PLEASE NOTE: This Satyricon background material was originally compiled for a Fiction & Film Group event in 2002 — please do not distribute it.
Satyricon – Petronius & Fellini
There is also a comparative version, with links between the Latin and the Allinson translation.
(Focusing on the author and his world)
by Prof. H.W. Haskell, of Southwestern University
Gaius Petronius (c. 27–66 A.D.), the author of the Satyricon, was the emperor Nero's advisor in matters of luxury and extravagance (his unofficial title was arbiter elegantiae [Arbiter of Elegance]). As befitted his office, he slept days and partied nights. He was a lover of style, manners, and literature, and his personality was characterized by freedom, a lack of self-consciousness, a loose tongue, and an attitude. A rival's jealousy turned Nero agains Petronius, and he was forced to commit suicide. However, before his death, he lampooned Nero in his will and sent the emperor a copy.
The emperor Nero was interested in literature and art, especially theater. He fancied himself as a sort of reincarnation of Apollo, and liked to display his talents and be praised. His artistic obsessions and extravagant buildings brought him ridicule. Nero's court was distinguished by its immorality and extravagance. Everyone's primary goal was making lots of money. Because there was so much leisure for the very rich, strong ambition and responsibility were required for almost anything at all to be accomplished. Life at court was uncertain because Nero was capricious. Literature was used for flattery, personal advancement, advocacy of your own position, and destruction of your opponent's position. The literary arms of the establishment included censorship, prosecution, libel suits, and that old standby, physical attacks.
Unconventional and unique, the Satyricon stands almost alone in literature. It touches on everything, especially small-town life and ordinary people. Its characters are mostly of Greek or Near Eastern origin and are probably based on real people; Trimalchio's house has a lot in common with Nero's court. Some of the characters' names have given rise to much interesting etymological speculation: the name of Encolpius, our narrator, means "in the fold," or more explicitly here, "in the crotch"; his friend is named Ascyltos, or "unwearied," and they fight over the affections of the boy Giton ("neighbor").
The Satyricon was probably written around 61 A.D. and first printed in 1664. It is a very long work, of which we only have fragments. Petronius probably read it in installments to his friends, and possibly to the court of Nero. [The "Trimalchio's Feast" section] is one of the longer fragments; its survival in its entirety suggests that people have been enjoying it as a separable story for a long time. A banquet is the traditional setting for the kind of light conversation that is featured in the Cena.
The Satyricon itself, as its name implies, is a satire. The origin of the word "satire" has been a subject for academic debate: some say it comes from satura, or medley, while others theorize that it refers to something which is goat-like, like a satyr (smelly, rude, unkempt, and hairy?). Petronius satirizes anything and everything, using taste as the only standard. This is NOT a moralistic story intended to produce reform, as we often imagine a satire to be. We never know Petronius's own opinion (although he warns prudes not to criticize his story), because he doesn't give it to us directly. The only opinions we have are those of the characters in the story. Encolpius, as we shall see, criticizes Trimalchio, but Encolpius is no great prize either, so what is his criticism worth?
More specifically, the Satyricon is a Menippean satire. This genre, originally a humorous discussion of philosophy in alternating prose and verse, is characterized by the use of many different styles. In the Satyricon, accordingly, we find proverbs, verse, interpolated stories, and varied levels of language (from the very vulgar to the very elegant).
Some of the stories told by Trimalchio's guests are part of the genre called Milesian tales. These are funny, often questionable, stories characterized by a great deal of variety and incongruity in their plots, and by lots of digressions....
The Satyricon is set in Campania, which is the region around Naples and Mt. Vesuvius, in the middle of Italy. The advantage of this setting for us, paradoxically, is the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Two nearby towns, Pompeii and Herculaneum, were completely destroyed but in such a way that an unusual number of antiquities of this date were preserved by being covered with ash or mud. We have many resources at our disposal to help us learn about life in Mediterranean countries at this time, which enables us to visualize what life was like for Petronius and the characters of the Satyricon.
Pompeii was a walled town, densely built up with little wasted space. In the center of town was the Forum, an open space off-limits to wheeled vehicles. The Forum had three functions: religious, civic/governmental, and commercial. There were buildings around the perimeter of the Forum for each function. Gladiator contests were held in the open center. [Early in the Satyricon] Encolpius and his friends will be discussing an upcoming contest in which the combatants will fight to the death. This was a rare and special treat; animals and people were too expensive to sacrifice in that way very often.
