(Previously- Satyricon 4 – The Themes)

Ok, let’s start watching the film!  I am using the 2001 MGM/United Artists DVD release and my quotes will be from the English subtitles.

Simplistic credits –  I’m trying to find out if the Italian language version has a different title sequence.  Please let me know if anyone has any information.  On the 2001 MGM/United Artists DVD release, there is a minimalist, silent title sequence in English.

The producer is listed first (the very famous Alberto Grimaldi).  The title – Fellini Satyricon– is, perhaps significantly, in brackets.  On the same card, almost as an extension of the title, is “A free adaptation of the Petronius Classic” (note the initial nod to canonical literature, which will be “freely adapted” by Fellini).  The director shares writing credits with his frequent collaborator, the Italian novelist Bernardino Zapponi.

And with that brief introduction, we’re launched unceremoniously into the world of the film.

The Wall – The first shot of the film is of a wall.  Remember this, because the last shot will be of an even more significant wall.  Here it is gray and dull, but with some character.

It seems blank, but the camera pulls back to show the lower wall is covered with graffiti (vibrant life under the silence of antiquity?).  It is probably meant to evoke one of the famous walls in Pompeii where the random scribbled thoughts of ancient common people have been preserved.  On the one hand, Pompeian graffiti are fascinating examples of ancient, anonymous voices speaking to us from the past- a cacophony of expression.  They are often lewd (“Hairy cunts are better than smooth ones”), banal (“I made bread”), touching (“Vibius Restitutus slept here alone, longing for his Urbana”), astute (“All who love are at war”), and witty (“Lovers are like bees in that they live a honeyed life”).  Most are concerned with the daily lives of people and seemingly universal impulses and desires.

However, these writings are often decontextualized and, while often poignant, still difficult to comprehend.  For example, a huge amount deal with sex, but ancient Roman sexuality was very different than our own (as we’re about to be shown in the Satyricon).  To the Romans, the status and the power of who they were having sex with was important, not necessarily the gender.  The rules governing “proper” sex in Roman society were not structured around male/female, or even gay/straight, but around multifaceted power relationships.  More on this in a moment, but even from the first image in the film, we have an illustration of one of Fellini’s main themes- that we can’t accept simple identification of ourselves with those in the past, even if that seems possible at first glance.

The wall was made by the abstract Italian painter Antonio Scordia:[1]

When Fellini asked me to paint the wall, I painted it as a place where every Roman had left a sign of his passage.

Encolpius as shadow – Our hero (or anti-hero) is first seen in darkness against the wall, a shadow, invoking both a general metaphor (those in the past are only shadows to us) and a specific insight into his character (he is shady, and his motivations are unclear).  The shadowy figure is nicely contrasted against to the “mute” ancient voices of the graffiti that are also speaking to us.

Also notice that Encolpius is in the lower left.  In this film particularly, Fellini liked to compose shots where your eye is drawn away from the center, more often down to the lower right.  Perhaps this was to make the viewer off-balance or to show this world as off-kilter.

Music–  A light but haunting flute tune is briefly heard over this establishing shot.  It is rather conventional, a nod to our ideas about ancient music.  It also sets up Encolpius’ lament.

Encolpius’ lament – The start of the film is presented like an ancient drama.  An actor stands alone on stage and has a soliloquy where he gives the audience some exposition and sets up the plot in media res.  Again, so far so conventional.

We do not possess the start of Petronius’ novel.  Instead, the earliest fragment we have is one where Encolpius is in Campania and discussing the pros and cons of different types of educational systems with a sophist he has met at the baths.  Much of that discussion is meaningless to those who do not study ancient rhetoric, so Fellini ignores it and skips to the subsequent scene where Encolpius wanders off to find his former friend and companion, Ascyltus.  He learns that Ascyltus has made advances on Encolpius’ boyfriend Giton.  In the novel, the friends mostly put this behind them and move on.  In Fellini’s film, Encolpius is the jealous lover who must now angrily confront his rival.  Most of this speech is lifted from a later section (section 81) when Giton has gone off with Ascyltus a second time.

