I was a junior in high school, and I had become pretty comfortable with the phallocentrism of the classical authors. At a boys’ school, you’re pretty ready to believe that anything and everything is a penis, and when your Latin teacher says, “This sparrow isn’t a sparrow,” you’re entirely willing (and indeed enthusiastic) to go along with it. I knew by reputation Petronius’s “Satyricon,” the raunchy satire of Neronian Rome, but I had never read much of it. It had also never even occurred to me to watch a foreign film voluntarily, so when my Latin teacher tossed a DVD of Federico Fellini’s 1969 “Satyricon” into the classroom player, I had no idea what to expect. This perhaps is for the best, since even my most obscene, Catullus-fueled imaginings could not meet the reality of what I was about to watch. Fellini’s “Satyricon” remains one of the most lurid things I have ever seen.
The film opens on the conflict between roommates Encolpio (Martin Potter) and Ascilto (Hiram Keller) over their boy-lover Gitone (Max Born), and, after Ascilto runs off with Gitone, it follows Encolpio’s trials as he wends his way through the corrupt, fetid tableaux afforded by life in Imperial Rome. It’s a world in which there is much sex but little eroticism, a society obsessed with details of spectacle but not too concerned about principles of any particular sort, a civilization of artifice and posturing. The freed slave Trimalcione (Mario Romagnoli) asks his hired poet Eumolpo (Salvo Randone) what he thinks of Trimalcione’s verses. “To tell the truth, you stole them from Lucretius,” the poet replies. “You are no poet.” Trimalcione has him thrown into an oven. Encolpio visits brothels and feasts, the temple and the amphitheatre, and finds all shot through with human pettiness.
“Satyricon” is perhaps the most obviously surreal of Fellini’s films. One scene is introduced by about 40 nude men and women jumping up and down in a swimming pool; in a brothel, Encolpio sees a parade of gross caricatures of perversion, from bondage to fat fetishism; at Trimalcione’s feast, mimes and dancers in fantastical costumes writhe and gyrate without stop. Fellini is more than a shock artist, however, and he knows that, without touchstones of sanity to hold the viewer’s interest in the work, he or she will disengage entirely from the spectacle. His solution is brilliant: through the film, actors in the edges of the frame break one of the cardinal laws of cinema and stare directly into the camera. Their eyes plead with the viewer: “Get me out. Get me out.”
This was a lot for a high schooler who was expecting a movie about penis jokes. I was deeply unsettled. After looking into that hell, it was difficult to take the real world at face value, to avoid wondering whether or not everyone around me was as distorted and foul as what I had just seen—whether or not I was one of those people staring at the camera.
Since that time, “Satyricon” has remained the movie I go to when I need to feel that distance and adopt the outsider’s mode, to take on the pleading eyes of the satirist. This movie is not just a monument of literary adaptation or a textbook of Fellini’s elegant framing and angles; it is the most estranging experience I have ever had. In a society that is concerned with lulling the individual into the soft-blue glow of digital screens, we need estrangement. We need to be shaken, to see overwhelming follies so that we can see them more clearly when writ small. We need “Satyricon.”
—Staff writer Jude D. Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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