Satyricon, Fellini’s last picture of the 1960’s, prefigures the turn his work would take in the 1970’s through its use of episodic vignettes and elaborate costuming, as well as its basis in a historical/literary source. It uses the classical text from which the film draws its name as a jumping off point, adhering loosely to the events described therein. Fellini constructs a portrait of Roman decadence, an empire in decline, where the mythical and the real exist side by side in a manner which creates a surrealistic dream logic within the narrative. Satyricon is a visually stunning work. As Fellini had not yet begun to film on soundstages exclusively, this film contains striking instances of landscape photography which allow for expansive outdoor scenes which would not be found in his later films. The sheer variety of locales explored in this film, from seaside cliffs to vast, arid deserts, as well as its classical Roman subject matter suggest a debt to Golden-Age Hollywood epics, but Fellini manages to wring fresh and exciting images from this oft-depicted material, communicating a vision of Rome which is as fantastical as it is grounded in the filth and frailties of the human body.
The Romans characterized in this work are sex-obsessed decadents, heirs to a great, but crumbling society whose glory days are behind it. They are crude and uncouth, though they find themselves surrounded by artifacts from an earlier, more enlightened age. This can be read as a metaphorical imagining of Italy in Fellini’s lifetime, a center of culture and artistry transformed into a consumerist wasteland of sexual deviance and wanton consumption. Fellini shows little care for historical details, constructing a stylistic approach to Roman clothing and architecture which draws from a variety of cultural sources, reminiscent of Pasolini’s imagining of the ancient world in films like Medea and Oedipus Rex. Fellini’s attention to costuming and details in background scenery create an imagistic richness which both denies any impulse toward historical realism while also making the Rome inhabited by the characters feel lived-in, if otherworldly. The film utilizes an enormous cast of actors, each outfitted in a way which suggests unarticulated characterizations, a method for transforming inconsequential figures into intriguing visual details. This method of staging and composing large crowds would be fully realized in Fellini’s later films, Amarcord and Roma.
The narrative arc depicted by Satyricon is largely non-linear, with several key characters recurring throughout the film, though their motives are often difficult to understand. Instead of utilizing a more traditional heroic narrative which one might expect from a historical epic, Fellini uses a series of vignettes, as is common in Italian comic cinema, to create an impression of the last years of the Roman Empire under Nero. By constructing the film as a prolonged montage of disconnected scenes, the sequential logic of which is nebulous at best, Fellini allows space for interpretation, inviting the viewer to inhabit his vision of Rome for two hours, at which point they will draw their own conclusions about the series of images which they have seen. Are the Romans spectacularly perverse and cruel, thirsting after ever greater displays of sensuality and violence, or are they simply a reflection of human nature, victims of decadence and imperfection? These are the questions with which Fellini interrogates the viewer, though having a precise answer is not necessary to enjoy Satyricon‘s many pleasures.