Houses and baths made up the rest of Pompeii. As we shall see, the baths were a vitally important aspect of Roman social life. The city streets did double duty as sewers also; there were stepping stones to make crossing easier. Often the owner of a house would rent out the first floor to a small shopkeeper.
The houses had no exterior windows (why would they want to look out into the sewer?); all the windows looked inward to the atrium. On the walls were paintings which allowed you to imagine you were looking out into an unreal world. Fake columns, perspectives, historical or religious scenes, sacred landscapes, and abstract designs all ornamented the walls of a Roman house. What you didn't paint on the walls was your life story, as we shall see that Trimalchio has done. Holes in the roof let in light and air, but, as you can imagine, the light inside was very dim. At the entrance to the house was the lararium, a shrine to your ancestors and protecting genii.
Trimalchio probably has a house outside the city walls, unrestricted in size and with actual windows, not unlike that of the emperor Tiberius. This emperor, who was old and paranoid, lived in a country villa on the island of Capri and used to dump people he considered suspicious over the cliffs.
(Focusing on literary aspects)
Excerpted from Encyclopaedia Britannica:
The Satyricon, or Satyricon liber ("Book of Satyrlike Adventures"), is a comic, picaresque novel that is related to several ancient literary genres. In style it ranges between the highly realistic and the self-consciously literary, and its form is episodic. It relates the wanderings and escapades of a disreputable trio of adventurers, the narrator Encolpius ("Embracer" [or "in the crotch"]), his friend Ascyltos (["unwearied" or "lasts all night"]), and the boy Giton ("Neighbour").
The surviving portions of the Satyricon (parts of Books XV and XVI) probably represent about one-tenth of the complete work, which was evidently very long. The loose narrative framework encloses a number of independent tales, a classic instance being the famous "Widow of Ephesus" (Satyricon, ch. 111-112). Other features, however, recall the "Menippean" satire; these features include the mixture of prose and verse in which the work is composed; and the digressions in which the author airs his own views on various topics having no connection with the plot.
The longest and the best episode in the surviving portions of the Satyricon is the Cena Trimalchionis, or "Banquet of Trimalchio" (ch. 26-78). This is a description of a dinner party given by Trimalchio, an immensely rich and vulgar freedman (former slave), to a group of friends and hangers-on. This episode's length appears disproportionate even to the presumed original size of the Satyricon, and it has little or no apparent connection with the plot. The scene is a Greco-Roman town in Campania, and the guests, mostly freedmen like their host, are drawn from what corresponded to the petit bourgeois class. Trimalchio is the quintessence of the parvenu, a figure familiar enough in ancient satirical literature, but especially so in the 1st century AD, when freedmen as a class were at their most influential.
Two features distinguish Petronius' "Banquet" from other ancient examples: its extraordinary realism and the figure of Trimalchio. It is obvious that the table talk of the guests in the "Banquet" is based on the author's personal observation of provincial societies. The speakers are beautifully and exactly characterized and their dialogue, quite apart from the invaluable evidence for colloquial Latin afforded by the vulgarisms and solecisms in which it abounds, is a humorous masterpiece. Trimalchio himself, with his vast wealth, his tasteless ostentation, his affectation of culture, his superstition, and his maudlin lapses into his natural vulgarity, is more than a typical satirist's figure. As depicted by Petronius he is one of the great comic figures of literature and is fit company for Shakespeare's Falstaff. The development of character for its own sake was hardly known in ancient literature: the emphasis was always on the typical, and the classical rules laid down that character was secondary to more important considerations such as plot. Petronius, in his treatment of Trimalchio, transcended this almost universal limitation in a way that irresistibly recalls Dickens, and much else in the "Banquet" is Dickensian - its exuberance, its boisterous humour (rare in ancient literature, where wit predominates), and its loving profusion of detail.
The rest of the Satyricon is hardly to be compared to the "Banquet." Insofar as any moral attitude at all is perceptible in the work as a whole, it is a trivial and debased brand of hedonism. The aim of the Satyricon was evidently above all to entertain by portraying certain aspects of contemporary society, and when considered as such, the book is of immense value: superficial details of the speech, behaviour, appearance, and surroundings of the characters are exactly observed and vividly communicated. The wealth of specific allusions to persons and events of Nero's time shows that the work was aimed at a contemporary audience, and certain features suggest that the audience in fact consisted of Nero and his courtiers. The realistic descriptions of low life recall the emperor's relish for slumming expeditions; and the combination of literary sophistication with polished obscenity is consistent with the wish to titillate the jaded palates of a debauched court.
