Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Fellini Satyricon (1969)

Imperial Rome is back in the news these days.  Director Ridley Scott’s recently released Gladiator has garnered glowing reviews from just about everywhere. I’m glad.  It sounds like Scott’s best work since the seminal futurist film noir of Bladerunner.  I’m thrilled that Roman history is making a comeback in the cinema.  It’s been a long dry spell since Spartacus.

And I’m enjoying the irony.  I’d actually selected the subject of this month’s column a couple of months ago—before the release of Gladiator.  It’s another film about ancient Rome.  The irony comes from the fact that Federico Fellini’s Fellini Satyricon (1969) bears about as close a relation to Gladiator as the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette does to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.  On the one hand, a relentless descent into amorality and vice; on the other, the heroic pursuit of justice against all odds.  Given the fact that I’d find it easier to reread Ivanhoe in its entirety three times than read almost any three pages of de Sade once, you might wonder about my choice of films.  If you decide to rent Satyricon without reading all of this review, I’m not responsible for what happens.

Do you enjoy listening to people talk about Family Values?  Are you worried that Western Civilization is looking a lot like Rome’s just before the barbarians hit?  Do you suspect there’s a homosexual agenda to subvert our society’s moral fibre?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, then Satyricon is your worst nightmare.  Rent Ivanhoe instead.  Or Spartacus.  Stop reading this column now.  Of course, you might be just a teensy little bit curious to know why I’ve chosen a movie whose best attempt at moralizing is “Better to hang a dead husband than lose a living lover.”

But first a little background on the story Fellini used as the basis for Satyricon.  The original book was written in the first century C.E. by Petronius Arbiter, a poet who was a bosom companion of the mad emperor Nero.  Like many of Nero’s bosom companions, Petronius eventually ended up dead.  For a long time, however, he was in a unique position to observe and record the worst excesses of a truly excessive regime.  Only a fragment of his book has survived.  It’s hard to know where Petronius himself stood in regards to the scenes he described.  The work was, after all, a satire.  No one really believes Jonathan Swift was serious about his solution to the Irish famine in A Modest Proposal (eat the kids), so one should hesitate to claim Petronius was as debauched as the characters in his book.  Then again, the Roman historian Tacitus says of Petronius that, “He passed his days in sleep, his night in the duties and pleasures of life.  Other were distinguished for their diligence, but he for his indolence….he reverted to vice, or the affection of it; and was adopted among Nero’s intimate friends, as the authority on taste.”  Petronius’s characters are all rogues, or worse.  Their sexuality is omnivorous, opportunistic, and indiscriminate. Their greed, insatiable.  At their best they’re vulgarians; at their worst kidnappers, murderers, and pedophiles.  Petronius passed no judgments, either because he thought their own actions damned them, or because he shared their vices.

Nor was Federico Fellini interested in making judgments when he translated Petronius’s work to the screen.  This is part of the film’s power—there are very few movies as unflinching in their portrayal of a society in meltdown.  (Some critics claim this was also Fellini’s parting shot at the Sixties.  Kibbles to that, I say.)  The characters in Satyricon cheerfully acknowledge that friendship only lasts as long as it’s useful, that cannibalism is simply good business, and that the goal of life is to suck up to the powerful until one makes one’s own fortune from sycophancy and can trade in lard or perfume or slaves. The poor are punch lines for dinner jokes.  The flea becomes a king becomes an ugly spot on the bottom of the sandal of the next despot-in-waiting.  Sheer flesh is overwhelming in its availability, its bulk, its sweaty, obese, painted, tattooed nakedness.

Some recommendation, eh?  There’s more.  It gets personal.  Satyricon was the first non-Hollywood epic I ever saw in a movie theatre.  I was still in junior high.  The only features I’d seen at the Castle Theatre in Castlegar were John Wayne pictures, the Three Stooges, and Disney.  One day I was walking by when I saw a poster announcing special Sunday afternoon screenings for a Selkirk College International Film Festival.  That weekend it was Satyricon.  Fortunately, neither of my parents ever had the time to watch movies.  They just assumed I was going to another Snow White and the Three Stooges matinee.

I went and was blown away.  I saw images on the screen that I’d never imagined movies could capture.  Every frame of Satyricon was a revelation.  Watching it again for only the second time in perhaps thirty years, I was astounded by how clearly I recalled individual scenes.  This had been my first exposure to an utterly alien world.  So alien was it that questions of morality or immorality didn’t even register.  It was as if someone had dropped me on Mars.  Or ancient Rome.  There’s no way the Rome of Nero was the one National Geographic and high school Social Studies texts limn for us.  Rather than a society founded on the order of Republican ideals, the Roman world of 58 C.E. must have been one controlled through terror and superstition and the random abuses of power.  You wouldn’t have needed a Baedeker to guide you through the monuments—like Dante you’d want a Virgil to move you safely through the levels of hell.  Fellini’s our cinematic Virgil.  Only his genius could have captured this other Rome.  For two hours and ten minutes it is as if we walk through the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the mosaics and frescoes come alive and the graffiti on the walls whisper or scream in our ears.

