(Previously- Satyricon 3 – Fellini As Director)
Fellini’s Satyricon is a film like no other:
In a daring and masterful tour de force, the director has violated every cinematographic rule by producing a film with no pace, no psychology, no stars, and no story.
Here are the main themes of Fellini’s Satyricon that we will be engaging with. Identifying these helped me to realize what Fellini was probably trying to do.
1. The past is largely unknowable
The Romans are long dead. Their culture is long dead. Just think how difficult it is to genuinely understand a foreign contemporary culture (such as, for us in the West, the Hindu culture of India, various Bantu cultures of Central Africa, or even the European cultures of Lithuania and Belarus). We may be able to engage with them superficially or anthropologically, but it is extremely difficult to truly comprehend their structures, traditions, histories, or customs from the outside. Now, try doing that with a civilization that no longer exists, that resides thousands of years in the past, which only survives as mute artifacts or, at best, reflective echoes in complex modern institutions, and which has been consistently re-formed and re-fashioned through the centuries for nationalistic and ideological purposes.
You should begin to see what Fellini (and others) were convinced of- that we never really, truly can “understand” the past. In the Satyricon, he will use many filmic, stylistic, and narrative techniques to make sure that you never truly “understand” what is going on (at least not in the way you normally “understand” a film). It will all be strange, because we have to remember that if we were magically transported back into antiquity, it would seem a very strange place:
It is impossible to know what life was really like in ancient Roman times.
I want to make a film which the audience can never feel familiar or at home… This is a journey into the unknown where the people are unknown…
What interests me is to try and evoke an unknown world of two thousand years ago, a world that is no more- acting as a medium, the way an artist always does.
Fellini saw how the Fascists and the Nazis attempted to solidify and co-opt the past. To make it stand for something in the present and to make superficial connections between then and now. To them (and others), the Romans were just like us, but in togas. Fellini’s film rejects this utterly.
I look at antiquity as I look at anything else. And I find it mysterious, profoundly mysterious. It’s a lost, vanished, defunct world,… with which we have no real relationship. Especially we Italians, who have always boasted of our direct descent from it. It’s a completely alien world, in fact.
For starters, our knowledge of the past is incredibly fragmentary. This is something that is often difficult for people who do not work as historians or archaeologists or Classicists to remember. We do not have all the answers historically or culturally. For example, there are still many unanswered questions about how, why, and what events happened in many Roman eras. This is especially true for time periods where we don’t posses much information (e.g. pre-second century BCE) or the information is contradictory and confused (e.g. the third century CE). We are not sure why the Romans did some things one way and other things a different way. Their attitude toward violence, inequality, sexuality, identity, and a host of other topics were incredibly divergent from our own.
The Romans were as much a product of their own time as we are of ours, but it is often difficult to understand it all because we only have as our interpretive tools a handful of difficult to interpret and randomly surviving texts, and certain types of artifacts that may or may not have anything useful to contribute to any specific question we may have.
Fellini purposefully uses a fragmentary novel to make this point. The narratives of both film and novel are disjointed. Specific filmed episodes are unconnected to what comes before or after, which mirrors the way in which we can read the Satyricon text today. It’s all fragments.
We can catch glimpses of meaning and understanding in the various fragments, but a complete understanding is, ultimately, impossible:
I was even more fascinated by what wasn’t there than by what was there. Stimulated by the fragments, my imagination could roam… I was like an archaeologist piecing together fragments of ancient vases, trying to guess what the missing parts looked like. Rome itself is an ancient broken vase, constantly being mended to hold it together, but retaining hints of its original secrets.
To work, in fact, as the archaeologist does,… but (reconstructing) an artifact in which the object is implied; and this artifact suggests more of the original reality, in that it adds an indefinable and unresolved amount to its fascination by demanding the participation of the spectator.
There is a degree of tension between this theme and the others in Fellini’s Satyricon. We’ve already briefly mentioned his attraction to “pre-Christian” ideas of bodily pleasures, of “living in the moment”; the hippie ethic of vagabond freedom, understanding, and indulgence. Fellini roots this philosophy deeply into his film as we will see.
(The Romans) were much more open and free. There was no moral judgement. To be homosexual was just part of sex. All our information comes to us from the Catholic Church… They have nothing of the Catholic desire and fear of sex which is considered impure… You are always taught sex is impure but you know it is a lie. So, in this pagan world, you are obliged to see sex with desire but cut off from the Catholic education.
However, it seems a bit incongruous to recognize this message, presented as something we are encouraged to “take away from the film”, amid an exercise constructed to keep the viewer at a distance and uneasy. We’re not supposed to understand this world, but yet it has a meaningful moral to impart. Perhaps a solution to this tension is to regard this idea of “salvation through pleasure” as one of those fragments Fellini, the Satyricon, and the Romans are presenting to us. Not all of the fragments are strange. As mentioned above, we can catch glimpses of meaning, but in the end, it is no more than the laudable but still rather vague idea that we should just “live in the moment”.
However, for those who might find the lack of significance exhausting in the Satyricon, this theme may allow them to cling to one fragment of meaning amid the purposeful madness:
(Fellini in the Satyricon has) an amused tolerance and acceptance of life as it is lived, a willingness to face… perceived reality and an impatience with false solutions, such as Mussolini’s fascism.
An aside on dissenting opinion: In the interpretation of works of art (among many other activities), there are often several right answers, and certainly many wrong answers. This commentary represents what I (and some other scholars I will cite) are convinced is a valid analysis of Fellini’s Satyricon. This is based on critical investigation, plausible inference, and a healthy dose of creative speculation. However, surely, this must not be the only path to understanding the film, Fellini’s agenda, or the ultimate result. Some divergent inquiries may even make their way into the final analysis by the time I’m finished. I encourage people to comment and share their own thoughts.
Ok, let’s start watching the film!
 These quotes are by Fellini and found in Alpert, Hollis (1988), Fellini: A Life (New York: Paragon House Publishers), p. 208, Hughes (1971), p 15, and the Zanelli, Dario (1970), “From the Planet Rome”, in Fellini’s Satyricon (Ballantine), p. 4.
 Fellini is being facetious, of course there was “morality” in Roman society, but it was a different morality with different constructs and expressions than our modern, post-Christian Western society. The quote is assembled from two in Hughes (1971), p. 15 and 132.
 A clear example of one of the “wrong answers” was the condescending review by Columbia classicist Gilbert Highet published when the film originally came out in the US. You can read most of it here. It is a ridiculous article, even for its time, and representative of the narrow, blinkered, parochial thought that unfortunately has a long tradition in Classical scholarship. I suspect this eminent philologist was blinded by his precision focus on the text, and unable to see or recognize what Fellini the artist was attempting. Instead, Highet sneered from the top of his ivory tower, clutching his pearls over the fact that the hoi polloi might believe the Romans actually behaved as Fellini depicts. He also completely missed the point by bemoaning Fellini’s departure from historical specifics, and for inventing episodes that are not in Petronius’ original novel. Equally troubling was the evident constraint of Highet’s own narrow social constructs where all same-sex activity was essentially “disreputable” and where claiming that at least the “Negro sorceress” was “handsome in a weird, exotic way” was meant to be some lukewarm praise. Even in 1970, such attitudes would have been recognizable as objectionable.