If Petronius' book has a message, it is aesthetic rather than moral. The emphasis throughout the account of Trimalchio's dinner party is on the contrast between taste and tastelessness. Stylistically, too, the Satyricon is what Tacitus' account of the author would lead one to expect. The language of the narrative and the educated speakers is pure, easy, and elegant, and the wit of the best comic passages is brilliant; but the general impression, even when allowance is made for the fragmentary state of the text, is that of a book written quickly and somewhat carelessly by a writer who would not take the necessary trouble to discipline his astonishing powers of invention. In his book, as in his life, Petronius achieved fame by indolence.
(Compare this to Fellini's adaptation - item (5) below)
SUMMARY IN BRIEF: SATYRICON tells the story of the young freeman and scholar Encolpius's odyssey through the Mediterranean world of the first century A.D. He, his lover Ascyltos, and their shrewd "boy toy" Giton undergo a series of amazing adventures, both natural and supernatural, in these few surviving fragments of the vast original novel.
NOTE: "Chapters" refers to what we would call "paragraphs;" some are only a couple of sentences long. The entire surviving SATYRICON is relatively brief, and can comfortably be read in one or two sittings.
TIP: You can easily download the entire file to your computer by using your browser's File menu (top left of the screen), and choose Save As. You can also open the file in your favorite word processor and adjust the font and size so that it's easier to read.
PART 1. ADVENTURES OF ENCOLPIUS AND HIS COMPANIONS (Chapters 126)
PART 2. TRIMALCHIO'S FEAST (Chapters 2778)
PART 3. FURTHER ADVENTURES OF ENCOLPIUS AND HIS COMPANIONS (Chapters 7998)
PART 4. ENCOLPIUS, GITON AND EUMOLPUS ESCAPE BY SEA (Chapters 99124)
PART 5. AFFAIRS AT CROTONA (Chapters 125141)
ENCOLPIUS, the narrator, a young freeman and scholar
ASCYLTOS, his sometime lover and rival for...
GITON, their shrewd attendant
EUMOLPUS, a lousy poet
TRIMALCHIO, a wealthy and debauched freeman
PLEASE NOTE that the following summary is from an anonymous source: I don't use adjectives like "comely"!
PART 1. ADVENTURES OF ENCOLPIUS AND HIS COMPANIONS (Chapters 126)
Encolpius railed at the growth of artificiality in modern rhetoric and the ill-prepared students who came to the school. Agamemnon, the professor, agreed with him, but placed the blame entirely on parents who refused to make their children study. Weary of the dispute and far gone in drink, Encolpius fled the school. An old woman, who made indecent proposals to him, showed him the way back to his inn.
Giton, his sixteen-year-old slave, had prepared supper, but the comely boy was crying: Ascyltos had made violent love to him. Encolpius was soothing the boy with caresses and tender words when Ascyltos broke in on them. A quarrel ensued between the two friends as to who should enjoy Giton's favors. The dispute was settled only when all three agreed to pay a visit to Lycurgus, a rich friend of Ascyltos.
Lycurgus received them most cordially and introduced them to Lichas, his friend. Lichas, completely taken with Encolpius, insisted that Encolpius and Giton come home with him. On the way, Tryphaena, a beautiful woman attached to Lichas' entourage, made surreptitious love to Encolpius, who resolved to have little to do with Lichas. But, when the party arrived at Lichas' villa, Tryphaena deserted Encolpius for the bewitching Giton. Smarting under her desertion, Encolpius made love to Doris, Lichas' attractive wife. All went fairly well until Giton tired of Tryphaena. Then she accused both Giton and Encolpius of making improper advances, and the two returned in haste to Lycurgus' house.
Lycurgus at first supported the two adventurers, but as the jealous Lichas increased his complaints, Lycurgus turned against the pair. At the suggestion of Ascyltos, the three set out again to seek what love affairs and plunder they could find. They were well supplied with gold, for Encolpius had thoughtfully plundered one of Lichas' ships before leaving.
