Fellini Satyricon is a film like no other. The director’s heady brew of pagan carnality, psychedelic flair and avant garde experimental cinema hits UK Blu-ray this week, making this the perfect opportunity to sample its delights if you haven’t already. Looking suitably sumptuous in glorious 4k no less- courtesy of the Eureka! Masters of Cinema- it seems a fitting format for such a bold statement of cinema as art. Existing fans are bound to be pleased with the results of this fresh remaster to high definition; an upgrade which sees Fellini’s kaleidoscopic masterpiece fully restored to its cinematic glory.
As a film this is one of those all too rare instances in cinema that transcends simple definition, so much so, that simply labelling it ‘a film’ seems far from adequate. What we have here is a piece of cinema that is certainly one of those cases of ‘not for everyone’ but nevertheless packs a visual punch like no other; this is the director at his most Jungian, abstract and pensive. Fellini takes his love for dreamlike visuals, and instead of promoting a semi-conventional narrative, interrupted by streams of abstract consciousness (as he did prior to this in 8 ½ and Juliet of the Spirits), here instead he pushes the idea further, in turn creating something that feels about as close to an authentic dream state as possible.
Using the original first century text by Petronius, and its fragmented incomplete nature, Fellini Satyricon is built likewise as a fantastical free flowing entity, with little attention paid to continuity, explanation or orthodox narrative structure. This aspect dominates throughout, demonstrated by the fact our central character Encolpio (Martin Potter) is pushed from one wild scene to another like a boat crashing about in a stormy ocean of grotesque hedonism with no sail or crew to guide him. One minute he is fighting in a dust pit over the dead body of a godlike albino hermaphrodite, blink, and the next he is being foisted down a large ramp by a jeering crowd, being forced to fight cult icon Luigi Montefiori aka George Eastman playing a gladiator (Montefiori complete with a huge Minotaur’s headpiece just to up the weird factor). The audience are given absolutely no idea how Encolpio got there, or indeed why he needs to fight. By this point, however, it is most likely the lack of grounding here will have either bewitched you into submission with its fantastical nature or driven you thoroughly to distraction. On this level anyone expecting a typical Italian sword and sandal number or anything that resembles a historical view of ancient Rome, is better off looking elsewhere. Those, on the other hand, open enough to sign up for something of a psychedelic tour de force are hardly likely to be disappointed with what the director has to offer.
The story, if you can call it that, focuses mainly on the young intrepid Encolpio who has fallen for an androgynous and beautiful slave Gitone (Max Born); a slave that Encolpio’s so called friend Ascilto (Hiram Keller) has apparently sold on without his knowledge. Matters start out with a wrestling match between the two over the dodgy dealing, before Encolpio goes off to find his lost love, and is rejected and betrayed- by both his lover and his former friend- in the process. On his travels Encolpio encounters the gambit of the rotten and selfish as he interacts with the bloated bourgeoisie of a decaying Roman Empire; an empire that looks more like a post-apocalyptic landscape than anything to be imagined from history books. He learns about a life where the rich have all but given in to their primal instincts, gorging themselves in an orgy of greed, living solely to fulfil their base desires. Fellini drew a distinct parallel between his Satyricon and that of the original Petronius; offering his 1969 interpretation as “a satire of the world we live in today*”; Fellini explaining “Then as now we find ourselves confronting society at the height of its splendour but revealing already signs of dissolution*”. The director continued this line of satirical thinking in his later work Roma.
Fellini called his Satyricon a ‘sci-fi of the past’ and who are we to argue. The entire piece looks more in line with something that might have been included in Jodorowsky’s Dune– had it ever been made- than an A-typical historical drama. Fellini presents a bizarre otherworldly production, littered with stark larger than life alien landscapes. In line with this setting Danico Donati’s highly evocative costume and art design conjure the fantastical atmosphere of something from another world. Add to this an aura that steams with homoerotic energy, debauched sexualities and avant garde theatrics- complete with heavy staging of scenes and flamboyant, unrestrained, dramatic performances- and Fellini crafts something both astounding and decadent; the likes of which haven’t been seen before or after for that matter; although this work did have a noticeable influence on the director’s later work, particularly Roma and Fellini’s Casanova. The film represents a pinnacle piece among the rest of the experimental and artful cinema that was coming out of Italy during the late sixties. An artefact of a thrilling and exciting time that brimmed with creativity and one within which Italian filmmakers kicked back at the Neo-realism of the previous decade in order to fully absorb themselves in filmmaking as a fantasy fuelled artistic medium.
This UK Blu-ray edition from Eureka! is restored and presented in 1080p HD in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, from a 4k scan. The result is nothing short of show stopping, the high definition upgrade allowing the juicy colour palette, and intricate detail to stand out through this medium; with the end result being free from obvious flaw or over handed DNR processes and the evident grain gives the print a nice overall texture. The disc comes packaged with both Italian audio (with English subtitles) or English dub, and although it is lacking in extras there is an original trailer included. There is also a collector’s booklet with writing on Fellini from Sabrina Marques and Pasquale Iannne, as well as translated writing from Fellini and an archive interview with the director.
Overall this is a fabulous upgrade for a spectacular piece of Italian film history. A must for all lovers of the decadence and art that late sixties European cinema has to offer.
*Preface to Treatment by Federico Fellini (1968) republished in the Eureka! collector’s booklet that accompanies this Blu-ray release.