By Nick Alderink

Today, Cinema Revolution pulls its focus from the films of the early progressive French New Wave to the late ‘60s explosion of expressionism, debauchery, free love, and everything that went with it in 1969’s Fellini Satyricon. Federico Fellini may be most know for his slightly earlier works 8 ½ and La Dulce Vita, but Satryicon showcased the directors next step into surrealism and offered his views regarding the status and nature of art.

A Bit You Should Know

            Satyricon is an ancient story credited to Titus Petronius, who is believed to be Gaius Petronius, the “Director of Elegance” for Roman Emperor Nero in 1st Century A.D. The story is comedic satire but also seen as a highly observational and realistic look at the social life of the times. The story has remained incomplete and missing for centuries, causing the narrative to remain in fragments, but it can be believed that the portion that still exists is one-tenth of its entirety.

Given the broken state of the narrative, Fellini did not go out of his way to make sense of it but rather opted to utilize the freedom within the story to celebrate free love, expression, and indulgence. Released in 1969 at the height and climax of the counterculture movement, the lifestyle of Nero’s Roman Empire adapted well to the times as discrimination and moral taboos were apparently nonexistent within the Roman culture. This is blatant in the opening scene when the protagonist and narrator Encolpius vents his anger for losing his lover and boyish teenage slave, Giton, to his friend and rival Ascyltus. Encolpius finds himself in other relationships throughout the film, both male and female, but his narrative with Giton is one that continues.

Fellini expressed an extreme self-awareness of the story’s legacy and draws appreciation inward as well as to the status and resiliency of art. He in doing so he leaves constant reminders to the audience they are watching an adaptation. A motif of paintings and graffiti ridden walls is introduced in the opening shot and Encolpius stands in front of a giant stone wall cast in shadow to create an illusion of two dimensions, as if he were among the rest of the ancient scribblings (the film also ends in similar fashion, but that will be left for your own revelation). Once Encolpius comes to life, Fellini shatters dimensions and brings the audience within the ancient text and places the camera often in the frames of doorways and windows to see the lives of the commoners inside, reproducing the same voyeuristic sensation as one does when looking at a painting. This can be seen early on in the film in the tenement building of Encolpius where the camera passes along doorways of each of homes for no other reason than to look inside.

In this self-awareness, the audience is kept grounded Fellini avoids any sense of escapism that films commonly provide. An unnerving twist is added where the characters often stare condemningly back at the camera, reflecting their own gaze in return onto the audience. He even adds into the audience into the story. In an art gallery in which the poet Eumolpus enters, he expresses his opinion: “No one can paint like this today. What brought on this state? Lust for money!” And following this line, a giant scaffolding full of people slide by an open window, representing an on looking audience, and a subtle wink to indicate this opinion is not just of the character, but that this is Fellini’s message to the modern state of art in the boom of 1960s pop culture.

What to Look Out For

  • The music – Nino Rota, who had worked often with Fellini, composed the music for Fellini Satyricon though his most recognizable and memorable work is arguably the score and compositions he wrote for The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Early into Satyricon, at the performance of the actor Vernacchio, you will notice a theme reminiscent to The Godfather’s “Main Title (The Godfather Waltz).
  • Audio dubbing – Although more noticeable at certain times than others, you will see the actors voices do not match up with the audio. Fellini is said to have done this to add a layer of separation between the film and the audience.
  • The use of non-actors – Although primarily in the background or seen for just a few frames, Fellini utilized a cast atypical to traditional film stars, such as little people, obese actors, and some who are missing limbs or eyes. As said before, Fellini made the film to celebrate the differences of people, but this casting is also reminiscent to his tendencies as a filmmaker who came up in the Italian Neorealism Movement of the 1950s.

A 35mm print of Fellini Satyricon will screen on tonight, April 3rd at 7:00 PM in the Screening Room. Enjoy the show and we’ll see you at The Michigan!

Sources and Other Interesting Reads