“Satyricon” is advanced Fellini, a film seemingly made with little regard for its audience — going so far as to end mid-sentence to stress its fragmented nature.
The idea was to “upset viewers,” says one expert on the film. Fellini, of course, succeeds at upending the cinema as few filmmakers could.
Difficult and frustrating as “Satyricon” can be, however, the 1969 film rewards repeated viewings, a pursuit made far more rewarding with the Criterion Collection’s release of a Blu-ray edition. The disc comes blessed with splendid visuals and laden with extra features.
Fully titled “Fellini Satyricon,” the Italian film tracks three petty criminals — played by a trio of English-speaking hippies — as they wander the ancient world in search of sex and riches. They find murder, cannibalism, paint-by-numbers orgies and an endless supply of Fellini grotesques.
The director and his below-the-line collaborators craft an alien landscape, populated by among the most bizarre characters the Italian director ever herded onto a screen. His screenplay is “freely adapted” from the work of Petronius, a writer of satire from the court of Nero. Petronius’ work survives in fragments — roughly three chapters out of 16 — and Fellini proves more than willing to fill in some of the gaps with his fever dreams.
The idea was to “upset viewers,” to “destabilize them and to make them feel quite disoriented,” says Joanna Paul, who studied the relationship between Fellini’s film and its first-century source material. Fellini sought to make the point that “antiquity might be completely unintelligible” to modern humans if they traveled there, the historian notes.
Like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s soon-to-follow “Trilogy of Life,” “Satyricon” presents homosexuality on even terms with hetrosexuality. Historically accurate for first century Rome, but no doubt unsettling for the audiences of 1969.
Federico Fellini unleashed his “Satyricon” in 1969, the year of Altamont and the Manson Family murders. In retrospect, the film proves a handy wormhole between the bad craziness of the end of the hippie era with the debauched times of Rome’s Emperor Nero.
“He was flirting with the idea of ’68,” says historian Luca Canali, an adviser on the film. Paul adds that Fellini used his “archetypal” hippie actors — one a street kid, another from the cast of “Hair” — to argue that “first century Rome was somehow akin to the (1960s) countercultural revolution.”
Their point is underlined by the making-of documentary included with the Blu-ray. We see director Roman Polanski and his wife, the stunning actress Sharon Tate — hipster royalty of the day — paying a visit to the “Satyricon” set. This just months before the pregnant Tate would be dead at the hands of the Manson hippies.
Criterion’s “Fellini Satyricon” unspools (2.35:1) images from a 4K restoration, as overseen by original director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno. The audio is mono, uncompressed, buffing up Nina Rota’s sci-fi-inspired score.
“Satyricon” and Criterion go way back; it was one of the arthouse label’s earliest titles, dating to the laserdisc era. The film has a spotty home video history since then. MGM tossed off a bare-bones DVD version in 2001. Criterion, therefore, has given Fellini fans much to celebrate.
The film comes without the English dubbed track (found on the MGM title), annoying to some fans of the film because the key actors spoke that language. (All of the “Satyricon” dialog was recorded in Italian after filming ended.) Fellini abandoned plans to present all dialog in Latin.
“Ciao, Federico!” the hourlong documentary, captures Fellini during production in the manner of a modern making-of featurette. “What the fuck are you filming,” he fumes at the docu cameraman at one point. “What’s the point?” He’s no easier on some of the actors. “Sometimes he’s cruel,” one actor says, “but it’s the cruelty of a child.”
More notes from the set come during the feature-length commentary, adapted from a memoir by Eileen Lanouette Hughes. She reports faithfully on the filming, but finds the result “terrifyingly grotesque” in part.
There’s also an archival interview with Fellini, a gallery of goodies and a new chat with cinematographer Rotunno. Film scholar Michael Wood does the booklet text.