By David R. Gayton
When speaking of counter cultures and “sexual revolutions” it is important to note that sexual mores and societal codes of conduct belong to a realm of ethics and social politics that have been in constant ebb and flow since the dawn of mankind. The importance of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, however, lays on the fact that as a social movement of extensive precedent, it was able to gain worldwide momentum with unprecedented rapidity through the use modern information channels such as journals, television, books, music and the arts. Influenced by the works of Freud, C. G. Jung, D.H. Lawrence, and the surrealist movement, at the heart of this sexual revolution lay the belief that sexual repression had a harmful effect upon man. What resulted was a drastic social reevaluation of gender roles and the traditional heterosexual, monogamous relationship. For the first time in modern history questions about sex, masturbation, eroticism, pornography, gender and sexuality where set forth openly for discussion within the mainstream.
In 1969, within the midst of this atmosphere of open dialogue came Fellini’s film adaptation of Gaius Petronius’ first century CE “novel” Satyricon. Titled simply Fellini’s Satyricon, the film, like Petronius’ own extant narrative, follows the adventures of two young Roman men and their slave boy across the Mediterranean, or what was then the Roman Empire. In making this film Fellini said, “it was impossible for me not to see that the world described by Petronius bore a remarkable similarity to the one in which we live today…Trimalchio made me think of Onassis: a gloomy immobile Onassis with the stony glare of a mummy. The other characters remind me of hippies.” Of the original Roman story Fellini retains most of the principal characters, their general relations to each other and a handful of scenes or episodes. Further, by adding scenes and characters of his own creation or ‘borrowed’ from other sources, Fellini added not only his own personal imprint onto the ancient text but thoroughly reconstructed it as a personal vision and an independent work of art. As such, Fellini’s Satyricon stands not just as a reflection of the ancient Roman world with all of its savagery, excesses and sublime sensitivities, but rather as a reflection the world which Fellini himself inhabited in the late 1960’s.
Picking up Petronius’ narrative at about half point, Fellini’s film opens with a long shot of a stark, stained and heavily graffitied wall that could easily pass as an “obscene” Picasso painting. As the frame expands, the silhouette of a slender young man is brought unto the mise-en-scene. From within the darkness of the frame the blackened figure of the young man is heard spewing unto this obscene wall a vituperative monologue against the wretchedness of his state of affairs and the unfaithfulness of his slave-boy and lover, Gitone. Suddenly, the figure of the young man thrusts around and the entire frame is filled with a close up of Encolpio (Martin Potter), the principal narrator of both the ancient text and the film. Young, blond, blue eyed, in love, and in a rage Encolpio sallies forth from hereon on a frantic search for his slave/lover, setting thereby the tonality and mood of Fellini’s film.
Filled with cinematographic idiosyncrasies such as the use of brash atonality in the musical score and the stark use of Technicolor and primary color lighting, Fellini designed this picture to be as he himself put it, “a film outside of time, an atemporal film.” Consequently, what these idiosyncrasies do is help create a disorienting sensation on the viewer that could almost equate to the effects of alcohol, hallucinogens, or a “trip.” Irrespective, the effect is undoubtedly intoxicating, and as such it invests the film with both the potential of nauseating or lowering the viewer’s inhibitions. In fact, by its very nature, the narrative forces the auteur to veer yet further away from classical cinematography by moving abruptly from one shot to the next with sometimes nothing more than a fading soliloquy to link two contiguous scenes. It is in this manner that the viewer is presented with what could be one of the most beautiful scenes in the film. After Trimalchio’s lavish dinner party, Encolpio and the poet Eumolpo are seen stumbling through a vast horizon of furrowed and eerily lit fields; they both fall to the earth, and with the minimalist simplicity of a Rothko painting, Eumolpo (Salvo Randone) is captured reciting a mournful farewell and praise to life, the elements, and poetry. No sooner is the poet done with his recitation, however, than the frame suddenly bursts into blaring light and sound and the film’s story line is completely altered, and Encolpio is seen in chains.
Startling as some of these effects may seem at first, they serve to accentuate within the viewer the sensation of peering or entering into an entirely different world. Fascinated from an early age with the ancient culture of Rome, Fellini was well aware that the ancient Latin world, although recognizable in our own, was above all a Pagan world. Savage, dynamic, and exceptionally refined, ancient Rome lacked most of the restrictions and taboos on sex, marriage, and even death that Christianity would later bring to Western culture. Recognizing their own values within the culture of ancient Rome and perceiving this pagan world as being more in tune with the “real nature of man” the hippie generation found within it the validation required for rejecting the values of the preceding generations.
