Roamin’ Romans: Federico’s Fellini Satyricon (1969) – Blu-ray review
Redefining on-screen extravagance, Fellini ushers in an imperial phase of his career as opulent as his weird take on Ancient Rome
(Federico Fellini, 1969)
Federico Fellini always intended Satyricon to be a window onto a world that no longer existed, but even he couldn’t have guessed that, over 45 years later, his film itself would offer compelling evidence of a long-gone era of filmmaking. Made at the end of Italian cinema’s craziest, greatest decade, it today feels something of an elegy because nobody is even trying to emulate the crazed confidence and ambition of this film.
A case in point: when characters announce that warships are about to land, we don’t have to take their word for it. Fellini’s crew has actually built or discovered a series of vessels and dropped them off-shore, full of extras. No CGI, no camera trickery: for real. And that’s just for a couple of shots. Elsewhere, the carcass of a giant fish is hauled out of the water, a tenement building collapses wall by wall into dust, and horny hero Encolpio wanders through some of the most eye-popping art direction ever filmed.
If you’re only familiar with Fellini’s canonical classics, La Dolce Vita and 8½, and think you’ve got the adjective Fellini-esque nailed, here’s the director’s own rebuttal, forcing himself beyond even the visual bravura of those films. It’s odd to think that adding the director’s name to the title was forced by circumstance (to distinguish it from a rival adaptation of Petronius’ book), because it’s so apt. This ushers in the possibility of the film director as a brand, something even Hitchcock could only do on the small-screen. Perhaps it’s no surprise that this was Fellini’s first full-length feature since I vitelloni in 1953 not to star either of his two principal actors, Marcello Mastroianni or Giulietta Masina. The only star here is Fellini himself.
The result is wildly indulgent and possibly empty; for all the detail in costume and décor and posture, you might spend hours deciphering the symbolism only to conclude it’s meaningless. But the overall gesture is important; this is Fellini creating a world, bringing the past to life in the way ye olden days might appear to a child – as something bizarre and inexplicable. Fellini called this ‘science fiction from the past’ and, with its atonal soundscapes, lurid colours and bestial make-up, it’s a good description – no wonder that science fiction (notably the 1980 Flash Gordon) would eventually pilfer from Fellini’s dressing-up box.
Based on Petronius’ roving satire of classical Roman life, Fellini takes in pan-sexual desire, gluttony, slaughter and cannibalism amongst other topics but nothing is certain. The source book exists only in fragments and Fellini follows suit, using his imagination to fill in the gaps with expanded, exaggerated, teeming detail. Whether journeying through the red light district where every stop reveals a new debauchery, or dining at cinema’s most decadent banquet, Fellini’s widescreen frames are teeming with people and movement. Yet, disconcertingly, the characters keep looking back at the camera. Why? Are they inviting us to join them? Are they passing judgement on us for watching? Is it simply echoes of the past making a connection to the future?
Because, if on one level Fellini is creating distance, he is also bridging the gap. Those party scenes aren’t that dissimilar to the Rome of La Dolce Vita, and Encolpio is an ancestor of on the earlier film’s Marcello, scouring the Roman world in search of new pleasures. The only downside is that Fellini keeps overt satire at arm’s length, a curious state of affairs next to La Dolce Vita, when every other European filmmaker from Godard to Pasolini was getting more political. But Ancient Rome eventually fell victim to its decadence, and perhaps by resurrecting it Fellini leaves it to us to make the connection with the revolutionary world of the late 1960s.
Fellini Satyricon is released on Monday 27th April. The disc is extras-light (although this being Masters of Cinema, there’s an informative book stuffed with essays and interviews) but the real star is the film itself, which looks suitably eye-popping in high-definition.