Review by Michael Jacobson
Potter, Hiram Keller, Max Born
Director: Federico Fellini
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 129 Minutes
Release Date: February 24, 2015
I recall an article I once read about the premiere of
Federico Fellini’s breakthrough film La Dolce Vita in Italy, 1960.
Upon emerging from the theatre, a well dressed gentlemen approached
Fellini and angrily shouted, “You are dragging Italy through the mud!” and
proceeded to unceremoniously spit on the director.
And Fellini has been at the center of controversy ever
since, between those who proclaim him the modern master of Italian cinema, and
those who find his excessiveness and indulgence a bit too much to take.
Watching Fellini Satyricon is an exercise in pure
tedium. It’s a gloriously filmed,
beautifully crafted epic with no heart and no soul…gratuitous to a fault in
its portrayal of sex and violence. But
what really disturbs is not what the film shows us, but rather, what Fellini
holds back from us. His lack of
judgment over what he presents on the screen leaves open only one possible
conclusion: he likes what he sees.
Satyricon is based on the episodic, choppy writings
of Petronius, which serve as ample fodder for Fellini’s often unstructured
style of filmmaking. It may have
served as an answer to some of the big Hollywood epics of recent years and their
depictions of the Roman Empire: Ben-Hur,
The Robe, Spartacus and so on. These
films found in the subject of ancient Rome a banquet for stories about power,
pride, Christianity and the like, and fueled this culture into some of the
biggest and most impressive spectacles in film history.
Fellini, on the other hand, looked to ancient Rome as a
civilization of decadence, deviance and violence…the kind of world where a
prisoner’s hand would actually be chopped off on stage as part of a theatrical
performance. Fellini concentrated
on more than the culture’s love of violence as entertainment, though…he
focused on the loose, freewheeling sexuality and total lack of constraints on
human behavior. If you wanted it,
you took it…that was the kind of luxury ruling the world could afford.
The tale begins with a rivalry between two homosexual
students, Encolpio (Potter) and Ascilto (Keller), over a young pretty-boy,
Gitone (Born). We enter the story
as though it had been going on for some time; not much in the way of set up or
explanation. But what starts out
simply enough evolves into a series of episodic and rarely related stories
involving Encolpio, much like the original text.
He finds himself in several fights for his life, in a bizarre wedding to
another man, a sea battle, and taking part in a pagan fertility ritual, where he
learns he can no longer perform sexually and heads off on a quest to regain his
The fact that the episodes don’t relate well to one
another is only part of what makes this film difficult to sit through.
I found, for example, that from the very start, this picture was
reminding me of two of my least favorite films of all time, Salo and Caligula.
Both relished in images of sexual degradation and violence than could
only be explained by arguing that’s what the directors wanted to see.
Fellini shows us plenty, but he makes no statement about it, and two
hours plus is a long time to endure a movie with no real voice.
It ends, appropriately enough, by Encolpio’s last voice
over being cut off in mid sentence for no reason, as his image fades into a
depiction on a deteriorating fresco. Message?
“I was influenced by the look of frescoes,” Fellini offers.
“At the end, these people, whose lives were so real to them, are now
only crumbling frescoes.” Interesting
enough…but hardly a worthwhile conclusion to an expensive visual epic.
The film is filled with memorable images and has a
terrific, carefully cultivated look to it.
The problems lie in the storytelling, lack of character development, and
the absence of a moral center. Fellini
knows what he wants to see, but sometimes, he doesn’t seem to know what he
wants to say.
Fellini himself mused his film’s place in history:
“‘What a pity,’ some archaeologist laments, upon viewing something
called Fellini Satyricon. ‘It seems to be missing its beginning, middle and
Criterion offers a beautiful anamorphic widescreen transfer for
this film; very appropriate since the visuals are the strongest asset the
picture has to offer. Colors are well-rendered throughout, with gorgeous, rich tones and
textures, and no bleedings or distortions.
Images are sharp and detail is remarkable from start to finish.
Apart from a slight touch of grain in one or two darker scenes, this is
an exemplary high definition transfer for a classic film.
The uncompressed mono track is surprisingly effective,
whether your choice be Italian or English.
The audio is clean and clear throughout, with no noticeable noise, and
many welcome moments of dynamic range created by the film’s music and audio
Features * ***
This disc is loaded, starting with an audio commentary featuring an adaption of Eileen Lanouette Hughes' memoir from the set of the film, and an hour-long documentary that was shot on the set. There are archival interviews with Fellin, as well as a new interview with photographer Mary Ellen Mark. There is a presentation of Satyricon ephemera from the collection of Don Young, and the original trailer.
Fellini Satyricon is a pretty, disturbing, but ultimately inconsequential film by a man noted for a body of movies that usually fall into one or more of those categories. It’s for Fellini fans only, who will no doubt be pleased by Criterion's masterful Blu-ray presentation. Casual viewers, be warned.