JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Satyricon (Director: Federico Fellini) - April 30, 2015
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Satyricon

4 4
128 min.

Not nearly as sharp as the source material

Having read the original work (Satyrica, by Petronius—Frederic Raphael’s 2003 translation) and histories of Julius Caesar, Nero and Cleopatra in recent months, it seemed an ideal time to revisit Fellini’s 1968 cinematic fantasy built around the burning satire of Nero’s Rome.

The credits are certainly accurate: “loosely based” makes dutiful reference to Petronius, but also provides a get-out-of-jail-free card for the truly fanciful narrative that—at best—retells many of the major stories (notably the jostling by two young teachers over the affections of a beautiful boy who turns both their cranks; perhaps the most self-indulgent banquet of all time—replete with duelling poets and the frantic search for a cure for impotence in a period far removed from Viagra) and weaves in various side trips (from double suicide to cannibalism) that attempt to bind the more than two-hour run time into some sort of cohesive whole.

Given that much of Petronius’ manuscript is permanently lost, Fellini has another “cover” for moments when it feels like complete transitions must have, somehow, been left on the editing floor.

Seen in 2015, the bawdiness, debauchery and revealed skin come across as almost modest. Principals Martin Potter playing the blond bombshell, Encolpio, is never hard to look at in or out of his toga and seemingly stapled-in-place underthings, while Hiriam Keller’s performance as Ascilto—his boisterous sidekick (and rival for extreme youth)—carries a lot more heat and range but can’t find the believable subtlety as one who swings both ways. For his part, Max Born’s take on Gitone—the smooth-as-silk object of everyone’s affections—is most convincing of all, but, alas for many viewers in and out of the film, is MIA far sooner than expected and was particularly missed in Encolpio’s “blunt sword” complaint segment.

Nonetheless, the film is a marvel of costuming and set design (Danilo Donati with assistance from Luigi Scaccionce) without aid of CGI. The public baths, Sodom and Gomorrah style earthquake and the segments on the high waves are particularly effective thanks in no small part to Giuseppe Rotunno’s inventive cinematography and Fellini’s ability to bring his singular vison to life employing lead-by-example strategies, inspiring his actors and crew, then knowing when to step back and let people do their jobs (no easy task for editor Ruggero Mastroianni).

The large music department (Tod Dockstader, Ilgan Mimaroglu, Nino Rota and Andrew Rudin) have distinguished themselves by staying largely in the background. After the magical final scene finds the cast literally being etched into timeless stone (so at one with the universality of absolute power corrupting, we’re-worth-it self-centred entitlement and do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do sexual mores revealing the uglier side of human nature), the closing credits are a marvel of understatement with a delicate classical guitar accompanied by an ocean breeze that is bound to send much-needed satire to the next port of call. JWR

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