At a nearby small town a fair was in progress. There they came upon a groom who was saddling a rich man's horse. When the groom left for a moment, Encolpius stole the rich man's riding cloak. Soon afterward Ascyltos found a bag of coins on the ground. The two friends hid the gold by sewing it under the lining of Encolpius' threadbare tunic. Just as they finished, the rich man's retainers gave chase to recover the riding cloak. Dashing through a wood, Encolpius was separated from his friend and lost the tunic.
They met again at a market. There they saw the tunic up for sale with the gold pieces still hidden in the lining. When they offered to trade the riding cloak for the tunic, the bystanders became suspicious and tried to make the two friends appear before a judge. Dropping the riding cloak and seizing the tunic, they fled.
After telling Giton to follow later on, they set out for the next town. Seeing the dim forms of two comely women hurrying through the dusk, they followed them unobserved into an underground temple. There the two men saw a company of women in Bacchanalian garb, each with a phallic emblem in her hand, preparing to worship Priapus. They were discovered by the horrified women and chased back to their inn.
As they were dining with Giton in their rooms, the maid of one of the women whom they had followed to the sacred rites came in and begged them to listen to her mistress, who was a respectable matron. Even though Encolpius swore never to tell of the forbidden rites, the matron had the three seized and taken to her villa. The men were bound and given powerful love potions, and then all the women of the household made love to them. After escaping from the love-maddened ladies, Encolpius had to rest for three days; Giton seemed little affected.
PART 2. TRIMALCHIO'S FEAST (Chapters 2778)
Next the three attended a huge banquet given by Trimalchio, a rich and vulgar freedman. Every dish served was disguised as something else. After hours of eating and drinking, they were glad even for the respite of story telling. Trimalchio started off with a boring elucidation of the signs of the zodiac, and many of the guests told pointless anecdotes. From Niceros, however, they heard an absorbing tale.
Niceros was staying, while he was still a slave, at an inn where he was in love with the landlord's complaisant wife, Melissa. One day he induced a soldier to go for a walk with him. When they came to a graveyard, the soldier took off his clothes and threw them beside the path. Making a magic circle around the clothes, he straightway turned into a wolf and went howling away. When Niceros saw to his horror that the clothes had turned to stone, he hurried home to Melissa. She told him that a wolf had just come into the yard and killed some sheep. A servant drove a spear through the animal's neck but the wolf got away.
Niceros ran back to the cemetery where he found that the stone clothes had dissolved in blood. In the morning he went to the soldier's room. There a physician was stanching the blood from a wound in the soldier's neck.
Encolpius, Ascyltos, and Giton were finally so stuffed and bored they could stand no more. To their relief, the company moved outdoors to exercise. From the conversation they learned that another banquet was to follow, this one given by Trimalchio's wife. They left hurriedly.
PART 3. FURTHER ADVENTURES OF ENCOLPIUS AND HIS COMPANIONS (Chapters 7998)
Following another quarrel over Giton, Encolpius and Ascyltos parted company. To the distress of Encolpius, Giton elected to go with Ascyltos.
After sorrowing uselessly for days, Encolpius fell in with an old man, the poet Eumolpus. When the two went to the baths to cement their friendship, Encolpius was overjoyed to find Giton acting as attendant for Ascyltos, who was in another room. Gitonn confessed that he really liked Encolpius better, and the latter, in a happy mood, took the boy back to his apartment.
Matters would have been smoother for Encolpius if he had not tried to make love to Circe. Because of his past tribulations and hardships, he had no strength for her ardors. Suspecting him of trifling with her, she raised such an outcry that Encolpius judged it wise to leave town.
PART 4. ENCOLPIUS, GITON AND EUMOLPUS ESCAPE BY SEA (Chapters 99124)
On Eumolpus' advice, the comrades embarked secretly at night on a ship lying in the harbor. In the morning Encolpius discovered to his chagrin that they were aboard Lichas' ship. The owner and Tryphaena were aboard. Eumolpus tried to disguise Encolpius and Giton with burnt cork. Their subterfuge was discovered, however, and for a while it looked as though they would be flogged. But Lichas remembered his old attraction to Encolpius and Tryphaena was smitten anew with Gitonn; so they were spared.