Some scenes that stayed with me for thirty years:  the actor Vernacchio in a play that’s half Greek tragedy and half South Park; the team of horses pulling a gigantic, broken stone head through the streets; the most revolting banquet in the history of cinema (and the most revolting funeral); dry, lifeless landscapes littered with eerie monuments to fading glories; the hermaphroditic oracle and the hulking Minotaur;  Nero’s slave ship; the Greek Homerists performing for their Roman masters; the witch whose loins provide fire for a village.  And everywhere the oppressive tomb-like weight of stone and marble, carved and painted, broken and maculate.  The archaeology of hell.  A good deal of credit must go to Danilo Donati’s set designs, Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography, and Nino Rota’s musical score.

After all the grotesquerie, the final image of Satyricon is a haunting one.  The protagonist, Encolpius (a “student” and “man of letters” who gives a very bad name to both), gazes out of the screen, freezes, and transforms into a fading fresco on a ruined wall on a windswept island.  From the nightmare, eloquent silence through a thousand years.


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

 “An artist is marvellous…because he thinks the way he wants, he’s anarchic and bisexual, careless and infantile, stupid and well above caring for anything…he’s an artist!  As such, he has to stay totally free, and his main struggle is to defend that freedom from everyone else, like competent administrators or nice mothers, who would like to bog it down in logical statements, economic outlines and political speeches.  The artist is the antibody of society, because he is wonderfully mad….”  —Lina Wertmüller, at a 1985 tribute to Fellini

When I first saw Fellini – Satyricon when I was sixteen or seventeen, it left me gobsmacked.  It also left me with a hunger to see much, much more of what the world’s cinema had to offer.  Having watched Satyricon two or three times since my teen years, it still seems as bat-shit crazy as it did in the early 70s.  No other film director has ever done a better job of erasing the line between dream (or nightmare) and reality.  This is the cinematic equivalent of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.  This is Rome as it never was, yet as alien as it might be were one to fall asleep and wake up in the time of Caligula or Nero.  Fellini himself calls his Satyricon a “free adaptation” of Gaius Petronius’s late 1st century AD narrative, but the film is actually quite faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of its remarkable source.  It’s also a lot more fun than trying to Otto Kiefer’s 1934 opus, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome (which I have in my library for reasons best life unexplained).

In hindsight, I could now trace in Satyricon many of the themes that would recur in Fellini’s work throughout his career—the occult, androgyny, grotesques, the sea, ancient history, monumental women, courage vs. cowardice, transgressive sex, the circus.  I could do that, but I’d rather just surrender to the madness.

Of all the director’s works, Satyricon is the one that best illustrates why the adjective “Felliniesque” has made its way into contemporary dictionaries.  Would films such as those of Lina Wertmüller, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and George Miller even exist without Satyricon?  Would Barbarella?

Fellini’s creations are intimately interwoven with his life, both the one he led and the ones he invented.  For that reason, I strongly recommend any of the biographies currently available.  Nothing, however, quite explains how this conjurer managed to get so much of the phantasmagoria in his head onto the screen with so little loss of wonder.  It’s no surprise that a Sight and Sound magazine poll of major international directors in 1992 chose Fellini as the world’s greatest director.

I don’t know of a better introduction to Fellini’s work than his own reflections as presented in Anna Keel and Christian Strich’s Fellini on Fellini.  Incorporating notes & writings from about 1960 to 1973, this is a very digestible 180 pages of insightful, wry, honest commentary.  Below are excerpts from the marvelous 40-page opening section ‘Rimini, my home town’:

[describing his visit to a radiologist]  “Sometimes the nuns give you an injection without waking you, like an assassin hired by Cesare Borgia; then you see them, back view, slipping away into the darkness….At five in the morning, while it’s still dark, Sister Burgunda turns up: a nun with a black veil like bats’ wings, a rubber tube held in her teeth, and a great basket of test-tubes.  ‘May I have a little blood, Signor Fellini?’ she asks, like a Danubian vampire.”

“One thing is certain, anyway.  I don’t like going back to [my hometown] Rimini.  I’ve got to admit it: it’s a kind of block.  My family still lives there, my mother, my sister: am I afraid of some of my feelings?  What I feel above all is that going back is a complacent, masochistic churning up of memories: a theatrical, literary business.  Of course this may have a certain fascination.  A sleepy, fudged fascination.  But I cannot see Rimini as an objective fact, that’s it.  It is a dimension of my memory, nothing more.  And in fact, when I am in Rimini I always find myself assailed by ghosts that have already been filed away, put in their place.