“… swallow me into the abyss” – Nice turn of phrase to start us off since Encolpius is still in darkness.

“nor has the sea…” – The original novel does include a shipwreck scene, as most ancient comic and romantic novels did.  This line alludes to that, however in Fellini’s film, the sea is mostly calm, and also sits significantly at the end of the film (as we will see).  Keep this line in mind.

“fled from the law and escaped the arena…” – Encolpius gives some more backstory, illustrating how he is a rogue.  He’s even killed people and “stained (his) hands with blood.”  The Encolpius in the novel was also a former gladiator (or at least had fought the arena before), a point referenced by Ascyltus later in this scene.

“exiled from my country” – Perhaps an oblique Fellini reference to his anti-Fascist theme?  The literary Encolpius was not necessarily an exile.

The dubbing – Throughout the film, Fellini plays with sound.  All of the dialogue is dubbed.  It is intentionally out of sync with the actor’s lips (even sometimes to the point of absurdity).  We get our first glimpse here with the first close-up of Martin Potter as Encolpius.  It is another suggestion of things being “off kilter” in this world, and a reminder to us that we are watching a film.  The technology of post-production Automated Dialogue Replacement is keeping us from becoming immersed in this world:[2]

If Satyricon has a raison d’être, it’s here, under the sign of estrangement.

“…all known vices” – Encolpius’ lament is very evocative of ancient Roman invective, where one’s enemy was insulted for being loose, disgusting, and immoral.  Saying that he sold his body for sex (“whoring” here in the dialogue) was one of the worst things you could say about a Roman man, since the implication was that they were passive in bed.

“sold himself as a woman… approached as a man” – In the novel, when Encolpius meets up with Ascyltus after the education discussion, Ascyltus tells the amusing story that while lost, he had been approached by a man who brought him to a brothel.  The story suggests that he mistook Ascyltus for a prostitute since he offered money and began to make sexual suggestions.  Ascyltus only escaped by beating up the man.

“Giton… woman’s stole” – Angry Encolpius offers more gender swapping as insult.  The “Day of the Virile Toga” was when Roman boys maturity and celebrated this with a religious ceremony.  Encolpius says the unfaithful Giton wore women’s clothing then.  In the novel, Giton was an unwilling recipient of Ascyltus’ advances and tried to fight him off (as Ascyltus had done with the man).  In this filmed scene, Encolpius treats Giton as complicit and no more than a whore.

Back to the lower left – After walking around venting in full light, Encolpius returns to his earlier pose before the wall.  However now (since he’s begun to pour his heart out to us) we can see him clearly.

Encolpius’ clothes – Here they are yellow, to match his hair.  Blonde hair was fashionable in the first century CE, but mostly as wigs since few Romans were naturally blonde.  Yellow clothing also marked out prostitutes.  Encolpius’ hem line is very high, adding to the theme of sexual attraction in the scene.  We see this theme clearly when he starts to talk about Ascyltus and Giton being intimate (although it seems to be the romantic intimacy that causes Encolpius more pain than the actual sex).

“and laugh at me” – A great fear of men in a patriarchal civilization like Rome.  Encolpius goes down on one knee, striking a pathetic figure.  He’s not our typical movie hero.

Passive Encolpius – He sits and turns his back on us and goes passive, a striking contrast from the earlier “masculine” anger.  He looks at the scribbles on the grimy, stained wall and talks about how much he still loves male Giton.  He still pines, like a stereotypical romantic heroine, invoking clichéd feminized language to describe himself now (“you’re a part of me”) as well as passé poetry (“you’re the sun, you’re the sea…”).

“triumphant Ascyltus” – Back to angry Encolpius, framed slightly off center again.  The blame has now shifted entirely to Ascyltus.

