(Previously – Satyricon 5 – Scene I: Opening / At The Baths)
The plot continues – Ascyltus sold Giton to an actor after he was finished with him. This, and the entire Vernacchio scene, were the complete inventions of Fellini. In the novel, there is no indication Giton was a slave able to be sold (and there were very stringent laws about selling free citizens into slavery).
Fellini seems to have been obsessed with staged spectacles and exhibitionism. Stage productions and playacting occur regularly in his films. This is our first example of the “play within a play” structures at work in the Satyricon. Here, the play is bawdy, violent, and satirical.
The actor Vernacchio was played by man with the stage name Fanfulla, also known as Luigi Visconti. He had a long career as a variety performer and character actor in mainly Italian cinema from the 1950’s to the 70’s. Unfortunately, he died relatively young of a heart attack just two years after his memorable appearance in the Satyricon.
Music returns – An uneasy fanfare and drone greets Vernacchio’s appearance as the scene shifts. Music accompanies this performance, although it is odd. On-stage musician play weird musical contraptions (out of sync with the soundtrack) evoking live music. So we get the general idea that Roman plays had musical accompaniment (which we know historically), but its execution here is strange (reminding us that the actual sound of Roman music is lost to us).
Vernacchio – He is introduced to us, like Encolpius, against a dirty, crumbling wall. His stage is not a traditional one, but a huge stone slab matching the walls in dull gray color. Vernacchio is at a distance to us in the first shot, making him look small. He is prancing (“in character”) and dressed as a clown (another Fellini trope). His costume is vaguely porcine (with pink snout and crest) but with fur, spikes, and a long swishy tail. The crest on his headpiece is vaguely phallic, perhaps suggesting the false penis a Roman comedic actor sometimes wore. So again, we can understand parts, but not really the whole. His name may suggest “vernacular” or “local”.
Mime – Mime was popular entertainment in the Roman world. It was often considered very low class and suspected of being seditious by the authorities. However, Nero was fond of it and was said to have even acted a bit of mime himself, which scandalized his fellow patricians. Vernacchio’s exaggerated gestures at the start of this scene are meant to evoke this form of theater.
The audience – After a few moments of mime, while the music continues to drone, the camera shows a reverse shot from Vernacchio’s point of view. We see that he is on stage in a small theater where most patrons are standing in a circular space (like an orchestra pit) watching him. This is a very significant and symbolic shot. It introduces another technique Fellini employs at points in the film to keep you from immersing yourself in this Roman world. The actors are looking at the camera (here standing for Vernacchio). These are actors playing spectators of a play looking at you the spectator of a film.
It is the formal breaking of the fourth wall. We’ve moved from the very stagy opening scenes (with their traditional expositional monologues) to an actual theater, where we are now seemingly going to continue as a traditional narrative film. But Fellini won’t let you get comfortable with traditional narratives. What unfolds is profoundly weird and opaque, and now the fake audience is going to watch you as well as Vernacchio’s spectacle.
And just to be difficult, if you freeze the frame of this shot, you’ll see two of the static spectators aren’t actually looking the same direction as everyone else. Inexplicably (purposefully), they have their backs turned to the stage.
According to Eileen Lanouette Hughes production diary, Fellini bragged that in order to create an odd atmosphere he assembled the “audience” in this episode “from the slaughterhouse and from the insane asylum”, hoping to achieve both gritty reality and a sense of authentic mania. She asked who took care of them. He replied that their nurses came with them “nonchalantly, as though mental patients worked every day in the movies.”
On the tongue – Vernacchio places a small black object (a fly?) on his tongue and has a notable reaction. This is probably a reference to LSD. Fellini experimented with this drug in the 1960’s and 70’s and was influenced by Carl Jung’s research on the connection between LSD and his theory of universal consciousness.
Note that Vernacchio’s reaction really tickles one of the patrons in another reverse shot. Her reaction is as artificial and exaggerated as Vernacchio’s mime (i.e. she is also “acting”). This idea will be repeated a few times, but it is worth seeing this as another example of how were are not given crucial information (why is this funny?) that would allow us to comprehend what is going on.