Perhaps, if I stayed there, these innocent ghosts would ask a silent, embarrassing question that could not be answered with somersaults and lies….Rimini: what is it?  It is a dimension of my memory (among other things an invented, adulterated, second-hand sort of memory) on which I have speculated so much that it has produced a kind of embarrassment in me.

And yet I must go on talking about it.”

“The first time I went to the [river] Marecchia I was a child.  We had played truant from school.  I had followed Carlini.  On the river bank there was a black police car full of policemen, who climbed down into the river-bed like toads.  Low clouds were hanging round the dead branches of the trees.  We got to a spinney of poplars, where there was a hanged man, already guarded by another two policemen.  I didn’t really know what it was all about.  I saw a fallen shoe, the instep of the shoeless foot, and a pair of dirty, patched trousers.”

“Women, in those days, to me meant chiefly aunts.  Admittedly I had heard of a ‘house’ with a particular kind of woman inside it.  This was Dora’s, in via Clodia, near the river.  But when people spoke about ‘women’, I had a picture in my mind only of aunts making mattresses, and the women at my grandmother’s at Gambettola, who sieved the corn.  Then I saw that aunts were different, because Dora used to hire a pair of carriages and every fortnight she took the new intake [prostitutes] of her house for a drive along the Corso so as to show them off.  Then I saw painted women wearing strange, mysterious veils, smoking gold-tipped cigarettes….”

When I think of Gambettola [a place inland in Romagna where Fellini’s family went in summer], and of a tiny nun, and of the cripples by firelight, and in plank beds, I always think of Hieronymus Bosch.

The gipsies went through Gambettola too, and the charcoal burners gong back to the mountains of Abruzzo.  In the evening, preceded by a terrible noise of animals, a smoky stall would be set up.  We would see sparks and flame.  It was the castrator of pigs.  He arrived in the main street, with a big black coat and an old-fashioned hat.  The pigs could tell he was coming, which accounted for their terrified squeals.  This man took all the girls in the town to bed with him; once he left a poor idiot girl pregnant and everyone said the baby was the devil’s child….One day I should like to make a film about the peasants of Romagna, a western without guns.”

“These were the years of the Illiad.  We read it and learned it by heart.  Each one of us identified himself with one of Homer’s characters.  I was Ulysses, keeping himself a little apart and looking on from a distance.  Titta, who was already stout, was Ajax, Mario Montanari was Aeneas, Luigino Dolci was Hector, ‘tamer of horses’, and Stacchiotti (who later committed suicide outside the church at Polenta) was ‘swift Achilles.’

In the afternoons we used to go to a small square to act out the Trojan war….Gradually, as we began to learn English, names from Edgar Wallace took over from Homer…..In the evening we used to go to the sea, vanishing into Rimini’s winter mists: lowered shutters, locked up boarding houses, a heavy silence and the sound of the sea.”

“The little church of Paolotti…had a small building shaped like a baptistery set apart from the main church, and every now and then old girls we nicknamed ‘Whiskers’ used to bring animals there to have them blessed by the monks.  We called them ‘Whiskers’ because of the dark or golden hair which visibly covered their upper lips and soft, bristly cheeks.  Outside the church, we would excitedly count how many ‘Whiskers’ had turned up from the number of bicycles heaped against the church wall….We would glance anxiously into the church which was filled with baaings, flutterings, brayings.  At last the women would come out with their chickens and goats and rabbits, and get on their bicycles.  That was the great moment!  The sharp saddles slipped rapidly under the shiny black stain skirts, outlining, swelling, expanding, with dazzling gleams and sparkles, the biggest and finest bums in the whole of Romagna.  There wasn’t time to enjoy them all.”

“The Grand Hotel…stood for riches, luxury, and oriental opulence.  When I read descriptions in novels that not quite raise my imagination to the heights I thought they should, I would pull out the Grand Hotel, like a scene shifter in the theatre using the same backcloth for every situation.  Crimes, rape, mad nights of love, blackmail, suicide, torture, the goddess Kali: everything had to be set in the Grand Hotel.”

“Life went by slowly at the Café Commercio too, a respectable café on the corner of Piazza Cavour, frequented by professional men and the bourgeoisie, with wooden floors, chocolate at five in the afternoon, billiards and chess.  The old people’s café, which scared us a bit….One night we were in the café arguing interminably as usual when we heard the sound of a car in the street, the door opened and three foreigners appeared.  It was rather as if, say, Hans Albers had turned up with Anita Ekberg and Marilyn Monroe.  We all gazed ecstatically at the sight.”

