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Criterion Collection: Fellini Satyricon | Blu-ray Review

Fellini Satyricon Federico Fellini Blu-ray

Considered amongst the few surviving ancient novels as one of the best depictions of the wild debauchery that seized early Roman society, Petronius’s episodically fractured text The Satyricon tells the tale of Encolpius and his friend and occasional lover Ascyltus, a pair of former gladiators, as they venture through a society rife with overindulgence, sexual proclivity and flippant violence, rotating in form and tone from serious to silly, poetic narrative prose to lyrical verse throughout. Fellini Satyricon, Federico Fellini’s extremely loose adaptation of Petronius’s novel, takes this already loose narrative form and applies the structure as a lens for interpreting the history of antiquity itself – vividly alien, wholly broken and humanly detached from our own worldly norms. The result is a film that, in its unleashed inhibitions, leaves us as an audience in awe of its cinematic freedom, yet at odds with the tale as an empathetic journey through time.

Fellini’s film takes the basic storyline from the novel, setting Encolpius and his companion Ascyltus through the early Roman landscape still under the rule of Nero, the fifth Roman Emperor. From there, it differs wildly in tone and narrative, depicting a seemingly endless parade of horrors and grotesqueries theatrically constructed within the famed Cinecittà Studios in a Rome far removed from the cinematic incarnation it finally bore witness to. Amidst massive film sets and props that purposefully peeked behind the veil of realism to reveal the artifice of cinema inherent in extravagant make-up, costuming and exaggerated performance, Fellini laid out a narrative purposefully incoherent, letting the narrative play out like a series of dream sequences that harken back to times long past, yet feel more the moody stuff of science fiction than the bawdy sword and sandal dramas that came before.

It’s imperative to remember that Fellini’s film first saw the dark of cinemas back in 1969 at the height of the hippy movement and just a year after Les Blank’s free spirited docu-portrait of the cultural revolution in God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance, which in its free form celebration of hippy culture rides on a similarly exuberantly sexual wavelength, albeit one that holds up hope for the future, rather than declaiming the past wholly unknowable. Satyricon, in its depiction of young androgynous men wandering through bleakly envisioned Roman banquets, brothels and bloodshed, wreaks of the late 60s. Despite its biting historical critique, the film exudes a psychedelic air that in some ways makes it more a highbrow ancestor to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s midnight stoner favorite The Holy Mountain than a work in the lineage of La Strada or .

That’s to say that Fellini Satyricon holds its audience at arms length, emptying any empathy one might expect from the incredibly personal filmmaker we’d come to know as Fellini. Instead, it fills the void left behind with the hatefulness of men, their tendencies for violence, their bottomless greed, their fervent lust, blending it all together without regard for continuity or comprehension in a whirlwind of color and flesh. If you can embrace the callous calamity that remains amidst the visual wonders and cinematic oddities Fellini threw at the screen, there is a raucous and bracing version of unknowable history to be had.

Disc Review:

Fellini’s vision of the debauchery of Ancient Rome is incredibly rendered in boldly vivid, filmic HD. Shot in Technicolor by Fellini’s soon to be regular DP, Giuseppe Rotunno, Satyricon pops with wildly theatrical, often surreal coloration, and Criterion’s transfer presents their achievement flawlessly. Matching the visual quality, Criterion has put forth a faithful, crisp and clean Italian mono track. And to top it all off, there is more extras included than should ever be expected for a single picture. We couldn’t ask for a more robust, lovingly composed release.

Audio Commentary
Though an odd turn for a commentary track, this is a reading of Eileen Lanouette Hughes’ 1971 memoir, On the Set of “Fellini Satyricon”: A Behind-the-Scenes Diary. Stocked full of first person accounts of happenings on set, searing declarations about Fellini’s filmmaking process, comments on casting, film funding and even various differences between Petroniuis’ original novel and the cinematic interpretation as it was unfolding. Despite its nontraditional approach to commentary tracks, it makes for an incredibly informative listen.

Ciao, Federico!
Shot throughout the production of Fellini Satyricon and produced by Gideon Bachmann in 1970, this documentary features tons of behind the scenes footage, much of it set to period music. 61 min

Fellini Interviews
Within is a set of interviews with Fellini himself speaking on his creative process and various themes that run through his oeuvre – one from Gideon Bachman (audio only) from 1969, another from a segment from the December 16, 1969, episode of JT de 20H, and another from Gene Shalit of 1975. 16 min

Giuseppe Rotunno
In this interview conducted by Criterion in 2011, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who collaborated with Fellini on nine different film projects, speaks about the joys and difficulties of working on his first feature with the auteur in Fellini Satyricon. 8 min

Fellini and Petronius
Featuring a pair of classicists in Joanna Paul, author of the article Fellini-Satyricon: Petronius and Film, and Luca Canali, who served as an adviser on the movie, speak at length on Fellini’s extremely loose adaptation of Gaius Petronius’ early novel. 24 min

Mary Ellen Mark
Back in 1968, photographer Mary Ellen Mark was hired to document the production of Fellini Satyricon for Look magazine. Here she discusses her formative film shoot experience on the set. 13 min

Within is a slideshow of high res Fellini Satyricon ephemera, including obliquely risque posters, books, and programs from all around the globe. The items appear curiosity of Don Young’s collection of Federico Fellini-related memorabilia, the Felliniana Archive.

Theatrical Trailer
Watching this wildly chaotic trailer, I tried to imagine how I might react to seeing it in a theater back in 1969 prior to the film’s release. I think my brain would melt in a state of high anxiety and perpetual perplexity. 3 min

Featuring Michael Wood’s essay critical essay on the film, Not Just Friends, this poster style fold-out booklet also features a stellar piece of promotional artwork, as well as production credits and notes on the transfer to Blu-ray.

Final Thoughts:

It must be said that, though Fellini Satyricon is unarguably astounding in its visual depiction and its audacious narrative form, I find it personally a bit impenetrable. That said, it could be argued that that is indeed the point. Ancient history, no matter how well researched or studied, can only be interpreted through fragmented bits of narrative archaeology that are impossible to render in comprehensive modern terms. In its incomprehensible form, Fellini’s cinematic depiction of ancient Rome certainly benefits from multiple viewings, so Criterion’s new release certainly comes as a welcome opportunity to do just that.

Film:        ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc: ★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

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