PART 5. AFFAIRS AT CROTONA (Chapters 125141)
When Lichas' ship was wrecked in a storm, the three comrades got ashore at Crotona. Eumolpus posed as a rich landowner and Encolpius and Giton passed as his slaves. By cleverly deluding the inhabitants, they lived luxuriously as guests of the town. After a year suspicion grew as to Eumolpus' supposed wealth. Seeing an end to their pleasant stay, Encolpius and Giton escaped just in time. The aroused townspeople used Eumolpus as a scapegoat. They decked him out with boughs and sacred vestments, led him through the city, and finally hurled him down a cliff. [This is where the surviving fragments end, but the original novel continued with many more adventures for the intrepid Encolpius.]
(1920 - 1993)
from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film [with additional information on Fellini's private life]
Occupation: Director, screenwriter, actor
Born: January 20, 1920, Rimini, Italy
Died: October 31, 1993, Rome, Italy
Italian humanist director Federico Fellini was among the most intensely autobiographical film directors the cinema has known. "If I were to make a film about the life of a soul," said Fellini, "it would end up being about me." Born in Rimini, a resort city on the Adriatic, Fellini was fascinated by the circuses and vaudeville performers that his town attracted. His education in Catholic schools also profoundly affected his later work, which, while critical of the Church, is infused with a strong spiritual dimension. After jobs as a crime reporter and artist specializing in caricature, Fellini began his film career as a gag writer for actor Aldo Fabrizi.
In 1943, Fellini met and married actress Giulietta Masina, who appeared in several of his films and whom Fellini called the greatest influence on his work. In 1945, he got his first important break in film, when he was invited to collaborate on the script of OPEN CITY, Roberto Rossellini's seminal work of the neorealist movement. In 1948, Rossellini directed WAYS OF LOVE/L'AMORE, one part of which was based on Fellini's original story "Il Miracolo/The Miracle" about a peasant woman (Anna Magnani) who thinks that the tramp (played by Fellini) who has impregnated her is St. Joseph and that she is about to give birth to Christ.
[ADDITIONAL NOTE ON FELLINI'S PRIVATE LIFE: Fellini's biographer John Baxter has written: "Though Fellini and Masina shared a house, they occupied separate floors and had very different friends. Fellini flirted overtly with women but made his closest relationships with a succession of young gay assistants, among them Pier Paolo Pasolini...." [Pasolini (1922-75) became an acclaimed poet, novelist, theorist, and screenwriter/director whose films include Accatone, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Medea, Arabian Nights (1974), and Salo.] The above quotation is taken from John Baxter's essay on Fellini's JULIET OF THE SPIRITS in the Criterion Collection DVD of that film; he has written biographies of such filmmakers as Fellini, Kubrick, Bunuel, and Spielberg. PLEASE NOTE that "rumors" of Fellini's same-sex orientation are not confined to Mr. Baxter; and although an artist's sexual orientation is never their sole defining characteristic, it can certainly shed considerable light on their creations, including, perhaps, FELLINI SATYRICON.]
VARIETY LIGHTS (1950), detailing the intrigues of a group of travelling entertainers, was Fellini's directorial debut, in collaboration with the established Alberto Lattuada. THE WHITE SHEIK (1951) and I VITELLONI (1953) followed; the former was a comedy about a woman's affair with a comic strip hero, the latter a comedy-drama about the aimless lives of a group of young men. Though Fellini's earliest films were clearly in the neorealist tradition, from the start his interest in and sympathy for characters' eccentricities and his penchant for absurdist, sometimes clownish humor, makes them distinguished. Fellini's international breakthrough came with LA STRADA (1954). One of the most memorable and moving films of world cinema, it is the story of an innocent, simple young woman (Masina) who is sold by her family to a brutish strongman in a traveling circus. Because Fellini infused his film with surreal scenes, he was accused of violating the precepts of neorealism. Ultimately, LA STRADA, Fellini's first unquestioned masterpiece, is a poetic and expressive parable of two unlikely souls journeying toward salvation. The film's impact is bolstered immeasurably by Nino Rota's unforgettable music, marking the beginning of a collaboration between the two men that would end only with Rota's death in 1979. A luminous performance by Masina, and the moving Jungian imagery of earth, air, fire and water, are also memorable elements of LA STRADA.