“Meeting Fafinon was a treat for us children.  We would surround him, pull his jacket and not let him go until he had done what we wanted: because old Fafinon, apart from knowing the language of birds, had another talent: he could produce an almost unlimited succession of farts.  All he had to do was poke certain parts of his stomach with his finer-tips, concentrate a little, and then he was ready.  You could ask him for sounds of every kind, imitations of musical instruments, or the sounds of all sorts of animals, tame or wild.  What fun it was!  How we loved it!  Fireworks, requested with shouts and leaps, were the grand finale, when the old man sometimes actually surprised himself.  We would fling ourselves on the ground with laughing, our eyes full of tears: what a marvellous man!”

“When Gradisca passed by, all kinds of enormous appetites were called into being: hunger, thirst, a longing for milk.  Her broad hips looked like railway engine wheels when they moved, they suggested such powerful movement.”

“I remember the Collina delle Grazie, a place of pilgrimage with a Way of the Cross, to which can be traced the terrifying, miraculous, apocalyptic effect of religion which I later evoked in some sequences of my films….Religion always had something terrifying about it.

At that time, religion was was joined by fascist faces.  I believe some of them had beaten up my father, and suspected certain louts who hung about the bar in their black shirts.  My father kept it a secret, though.

“I left Rimini in 1937.  I went back in 1945.  It looked like a sea of rubble. There was nothing left.  All that came out of the ruins was the dialect, the familiar cadences, a call of ‘Duilio!  Severino!’. Tjpse strange names….I was struck by the way people were so busy, nesting in their wooden huts yet already talking of boarding-houses that must be built, and hotels, hotels, hotels: the desire to rebuild houses….Then they took me to see a big plastic model in a shop window.  It seemed the Americans had promised to rebuilt everything at their own expense, as an act of reparation.  The model, in fact, showed Rimini in the future.  The people of Rimini looked at it.  Then they said: ‘It looks like an American city.  But who wants an American city?’….There are now 1500 hotels and boarding-houses, more than 200 bars, 50 dance halls, and a beach 15 kilometres long.  Half a million people come here every year, half of them foreigners and half Italian.  Aeroplanes darken the sky every day, from England, Germany, France, and Sweden….Now, there’s no more darkness.  Instead, there’s 15 kilometres of night-clubs and illuminated signs, and this endless procession of glittering cars, a kind of milky way made of headlamps.”

“But I was ashamed.  What was I doing – I said to myself – thinking of using this experience [of the new Rimini and its young people] in a film, like a vampire?  And why was I moved?  Perhaps because I sensed the presence of something I had never had in my own childhood and youth, when we were inhibited by the role of the Church and of fascism, and by our mothers and fathers, whom we venerated as if they were monuments.

I should like to be young today….Faced with one of today’s youngsters, the young man of 1938 is like an accountant faced with a butterfly.”

“I’m a liar, but an honest one. People reproach me for not always telling the same story in the same way. But this happens because I’ve invented the whole tale from the start and it seems boring to me and unkind to other people to repeat myself.”

Another fine primary source for a better understanding of Fellini’s artistry is the long interview with his biographer Tullio Kezich, published along with the screenplay for Juliet of the Spirits.  Here are some of Fellini’s comments from that interview, recorded in 1965:

“It seems to me that I have a poor memory; it’s hard for me to remember the things I invent.”

“I don’t measure adjectives when I find something I like, nor does my enthusiasm cool off with critical considerations.  For me criticism is a kind of masochism.  Why re-evaluate something that has moved you, water it down, control it, kill it?….For me, however, reflection always results in a paralyzing doubt and anxiety.  It might be because I don’t have the right tools, the cultural preparation; if I reason in critical terms, I enter into a swamp without an exit.”

“All in all, I’m afraid I still have little irritations that I shouldn’t have, treacherous fears.  I am bothered by a kind of nostalgia for a more complete morality—this discomforts me, makes me gloomy….As far as I’m concerned, I think this conditioning comes from education, from the arbitrary or fanatical application of moral standards imposed in the sacred environment of the family, at an age when it is neither permitted nor possible to choose.  We spend the second half of our lives wiping out the taboos, repairing the damage that education has caused in the first half.  I’m speaking of men of my generation—I think this holds true for many.”

La Strada is really the complete catalogue of my entire mythical world, a dangerous representation of my identity, undertaken without precautions….8 ½ is meant to be an attempt to reach an agreement with life.  I repeat that 8 ½ is an attempt and not a completed result.  I thin for now it might indicate a solution: to make friends with yourself completely, without hesitations, without false modesty, without fears and without hopes.”