Drawing the curtain – A masked figure draws a grubby gray curtain across the stage and actors magically appear. Fellini liked masks as well, and thus it fits well with ancient Roman theater where masks would have been worn.  The musicians makes their appearance as the music switches to something more lighthearted (but still odd and anachronistic). Vernacchio returns to start another mime, punctuated by a series of grunts.
Vernacchio offers the actress what looks like a cloak during his mime. This is probably a reference to an episode in the Satyricon novel that I briefly mentioned in the discussion of the previous scene. That story is fragmentary, but apparently Encolpius and Ascyltus lost a tunic with money sewn secretly into a hem. They steal a valuable cloak from someone and attempt to sell it in a marketplace to make some money. A man comes up and inspects the cloak. Encolpius and Ascyltus realize the man is wearing the lost tunic and the hidden money is still there. They hatch a scheme to try and trade the expensive cloak for the dirty tunic, but the man’s suspicions are raised and a scuffle breaks out. It is an example of the convoluted and coincidental nature of many of their adventures in the novel.
Bird noises – The actress responds to Vernacchio’s grunts with bird noises. The noises, however, come from somewhere else (she makes no sound herself) and she moves her abstract mask as if it is speaking this way. Why a bird? Who knows? We’re not given that information either. This is our first real introduction to another filmic technique Fellini will use to wrong-foot us in this world. In film studies, sound that is not produced by anything seen on the screen is called “asynchronous sound”. There is a lot of this in the Satyricon.
Farts – From asynchronous sound we move to synchronous. Evoking the bawdy nature of many Roman mime performances, Vernacchio responds to the actress with a series of farts. One blows his fake tail completely up in the air, a moment of genuine humor, and relief on the part of the audience watching the film. I’ve never watched this movie with a group of people who did not laugh at that final fart. It is a touchstone moment, amid the unease, where we can release a laugh to diffuse what may be becoming a tense viewing situation.
Applaud – We finally get some dialogue as some unknown male voice, out of sync and dubbed again, urges us to applaud the entrance of a new actor. The newcomer is a strangely shaped young man miming some sort of bird. Later we learn this is supposed to be a rooster.
The prostitute – Another nod to a “play within a play”, and a story within our story. An overly-painted prostitute, dressed in the historical yellow dress, enters the theater. She is given a meaningful close up where she licks her lips and the overdubbed noise clearly suggests she is horny.
The camera pans to two black actors laughing wildly at whatever is going on up on the stage. However, their laughter is not heard. Instead it is the asynchronous barking of a dog. Is this a reference to men barking like dogs in the presence of the prostitute? Or announcing her arrival with a Latin pun (since “lupa”, the word for a female dog, was also Roman slang for a whore)? We’re not able to linger on this oddity because the camera moves back to her story.
While the barking and the dubbed female breathy giggling continues, the prostitute moves among the men at the back of the lowly theater. They grope her as she passes, which she enjoys. Finally, her way is blocked by one of the men raising his leg up (“getting a leg over”). She considers this for a moment then breathlessly says something that sounds like “seek a dick” (it is not subtitled). She then spreads her shawl (or another cloak) on the ground, lays down, and opens her legs for the men.
The camera cuts back to the stage and we never return to this prostitute’s story. We leave her there on the floor of the theater. Why did the camera give her some screen time? Why did she merit a significant close up ? Was it just to show what sort of theater this place is? Or was it another example of a fragment glimpsed, this time a story where we get a little bit, but that is all? Since that is what we have from antiquity- a few story fragments, and no one’s full history. Not even emperors, let alone unimportant prostitutes. We only have the highlights that ancient writers decided to write about.
An aside- Lawrence Russell made a point that several of the Satyricon’s women end up on their backs, essentially offering their vagina to men. This prostitute is the first, and we will see others.
