Pauline Kael said, “For most of the time, one has the feeling of a camera following people walking along walls.” She wasn’t intending a compliment, but this is not a bad description of the first twenty minutes or so of Fellini Satyricon (1969), a fragmentary movie based on the fragmentary early Roman novel. We would need to add that there are people inside the walls too, grimacing faces appearing at almost every crack, half-clothed, fleshly human figures lurking in every cavelike room, squatting or sleeping or quarreling. There are brothels here, a theater. This is the world, otherwise known as Cinecitta, pictured as an endless, crowded tenement, and two amazing cinematic moments summarize the vision for us.
In the first, the camera stops following the walk along walls and shifts back to inspect the location from a distance. We see a large stone courtyard with several tiers of rooms. There are children playing on the ground in front of us, two white horses, people loafing or talking on each level. Our ostensible heroes are just two tiny shapes climbing a staircase. The whole place looks like a diagram, an architectural model filled with human insects. What had resembled an animated painting by Brueghel now becomes a de Chirico with too many people in it. The camera tilts to take in more floors, nine in all, the darkness increasing with the height, until a deep blue night sky appears through the uncovered roof. It’s a surprise to see beyond the building. We didn’t think there was any outside to this world, or if there was, that anyone could look up and see it.
In the second moment, this tenement is hit by an earthquake. The hit is discreet at its start: a slight trembling of a person’s bed; a little dust falling from a wall. Then whole slabs of the edifice start to tumble, people rush to rescue their children, the horses panic, and one man, unconscious on the ground, is fully covered in dust and already looks like a historical relic, the victim of Vesuvius rather than a tremor. Federico Fellini, as if to congratulate us on our powers of association, cuts to an art gallery full of broken murals. Even hell can crumble, it seems, and become a fragment of memory.
Much later, the film itself ends on a freeze-frame of our narrator, seconds after his voice was cut off in midsentence, who slowly transforms into a figure painted on stone.
The first moment suggests that the tenement is not the world, even if it feels like it. The second sequence, and the ending, inform us that this hellish place is actually not hell, since, of course, hell can’t be destroyed. But then where are we? We are in ancient Rome, since Fellini has borrowed his main characters and many moods from what’s left of Petronius’s novel. But he and his scriptwriters have added scenes and characters, and the older satyrs here look as if they have stepped out of vaudeville or the circus, so we seem to be somewhere in the first half of the twentieth century. Fellini himself encouraged viewers to think of the 1960s, and this can’t be entirely misleading, since 1969 was certainly still the sixties, especially since the decade didn’t start, iconically, until 1965, and the film is full of images of sexual freedom and political disarray. But we are not only in the sixties. The age of free love and sexual riot was not as creepy as Fellini’s movie, and Woodstock was not an overpopulated prison. And in its insistence on piracy, corruption, and money, the film seems to belong to an even later time.
It isn’t all horror and darkness, though. Tullio Kezich found it “sickly and claustrophobic,” but this feels like a small piece of the story. There is too much life in the film for this morbid sense to prevail, too much energy in the rapid, busy gestures and the lurid makeup. Helen Morales says Petronius’s Satyricon is all about “parody and death,” and this is very much the note Fellini strikes. Though not quite parody, perhaps; more like travesty. Petronius is ironic and oblique throughout, but we don’t feel that his characters are dressing up, as Fellini’s are. This is a film about disguise, about people becoming caricatures of themselves, talking like imitations of their own worst performances, running into comic-book versions of their nightmares. It is about death too, as the novel is, but death itself is travestied in the film. Disguise and mockery are the vivid methods by which the director and his characters diligently fail to keep it at bay. Where are we? On the run, or walking along a wall.
There is a dubious love story threaded through the movie, more firmly marked than in the Petronius, although someone called Encolpius is at the center of both works. In the film, he is an exaggeratedly beautiful young man who has lost the love of his life, Giton, an even prettier and younger creature, to an old friend, Ascyltus. The latter has sold the boy to a theater company. Encolpius manages after a struggle to free Giton and have a rapturous night with him, only to find in the morning that Giton, given entire freedom of choice, actually prefers Ascyltus. The three meet up again when they are captured and carted off on a slave ship collecting curiosities, especially in attractive human form, for the young emperor. Giton vanishes from view; Ascyltus accompanies Encolpius on various adventures, until he is killed on one of them. Encolpius survives to tell the tale, or more precisely to interrupt himself in the continuation of it. His last words are “On an island covered with tall, fragrant grasses, I met a young Greek who told me that in the years . . .”
It is more than possible that, in keeping with the note of disguise, Encolpius, a student of rhetoric, enjoys the sight and style of himself suffering so much that he hardly suffers anymore. His first and longest speech is a rant against his thieving friend and a hymn to his love: “I loved you, Giton, and I still do. I can’t share you with others, because you’re a part of me. You are me, you’re my soul. My soul belongs to you. You’re the sun, the sea, the gods.” Later, in the art gallery, he says to himself (or to us), “All the myths speak to us of love, of unrivaled unions. But I took into my heart a cruel guest.” There is no reason to think the loss of a lover is more serious than death, and Encolpius’s manner suggests a lot of lugubrious pleasure can be gotten from it.
