Fellini-Satyricon by Federico Fellini (1968) --Why are classicists like directors?
Subtitled "A Free Adaption of the Petronius Classic," the film indeed uses Petronius as a shell, but Fellini has fashioned a series of adventures that bears little resemblance to Petronius whatsoever. Petronius' work, fragments of an epic work written during Nero's reign, is primarily a comedy and a satire. Fellini's film is similarly a series of fragments, but the visuals are once removed from reality and the iconography of Hollywood. It is as if Fellini, after reading Petronius, reveals to us his dreams, dreams filtered through the often dark, often ghastly, often beautiful regions of the subconscious. (Most who reviewed the film seemed preoccupied with this distinction between Pretronius' original work and Fellini's adaptation.) Made mostly on huge stages inside Cinecittà studios in Rome, the film has a remarkably artificial look, and the sets give the impression of misty dreamscapes filled with an array of grotesque, painted faces.
Some critics have felt that where Fellinin is astonishingly true to his model (Petronius' Satyricon) is in the atmosphere he engenders in his film. Although more graphic and visual than his original, he succeeds in expressing its spirit of decadence and excess. At the same ti me Fellini capture the "empire" atmosphere of Rome by employment of different languages and foreigners.
The film was released in 1969: Encolpius and Ascyltus are itinerant students of the I cent. AD and yet they behave like dropouts of the sixties: too selfish to be radicals and too unmotivated to be scholars.
While in Petronius' Satyricon the tale of "The widow of Ephesus" is told by Eumolpus on Lichas' boat, Fellini makes it part of Trimalchio's banquet. Trimalchio and his guests retire to the site of his mausoleum, where the tale is performed as it were a masque. Yet at first one does not know it is a dramatization, it seems more like a flashback: one of the guests starts telling the story, and then, in a typical flashback fashion, the spoken narrative is visualized. By presenting the two episodes in succession, Fellini is asking us to compare the banquet and the performance, the real and the illusory.
Bernard Dick: "Fellini Satyricon is not so much an adaptation as an excavation of Petronius; it is an attempt to uncover the images beneath the novel..[the movie] is like the graffiti-covered wall that opens the film; the work is so overlaid with conjecture and so obscured by critical debate (it celebrates-attacks vice, it mocks-champions classicism) that its visual equivalent would be a marked-up wall.
Fellini impresses us as an orgy of visual effects. He offers us a vision or an interpretation of a lost world, the dissolute, pre-Christian Rome, which will suggest analogies to our own: he says "We can find disconcerting analogies between Roman society before the final arrival of Christianity--a cynical society, impassive, corrupt, and frenzied--and society today...Then as now we find ourselves confronting a society at the height of its splendor but revealing already the signs of a progressive dissolution...a society in which all beliefs--religious, philosophical, ideological, and social--have crumbled, and been replaced by a sick, wild, and impotent eclecticism." And also "If the work of Petronius is the realistic, bloody, and amusing description of the customs, characters, and general feel of those times, the film we want to freely adapt from it could be a fresco in fantasy key, a powerful and evocative allegory--a satire of the world we live in today. Man never changes.
Petronius' other sources:
Medieval material about Vergil the magician for the obscene and fiery fate of the witch Oenothea.
For Encolpius in the labyrinth fighting the Minotaur and obliged to make love (unsuccessfully) with Ariadne, Fellini used a roman novel written about a century later than the Satyricon, Apuleius' Golden Ass (2.31-3.11). Here the anti-hero Lucius has tricks played on him during a festival in honor of the god Mirth. The Minotaur may be inspired by Picasso's painting Minotauromachy . Obviously Encolpius is being compared with Theseus who had courageously sought out and slain the half-beast, half-man. In the film the "hero" throws himself at the mercy of the monster.
The copulation on the stage may also be inspired by the reports of the Roman satiric poet Martial. He talks about executions and mutilations on stage in mythological and historical playlets and nude spectacles by prostitutes as part of the rituals of the Floralia, a festival celebrated in the Spring.
In the episode of the suicide of the couple, Fellini was inspired by Seneca, Martial, and Tacitus' stories of the death of the philosopher Thrasea Paetus and his wife Paeta. In the Villa of Suicides the wife is reading Hadrian (A.D.117-138). The dignity with which the husband ends his life also evokes the suicides of Seneca, his nephew Lucan and of Petronius himself.
For some of the scenes involving Lichas and his "marriage" to the humiliated Encolpius, Fellini must have drawn on the anecdotes on the marriages between Nero and his freedman Pythagoras found in Suetonius and Tacitus.
Roman Frescoes from Pompei.
The episode with the kidnapping of the frail albino bisexual who is worshiped as the living god Hermaphroditus who dies of thirst and exhaustion in the desert during his abduction may be based on a Pseudo-Petronian poem sometimes printed along with the Satyricon. This late piece describes the strange debated in heaven over the birth and death of Hermaphroditus: should he die by drowning, stabbing, or crucifixion? In the poem he climbs a tree by a river, transfixes himself with his own sword and his head falls into the river with his body hanging from the tree. The albino character also reminds one of Caligula who according to Suetonius was extremely pale with hollow eyes and thin hair and who often dressed like a woman.