After THE SWINDLE (1955)/IL BIDONE and NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957), the latter providing Masina with a hallmark role as a hapless prostitute, Fellini directed his two most influential masterworks: LA DOLCE VITA (1960) and 8-1/2 (1963). LA DOLCE VITA was a three-hour, panoramic view of contemporary Italian society as seen from the perspective of a journalist, played by Fellini's alter ego, actor Marcello Mastroianni. A savage if subtle satire that exposes the worthless hedonism of Italian society, LA DOLCE VITA provides a wealth of unforgettable images, from its opening - a parody of the Ascension as a helicopter transports a suspended statue of Christ over rooftops with sunbathing women in bikinis - to its signature scene of bosomy Anita Ekberg bathing in the Trevi Fountain. The film was a scandalous success, a worldwide box-office hit that was condemned by both the Catholic Church for its casual depiction of suicide and sexual themes and by the Italian government for its scathing criticism of Italy.
Celebrated as a brilliant social critic, Fellini now found himself under careful scrutiny by the international community, which anxiously awaited his next film. 8-1/2 (1963) represented a brilliant gamble: as a filmmaker who did not know what film to make next, Fellini decided to make a film about an internationally acclaimed director who does not know what film to make next, thus confronting his personal confusions head-on; Mastroianni played the director's alter ego. Having directed six features, co-directed another (counting as one half) and helmed episodes of two anthology films (each one also counting for a half), one of which was BOCCACCIO '70 (1962), Fellini realized he had made 7-1/2 films and hence chose 8-1/2 for his most reflexive film. For the first time, surreal dream imagery clearly dominated, with no clear demarcation between fantasy and reality in this groundbreaking and exceptionally influential film.
Fellini's next film, JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965), was his first in color. Again starring Masina, whose career was at a low ebb and with whom Fellini had been having personal problems, JULIET applied the methods of his previous two films to examine the psyche of a troubled upperclass housewife. For the first time, the voices of those critics who attacked Fellini for self-indulgence were louder than those who praised him for his perceptive vision. A feminist film ahead of its time, which complicates dismissals of Fellini as a "dirty old man," JULIET OF THE SPIRITS seems today even stronger than when it was released; one sequence, Juliet's memory of a religious pageant of school girls directed by unknowingly sadistic nuns, certainly stands among the most memorable and terrifying scenes in world cinema.
Many critics called Fellini's next film his "ne plus ultra." FELLINI SATYRICON (1970), loosely based on extant parts of Petronius's Satyricon, is the most phantasmagorical of all Fellini's work, following the bawdy adventures of bisexual characters in the pre-Christian world. Fellini himself described the film as science fiction of the past; and indeed the whole film moves with the logic of a dream - fragmentary, at times incomprehensible, and ending, literally, in the middle of a sentence. The abandonment of relatively conventional narrative, which had increased over the course of JULIET as its protagonist's psychic world took over, came completely to the fore, and much of Fellini's subsequent work did not reverse the pattern. FELLINI SATYRICON is also unusually sensuous, more so than his other works; there is a constant tension between the film's sense-pleasing surface and its often disturbing elements, which include sex and nudity, dwarfs, an earthquake, a hermaphrodite, a decapitation, an erotic feast and orgy, suicides, mythological creatures, violence and hundreds of the most grotesque extras ever assembled. SATYRICON polarized critics - some attacked the film as proof that Fellini's self-indulgence had run amuck, and others praised it as a great fountainhead of a new kind of non-linear cinema, a head-trip (not unlike Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) representing the aesthetic culmination of the 1960s and the ultimate comment, through an examination of the imaginary past, on the present. [Fellini received an Oscar nomination for Best Director for SATYRICON.]
Fellini's work since SATYRICON was seen by many as less focused, and his international acclaim less consistent. Retreating from the splendid excess of SATYRICON, he created several very fine, more modest films, all marked by striking imagery, which diminished the distinctions between fiction film and documentary: THE CLOWNS (1971), which deals with Fellini's lifelong love of circuses; FELLINI'S ROMA (1972), centering on his love/hate relationship with the Eternal City which recurs in many of his films; and the critical and potent but little-seen ORCHESTRA REHEARSAL (1979), portraying the orchestra as a metaphor for Italian politics. Perhaps Fellini's most acclaimed post-SATYRICON film was AMARCORD (1974), an accessible work which can be seen as a summation to that point of his autobiographical impulse (the title means "I remember"). Lovingly describing Fellini's Rimini boyhood, peppered with offbeat but gentle humor, AMARCORD organizes its images through a strong emphasis on the natural cycle and a coherent narrative, though it also contained such memorable flights of fancy as the peacock that appears during the winter snow.
