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FELLINI SATYRICON

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Martin Potter, Hiram Keller, Max Born
Director:  Federico Fellini
Audio:  Dolby 2 Channel Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  129 Minutes
Release Date:  April 10, 2001

Film **

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 manhood.

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 end...’”

Video ***1/2

MGM offers a beautiful anamorphic widescreen transfer for this film; very appropriate since the visuals are the strongest asset the picture has to offer.  The print offers only a few and occasional bits of noticeable wear and tear; for the most part, it’s surprisingly and pleasingly clean.  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 transfer for a classic film.

Audio ***

The Dolby 2-channel 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 effects.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

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 MGM’s terrific DVD presentation.  Casual viewers, be warned.