“…or I’m no longer a man!” –  Elsewhere on this blog, I quoted Holt N Parker to explain how ancient Roman society constructed its sexual norms:[3]

In contemporary Western society, we base our division of sexual categories on the axis of same versus other.  Our primary division rests on the genders of the people involved…  The ancient world, both Greek and Roman, did not base its classification on gender, but on a completely different axis, that of active versus passive…  Simply put, there was no such emic, cultural abstraction as “homosexuality” in the ancient world.  The fact that a man had sex with other men did not determine his sexual category.  Equally, it must be emphasized, there was no such concept as “heterosexuality.”  The application of these terms to the ancient world is anachronistic…

Roman sexual mores were based on power relationships.  As long as the Roman elite male citizen remained the active penetrator during sex, everything was “normal.”  This meant sex was hierarchical, with men free to penetrate their social inferiors, who were then culturally defined as passive: all women, young boys, your freedman, your slaves, prostitutes, etc.  Sex became problematic for the society when the proper power relationships were not heeded;  when a Roman male was penetrated by a social inferior or when women called the shots in bed.  In the Satyricon novel, an episode where Encolpius and Giton are held captive by some female devotees of Priapus and raped was meant to be comic because it overturned many social norms.  Everything is restored to normal at the close of the episode when Encolpius’ boyfriend Giton takes one of the women to bed in a conventional way.

This is the cultural construction Fellini is invoking by foregrounding the relationship between Encolpius and Giton at the beginning of the film.

The Baths – In the novel, Encolpius, Ascyltus, and Giton go to the baths together before the dinner with Trimalchio, the vulgar freedman.  Here,  Fellini uses that setting for the initial showdown between the two rivals.  However, the architecture is not an expression of any real Roman bath building.  Rather, it is suggestive with many of the same elements (cavernous rooms, steam, pools of water, naked and half-naked bathers, piles of laundry) remixed into something different.  We understand what it is, but only by implication.  That will be a major strategy of Fellini.  We can’t truly “know” about the past, but only “infer.”

The setting is also highly staged (a throwback to Encolpius theater-esque opening soliloquy) and artificial.

Ascyltus – Another theatrical soliloquy full of exposition, lulling us into suspecting that plot is important.  Ascyltus is introduced on the right side of the frame, also mostly in shadow.  Nearby we see the legs of the man he has killed, referencing the anecdote in the novel where Ascyltus has had to escape the man who brought him to the brothel.

Male bodies – A Roman bath is a perfect place to continue one topic established with Encolpius’ hemline- male bodies on display.  Ascyltus crawls like a cat from his corner in a red (!) loincloth, stretches out his nearly nude body, then hops up and shakes his rump to indicate the fate of Giton with the actor.  Unlike the fluctuating gender exhibited so far in Encolpius, Ascyltus is muscled, masculine and seductive.  He was the abductor, the penetrator.

“If you’re Lucretia…” – This famous line is taken directly from the novel, where Giton claims to have put up a fight against Ascyltus.  Lucretia was the chaste Roman noblewoman who was raped by Tarquin the younger, son of the king.  That rape started the ancient Roman Republic.  The rape of Giton starts this version of the Satyricon.

The wet towel – This may be a reference to a stolen cloak in the novel that Encolpius and Ascyltus try to sell, which results in a different kind of scuffle.

The fight – There are hints of a traditional narrative structure.  Both Encolpius and Ascyltus’ characters emerge in this dispute, despite the weird dubbing and strange staged fighting.  Encolpius is passionate and driven.  Ascyltus is selfish, takes nothing seriously and has a vicious streak.  Note how it is not conventional punching but whipping and homoerotic wrestling (while an old naked man watches in the background).  Also note that for most of it, the camera retreats until they are just small struggling figures in the distance.

(Up Next- Satyricon 6 – Scene II: Vernacchio’s Theater)


[1] Quote from Hughes, Eileen Lanouette (1971), On the Set of Fellini-Satyricon (Morrow), p 21.

[2] This quote is by Fellini and found in Zanelli, Dario (1970), “From the Planet Rome”, in Fellini’s Satyricon (Ballantine), p. 10.

[3] Parker, Holt N (1997), “The Teratogenic Grid.” Roman Sexualities. Eds. Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner (Princeton), pp.47-65.