“I’ve never been on vacation; I am constitutionally incapable of thinking of periods of calm and immobility….Dignity, the only true dignity, is just this, to rediscover oneself in hard work.”

“When I think about it, it seems to me that my imagination was always connected with craftsmanship.  I never cared about games except those dealing with puppet shows, colors, and construction: drawings that you cut out and paste together in perspective.  For the rest, nothing; I never kicked a ball.  I used to love to lock myself in the bathroom for hours on end, putting powder on my face and making up in the most incredible ways—egg whites on my head so my hair would stay down like a man’s, whiskers drawn on with burned cork, and so on.”

[In response to the interviewer’s observation that “I have often seen you with watercolors while you were working on your films, even your black-and-white ones.”] “Ever since I wrote sketches for variety shows, I’ve liked to do designs of the costumes.  Any ideas I have immediately become concrete in sketches or drawings.  Sometimes the very ideas are born when I’m drawing….Later on, this habit became a necessity; I don’t have to talk so much with my assistants; it’s easier to show them what I want through my scribblings.  Watercolors are also a way of concentrating on the problems of a film at a certain point in its preparation.”

“As you know, color is a part not only of the language but also of the idea and the feeling of the dream.  Colors in a dream are concepts, not approximations or memories….In a dream color is the idea, the concept, the feeling, just as it is in truly great painting….The dreamer can see a red meadow, a green horse, a yellow sky—and they’re not absurdities.  They are images tempered with the feeling that inspires them.”

“I don’t think that color will completely replace black and white, but I do think—with all its unforeseeable and uncontrollable incongruities—it is a most important factor.  I certainly prefer a black and white picture to a bad one in color.  All the more so because in some cases the so-called natural color impoverishes the imagination.  The more you mimic reality, the more you lose in the imitation.  Black and white, in this sense, offers wider margins for the imagination….No, color makes me angry every day; however, I already feel it’s an integral part of my possibilities of expression.  And then, I don’t want to defend black and white, which is only a habit, at all costs.”

“I suffered unbearably as a writer of screenplays.  I must have been a very bad assistant for the director.  I used to see the scene as a whole from the beginning; I scrupulously suggested all the details to the director.  Even then I thought that the dialogue was of little importance.  The tie that a character wore was more important than his conversation.”

“If all [with a film] has gone as it should, in spite of accidents and contradictions, if the oxygen begins to circulate, nothing more is needed: actors, places, dialogue.  Everything can be changed; and everything is, in fact, born, not respecting what you have prepared.  At this point, it is pointless to remain faithful to step you have made, to the choices made the day before yesterday, to something written five months before….For me, working on a film is a journey—I’ve said this so often that I hardly believe it any more.  You don’t take a journey in the abstract, but consider the exigencies that come up from hour to hour, your own mood, things that are impossible to predict.  All that’s required is an availability; you must allow yourself to be transported.  Or, more precisely, you must put yourself in the hands of the thing that is to be born.”

“I have never decided to use an actor because of his cleverness or because of his professional abilities, just as an actor’s inexperience has never prevented me from using him.  For my pictures I go in search of expressive faces that can say everything by themselves when they first appear on the screen.

I then underline with makeup and costume everything that might clarify the psychology of the character….I hate actors who reflect upon the character, who arrive with their ideas and memorize the script.  I always try to explain to them that they are wasting time because I always change all the dialogue—as well as everything else.  It seems to me an unwarranted intrusion…..One resource for me, in this area, is to observe the actor when he is not working.  At the table, when he begins to tell his secrets, or discusses politics, or when he talks to the cameramen.  It is there that I see him as I want to.”

“The wrong lighting on a scene is like a sentence with adjectives out of order.”

“I don’t think I have ever set out with the decision to choose a certain form of story.  It has always been the subject that has determined the proper solution for me.  I have always started off in love with a character, a landscape, a climate.  Perhaps more in a lyrical key than a narrative one.  The slightly rhapsodic tone you speak of probably derives from this—the story told in chapters, in little pictures, like the ancient frescos or cartoon strips.  The strange thing is that the tight, rigid construction of directors like Hitchcock has always fascinated me; I would very much like to be able to do a film one day that is as neat and precise as the design of a crystal.  I would have to impose a discipline upon myself, as an exercise.  Get away for once from the charms of a story told in sweeping cadences, enclose everything in a perfect geometry.”

“There are books that have fascinated me: Kafka, for example, and even before, Dostoyevsky.  And then Orlando Furioso, The Thousand and One Nights, Gulliver’s Travels, Don Quixote.  But in general I’m not a reader of authors, of poets.  I do strange, curious reading.  I like to read newspapers, the minutes of a trial.  I don’t have much interest in writers who offer me their own worlds; I prefer scientific manuals, history books, a few pages of philosophy.”