Death can be fun too. The crass and riotous Trimalchio, the film’s great party-giver, descends into a grave to perform a mock death so that everyone can grieve elaborately for him. The poet Eumolpus, who does finally die, leaves all his goods to his friends, on the condition that they eat his body. Encolpius prefers to take a boat for Greece, but other inheritors are not so fastidious. One of them says, “I’m not worried about my stomach’s rejection. It knows that in return for an hour of nausea, it will have an abundance of delights.” The poet’s touch is all the more impressive here because we thought he had died an hour or so earlier in the film, eloquently leaving to Encolpius not his corpse or his wealth but his world, offering in the process the film’s one beautifully imagined alternative to the enclosing walls of poverty and debauchery:
I leave you poetry. I leave you the seasons, especially spring and summer. I leave you the wind, the sun, and the sea, the good sea. The earth is good too. The mountains, streams, and rivers . . . Encolpius, I leave you sounds, songs, noises. The voice of man, which is the most harmonious of music. I leave you.
We note the double meaning of leave, which works just as well in English as in Italian. In a moment of apparent dying, the film bequeaths us the life we may hope to live and also abandons us to whatever life we have.
Fellini said Satyricon was not a film he “wanted to be friends with,” and it is not a friendly film. But he didn’t love it or hate it either. According to Kezich, he thought he was making “a lush, customized film . . . for the American audience,” but he was also immersing himself in history, drawing the faces of his characters, and creating “the biggest studio production at Cinecitt´ after Ben-Hur.” He was in his element, that is, and the result was a movie that is certainly lush but far from customized for any audience. On the evidence of the work itself, he seems to have found in it, and allows it to foster in us, an eerie, complex fascination. This mood is perfectly expressed in the film’s greatest sequence, involving the marriage and death of the evil ship owner Lichas, played by Alain Cuny with a weird, mutating authority that makes his performance in La dolce vita seem tame. Lichas likes to wrestle with his captives before disposing of them, and becomes very taken with Encolpius as he throws him about and pins him down. This all happens in a sweaty, crowded space below decks. Then Fellini cuts to an exterior view of the ship, and Encolpius, dressed and wreathed as if for some kind of ceremony, is escorted up the stairs from the hold. There is a tethered calf that looks as if it may be intended for sacrifice, and it is—although for a moment, we wonder whether the sacrificial object could be Encolpius. He is curiously passive, almost pleased, it seems, to be helpless. Then Lichas comes up the stairs onto the deck, escorted by his wife. However, he is dressed as a woman now, and about to become a wife himself: Encolpius’s wife. The ceremony is short and decorous, everyone cheers, throws the Roman equivalent of confetti, but the truly astonishing sight here is Cuny’s coy, feminine simper as he takes his vows. He is having a really good time, and our own memory of the brutal wrestler he was a while ago enhances the effect. Encolpius fights with a minotaur later in the movie, but the real Minotaur in the story is this bashful, happy man-woman. What might in the abstract seem to be a portrait of reckless gender-crossing turns out to be an evocation of the tenderness of the monster, and the hypnotized passivity of the monster’s new husband. And just in case we get settled even in this view, Lichas is killed a short while later. A new emperor has taken over from the old one, and the previous purveyor of curiosities is no longer needed. He is decapitated on the deck of his ship, and his head flies off into the sea, floating there for a moment, walleyed, just beneath the surface of the water. This is not a film where you get the honeymoon you expect.
Fellini Satyricon, apart from being a remarkable work in its own right, helped the filmmaker out of what had seemed to be an impasse. The reception of Juliet of the Spirits (1965) had been poor, he had done a lot of work on a film he never made, The Voyage of G. Mastorna, the story of a cellist who dies in a plane crash and travels through an afterlife that is both bureaucratic and incoherent. Marcus Perryman astutely suggests that perhaps Fellini did make this unmade film after all, that is, by smuggling pieces of it into all his later films. “He referred to the unmade film as a shipwrecked vessel he would regularly plunder for treasure,” Perryman writes. “Fellini could neither get away from it nor face it, and so decided to dismantle it and sprinkle the parts over the rest of his work, to make it, as it were, behind his own back.” The thought is hyperbolic but worth tracking. In the screenplay, the cellist doesn’t at first know he is dead, because he can’t make sense of the limbo where nothing seems normal anymore. This is partly because he wants to deny his own dying, and partly because the section of the afterlife that houses him doesn’t look like any other world we have imagined. It just looks like our world gone wrong, or tampered with by Magritte or Dalí. When asked at some checkpoint for his papers, he produces, reasonably enough, his passport. The official doesn’t even look at it. “That’s just a passport,” he says. The one thing required for travel in our world is the last thing required here.
Fellini Satyricon’s world is not another world in this theological sense, just an old/new one, but it does offer a similarly estranged take on what we like to think of as our reality. It dares us to recognize rather than deny or accuse these strange people and habits, and if we try to measure them against our idea of normality, to quantify their appeal or horror by some standard we feel we can trust, the movie is likely to answer us in a way that resembles the response of the official to Mastorna. “You are trying to offer proof of your own ordinariness,” the movie will say. “The ordinary doesn’t exist except as the dream of people who don’t want to know anything. Don’t confuse the ordinary with the real. Look again.”