I swear there is a plot. I’ve seen this movie before, I know there’s a plot because I followed it just fine then. This time though, I’m sitting here and the film is so unhinged, and strange, and surreal, that the experience is just washing over me. Fellini is often lumped in with the neo-realists of the 40s & 50s, and as far as I know, is most known for producing films famed for their extreme whimsy such as ‘Nights of Cabiria’, but this film is an entirely different beast.
After his period of post-neo-realist films in the 50s Fellini became distinctly influenced by the philosophy of Carl Jung, which really isn’t surprising considering 69’s ‘Satyricon’ seems distinctly… Jodorowskyesque. It has the manic violence of ‘El Topo’, the intricate symbolism and episodic narrative of ‘The Holy Mountain’, and the sense that you are slowly descending into a pristine, baroque, hell that’s present in ‘Santa Sangre’. In the way of Freud, Jung, and many of their creative offspring, the key to this film lies in the dream state. The original text that ‘Satyricon’ is based off only survives in fragments, and the thing that fascinated Fellini about the text were the missing parts. The text’s fragmentary nature encouraged Fellini to go beyond the traditional approach of recreating the past in film. The key lay in conveying dreams, and this came about 8 years before ‘Eraserhead’, just one of the many ways in which this movie was ahead of its time. This is is probably what results in the film’s episodic nature, one of the things critics find fault with. Yes, the film is episodic, yes characters are hardly decipherable, and yes the film is impossible to follow. Do I care? Not a jot. The film is an experience of the deepest acid trip. In this era, Fellini was particularly inspired by Buñuel, and it shows just in the way that the film gives no sense to logic, but merely concerns itself with overwhelming you with imagery, and images coming together to create potent, abstract meaning in the way of ‘Un Chien Andalou’, it’s also darkly funny in the way Buñuel would become adept at.
Summarising the plot is a task in of itself, for it is sprawling and disjointed and epic and… lost. The film opens with a man, Encolpius, lamenting the fact that his lover/slave/ sex slave(?), is with someone else which he takes as a betrayal. Part of the reason he fancies this young boy is that he passes for a woman. The film later takes up as its theme, Encolpius’ inability to sleep with real women or get erect for them, I’m going to leave that there for cleverer people than me to parse. At one point he is sold into slavery. At one point he romances the wife of a dead ruler who might not be dead or just predicted his own death, (it’s not really clear), he defeats villains by appealing to the fact he’s just an innocent student, and fights minotaurs. He even is spanked, tries to rape a woman when he can’t get it up, and sees magic people to sort his flaccid penis problem.
It was different time.
How much you follow this movie will depend on your need for clear narrative structure. On my first watch, it was the thin semblance of narrative that held it together, that being said this time I had a much harder time keeping up with the semblance of a plot and so what the film really functions as, (as a loose semblance of barely connected surrealist set pieces), shone through a lot more. It is a stylistic layer cake, a fondant of oddity, a trifle of technical ambition. To quote Fellini, “I am examining ancient Rome as if this were a documentary about the customs and habits of the Martians.” This for me taps into the key dichotomy of the film, a kind of observational, wide shot style look at things, but with a deep surreality. Although that naturalism is in the overlapping dialogue and the camera movements and that is maybe it. The sound-mixing is cacophonous, the mise-en-scene is chaotic and the art direction garish. It’s a film that happened a year before the first Giallo blockbuster but it’s more of a sexploitation film than ‘Strip Nude For Your Killer’. This movie happened in 1969, about 13 years after the Italian government gave huge tax subsidies based on domestic gross for all films, even more for those deemed of particular artistic worth, reaching up to 18% of domestic gross. What this led to was a boom in the Italian genre movie that basically killed Italian Neo-Realism. Neo-Realism flourished in the first place because it was a genre that flourished in a dead film industry, being cheap and quick to shoot. They also made absolutely no money, (bar maybe Rome, Open City). Genre films, however, sold well, even if they’d only really boom in the 70s. Fellini’s movies exploded by adding elements of fantasy and whimsy before genre really happened in Italy. Then, as his career exploded so did the Italian film industry. This lands us in 1969, and Fellini wants to make a surrealist piece with one of the biggest budgets ever constructed for an art film ever put together, and the money is on the screen in every facet. It genuinely has the scale of ‘The Ten Commandments’. It has the same aesthetic qualities of Cecil B Demille. These rich, saturated but detailed backgrounds and vistas, but with a sense of grime, texture, and business that’s just a product of all the cinematic innovation that happened between the two filmmakers. The score is also ahead of its time and absolutely whack, just as much as it’s narrative structure and style was. The music sounds so much like Mica Levi’s score for ‘Under The Skin’ or Goblin’s score for ‘Suspiria’.
In the end, it is my task now to summarise a review of a movie that is itself impossible to summarise. Nonsensical? Check. Ludicrous? Check. Abstract? Check. Filled with really problematic ideas? Maybe..? I think..? Filled with irrepressible creativity, imagination, & passion? Absolutely.