Mucius Scaevola – Speaking of stories, we now get a version of a famous Roman story from the early days of the Roman Republic (6th century BCE). According to legend, when the Etruscan king Lars Porsena besieged Rome, he captured a Roman who had sneaked into his camp and attempted to assassinate him. When confronted, the would-be assassin, Gaius Mucius, declared he was a citizen of the Republic and although Lars Porsena had escaped death that night, his troubles were not over. Mucius then thrust his right hand into a fire and fearlessly burned it, declaring that there were thousands of other citizens like him ready to oppose him. Unnerved by Mucius’ fanaticism, Lars Porsena sent messengers to sue the Romans for peace. Afterward Mucius and his descendants were given the honorary last name of Scaevola which means “left handed”. The story is probably complete fiction, but was very popular.
What follows in the Satyricon is a brutal reenactment of that story. While not a particularly violent film, the threat of violence hangs heavy over the entire movie. Here, that violence is openly displayed. A pleading prisoner is brought out by guards and his right hand is placed on a chopping block. From offstage, Vernacchio calls him Mucius Scaevola directly. Those condemned to execution in the Roman world could have been used in this way, as props in public entertainment, and was probably an outgrowth of the sort of things that went on in the arenas. The distasteful (to us) violence of the Roman world is definitely shown in this scene, as the condemned man’s pleas are contrasted with the actress’ carefree dancing around him.
With mock tragic gestures, Vernacchio declaims, “And with this I punish my erring arm,” a quote that undercuts the moral of the actual legendary story. We have a third patron who responds with seemingly unwarranted hysterics to the same thing we’re seeing (which is apt to cause dread in us rather than laughter). We’re put out of our misery after the disgusting Vernacchio, coughs, raises his axe, and cuts off the hand (thankfully off-camera). This is juxtaposed with the strangely shaped actor crowing like a rooster. Vernacchio’s quote always seemed Biblical to me although I’ve not been able to identify it, and the crowing reminds me of the story of Peter’s denial, but I’m not able to reconcile those references yet with this scene. It remains obscure except for the Mucius Scaevola reference.
The prisoner raises his bloody stump to the applause, which he seems now to appreciate. There are more shots of the audience members, including a possible food vendor with odd skewers of meat (referencing the meat on display). This is a brutal, cruel, perplexing, ugly world that we, as the audience, don’t want any part of.
Don’t miss the overweight woman who laughed at the quote whispering “Vernacchio, te amo!”
Caesar’s Miracle – While the prisoner’s stump is bandaged amid his grossly clacking teeth, the third act in Vernacchio’s play starts. This illustrates a miracle performed by “the Caesar” (the emperor, probably Nero) which restores a hand to “Mucius Scaevola”.
At first, there seems to be some scandal at Vernacchio putting an actor playing the emperor on the stage. A woman in the audience turns directly to the camera and addresses us directly with her surprised, “It is the Caesar!” The fourth wall is broken again. Possibly as satire, the emperor is depicted as a youth in some sort of basket (a litter? a bassinet as a reference to his young age?) with a golden mask, an imagine of his glorious ancestry, held before him by announcing attendants. To keep us guessing, the young Caesar is doing some unknown (but apparently purposeful) hand gestures.
The emperor on stage announces that, by Jupiter, he will provide a new hand (his juvenile voice cracking at the end of the sentence). Meanwhile in the squalid backstage, the soldiers affix a golden hand to the pitiful prisoner’s new stump. He’s then dragged out to applause and made to wave. Vernacchio sings a poem, with his gravelly voice, about Caesar’s new miracle, which caused Eros, the god of love, to come down to earth from Mount Olympus.
Giton – The stage-clouds part and we are finally shown our third main character, the youth Giton dressed up like Eros (Cupid). We’re only shown a close up a bit later where his is highly effeminized, eroticized, and incredibly passive.