As stated within the widely acclaimed PBS documentary The Sixties, “at the core of the sexual revolution was the concept—radical at the time—that woman just like men, enjoyed sex and had sexual needs.” Following this idea then, Fellini’s Satyricon is filled with sexually insatiable women, both proud or suffering nymphomaniacs. Herein Fellini presents the viewer first with a nymphomaniac who bursts into a room in the theatre, lays down, and invitingly pulls up her skirt for the men around her; then with the nymphomaniac Ariadne, who in the Festival of Laughter feels degraded and besmirched by Encolpio’s inability to get an erection as he mounts her; and lastly with a the insatiable wife of the distraught man who must tie her to a wagon and set on a constant search to provide her with sexual partners to sooth her sexual needs. For these women far removed is the Christian idea that sex is only for procreation. In other words, these women are women who are well aware of their sexual nature and who enjoy it.
Conversely, just as Fellini’s Satyricon manages to acknowledge female sexuality through these sexually liberated women, it simultaneously helps showcase the male centered society of both the ancient Roman world and the Western World of the 1960’s where women were legally and socially treated as inferiors to men. To showcase this fact, Fortunata, the wife of Trimalchio is publicly humiliated by her husband, while Trypheana, wife of Lichas of Tarentum is the silent and obliging companion to her husband’s depraved whims.
Along with this visual awareness of female sexuality the film proceeds to recognize that aspect of male sexuality that the western world still holds as taboo: Male Homosexuality. Along with the homosexual relationships depicted within Petronius’ ancient text, Fellini uses humor and awe to lead to the audience into the intimacy, serenity, and tenderness of of the relationship between Encolpio and Gitone. To further emphasize this aspect sexuality and gender construction, there is Vernachio’s slave auctioning of the Gitone as being superior to a wife; “he is neat, he is clean, he’s been trained to play Helen, Penelope, Cornelia”, Vernachio advertices to the audience of decadent theatre goers, blurring thereby the lines between supposed gender roles. Finally, as if to fully drive this point home, Fellini adds to the ancient narrative that ultimate symbol of the ambivalences of gender and sexuality into the film through the hermaphrodite scenes. Having both male and female genitalia the hermaphrodite was for the ancients, as it is for us, a subject of wonder and much cause of consternation. Containing both genders the hermaphrodite absorbs all the contradictions of gender and sexuality, yet in its ambiguity it stands practically sexless.
Contrasting this image of irresolute wantonness, yet maintaining that same emphasis on the freedom of the sexes, Fellini also focuses on the portraits of the virtuous men and women of ancient rome. One such portrait is exemplified through the episode in the villa of the suicides. Noble and expecting a terrible death, the patron of a country villa takes his own life while his doting wife looks on only to follow his same fate. That she sacrifices her own life for her husband should not be deemed as inconsistent to the hereto mentioned view of females and their liberated roles. For in this scene the viewer is made to understand that the woman has willingly accepted the role of dutiful wife and companion and as such she is willing taking her own life in order to fulfill that role. Another instance of this type of spousal fidelity is to be observed in the scene with the forlorn husband of the crazed nymphomaniac of the wagon. In his case, however, the gender roles have totally been reversed. Here the husband has willingly accepted his role as a dutiful husband and and just like the matron of the villa he must sacrifice his own interests and provide his wife with men to satiate her sexual urges.
Since, and even before Fellini’s Satyricon there have been many other versions of Petronius’ fascinating work, however, there have been none that have reached the felicity and artistry that is clearly visible in Fellini’s master piece. Perhaps it was a coincidence that Federico Fellini lived and worked at the precise moment when such a film such as his Satyricon was possible, yet on that aspect one can only speculate. However, one thing stands for certain, Fellini’s Satyricon, along with all of its stark beauty and social commentary, stands as a work that illustrates the fact that life is ultimately brief, beautiful and dynamic. Our lives being transitory and meant to be forgotten, very much like the Fellini’s Satyricon will one day need neither beginning or end in order to be treasured or understood. For as the film suggests, life, such as the feast held by Trimalchio, is a lavish and barbaric feast, so why not simple take some time to enjoy it?