“The cinema, you see, is a curious phenomenon.  I just saw Goldfinger, a film that impressed me very much.  Beyond the enameled surface, the brilliant mixture of adventure, told very well, I feel that there is a world of beetles, terrible, anguished.  It seems to me one of those films that move the cinema a step forward, in spite of my reservations for the discomfort it causes me…It succeeds in capturing, within a conventional form, the message of the man of today—even if partial, distorted, mad.  And it is because of this that I think the film has had such a great success with the public.”

“I’ve never considered for a moment whether the public will understand or not.  The public is an abstract entity; one cannot foresee what it will do.  The captivating quality (some might call it pandering) that you find in my pictures, if it is there, is completely instinctive.”

“I am a director whose scripts are always—when I say always I mean always—rejected by producers.  Even those who receive me respectfully, with friendship, with affection, invariably say to me, ‘This film won’t make a lira; it’s not cinema, it’s half literature; it’s something that will interest four cats; why don’t you do a book?’….I tell you all this to show that the approval or disapproval of the surroundings, and eventually that of the public, doesn’t worry me very much.  I have sometimes said, and I think honestly, that when a film is finished, it would be the same for me even if it never came out.”

“If we talk about my own case, I have to say—with all gratitude to those who work with me—that I consider myself father and mother of my films.  I am helped by knowledgeable obstetricians and faithful friends, but the conception is mine alone….By nature I am led to appreciate a cinema that is staffed by capable people, who know their work and do it with humility; their commitment is more understandable than the impulsive inspirations of a lot of self-styled artists.”

[on Juliet of the Spirits]  The apparitions in the film have the same substance as the real characters, and vice versa.  Indeed, sometimes more than one character is presented suddenly with a completely unreal look, so much so that a stimulating ambiguity between fantasy and reality is created.

The ambiguity is intentional and is one of the keys to the film. The thing that really made it effective was the color—it was a very important element.  T is the color that determines the ambiguity between the trickiness and the fantastic lighting.”

“The intention of [Juliet of the Spirits]…is to restore to the woman her true independence, her indisputable and inalienable dignity.  A free man, I mean, cannot do without a free woman.  The wife must not be the Madonna, nor an instrument of pleasure, and least of all a servant.  If we consider the wife, even for a moment, under one of these three aspects, we will find we are not speaking of a marriage, but of something else—and always to our disadvantage….To demand from others a fidelity to ourselves is monstrous; it is an antireligious thought.  The only true fidelity is to oneself and to one’s own destiny, absolutely respecting each one’s individuality.  How could it be otherwise?  I know that the present moral current, our laws, all our daily living, are often founded on contrary concepts, but I have absolutely no doubt that this must change.”

Movie Information

Genre: Drama | Fantasy | History
Director: Federico Fellini
Actors: Martin Potter, Hiram Keller, Max Born, Salvo Randone, Mario Romagnoli, Magali Noël, Capucine
Year: 1969
Original Review: June 2000


Here’s to You, Mr. Nichols: The Making of The Graduate

An excellent long-form article by Sam Kashner, from the March 2008 Vanity Fair, on how Charles Webb’s first novel beat some very long odds to become the highest-grossing motion picture of 1968.  From the article, here is movie producer Lawrence Turman’s reflection on Hollywood:  “Everyone always says how tough show biz is,…and, of course, they’re right, but it’s kid stuff compared to the garment business, where someone will cut your heart out for a quarter-cent a yard.”  Mike Nichols’ film made Dustin Hoffman a star and “changed the face of Hollywood.”

The Bright (and Dark) Side of Roger Deakins

From The New York Times, Mekado Murphy’s short tribute to one of the world’s great cinematographers.  Deakins’ 14th Oscar nomination gave him his first-ever win, and he added a second Academy Award in 2020.  Imdb credits him with an overall awards record of 168 wins and 157 nominations as I write this in late 2020.

Movie Review Query Engine 

This site provides an alternative and/or supplement to the Internet Movie Data Base, although the latter still remains my preferred source, particularly for international films and reviews.  For Fellini’s Satyricon, for example, MRQE has 21 reviews, while Imdb offers up 68. 

From the website: – the Movie Review Query Engine, founded in 1993 by Stewart M. Clamen, is the Internet’s largest database of movie reviews for over 100,000 titles. The continually growing site provides a searchable index of all published and available reviews, news, interviews, and other materials associated with specific movies. The unique combination of reviews, news, and user discussion—all accessed through MRQE’s search portal—allows any user to read and add to the Internet’s most comprehensive collection of opinion about film. is commonly abbreviated as MRQE and pronounced “marquee.”

