(Previously- Satyricon 2 – Fellini’s Film)

Federico Fellini was one of the most important Italian filmmakers of the 20th century.  His early work was part of the so-called Italian Neorealism movement that concentrated on the everyday life of normal Italians, specifically in the context of Italy’s defeat in WWII. He became famous with international successes such as Nights of Cabiria (1957), La Dolce Vita (1960), and (1963). He eventually developed his own style that imposed sometimes strange and surreal visuals upon stories often pulled from his own experiences, desires, dreams, and memories. Fantastical and absurd tropes often appeared alongside realistic plots, and there was also always a heavy dose of sexuality that often pitted him against the Catholic Church and Italian censors. His work greatly influenced a host of 20th century filmmakers around the world and he won many international awards including five Oscars. He died in 1993 from a stroke.

There are two aspects of Fellini’s life that are crucial to understand in order to contextualize his Satyricon.

Fellini and the Fascists

Born in 1920, Fellini was a young boy when Mussolini came to power and was forced to join the dictator’s Fascist youth group. As a young man, he avoided the WWII draft working as a screenwriter, including on propaganda films commissioned by the Fascist government. He later claimed that he was “apolitical” at the time, and eventually went into hiding until Mussolini’s arrest in 1943. Later, the Fascists (and other authority figures) would be ridiculed in his films as pathetic and ridiculous (see particularly his Amarcord (1973)). However, in the case of the Satyricon, it was Il Duce’s use of antiquity that inspired Fellini to engage with our engagement of the past.

Mussolini, and the other Fascists including Hitler, appropriated Roman antiquity in order to reinforce, legitimate and give epic framing their regimes. The dictator wrote in 1922:[1]

Much of that which was the immortal spirit of Rome is reborn in Fascism… It is necessary that the history of tomorrow, the history we fervently wish to create, not represent a contrast or a parody of the history of yesterday… Italy must be Roman.

Resources were mobilized to excavate new monuments of the ancient Romans that could be identified with the contemporary government. Films were commissioned that told Roman history through the new lens of Fascism. One of these, Scipione l’africano (1937), was even written by Mussolini himself and featured a cast of thousands hailing the ancient general Scipio Africanus with the Fascist salute as he leads an army to Africa.  This was right after Mussolini had launched his vicious invasion of Ethiopia.

To Fellini, Mussolini and the Fascists exploited Classical culture for their own selfish ends. They created a simplified, bastardized version of Roman history and society, highlighting its militarism and imperialism, and made it serve to legitimatize fascist ideology.

Fellini and the Church

The director had a more complicated relationship with the Catholic Church. He was fond of contrasting the more Epicurean pleasures of the body, which he often identified with pre-Christian paganism, with the somber and dour world of Catholicism, particularly the Catholicism of his youth. This can be seen, for example, in the opening scene of La Dolce Vita, and the Ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma.

This attitude finds particular expression in his Satyricon. We will explore many examples, but even in the minimalist trailer for the Satyricon, there is a very clear declaration that the Rome portrayed in the film was “Before Christ” and “After Felllini.”


(Up Next- Satyricon 4 – The Themes)


[1] Quoted in Wyke, Maria (1997), Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History (Routledge), p. 21.