Encolpius denounces – Encolpius appears in the audience once Giton is introduced. He was not there before, so we have a purposeful continuity error. Vernacchio deals with this heckler by inviting him up on stage to “meet the family”. His troupe is his household, and Encolpius even enjoys the joke with the pet dog.
35 Denari – The denarius was a small silver coin and the one most commonly used by the Romans. It is often claimed that one denarius would be the daily wage for an unskilled laborer, therefore Giton cost Vernacchio a month’s wage. The suckling pig comparison is not historical but comical (especially with Vernacchio dressed as a pig creature).
“Listen Vernacchio…” – Vernacchio is still performing. When Encolpius tells him to listen, he hops backwards and raises his rear end like an ear.
“I ask you not to appeal to the magistrate” – This may be another oblique reference to the novel, where the scuffle over the cloak and tunic is given over to the local magistrates to deliberate. Encolpius and Ascyltus decide not to appeal.
The Bidding War – Encolpius is forceful in his demands, but is literally a push-over for Vernacchio. Then, to his horror, a bidding war over Giton breaks out amongst the patrons (who have by now all seen Giton’s assets). Giton seems pleased at the attention, and unlike the Giton in the novel, completely passive. We also get more gender confusion with him, as Vernacchio identifies him as “more than a wife” and in training to play female parts on the stage.
There is almost an action sequence as the actors refuse to give up Giton, and Encolpius draws his sword. The young actor playing the emperor jumps on his back. Apparently this is too much for one of the nobles in the audience. As he sites in his litter, he berates Vernacchio for his insolence. While here, this plot contrivance (which allows Encolpius and Giton to escape) seems forced and anti-climatic, is it similar to the convenient circumstances that drive the genre literature such as Petronius’ Satyricon.
“…joking about Caesar” – We’re not shown exactly how Encolpius and Giton escape (that would be too much information), but as the noble warns Vernacchio, we’re shown a long shot where the actor comes forward on the bare stage to plead for mercy. He pulls of his piggy hat and begs the noble not to destroy his theater. His shadow (shadows again) looms large on the wall behind him. Some audience members applaud his apology. Others angrily boo and call him nasty names.
He may not have known it, but with this little speech by the noble, Fellini is expressing a historical reality around theater in the Roman world. Throughout the Republic (late 6th – late 1st centuries BCE), Roman elites were very troubled by public performances because it allowed large groups of people (especially the plebs) to congregate in large numbers and because actors on a stage were thought capable of possibly mobilizing the crowd against the interests of the elite with their words. It took over five hundred years for a permanent stone theater to be constructed in the city. Previously, theaters were small and/or temporary structures in order to keep the poor from gathering before a charismatic actor (who would never have been a patrician). By the age of Nero, the emperors had become better at managing public spectacles and diminishing their threat to the regime, but Fellini’s noble berating Vernacchio does have a historical connection to reality.
Is Vernacchio a sympathetic character we should feel pity for? Or is he a villainous character getting his just deserts? We don’t know. And we won’t know. Vernacchio is in no other part of the film. His story is discarded now, and Fellini never returns to it. It ends like it has a meaningful conclusion, but we’re at a complete loss of how to actually interpret that conclusion. We don’t have all the information. And Fellini is not going to give us any more information. We don’t know, and won’t know, and that’s that.
This is the ancient world. We know stories, but not always their proper context or what we’re supposed to make of them. We can sorta understand the Mucius Scaevola legend, and infer how it would have come across in a Roman world, but we don’t know if there was a real Mucius Scaevola or even how historical the siege of Lars Porsena was. Some ancient writers tell us that Nero liked to act in mimes on the stage, but did he really? Was that just malicious gossip meant to discredit an emperor hated by the elites? If we consider Roman culture in the context of this scene in the theater, Fellini seems to be reminding us that we can only ever understand a fraction of what happened (in history as well as in this scene). We have bits and pieces, and a few stories, but we’re still not able to understand everything in the larger picture. It’s still strange.
And things are about to get stranger…
(Up Next- Satyricon 7 – Scene III: The Subura)