Films Worth Talking About:

The Wild Bunch, Une femme douce (A Gentle Creature), Armée des ombres (The Army in the Shadows), The Arrangement, Once Upon a Time in the West, Oh! What a Lovely War, Midnight Cowboy, My Night at Maud’s, Easy Rider, Charles Dead or Alive, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Women in Love, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, [Hello, Dolly!], [Goodbye, Columbus], More, The Mississippi Mermaid, Adalen 31, The Bear and the Doll, [They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?], Dillinger is Dead, Medium Cool

The Bigger Picture

FilmsRoma (1972), Juliet of the Spirits (1965), “Toby Dammit” (included in the film anthology Spirits of the Dead, 1968), Un Chien Andalou (1929), Orpheus (1950), The Holy Mountain (1973)

Music:  The Essential Nino Rota Film Music Collection; Nino Rota Greatest Hits

Books:  Petronius, Satyricon (available for free online through Project Gutenberg & Amazon Kindle); Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass; Tullio Kezich, Federico Fellini: His Life and Work; John Baxter, Fellini: The Biography; Anna Keel & Christian Strich, Fellini on Fellini; Richard Dyer, Nino Rota: Music, Film and Feeling

The Word on the Street

[NOTE:  The second excerpt below, from damien-16, is astonishingly close to own experience of the film.  Thanks, Damien.  I could not have said it better.]

The set pieces are out of this world. It’s like being caught in a two hour dream. Many times I had no idea what was going on, but that didn’t bother me. Satyricon is a visual decadent head trip of color. Fellini considered this film a sci-fi of the past.  [NateManD]

This is by far not the best film I’ve ever seen, but it is probably the most important film I’ve ever seen. I saw it for the first time when it came out in 69, when I was 16. Before then, I was only marginally interested in films. Something to while away the time. And then I saw Satyricon. And life has never been the same ever since. All of a sudden I realised that film was more than simply recording images, all of a sudden it dawned on me that cinema could be art. Now, maybe Satyricon isn’t great art, but to me at that time it was overwhelming. I’m sure other films have had this same catalytic effect on other people. Satyricon got me hooked on film, and I never looked back. I saw the film again about 10 years ago. I was amazed how it was still capable of exiting me. In spite of its wooden acting, its cardboard backgrounds, the unsynchronized lip movements this is amazing movie magic.   [damien-16]

Reportedly a free adaptation of the now fragmentary writings of Petronius, the film also makes fleeting references to various scattered works and myths of antiquity. Even the language is a blend of various dialects and accents, effectively brewed together into a type of “primordial soup.”   [andros12]

It seems like everyone on this message board missed a very important point about Satyricon: It is based on a Book! So much of the “weirdness” is not Fellini’s doing, but the author’s! The book was written by Petronius, one of the Emperor Nero’s courtiers in the 1st Century. The book is widely recognized by historians as a peek into the lives of lower class Romans, and the general social mores of the time. In addition, parts of the book were lost during the Middle Ages, so the sketchy, non linear storyline comes from the book, not Fellini! Besides being visually gorgeous, the film does a very good job of portraying how very different ancient Graeco-Roman society was from our own, and how sex in particular was not seen as shameful or in any way limited to a narrow idea of what’s “normal” as it is in America today. Unlike recent Roman Period movies or shows – such as HBO’s “Rome” – which are constantly trying to make the ancient world seem familiar and “just like us.” Fellini goes the other direction, and gives the other side of the coin – YES, the Romans were “like us” in many ways, but in other ways, they were also quite Alien, and UN-like modern Americans – VERY unlike.   [vnocito]

Something a wee bit different…As Vincent Canby said in his review, from 1970 in the New York Times, ‘Fellini Satyricon is its own justification’. This movie exists purely to engage on an aesthetic level. The surrealism, the carnival-of-life atmosphere, the monumental pageantry, the visual juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness, and the black humour are all the film possesses and are all it requires. I believe that Fellini’s intention with this film was simply to entertain. And he was a master entertainer, no doubt.   [burn on]

Having read the original work, I can say that this is a very interesting interpretation. While not strictly faithful to the book and while sort of splicing certain events together and introducing some new scenes, this movie is actually pretty close in spirit to the book and as such, as I said, unique and really able to constitute its own genre. Comedy? Tragedy? Farce? Epic? Acid trip? Who knows!   [Wiebke]

The fact that a major artist could direct something so homoerotic and so in-your-face makes me respect Fellini all the more. It’s hard to tell what, exactly, the film is or is meant to be: it’s a satire and an honest costume drama, a sword-and-sandal epic, a fantasy, an attack on the senses and an art mockery, and a love story. It’s also very sexy. Some of the scenes between Encolpio and Ascilto, both astonishingly beautiful men, are so erotic you can’t believe this movie was accepted at the time. Obviously the movie is at first a gross-out masterpiece, a flaunting of Fellini grotesqueries, where there is boy-loving and boy-selling, decapitations, and farting.   [desperateliving]

