easier to follow than this is. It follows the same character, Encolpio, along with his friend (and enemy) Ascilto, through many adventures and misadventures in the vast empire. It begins with an argument between them; Ascilto stole Encolpio's young male lover, Gitone, and then sold him to someone else. But this plotline doesn't last long. Soon, Encolpio finds himself feasting with a poet friend at a wealthy man's mansion, then suddenly he is a slave of someone else, then in the middle of a desert near a deity temple, then forced to fight a man dressed as a minotaur....and on and on. Every time the scene changes, it's a new setting and new fantastic situation, with no transitions. Many scenes are directly from the ancient Petronius work, but Fellini also added some new chapters of his own.
So, if one can endure the insanity of the narrative, the cinematography and production design are quite impressive. Giuseppe Rotunno was the cinematographer, who had never worked with Fellini, but who helped create a lush and colorful world. The production designer Luigi Scaccianoce also assisted in bringing to life ancient Rome in all it's glory and gluttony. Both these artists should be praised for amazing work, but it really gets to be too much at times. The frame is often so crowded with men and women in brightly colored costumes, eating and drinking an enormous amount of meat and wine, or engaging in some promiscuous act, that I could barely take everything in and pay attention to the dialogue.
The main actor, Martin Potter, who plays Encolpio, is nice to look at, but is not quite capable of holding together an entire film, as, for instance, Marcello Mastroianni is. During the overwhelming film, if one were to look to him as an anchor or center of everything, he would fall short. He ends up simply playing a young Roman who is weak, uninteresting, and lost in the world. There is an array of supporting characters; Ascilto is Encolpio's opposite, playful and heartless, and a bit more interesting; Eumolpo (Salvo Randone) is Encolpio's old poet friend and offers some intriguing discussions on poetry and the state of humanity; and the scene-stealing Vernacchio (played by Fanfulla), the rich master whose feast Encolpio attends, believes himself to be a poet but is just a jubilant and self-centered host of a grand party. The supporting cast do present a nice array of characters, but again, they all get to be too much-- only the few mentioned above really stand out in my memory.
One more point of interest with this film and Fellini in general: sex. Making a film about ancient Rome, Fellini gets to explore more than only heterosexual love, but now homosexual love, or homoeroticism, as well. Homosexuality was an accepted norm and widely practiced in Roman times, so it's unabashedly displayed, or at least presented, in the film. The setting, then, lets the filmmaker show homosexuality more openly than he could have in a contemporary setting of 1969, which makes the film more open, honest and forward than many films with an ancient setting are even today, a good example being 2004's Troy.
Fellini-Satyricon is an interesting and ornate piece of work. Even with the surrealistic feel, and fantastic situations, it probably is a pretty realistic portrait of life in ancient Rome: the wildness of it, the debauchery and gluttony, the sex and the death. That said, it is an overwhelming and insane film to sit through, and I have no desire to see it again. I feel that, with this film, Fellini went too far into another world, leaving viewers behind to try and get through the ostentatious vision and narrative in order to find some substance.