Federico Fellini's career achieved new levels of eccentricity and brilliance with this remarkable, controversial, extremely loose adaptation of Petronius's classical Roman satire, written during the reign of Nero. An episodic barrage of sexual licentiousness, godless violence, and eye-catching grotesquerie, 'Fellini Satyricon' follows the exploits of two pansexual young men—the handsome scholar Encolpius and his vulgar, insatiably lusty friend Ascyltus—as they move through a landscape of free-form pagan excess. Creating apparent chaos with exquisite control, Fellini constructs a weird old world that feels like science fiction.
The world of cinema is home to many notable and famous filmmakers, but very few are so much larger-than-life that their name actually shows up cemented within a movie's title. Legendary Italian director, Federico Fellini, is one of those rare filmmakers. Not just simply christened 'Satyricon,' his 1969 dreamlike excursion into Ancient Rome is officially titled 'Fellini Satyricon,' and though this qualification might have originally been added for mere legal reasons, it immediately lets audiences know exactly what to expect. Serving as an important stepping stone in the director's evolving style, the film features an otherworldly journey into the past, creating a decidedly unique vision of history extravagantly skewed and distorted into an unmistakably "Felliniesque" experience.
Very loosely inspired by Gaius Petronius' first century Latin satire, the episodic story follows the exploits of a young Roman man named Encolpius (Martin Potter) as he attempts to traverse a strange ancient world in order to reunite with his frivolous lover, Gitone (Max Born). Throughout his journey, he is occasionally joined by his contentious ally, Ascyltus (Hiram Keller), and together the duo embark on a series of dangerous, erotic, surreal, violent, and farcical adventures.
As filtered through Fellini's distinctly warped lens, the Ancient Rome in 'Satyricon' bears little resemblance to the real world. Instead, the director creates a strikingly surreal impression of reality, breathing mad, insatiable life into a darkly parallel universe of his own; a kind of post-apocalyptic Rome littered with bold decadence and oozing sexuality. This strange, moody, and bizarre atmosphere is engendered through impeccable production designs that clash bold colors against drab hues, and ethereal compositing that basks many scenes under a fiery orange sky. As the runtime evolves, we bear witness to a faintly science fiction past both decaying and struggling to be reborn -- all amongst a constant cacophony of ravenous moans and cackles.
A mixture of carefully framed wide shots and potent close-ups present a sumptuous aesthetic ever so slightly off-balance, charged by a crazed but very deliberately crafted mania. Fellini often employs non-professional actors purely for their unique appearances on-screen, and here the cast's expressive faces and bodies become a frequent focal point for the camera, revealing a carnival of innocent beauty and grotesque desires. Several standout sequences provide visually rapturous imagery, including a particularly notable series of tracking shots early on. As we move through a seemingly never-ending brothel, the camera continually tracks past open doorways, offering startling peeks into a perpetual carousel of carnal escapades, made all the more overwhelming thanks to the constant motion of the frame.
These arresting visuals all serve a loosely evolving plot of increasingly disjointed misadventures, enlightening satirical themes related to sexuality, class, brutality, and art. An outrageous banquet, enslavement on a pirate ship, a battle against a "minotaur," a few stories within stories, and a desperate quest to cure a rather pesky case of erectile dysfunction are all among Encolpius' numerous violent, sensual, and humorous exploits.
Unfortunately, some of these episodes prove to be much more engaging than others, and certain segments tend to drag out longer than they need to (the banquet, especially), resulting in sporadic pacing issues. With that said, this irregular narrative structure also goes on to enhance the director's surreal and disorienting intentions, helping to create a dreamlike sense of storytelling that rejects traditional drama, plot, and development in favor of something much more primal and hypnotic.
Tossing any lingering vestiges of conventional filmmaking aside, in 'Satyricon,' Fellini fully embraces his penchant for grotesque madness and fantastic imagery -- resulting in a "documentary of a dream" that transforms Ancient Rome into a cinematic wonderland of horrors and spectacles. A first century circus of celluloid delights, the movie offers a genuinely powerful visual experience. And though it lacks the more personal touch that elevates the director's true masterpieces ('La dolce vita,' '8 1/2,' 'Amarcord'), the film still fully earns the "Fellini" in its title.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'Fellini Satyricon' in their standard clear case with spine number 747. The BD-50 Region A disc comes packaged with a pamphlet featuring an essay by film scholar Michael Wood.
Sourced from a 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative, the movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Richly filmic and nearly pristine, this is an absolutely stunning picture that preserves the director's dreamlike imagery perfectly.
The print is in fantastic shape with only very negligible specks or a fleeting vertical present in isolated instances. A moderate layer of pleasing, natural grain is also visible throughout. Though not as razor sharp as some contemporary films, detail is very impressive, rendering fine textures in every layer of the frame, highlighting all of the film's extravagant set designs, costumes, and bizarrely memorable faces. Colors are also exquisitely rendered, mixing dark and drab hues (like those found in the opening bath house sequence) with more vibrant splashes of bold reds, oranges, and purples, fully brining the director's unique otherworldly vision of Ancient Rome to life. Contrast is also balanced well, with even whites and deep blacks. Thankfully, there are no pesky artifacts or signs of digital processing.
With a transfer supervised by director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno, 'Fellini Satyricon' comes to Blu-ray with a masterful video presentation, offering a consistently respectful and impressive image.
The audio is presented in an Italian LPCM mono track with optional English subtitles. Fueled by some appropriately strange sound design choices, the mix works well to enhance Fellini's striking visuals.
Dialogue is clean and clear throughout with a relatively full-bodied quality. With that said, all of the speech was recorded in post-production and Fellini often goes out of his way to keep dialogue noticeably out of sync with the actor's lips. This is not uncommon for many foreign films of this time period, but here the overtly detached audio adds a deliberate and suitably dreamlike quality to the track. Boisterous parties, crashing waves, and crumbling buildings all come through with solid fidelity and range, and the mix is also home to some anachronistic sci-fi effects that help bring an otherworldly mood to the runtime. Notable pops, crackles, and background hissing are thankfully absent.
Lively and wonderfully weird, the sound design creates a truly "Felliniesque" atmosphere, and this mix preserves the film's unusual ambiance wonderfully.
Criterion has put together a fantastic collection of supplements, including a commentary and a great documentary with lots of footage of the director in action. All of the special features are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio and English subtitles for the foreign language portions.
'Fellini Satyricon' offers an otherworldly excursion into a dreamlike past full of surreal satire and grotesque imagery. Visually striking and cinematically grand, this is a distinctly "Felliniesque" experience that defies traditional narrative structure. The video transfer is absolutely stunning, offering a respectful and impressive picture that preserves the movie's arresting style. Likewise, the audio track is strong as well, highlighting the unique sound design. Criterion has also included a great selection of supplements that provide an intimate peek into the legendary director's process. The movie's unconventional storytelling, and erotic and violent content won't be for everyone, but this is an undeniably fantastic release for a very unique film.