AMARCORD was the fourth Fellini film to win an Oscar as Best Foreign-Language Film, but as he continued making films in the 80s he found it increasingly difficult to find financial backing and distributors. The downturn in his critical reputation and the inaccessibility of several key films led many to dismiss the latter as unimportant or as further signs of his "self-indulgence." FELLINI'S CASANOVA (1976), while perhaps not one of his most important films, was unusually - indeed strikingly - cold, filled with stunning imagery which cannot be easily dismissed. AND THE SHIP SAILS ON (1984), meanwhile, proved that his flair for flamboyant characterization had not lost its comic or satiric prowess in its commentary on self-absorbed artists and motley others (including a homesick rhinoceros). GINGER AND FRED (1986), though heavily criticized by many upon its release (it was the last Fellini to get a full art-house run in the US), has more than its share of touching and amusing moments as his two most important actors, Masina and Mastroianni, play a dance team reunited for what can only be described as "Fellini TV."
Fellini's INTERVISTA (1987) carried the reflectiveness of his later years full circle. A fitting companion piece to 8-1/2 and a revisitation (with Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg) of that other landmark, LA DOLCE VITA, Fellini again directly confronted his own position and status as a filmmaker, this time with a sadder, more wistful nostalgia than he had as a younger man. Now the aging "Il Mago" ("the magician," as he was sometimes called in Italy) and his aging actors watch clips of their earlier triumphs in scenes that are extremely moving. His last completed film, VOICE OF THE MOON (1990), considered by some critics his most surreal picture, was, like INTERVISTA, a small film chock-full of references and last minute thoughts, alternately strange and sad, an appropriate postscript to a film career filled with with laughter and wonder at the bizarre circus of life.
Fellini continued to pursue other projects in semi-retirement. At the Academy Awards ceremony in March of 1993, Fellini received a special Oscar for lifetime achievement in filmmaking, which he dedicated to Masina in his acceptance speech. In August of that year, Fellini suffered a stroke, and went into a coma following a heart attack in October. After his death at age 73 on October 31st - one day after Masina (who was to die of cancer less than five months later) observed their 50th wedding anniversary - tens of thousands of people packed the narrow streets of Fellini's hometown of Rimini, applauding as the director's casket was carried from the main piazza to the cinema where Fellini had watched his first films as a child (and which he featured in AMARCORD). It was a fitting tribute to one of the cinema's greatest artists, who had become a national treasure for Italy and a respected master the world over.
(Does NOT contain "spoilers" of major plot points, so you can read it with impunity)
I am very fortunate to own a copy of Fellini's rare published screenplay of his SATYRICON (which includes scenes never filmed). The following descriptions of all the film's major scenes are taken from it. Some viewers have problems with the (seemingly) fragmentary structure Fellini employs (suggested by the fragmentary nature of Petronius's novel as it has survived); so I hope this outline is of use (it certainly helps me!). You might want to compare this to the summary of Petronius - item (3) above.
* The Suburra quarter of Rome - the baths, a theatre, and the...
* Insula Felicles (a towering apartment complex, where Encolpio lives)
* Art gallery
* Trimalchio's Feast, then his tomb [interpolation: the male prostitute's story about the widow of Ephesus]
* A plowed field
* Lichas's ship
* Villa of the patrician Roman couple
* Cave of the hermaphrodite oracle
* Wastelands, including the nymphomaniac's wagon
* "The Magic City" (how Fellini always referred to this location), including the arena, the Minotaur's labyrinth, and the "garden of delights" [interpolation: the dwarf's story about the sorceress Enotea]
* Enotea's island in the marshlands
(Revised from the version included in the Reading Group Newsletter Vol. IV, Issue 9 — update: here is my Satyricon review at Jim's Film Website)
FELLINI SATYRICON (Federico Fellini, 1969, Italy - 129 mins., color, 2.35 aspect ratio [widescreen / anamorphic])
One of the most wildly original, gorgeous, and unsettling films ever made, Fellini Satyricon (1969) - "freely adapted from Petronius's classic" (as the credits proclaim) - is perhaps best viewed not as a historical "sword and sandal" epic (like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, or the recent Gladiator), but as what its director called "my science fiction film of the past." You can also see it as a phantasmagorical fever dream, or a drug-induced hallucination, not to mention a satirical, yet nail-biting, adventure set in a dozen exotic locales. It shifts between massive, fantastically detailed studio sets and jaw-dropping Mediterranean locations, while focusing on the odyssey of Encolpio, a "hot" and hard-living young gay man - a scholar, thief, and adventurer - during the gaudy decline of the Roman Empire. (Astonishingly, this opulent film was made for just $3 million, compared to an average of $40 million for a typical 1960s Hollywood epic.)
