The bizarre is-this-real? overdrive of 1969’s Satyricon suggests not fanciful self-pleasure but rather artistic generosity — Federico Fellini, unlike chillier peers of the Michelangelo Antonioni sort, is inclined to share his ideas and preoccupations with his viewers, disenchanted by the thought of leaving his audience feeling alienated, frozen out. Some could argue that Satyricon is among his most inaccessible films, but contrarily do I believe that the picture is more about cherishing the pleasures of watching and listening and experiencing cinema. It appeals to our philistine weaknesses more than it does to our emotion; it’s bedazzling so long as you accept that the only joy you’re going to have is in appreciating its looks and not its personality.
As in all films that prefer style over substance, the aggressive aesthetic and tone of Satyricon do eventually become tiresome and do eventually wear out their welcome. Being slightly over two hours, it’s impossible not to reason that some parts of the film are more crucial than others. But it’s a heart-stopping epic all the same, messy and flush and incomprehensible, but also colorful, grand, and woefully personal. Presently, the film resides as a seminal Italian arthouse masterwork crucial within Fellini’s oeuvre. But in 1969, after the American studio system collapsed and movies, foreign or otherwise, were in a transitional period, Satyricon was an Earth-shaker.
It’s a loose adaptation of Gaius Petronius’s satirical novel of the same name, which defiantly critiqued the class system during the peak years of the Ancient Roman Empire. Fellini doesn’t much stay wholeheartedly faithful to his source material: he uses Petronius’s characters and scenarios as excuses to cater to his visionary experimentations, a move that, surprisingly, works tremendously well for a director so distinctly in touch with his desires and his best artistic habits.
In story, Satyricon concerns itself with the misadventures of Encolpius (Martin Potter), a stunner of a young man who consistently loses his lover, the sixteen-year-old Gitón (Max Born), to powerful men and women in the upper echelons of Roman society.
But while I can’t necessarily say the film is plotless (but want to) — it’s akin to a sweeping adventure, not a twisty potboiler — it never much resonates because of the way its introducing of outré characters and settings take precedence over cathexis. And yet Satyricon, nonetheless, is one of Fellini’s most visually breathtaking films, rendering Ancient Rome as fantastical, even futuristically inhibited, through succulently screwy set design to dowdily lavish makeup and costumery. Eroticism coats the air, earlier themes of gluttony and greed savagely dilated. Interesting, too, is the way the film so cohesively joins the more grotesque pitfalls of human nature with dreamy entrancement.
For all its crazed chaos, Satyricon is a film only an experienced auteur of Fellini’s ballsiness could have made. It’s a circus of otherworldly anarchy, and a filmmaker willing to push past commercial limits and also be deeply in touch with their strengths is necessary for a movie as bloated as this one. By Satyricon’s end, I was exhausted, at a loss for words and unsure of where to place myself in terms of opinion. But now can I see that its madness is a thrilling strength: there wasn’t anything like it in 1969, and there still isn’t anything like it. That’s Fellini for you. B+