Federico Fellini may have said of Fellini Satyricon that he wanted it to be “a science fiction film projected into the past,” but its unfolding is what Gilles Deleuze explains as a “Fellinian” present, which involves a deathly present intersecting with a preserved past. Although Deleuze makes these assertions explicitly in relation to Amarcord, they read more fittingly for Fellini Satyricon given its detached directorial mode, in which Fellini actualizes his carnivalesque strengths without the nostalgia or autobiography that informs many of his earlier, most beloved works. Gone is the homosocial neorealism of I, Vitelloni, the chin-up humanism of Nights of Cabiria, and even the reflexive auteurism of 8 ½. Along with this film and the subsequent Casanova, Fellini reveals a remarkable proclivity for dynamic revisionist history rendered through a contemporary immersion in visual and cultural excesses, that could quite easily be likened to countercultural movements concurrent with the film’s production.
Fellini Satyricon’s opening shot reveals Encolpius (Martin Potter) facing an enormous wall, lamenting the thievery of his slave, Giton (Max Born), by Ascyltus (Hiram Keller), who’s sold Giton to Vernacchio (Fanfulla), a piggish member of an acting troupe giving a performance nearby. At least, nearby in relation to Fellini’s thoroughly abstracted establishment of time and space, anchored by Danilo Donati’s outrageously expansive set designs, which tower over the human figures with a distended scale as if to embrace a sort of pure artifice, located in a place outside the realm of historical fiction. Although these characters and narratives are partly lifted from Petronius’s work of the same name, it’s imperative to note that Fellini doesn’t put his name in the title in a possessive manner (i.e. Fellini’s Satyricon), but actually makes it a part of the title, suggesting no lingering separation between the “Fellinian” and the real world. Fellini claims to have made the film for American audiences, what with their preference for large-scale productions of spectacle, but the film itself proves to be an inverse of films like Ben-Hur or Spartacus, because Fellini seeks to offer immensity not for pleasure, but an untamed critique of Western sadism that historically remains masked under mirthful forms of human exploitation.
Such masks become the literal concern years later in Casanova, with Fellini spending nearly three hours meditating on the eponymous libertine as a pathetically virile figure of European lasciviousness. Yet that film, in all of its textual insights, lacks the large-scale sublimity of Fellini Satyricon, which insists through its in-medias-res pacing that cultural artifacts, be they tangible or ideological, must be interrogated through new forms of allegorical filmmaking, rather than a felicitous obligation to historical fidelity. Fellini uses wideshots in to achieve painterly expressions, predating Akira Kurosawa’s epic color films Kagemusha and Ran years later.
Vibrant colors not only gleam in the gallery space where Encolpius is consulted by a poet, but within every nook and cranny of the image, attempting to aesthetically lend a sensual irresistibility that Fellini’s historical viewpoints are thoroughly dedicated to refuting. A fractured statue head is carted down an alleyway with nightmarish abandon in the same manner that establishing shots suggest landscapes with vanishing points so flat and distant, as if to be neverending. When Encolpius wages battle with a Minotaur late in the film, Fellini never relinquishes the encounter’s hellish sense of fleeting mortality to embrace sheer spectacle. Fellini Satyricon is likely the director’s greatest achievement, particularly because its singular vision utilizes a grandiosity that in no way forsakes an interest in the personal toil of art and politics, be it Encolpius’s elliptical conclusory remarks about his exploits or Fellini’s decision to turn his final images into literal graffiti paintings, covering the dregs of abandoned structures littering a deserted piece of land.
Neither does the film equate “personal” with self-absorption, which isn’t the case with several other Fellini films of the 1960s or even subsequently into the 1970s, with muddled efforts like The Clowns and Amarcord mistaking a history-of-the-self as vacant from ethical responsibilities to unspool a passive cinema that seeks inward expression as an end. Pier Paolo Pasolini surely understood as much in his “Trilogy of Life,” which follows in Fellini’s footsteps by transforming ancient literature into hard-edged pleas for mobilized political aggression. If Pasolini’s vision is ultimately less optically immersive and textually starker, it nonetheless suggests the two filmmakers retreating from previous interests in both neorealism and explicit examinations of the modern Italian state for more roundabout evocations of corrupted ruins.
The Criterion Collection adds another Fellini title to their Blu-ray catalogue, and given the overwhelmingly remastered, 4K audio/visual presentation from the 2001 MGM DVD, this will likely stand as one of the most essential cleanups of 2015. Gone are the faded colors, blurred edges, and lack of depth, with all of these interests thoroughly overhauled by a flawlessly balanced, clean, and clear image that stands alongside the brands best works to date. Fellini’s expressionist lighting has never looked this sharp, especially in scenes featuring Danilo Donati’s jaw-dropping set designs and reveals cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno’s work as some of the finest of its era. If there are a few mild shifts in the color balance in some of the more visually dynamic scenes, they’re but a fading blemish on the visage of Criterion’s impressive restoration. Likewise, dialogue is clear and balanced with the film’s score, while sound effects are mixed loudly enough without ever overpowering the other elements. With a superb, error-free subtitle track, there’s hardly a defect to be found.
Much like the recent Blu-ray release for La Dolce Vita, Criterion has mined the archive while adding new materials of their own for an excellent mix of insights ranging from cast and crew to scholarly examination. Eileen Lanouette Hughes provides a commentary track, from her memoir about time spent on the film’s set during production. As with any commentary that’s read rather than more fluidly spoken, there are few points that seems spontaneously bred from Hughes’s viewing of the film. Nevertheless, Hughes offers pointed understandings from a critical distance, saying Fellini’s Satyricon is “one of the most unerotic, erotic films ever made,” to disclosing her interactions with Fellini during filming. Overall, it’s an essential listen, given its elucidating of Fellini’s complex tapestry. Additionally, there’s a one-hour documentary entitled “Ciao, Federico!” that features the director during filmmaking, even during shots of certain scenes, while a trio of archival interviews with Fellini includes one with Gene Shalit, in which the director makes a quip about the critic’s mustache while explaining his philosophy on imperfect films. Interviews with Rotunno and photographer Mary Ellen Mark provide historical context for the film during pre-production and a gallery of ephemera from the collection of Don Young will please even the most rabid Fellini fan. Finally, a brief documentary produced by the Criterion Collection examines the polyvalence of the film’s title while offering further historical background and an essay by Michael Wood details the film’s fragmentary structure.
Criterion’s 4K restoration of Fellini Satyricon reveals it to be the most simultaneously rapturous and claustrophobic film Fellini ever made.