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"I am examining ancient Rome as if this were a documentary about the customs and habits of the Martians."
-- Federico Fellini in an Interview, 1969
Federico Fellini describes his "Fellini Satyricon" as a science-fiction film, but one in which we journey to the past rather than to the future. Directors are notoriously unreliable as sources of opinions about their own movies, but in this case I think Fellini is dead right.
His film is a fantastical journey to a pre-Christian Rome that resembles no civilization that ever was, in heaven or on Earth. And it is a masterpiece. Some will say it is a bloody, depraved, disgusting film; 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.
This time, Fellini invites us into his own mind. He makes no attempt to tell a story, although he succeeds in telling several. He makes no attempt to be lucid, or philosophical, or to make sense. At last we are allowed to look beneath the surface of films like "La Dolce Vita" and "Juliet of the Spirits," and to glimpse the horrible underworld that lurks down there.
Lurking under the stories of his 1960s movies, there seemed to be something frightening that was not rational at all. "Fellini Satyricon" is that lower region; it is the nightmare shared by all the haunted characters in his earlier films, by Marcello, by Juliet, especially by Steiner.
Like all nightmares, "Fellini Satyricon" is fragmented. It edges about in time and space. One moment, the poet is about to be roasted in a furnace; the next, he is carried about in a gilded chair. Fortunes are always uncertain in dream worlds. And if we share the dream, we don't know where we stand, either. We're cast adrift in a universe of grotesques and dwarfs and cripples, lesbians and homosexuals and hermaphrodites, gluttons and murderers and the robbers of graves.
And all of these creatures and their stories are brought together under the aegis of Petronious' Satyricon, a mystical, half-mad poem that was written in Rome during the reign of Nero, and not discovered until the 17th Century. The poem itself is fragmented and unfinished; Fellini's film ends on an uncompleted sentence, just as the manuscript does. The Satyricon was a journey, a portrait of a time; it was perhaps not even meant to be a traditional narrative.
Fellini's film, which moves slyly from episode to episode, is equally indifferent to a traditional narrative form. It is not a pure fantasy; it doesn't leap away altogether from narratives, like a free-form underground film. But it uses narrative as something buried, as something that exists perhaps on the level of the gods, because only they are high enough to see the whole panorama. We mere mortals have got to be content with the disconnected episodes we can glimpse here below; we sense that there is a unity somewhere in the universe, but it's beyond our comprehension.
Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" functioned on a level something like this; from the moment we arrived at Jupiter, we were never sure what was happening. Our fortunes had been taken in hand by an immensely superior intelligence, and we were limited because we could only understand those facts conveyed by our mortal senses. You will get something of this same sensation from "Fellini Satyricon," which washes over you in an orgy of faces, images, music, suffering, depravity, and blood.
What strange intelligence controls this universe? I am tempted to suggest that Fellini's subconscious is at work; but he has given it a great deal of help. The costumes, the set decoration and the photography all seem detached from reality. We can vaguely see that we are in Rome, yes; but it is a Rome where the sunsets are made up of bizarre purples and greens, as if this sun were setting on another planet with another atmosphere. The same is true of the people, who seem to be haunted and displaced, and whose skins are as likely to be green or blue as they are to be pink or brown.
Even the customary physical objects are not quite right. We can recognize that Roman galleon, yes. But what civilization built those vast iron hulks of warships that seem to move by some mechanical intelligence of their own? We recognize the gluttony of the opening feast, yes. But who designed that mausoleum with its skylight that seems to be out of the ceiling of a painting by Bosch?
The film's about a picaresque journey through a world where gods and goddesses still live, and across seas with vast blind fish in them. To tell you what happens along the way is pointless, especially as the journey never ends.
Yet to say "Fellini Satyricon" doesn't have a plot would be unfair. That would imply that it is an undisciplined work, put together at random, indulging itself in easy fantasy. And it is not. It is perhaps Fellini's most disciplined film, but instead of creating a rigorous philosophy in the film, he has created a rigorous style. The most important moments in the film's making must have come in its planning stages, when he was deciding how it should look.
It looks awful in the original sense, filling us with awe and fear. It is set before the Christian era, in an age when magic still worked and a witch could indeed put out all the fires in the land. Human life was cheap; during an entertainment near the beginning of the film, a slave's hand is chopped off. We see the bloody stump before it is bound up. No matter; the man is presented with a new hand made of gold. The bloated aristocrats in the audience are amused.
And then there are beheadings, and disembowelments, and suicides, and death by fire and lance and sun. At one point you could hear a lady's voice from the lobby: "My God, I'm leaving. They just cut off another arm." She missed the cannibalism scene. These scenes are depraved, yes, and nauseating. But they, too, are part of Fellini's fearful vision. Can you imagine a world in which human life has no value, and blood is shed without a thought? You cannot? Look around you.
Indeed, "Fellini Satyricon" creates a world in which there isn't much feeling of any kind, in which the nerves have been deadened. People die. So what? Life is so terribly boring anyway. Better to get a joke out of it. These Romans have long since lost any sense of novelty. They have tried everything and done everything, and at the feast they stuff themselves with pigs, and like pigs, and laugh as a poet is led to the furnace.
Even sex has lost interest for them. In fact, it is most particularly sex that they no longer crave. Fellini's society is one without inhibition; homosexuality and sado-masochism are the most popular pastimes, but there are also a thousand other possibilities illustrated in the pictures on the walls of the Garden of Delights. The strange thing is, none of this sex seems to touch anybody. Fellini's vision of sexuality is exhausted, detached; the movie is drenched with sex and yet is only occasionally, mildly, erotic. Pornography itself can eventually discourage the imagination. Can there be curiosity without secrets?
And so the inhabitants of this Fellini underworld wearily press on, visiting one more goddess or trying one more perversion, seeking before death some assurance that it is still possible to feel deeply. And they never find it. Of course, the story never ends. It may still be continuing, even today.