Fellini Satyricon

This was the first Fellini film that I saw back in 1974 or so. It was a midnight screening in Westwood California in Cinemascope on a giant screen. I had seldom been so effected by a film and went back the very next midnight for another look. The sheer amount of detail and striking bizarre symbolic compositions continued to impress. It became a favorite film for a number of years and I must have seen it with various friends about 15 times in theaters. How can I summarize such a movie? It's a subconscious spectacle, a view of humanity through a fun house mirror in an alternate universe. Though later I became a fan of Fellini's previous and subsequent films, Satyricon remained my favorite and regard it as THE high-point in Fellini's career. Unlike so much of Fellini's output, this is not a personal autobiographical film but instead an archetypal film. Fellini even had a Jungian analyst on the set while shooting.

For those who haven't experienced it, Satyricon is a loose adaptation of the oldest surviving novel of the same name by Petronius Arbiter, a Roman from the time of Nero, who wrote a sprawling series of satirical and bawdy stories . The novel only survived in fragments and Fellini decided when adapting the tales to not try and patch up the narrative but instead present a series of highly detailed episodes. This fit into his view of history. We only know history (particularly ancient history) from bits and pieces passed down through the ages. Though the three lead actors reappear throughout the film, the other characters, situations and locales around them change unexpectedly. Now, while these picaresque episodes are indeed exotic, weird and funny, it is Fellini's vision that makes this film unique viewing. As usual in Fellini's post "La Dolce Vita" projects, the world depicted is crowded and busy with a swarm of personalities popping in and out of frame. In particular is his roaming camera that is intricately choreographed and put to great use in large group scenes. Fellini had a distinctive way of shooting action and gesture that still stands out as his own. Certain sequences (particularly the red light district near the beginning) feel as though we are on some kind of dark ride, gliding past a series of rooms catering to an assortment of sexual fetishes. Another very striking technique is to have a few of the actors on the edges of the frame stare into the camera, generally a "no no" in all but documentaries. The effect creates a curious confrontation as the characters stare impassively at the audience (their future) — watching us as we watch them.

The music for Satyricon is another fascinating element. Though Nino Rota composed a substantial amount of the score (particularly the oddly phrased melody heard at the end and the new emperors parade), a great deal of the music is either world folk music (such as the Balinese Monkey Chant) or avant garde electronic compositions (Ilhan Mimaroglu, Andrew Rudin, and Todd Dockstader among others). This gives the film a dual feeling of being very primal and yet otherworldly.

On one level Satryicon comments on the youth of the late 1960s, the unanchored hippies wondering from place to place without a "moral compass" -- one hedonistic adventure after another in a satiated and decadent world. On another level the world depicted is a collective dream of which our civilization is puppeted by primal forces beneath the surface. In this way Satyricon feels both foreign and recognizable, its images both seductive and repellant. One can admire Fellini for tackling such an ambitious concept and it is due to he and his collaborators (particularly Danilo Donati) that this film achieves so much.

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