Film buffs and critics love to pontificate on how movies are really a reflection of our dreams. Such people ignore that film seldom even remotely recreates the dreaming experience, and when it does, the films are usually considered self-indulgent and difficult. Perhaps no other filmmaker has been taken to task for alleged self-indulgence more often than Federico Fellini. His films reflect such a singular sensibility and distinct personality that they are often dismissed as junk by those who want cinema to function as homogenized entertainment, devoid of personality. But personality often harbors visions worth sharing, and Fellini’s visions are among the most dream-like in the history of cinema. After breathing life into the fading Italian neo-realist movement with I Vitteloni, La Notti di Cabiria and La Dolce Vita, he forged a new style with his masterpiece, 8 ½. With 8 ½, Fellini introduced a visual style that used reality as a backdrop for the exploration of a Jungian sub-conscious. While Fellini Satyricon (so named to distinguish it from another film of the same title, hastily made to grab the spotlight from Fellini) is almost entirely visual spectacle, it is very possibly the greatest such spectacle in the movies.
Subtitled “A Free Adaption of the Petronius Classic,” the film indeed uses Petronius as a shell, but Fellini has fashioned a series of adventures that bears little resemblance to Petronius whatsoever. Petronius’ work, fragments of an epic work written during Nero’s reign, is primarily a comedy, as much of a satiric con as a satyricon. Fellini’s film is similarly a series of fragments, but the visuals are once removed from reality and the iconography of Hollywood. It is as if Fellini, after reading Petronius, reveals to us his dreams, dreams filtered through the often dark, often ghastly, often beautiful regions of the subconscious. (Most who reviewed the film seemed preoccupied with this distinction between Pretronius’ original work and Fellini’s adaptation.)
The story, such as it is, has two ancient Roman students – Enclopius (Martin Potter) and Ascyltus (Hiram Keller) – on a quest for hedonistic experiences, whether with their androgynous pretty boy male strumpet Giton (Max Born) or at the dinner table of Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli). Along the way, they meet the starving poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone), who laments the decadent state of the arts, which have been usurped by the talentless rich like Trimalchio (who in turn has Eumolpus cast into his ovens for accusing him of plagiarizing Lucretius at his massive feast). There is also Lichas, the decadent, bug-eyed captain of a ship on a quest to find treasures for the emperor, who “marries” Enclopius after defeating him in a bizarre wrestling match. (Lichas later has his head sliced neatly off by a Centurion.) The pair also help a thief (Gordon Mitchell) kidnap a hermaphrodite oracle who is being worshipped as a healing deity, after which Enclopius finds himself battling a Minotaur in a creepy maze during a festival of laughter. (The idea of such a festival is taken from Lucius Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.) When Enclopius finds himself the victim of the wrath of the god Priapus (his “sword is blunted”), he must seek the assistance of the witch Onotea.
An amazing display of virtuosity by Fellini, the widescreen Panavison frames abound with such an onslaught of dazzlingly surreal imagery that one could see this film dozens of times and see something new each viewing. Made mostly on huge stages inside Cinecitta studios in Rome, the film has a remarkably artificial look, and the sets give the impression of misty dreamscapes filled with an array of grotesque, painted faces. If you’re looking for Petronius, there is very little here, and the parts that do follow the text do so lightly. (Trimalchio’s feast, Enclopius’ meeting with Eumolpus, and a nice rendering of the story of the widow of Esphesus come closest.) Scholars may wince when Fellini (who wrote the screenplay with novelist Bernardino Zapponi) uses Eumolpus’ epitaph for Lichas as Enclopius’ epitaph for Ascyltus. But none of Fellini’s films were made for scholars, and this one contains the remarkable dreams and visions of a man who was fascinated by what his mind’s eye had conjured. The results are among the most beautiful, horrible, ugly and gorgeous that you may ever see. Fellini Satyricon has become an almost-forgotten artifact, seen at the time as a somewhat pandering concession to `60s youth (Fellini first showed the film in the U.S. after a rock concert in New York) and an indulgent vision. It is much more – a vividly imagined world of the unconscious brought to life on the screen. A stunning achievement, Fellini’s film still has the power to disturb (a hand is cut off on a stage at a tiny surreal theater where such bloodletting passes for entertainment), and I don’t recommend it for someone looking to spend a light, pleasant night before the VCR. Yet for those more adventurous, Fellini Satyricon is essential.