A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"Fellini Satyricon" was released in 1970, and I was ready for it: "Some will say it is a bloody, depraved, disgusting film," I wrote in a fever. "Indeed, people by the dozens were escaping from the sneak preview I attended. But `Fellini Satyricon' is a masterpiece all the same, and films that dare everything cannot please everybody." Today I'm not so sure it's a masterpiece, except as an expression of the let-it-all-hang-out spirit of the 1970 world that we both then occupied. But it is so much more ambitious and audacious than most of what we see today that simply as a reckless gesture, it shames these timid times. Films like this are a reminder of how machine-made and limited recent product has become.
The movie is based on a book that retold degenerate versions of Roman and Greek myth. Petronius' Satyricon , written at the time of Nero, was lost for centuries and found in a fragmented form, which Fellini uses to explain his own fragmented movie; both book and film end in mid-sentence. Petronius was a sensualist who celebrated and mocked sexual decadence at the same time. So does Fellini, who observes that although the wages of sin may be death, it's nice work if you can get it.
The movie was made two years after the Summer of Love--it came out at about the same time as the documentary "Woodstock"--and it preserves the post-Pill, pre-AIDS sexual frenzy of that time, when penalty-free sex briefly seemed to be a possibility (key word: seemed). The characters in the Fellini film may be burned alive, vivisected, skewered or crushed, but they have no concerns about viruses, guilt or psychological collapse. Like most of the characters in ancient myth, indeed, they have no psychology; they act according to their natures, without introspection or the possibility of change. They are hard-wired by the myths that contain them.
The film loosely follows the travels and adventures of several characters, notably the students Encolpio (Martin Potter) and Ascilto (Hiram Keller), as they fight over the favors of the comely slave boy Gitone (Max Born). Gitone is won by Ascilto, who sells him to the repulsive actor Vernacchio (Fanfulla), whose performances include mutilation of prisoners. True to the nature of the film, Gitone doesn't mind such treatment and indeed rather enjoys the attention, but the story moves on, presenting a series of masters and slaves in moments of grotesque drama and lurid fantasy. It is all phantasmagoria, said Pauline Kael, who hated the film, and wrote, "though from time to time one may register a face or a set or an episode, for most of the time one has the feeling of a camera following people walking along walls." Well, yes and no. There are scenes that are complete playlets, as when a patrician couple free their slaves and then commit suicide, or when a dead rich man's followers gather on the seashore to consider his final request that his body be eaten. These moments pop out from the fresco as they must have popped out of Petronius, but Fellini is unconcerned with beginnings, middles and ends, and wants us to walk through the film as through a gallery in which an artist tries variations on a theme. This would increasingly be his approach in the films that followed; set against this ancient Rome is the fragmented modern city in "Fellini Roma," which is a series of episodes in search of a destination, and lacks the structure of his great Roman film, "La Dolce Vita" (1960).