Much like Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fellini Satyricon had its director’s name added to the title to avoid confusion with another film. In Fellini’s case, it was a rival adaptation of Satyricon, a long fictional work from the Roman writer Petronius, who served in the court of Nero. Fellini’s name reduced any confusion—the rival film more or less disappeared anyway—but seldom has a distinction been so unnecessary, since from the first frame there’s no mistaking Fellini Satyricon for anyone else’s movie. Fellini piles excess on top of excess while re-creating ancient Rome, mostly on gigantic sets constructed at Cinecittà. Every scene offers confounding images of grotesquerie, eroticism, and often some uncomfortable mix of the two. Images of bared flesh mix with scenes of spilt blood, cruelty with intimacy. It’s carnality on a grander scale than Fellini had ever dared before, and decadent behavior of a sort only suggested by the wilder passages of La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, and Juliet Of The Spirits—a film only Fellini could have directed, one that his career had been building toward for some time.
And yet, for all the elements that define the term “Felliniesque,” it’s also something of a departure for the director, for reasons beyond its ancient setting. There’s a prevailing sadness to the film, which opens with the fair-haired protagonist Encolpio (British actor Martin Potter) lamenting that his friend and sometime lover Asclito (Hiram Keller, an American stage veteran of Hair) has taken his young, androgynous love Gitone (Max Born) and sold him to a vulgar actor. Encolpio fights with Asclito and retrieves Gitone, then leads him through the nighttime streets that double as an erotic carnival, with each door promising some kind of delight or danger. Then, after a night in each other’s arms, Gitone leaves Encolpio for Asclito again. In this world, pleasure is fleeting and beauty always slips away. Fellini had visited such themes time and again, but in Satyricon he uses them to construct a world that echoed those themes in every detail.
The audio commentary of this new Criterion edition adapts On The Set Of Fellini Satyricon: A Behind-The-Scenes-Diary by journalist Eileen Lanouette Hughes. Hughes describes Satyricon as a film with “no pace, no psychology, no stars, and no story,” which is accurate enough. Petronius’ work survives only in fragments, and Fellini in turn made a fragmentary film, one that seems to begin mid-story and cuts off mid-sentence. Yet it’s also, in Fellini’s description, the story of “two breakneck kids with completely unhinged lives and pan-erotic dreams,” which pretty much assures it’s never boring. As Encolpio mopes, he takes up with Eumolpo (Salvo Randone), an impoverished poet who explains that the gift of creating true art has been lost in pursuit of money. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t show up to the orgiastic feast that provides one of the film’s most memorable setpieces, one in which a roasted pig, when gutted, produces a flood of cooked chickens, sausages, and other delights.
The images look more sickening than appetizing, no matter how much enthusiasm those in attendance work up for them. So it goes throughout Fellini Satyricon. Encolpio sets off on a peripatetic journey that finds his fortunes rise and fall, but he keeps encountering the same outsized appetites wherever he goes. Chaos always seems on the verge of erupting wherever he travels, and occasionally does: In an idyllic moment later in the film, Encolpio and Asclito, with whom he’s then reconciled, enjoy a shared night of pleasure with a beautiful woman. But the peace that allows them their time together is made possible only because the inhabitants of the villa in which they’re staying have killed themselves, knowing that a regime change would mean their death anyway.
Fellini had one eye toward the past when he made Satyricon, but also one eye on the chaos of the ’60s, working at a moment when revolutions both cultural and political seemed like they could be on the verge of toppling the established order, in Italy and elsewhere. It’s, by design, an overwhelming film, and sometimes an exhausting one, but the melancholy and wariness keep it grounded. Its setting sometimes seems less ancient than post-apocalyptic, a vision of where we could be heading made from the ruins of where we’d already been.
Appropriately, Criterion has added an excess of new features to this new edition. In addition to Hughes-derived commentary track, there’s Ciao, Federico!, an hour-long documentary made at the time that contains some fascinating footage of Fellini at work. Also included: vintage interviews with Fellini, a short documentary about Petronius, conversations with photographer Mary Ellen Mark and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, and a collection of promotional materials for the film, which received a heavy marketing push throughout the world.