Fellini spins the few surviving fragments of Petronius's Satyricon (written two thousand years ago, it was possibly the world's first novel) into a riot of alternately grotesque and rapturously beautiful images, moving from minimalism - such as the opening shot in which Encolpio, in close-up, spews out a lengthy Shakespearean-style monologue against a starkly textured blank wall - to massive crowd scenes, like Trimalchio's feast, bursting with color and life and weirdness, worthy of comparison to Bosch, Brueghel, and Hogarth. (All of those artists, including Fellini, are both social satirists and epic visionaries.) On every level - narrative, visual and sound design, emotion - Fellini Satyricon catapults between extremes, from comedy to action to beauty to terror to pathos, and back again.
Writer/director Fellini turns the necessarily fragmentary Petronius (only a minuscule part of his vast original novel remains) into his own purposefully fragmentary film. As he told novelist Alberto Moravia at the time of filming, "I am insistent on the dreamlike character of the film. Everything will be disconnected, fragmentary. And at the same time mysteriously homogenous. Every detail will stand out on its own account, isolated, dilated, absurd, monstrous - as in dreams." The film's jarring elliptical structure perfectly meshes with its surreal visual and sound pyrotechnics (which have influenced many pictures, from dreck like Caligula to notable films like Clive Barker's underrated Nightbreed and Terry Gilliam's extraordinary Brazil). Fellini Satyricon is not only one of the most sensuous - and exciting - films ever made, it is also an evocative dramatization of Encolpio's evolving psychological state, using imagery which would have had both Freud and Jung grinning with appreciation.
With Encolpio at its center, the film tells a unique, and in its day unprecedented, gay coming of age story. Made in Italy at about the same time as the 1969 Stonewall Riots, I think Fellini Satyricon is a - and perhaps the - landmark gay film, although it is rarely discussed as such. In a world filled with grotesquerie, the gay/bi lead characters - Encolpio, as well as his sometime lover Ascilto and their shrewd "boy toy" Gitone - are revealed as fully developed and complex people. And Fellini makes us understand why they do such sometimes horrific things: How else could they survive in a world gone completely mad? (Fellini stated clearly that Satyricon's Rome was a parallel to the modern-day one, which he had skewered in his 1960 film, La Dolce Vita.) Unlike any previous GLBT film, Fellini Satyricon explores a world with the full range of same-sex - as well as opposite-sex - relationships, from the most tender and heartfelt to the most brutal and debauched. All without flinching.
Intriguingly, Fellini's biographer John Baxter hints that the director - whose films are conspicuously filled with images of women (8-1/2, Amarcord, City of Women) - may have been bisexual or gay. If so, Fellini Satyricon offers a possible glimpse into this great director's psyche, where the view of same-sex relations constantly twists between beauty and horror and farce... and emotional growth. Perhaps it is significant that after Fellini poured his genius into this most deeply personal picture (which was financially and, to a lesser extent, critically successful), he never again explored same-sex themes. Many filmgoers and critics see his later works, despite some awards, as slowly spiraling downwards into self-imitation, merely echoing such earlier masterpieces as La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1957), 8-1/2 (1963) and, of course, Satyricon.
NOTE: To see my film resources, for both general and GLBT cinema, please visit: Jim's Film Website.
(Of course, we will generate many more for our discussion!)
by Prof. H.W. Haskell, of Southwestern University
* Lighting: How does it contribute to showing us the story, introducing us to the characters or developing them, integrating the beginning and end of the film, etc.?
* Decor: Where is the story filmed? What do these settings add to or take away from the story's interest?
* Costumes: What do the characters look like? How are they dressed? How does their appearance influence your reaction to the film?
* Characters: How can you identify them? What roles do the minor characters play in showing us the story?
* Plot: What happens before and after [Trimalchio's feast]? How is the party itself different from what we have read?
* What do you think will happen [after the film's final scene]?...
* Your reaction: How do you like/dislike the film? Why? If you were directing the film, what would you do differently?... Would you make it a comedy? a "serious" film critiquing contemporary society? a love story? a success story? a story about male bonding? something else? Why would you choose that sort of story, and how would you tell it?
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