FELLINI opens his Satyricon with a shot of a wall covered with ancient Roman graffitti: crudely drawn naked women, some puns, maybe somewhere a reference to Caesar Salad: all in cold damp colors blending to a dull grey-green. This first image persists as the most sensible comment about the rest of the film.
Fellini Satyricon has been called "the first great Jungian film" (in Time magazine), and this would be true if we were to take graffitti as the quintessential representation of the collective unconscious. Otherwise, Fellini Satyricon is a loosely constructed. opulently produced cartoon, in which no one image seems essential to the thematic sense of the film and some make little sense at all.
I suppose this can all be explained. Fellini is no dodo. He is making a film about decadent Roman society, and where we decadent Americans presume that our symbols have some reference beyond themselves, and thus make for a cleaner reality on another level, the symbols of Fellini's Rome never flee the decadence and malaise that creates them. For example, in one take, two of the main characters are walking past a side street, up which horses are drawing a 20-foot high statue of a head. The two are on their way to a brothel. Trying to understand the head on the side street as a straightforward symbol just doesn't work, because it is not a symbol that relates back to the emotions or the unconscious of either of the two characters in the way that the horse walking down the street in La Strada or the barge in Juliet of the Spirits depended for their reality on the emotions and unconscious of Guilietta Massina. Fellini is giving us Rome unchannelled by the characters' perceptions of it. With such free-floating imagery and relatively undefined characters, the thematic line becomes less important than the lincar story line, since it is story-coincidences of time and space-rather than a theme which binds the whole thing together. And there is plenty of story; greasy episode upon greasy episode, all blotting themselves on Fellini's film.
TWO YOUNG bisexual wanderers. Encolpius and Ascyltus, quarrel over possession of a beautfiul young boy, Giton. Ascyltus gets him, leaving Encolpius weeping in a building which unsympathetically collapses, driving Encolpius alone out into the world. In a scene at a Roman art gallery. Encolpius meets a poet named Eumolphus, and the two talk of the decadent disrepair of the art of their time, and look back wistfully to past classics. Having thus conveniently suspended the present in cultural malaise, the two head off to a banquet/orgy given by Trimalchio. a fat old fart whom Petronius, the author of the original Satyricon, patterned after the Emperor Nero. The debauch at the party is complete, happily (for me) beyond the descriptive power of adjectives and adverbs. Merriment is cooled by a breach of good taste when Eumolphus accuses Trimalchio of plagiarizing Lucretius, Obviously he is correct, for Trimalchio immediately orders him thrown into a fire.
Trimalchio, having thus in one evening satiated every imaginable desire of the will, decides that the time has come for him to meet his makers. He rehearses his death once, and then is gone, leaving Encolpius and a weeping Mrs. Trimakbio at his grave. Mrs. Trimalchio looks up and into Encolpius's dilated blue eyes. And soon they are entwined there by the grave. Mrs. Trimalchio concludes, "Better to hang a dead husband than lose a living lover," but Encolpius is beginning to come apart, to lose himself sexually. At this point, he is estranged from himself only emotionally. But by the time he has been married to a homosexual ship captain, shared a woman with his constantly re-appearing rival Ascyltus, then seen Ascyltus go at a writhing nymphomaniac who is tied spread-eagled in a wagon, and, finally, helped kidnap an albino hermaphrodite (who dies, of thirst)-something's got to give physically as well.
It does, but Fellini has to play a few more tricks and spend some more money on elaborate sets. Out of nowhere (with no transition from the previous scene except a black screen to signal "shift"), we see Encolpius sliding down a dirt pile and into an arena to fight a man in a minotaur costume. At this point. the film begins to resemble Juliet of the Spirits, but only because the situation itself is so implausible that we look for psychological reality, finding no other. An exhausted Encolpius fights his minotaur through a maze, finally falling down pleading for his life with a line that Fellini must still giggle over: "Please excuse my clumsiness. I am not a gladiator; I am only a student."
Encolpius is pardoned, and to the lusty cheers of the crowd, presented with the body of a beautiful overripe woman. Encolpius, who, if it is possible, understands what has been happening even less than the movie audience, waves to the crowd and strides over to the woman. He mounts her, but cannot enter; he is impotent. The woman throws him off, calling him "a squashed worm." The crowd boos and throws rocks. Encolpius is again alone, weeping: unable to participate in "the glory that was Rome" as Fellini has defined it.
Once again, Eumolphus, miraculously saved from the fire, intervenes, sending Encolpius off to the Garden of Delights for the cure. He might have made it there, except that he suddenly sees Ascyltus cavorting with the women who are supposed to be helping him, and the emotions that crippled him in the first place come rushing back.
There's only one hope left: the Witch Oenothea, who in a trade-off with a wizard long ago ended up with fire between her legs. And it's real fire too, because Fellini shows us a scene in which a long line of foolish-looking peasants wait with unlit torches at Oenotheas's bed. When their time comes, each devoutly places his torch between her legs to her sex, and "Poof." It is as if Fellini cannot bear to let us imagine anything. Anyway, Encolpius goes to Oenothea, and she "lights his fire," as it were, and he walks off jubilantly through a field of enormous stone phalluses. Ascyltus re-appears once more, realizes that Encolpius has finally found himself sexually, and dies on the spot. Got that, dies on the spot. And, to re-inforce the absurdity of such an ending, Encolpius sails off to new adventures.
So there you have the story. On it hang thousands of cameos: of ugly, deformed, voluptuous. debauching Romans. Fellini's camera moves past them almost mechanically, allotting a measured vignette to each freak and then moving on. The story almost rumbles as it moves unaffected through so many lives.
In a quotation printed on the title page of the program, Fellini says, "If you see with innocent eyes, everything is divine." Yet Fellini's own La Strada says with great beauty that even if that may once have been so, it is no longer. Fellini's present "innocence," I am afraid, is closer to a stubborn refusal to make coherent what is happening to the characters in his film by explaining why it is happening (and, more important since this may be a film about a society rather than about specific characters, what was wrong with Rome, and by the inevitable extension, what is wrong with the Western World in the 20th century). In Juliet of the Spirits, which was also somewhat confusing, one did have a feeling that beneath the strange faces and events was a statement that was worth the time unravelling. I have no such confidence in Fellini Satyricon.