This was the first Fellini film that I saw back in 1974 or so. It was a midnight screening in Westwood in Cinemascope on a giant screen. I had seldom been so affected by a film. It was so overwhelming, I went back the very next midnight for another look. The sheer amount of detail and striking bizarre symbolic compositions continued to overwhelm me. It became my favorite film for a number of years and I must have seen it with various friends about 30 times in theaters. How can I summarize such a work of art? It’s a subconscious spectacle, a view of humanity through a fun house mirror in an alternate universe. Though later I became a fan of Fellini’s previous and subsequent films, Satyricon remained my favorite and I regard it as THE high-point in Fellini’s career. Never has his fertile imagination delved as deeply as here. Unlike so much of Fellini’s output, this is not a personal autobiographical film but instead an archetypal film. Fellini even had a Jungian analyst on the set while shooting….

The music for Satyricon is another fascinating element. Though Nino Rota composed a substantial amount of the score (particularly the oddly phrased melody heard at the end and the new emperors parade), a great deal of the music is either world folk music (such as the Balinese Monkey Chant) or avant garde electronic compositions (Ilhan Mimaroglu, Andrew Rudin, and Todd Dockstader among others). This gives the film a dual feeling of being very primal and yet otherworldly.   [mobia-1]

Fellini’s omissions and additions neither contradict nor violate, but further define the surviving fragments of the original Satyricon. He had the task of making a continuous work of art of a scarred, fragmented torso with its head and limbs chopped off. Some of Fellini’s sources of what is not in Petronius are from Suetonius, Ovid, Tacitus, Juvenal and Propertius. One might liken his reconstructing to that of a paleontologist giving form to a few dozen fossil bones. He stated that his intention was not to show vice or corruption, but to give an unbiased look at a morally decaying world. The film prefigures both the world of Rome prior to Christianity and the post-Christian world presently lurching toward birth. The moral violence that punctuates the film prefigures the irrational savagery of our own age….. Like the fragmented remains of Petronoius Arbiter’s Satyricon, Fellini’s film ends as an unfinished sentence. The characters are as if in a transfer pattern, frozen, plastered into separate decaying walls of broken masonry; it is our window to the world of Rome, but a world that mirrors a portent for the present and the future of our own world.   [suntrail]

The movie starts out with a stupid blonde guy ranting in a desolate Roman bathhouse about his teen lover being sold off to some theater group. Then the stupid fellow fights with his black-haired thieving friend about the selling off of the teen lover. So, the stupid fellow walks off to the theater and convinces the “extremely low threshold for entertainment” crowd to return the teen bimbo-boy back to the main blonde character. So, the bimbo and the moron return to their home in a 5-story lunatic asylum hovel and have sex. After that, the thieving black-haired friend comes back and they fight over their meager possessions and divide them up. Bimbo-boy decides to take off with the black-haired thief, blond-haired main character considers killing himself and an earthquake destroys the lunatic house. Good riddance. This is almost the highpoint of 23 minutes of pure boring worthlessness.   [matrix29]

This isn’t stuffy art! This is a loud, garish, bawdy, orgiastic, and even child-like film to be enjoyed/repulsed by/offended by/thought of. You can read deeper if you want to, there is a story, there are political references (flower children, 60’s sexual revolution, class values) and now-textbook filmmaking techniques galore. Just don’t try to fight it–you won’t win! It’s like “Alice In Wonderland” for adults, sit back and let the surreality wash over you and be glad that this film exists!
     One note: I always advise people to forget the subtitles–they don’t give a first time viewer much help anyway. This is a visual film; turn on the dubbed track. Not only was it excellently produced (voice contributers were Michael Horden, he played the excellent “Gandalf” in the BBC radio version of “Lord Of The Rings” and Peter Woodthorpe, who played “Gollum” in the BBC AND Bakshi animated versions), but Fellini’s script notes plainly instruct that the film should look like a badly dubbed foreign movie in any language it’s in, and certainly the international cast were all speaking in their native languages throughout–you can read their lips.   [TonyDood]

Rome before Christ.  After mind-altering drugs.   [dr.gonzo-4]

In the first few centuries of our age, the roman world was in decay. In one hand there was wealth and abundance, in the other people were losing their religion, their values and purpose of living. Collosseum games were a great part of people’s interest — some data indicates that, at some point, there were 170 days of games a year; that’s 170 without work for citizens. Those who had power, had more interest in their orgies of eating and vomiting and their sexual perversities than in governing the people. Such is the image presented to us by roman poets of this period such as Juvenal.   [migle1]