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Fellini - Satyricon (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Eureka Entertainment
Art House
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Federico Fellini
Martin Potter
Hiram Keller
Max Borna
Salvo Randone
Mario Romagnoli
Bottom Line: 
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‘This picture will be science fiction … a trip back in time into an unknown dimension.’ The quote above, taken from the international poster for director Federico Fellini’s hallucinatory vision of decadent imperial Rome in the age of Nero, sounds like a typically florid piece of promotional rhetoric, when in fact it only hints at the utterly overwhelming experience that’s in store for any viewer of this centrepiece for what quickly becomes a torrid cascade of the Italian master’s most baroque instances of large-scale surrealist form and gesture. “Fellini - Satyricon” is an opulent cinematic conjuration of a completely alien (and alienating) society displayed in delirious meltdown, summoned like a restless spirit from a feverish, lysergic fever dream born in the imagination of an artist who was at a point in his career when international reverence meant his every whim could be indulged in meticulously constructed detail on the vast soundstages of Cinecittà. This is probably the zenith of Fellini as the potentate of a most unashamedly indulgent form of biographical art cinema spectacle that’s both self-consciously ‘difficult’ and hugely expensive to stage. It’s tempting to see this brashly grandiose creation’s relationship with Italian cinema as being somewhat similar to that of its own depiction of Rome’s wealthy ruling elite, which takes the form of the wealthy freeman Trimalcione (Mario Romagnoli) and his wife Fortunata (Magali Noël) who’re shown, during one of the picture’s many huge, garishly staged set-pieces, presiding over a lavish banquet so excessive and unreservedly immoderate that its display of self-indulgence becomes a provocative, almost abstract tableau of ghoulish grotesquery staged in a teeming underground grotto, entirely divorced from the social systems of exploitation and degradation which enable it, while presenting before us as a gaudy signifier of a vicious pagan world where the vast kitchen furnaces are as the flames of hell; disconcertingly unrecognisable to us, yet mesmerizingly evocative of our own excessive times, imagined at that cultural junction point that was the late-sixties.

With this picture, Fellini had taken the fresco-like free form portrait of postwar Italian society he’d constructed for 1961’s “La dolce vita” and joined it to the epic, fragmented surrealist montage of self-exploration that was “8 ½” (1963), much inspired by his developing interest in Jungian theories of the unconscious that in turn underscored Fellini’s new age counterculture-friendly mystic phase and so gave birth to the heightened, luminescent, LSD-tinged visual textures of 1965’s “Juliet of the Spirits”. No one has ever elucidated Fellini’s aims and ambitions with “Satyricon” better than the main himself in the preface to the treatment he wrote for the film in 1968: ‘Our film, through the fragmentary recurrence of its episodes, should restore the image of a vanished world without completing it, as if those characters, those habits, those milieux were summoned for us in a trance, recalled from their silence by the mystic ritual of a séance.’ As this evocation of cinema as a form of occult communion (tapping into the ancient past through the imaginative effort involved in fabricating the unconscious) suggest “Fellini - Satyricon” belongs alongside other visionary cinematic spectacles of the late 1960s that were also concerned with delivering audiences an unique ‘experience’ unlike anything they’d been accustomed to seeing before, in an era obsessed with the notion of expanding consciousness and pushing at the doors of perception; Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (also 1969) or Michelangelo Antonioni’s flop “Zabriskie Point” (1970), being two higher profile examples of a short-lived sub-genre that Fellini’s film exemplifies to the nth degree and beyond.

Here the director allowed himself the room to voyage out courageously to the limits of narrative coherence, pummelling the viewer with a sense-overload of untranslatable CinemaScope-wide images amid the riot of strange and overworldly sounds which pepper the equally disorientating soundtrack, intended to conjure with them Fellini’s heightend, highly stylised fantasy vision of an ancient Greco-Roman past that, in its pseudo SF-fantasy theatre trappings and gestures could also functions as an disturbing allegory for the confusions and uncertainties of modern times. It’s also a deeply personal and subjective account as such, full of familiar Fellini-esque priapic and concupiscent obsessions; monstrous, rouged deformities and a cavalcade of Jungian anima and animus archetypes distorted in the fragmented hall of mirrors that was the director’s surrealist imagination as pieced together by screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi, who’d worked previously with the director on his episode in “Spirits of the Dead” (the portmanteau movie dedicated to the works of Edgar Allan Poe) and would continue to help him realise his eccentric surrealist indulgences for the screen on later films such as “Roma” (1972) and “City of Women” (1980).

“Fellini - Satyricon” is both the culmination of previous trends in Fellini’s film-making and the purest, most fully-realised example of his taste for exaggerated grotesques and mind-boggling hallucinogenic farce in place of narrative. After this, his cinema continued to be preoccupied with alternate, fragmented visions of Italian culture and history but would never plunge quite so deeply into this type of fantasy netherworld again. But despite its unrepentant strangeness and completely fully formed vision of imperial Rome as a decadent dying civilisation of excess and sexual polymorphism, bustling with unruly desires unconstrained by the Christian model of heterosexual temperance soon to replace it, this is also Fellini’s commentary on the late-sixties; outsider poets and sexual experimenters caught up in an ugly, tyrannical society, consciously in the thrall of the beauty of the ancient Greek culture it had once conquered and subsumed, but packed with delicately pretty androgens and etiolated demi-god hermaphrodites that offer bizarre respite from the trampling brutality of the court; a ‘hero’ whose fragmented odyssey in search of his boy-child slave lover becomes a confrontation with his own impotence and sexual inadequacy. The fragmented, story-within-story structure of much of this was already in line with Fellini’s approach in “8 ½” but was particularly apposite here in view of its original inspiration in the director’s reading of the satirical novel Satyricon, written by  Gaius Petronius Arbiter: a courtier to the Emperor Nero whose work only survives in fragments. Rather than a straight adaptation of what remains of the text or an effort to use the text’s unusually vivid references to contemporary sources in order to try to portray an historically accurate ancient Rome, Fellini sought instead to replicate the experience of reading the novel’s incomplete, mosaic-like evocation of a society whose sights, sounds, morality and mores seem so very different from our own, while emphasising the subconscious Freudian inheritance that sixties Capitalist society (particularly post-Fascist Capitalist Italian society) had incorporated from its buried past.

With that idea in mind, Fellini spoke eloquently of how the movie should attempt to capture the quality of something that had been ‘disinterred’. Zapponi and Fellini’s screenplay takes most of the central characters from Petronius’s text and, in keeping with the novel’s incomplete nature, the film also actually starts in the middle of a scene, with handsome narrator and principle character Encolpio (played by British actor Martin Potter, better known to genre fans for playing the male lead in Norman J Warren’s “Satan’s Slave”, and a late replacement for Terrence Stamp who was first choice for the role but was unavailable) angrily confronting his gladiator friend Ascilto (Hiram Keller) at the bath house over the abduction of the servant boy Gitone (Max Born) whom they both desire. After many intoxicatingly strange episodes during which Encolpio pursues Gitone to an outlandish theatrical troupe led by the demented  Vernacchio  (played by Luigi Visconti, better known by his stage name Fanfulla, a popular Italian comedian and cabaret artist from the mid-‘40s and ‘50s) before finally being rejected by the boy he loves in favour of the rambunctious Ascilto, Encolpio, his poet friend Eumolpo (Salvo Randone) and later Ascilto himself endure many hardships and dangers in a threatening landscape presided over by menacing tyrants such as the wealthy Trimalcione (Mario Romagnoli) and the slave ship owner Lichas (Alain Cuny). Encolpio and Ascilto end up on a far way Mediterranean island having been sold into slavery, overrun by soldiers who capture Encolpio and force him to do battle with the Minotaur in a labyrinth constructed on a desert plain set before an audience of senators and aristocrats, who then expose our hero’s impotence by demanding he couple with a voluptuous princess in a pit before the same onlookers, something he finds even more unpalatable than all the other dangers he’s thus far faced combined. The film ends, like the novel, in mid-sentence, as Encolpio is about to set sail for Africa in charge of a merchant ship after the deaths of Ascilto and Eumolpo. Finally, the principle characters become faded fresco portraits whose exploits are partially preserved on the face of the crumbling ruins of antiquity.

The dreamlike settings we’ve borne witness to across the previous two hours by this point, have been the result of an amazing collaborative effort from cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, costume designer and set decorator Danilo Donati and production designer Luigi Scaccianoce, plus an delirious musical assembly, led by Fellini regular Nino Rota but inclusive of a range of weird and wonderful contributions from all over the globe. More so than the many additions and amendments to Petronius made in the script -- notably the Minotaur episode and the adventures of a host of strange predatory sorceresses, goddesses and sylphs – it’s Fellini’s visual stylisation and the complete realisation of a previously unseen world that makes this the masterpiece it is. It’s a primal carnival of activity and colour, darkness, grotesquery and splendour, documented by Fellini in jarring , perspective shifting leaps of viewpoint and lengthy scroll-like tracking shots that often cover the length of Scaccianoce’s huge, highly detailed and artistically decorative sets, against which a bustling futuristic parade of odd figures cavort in mimetic staccato-rhythm ballets of choreographed movement, or else simply stand stock still and stare enigmatically out from the foreground or mid-frame of the screen, straight at the viewer, like the fresco figures they will become in the final seconds of the film. Masters of Cinema's UK Blu-ray disc has an absolutely gorgeous 4K digital transfer, and if all you need is the film looking as fantastic as it ever could, then this is the disc for you. The Criterion Collection also have a special edition out that includes a host of extras and documentaries, but it’s a region A release only. Eureka’s new Blu-ray has only the film and a theatrical trailer, although there is a nice booklet featuring a revealing piece by Fellini and a new essay by Pasquale Iannone on the director and his use of the scope frame in this film (in the context of its utilisation in Italian cinema in general), plus a ‘scrap book’ of contemporary pieces on the film taken from numerous sources including Vogue Magazine.       

Read more from the Black Gloved One at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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