(Previously – Satyricon 6 – Scene II: Vernacchio’s Theater)

This next scene is the most famous in the entire film, and a tour de force illustration of Fellini’s directorial skill.  It also nicely encapsulates many of the themes about the past that he is exploring and utilizes many of the filmic techniques he is employs throughout the Satyricon.  This is the scene I always use in my classes to explain Fellini’s ideas.  Hopefully this analysis will illustrate what may have been Fellini’s agenda in the entire film.

I will break this long explanation down into three acts.

Act 1 – Entering the Subura

The Subura – This was the lower-class district in Rome.  In Petronius’ novel, after Encolpius’ discussion with the sophist about education, he tries to make his way back to the inn he is staying at (he is in a Campanian city, probably Puteoli, not Rome), but gets lost (I.6-7).  Fellini takes this minor episode and turns it into a six-minute masterpiece of surrealist cinema.

Shadows – This episode begins with shadows cast against a wall.  More shadows and walls!  From the rather monochrome but well-lit world of Vernacchio’s stage, we are plunged again into the dark world of Rome with its brick tenement buildings.  It is night.  Several of the novel’s episodes occur at night, and the ancient Roman historian Tacitus claimed that Petronius “spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement” (Annals XVI.18).  Shadows and darkness set up what this extended episode seems to be about- the ultimate obscurity of the ancient world from our distant vantage point.

Music – Throughout this episode, pay attention to the soundtrack.  Not only is it unconventional with regard to films about the ancient Romans (whose soundtracks were usually orchestral with occasional nods to period-specific instruments and sounds), but the Satyricon’s music is more akin to the score of a sci-fi movie.  Electrical and processed bleeps and atonal tones color Encolpius and Giton’s trip through the Subura. Fellini was fond of saying that he considered the Satyricon a sci-fi movie:[1]

It projects into the past.  The time that far back is almost as strange to us as is the unknown future.

This is a science-fiction picture projected into the past instead of the future.  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, their dreams, their sicknesses, their psychologies, their nervous tensions.

The Colossal Head – Mute Encolpius and Giton pause briefly to look at the colossal head of a statue that is being dragged through the streets.  It is broken and massive, clearly the head of a statue of an emperor. People are watching from doorways and gesturing toward (cheering?) the men dragging it.  It probably represents a nod (no pun intended) to Roman political instability and the history of the rise and fall of emperors.[2] This is what we normally study about the Roman past: The “big men” of antiquity.  That was certainly what interested Mussolini.  However, Encolpius and Giton just exchange a bemused look about it all and move on.  What is important to them (and Fellini) is not the grand history of big men.  Their path lies elsewhere amid the twisted and dark back streets of the commoners.

I also like to think of this head as a perfect metaphor for Fellini’s theme of “the unknown past.”  In this scene it remains far away in the distance, and despite the great effort of the horses, never comes any closer.  It is monumental (like our impression of Roman history and culture) but forever beyond our grasp.  It will always be rooted “back there.”  It is also colossal, but fragmentary.  Big pieces of it are missing.  A perfect metaphor.

Heads in general often show up as meaningful items in Fellini’s films, and in the Satyricon they are certainly significant.[3] Along with this colossal emperor head, we will see several other examples I will identify.

An Art Historical Aside – Fellini and his art directors seem to have a preference for late Roman sculpture and art.  Was this because it was far removed from the idealism of Classical period art?  The huge eyes and close cropped bangs of the colossal head are a feature of late (largely Christian) Roman art, of which the head of Constantine in the Palazzo dei Conservatori is a famous example.

Foley – Foley is the art of providing sound effects for film.  Note how it is used in this episode.  The dragging of the head is in silence (the silence of the past?) while, as the camera pans past a rogue bonfire, we can hear it crackle loudly.  Maybe this is a reference to the Christian view of the Roman past (particularly the lewd, lower-class past we’re about to experience) as one marked by hellfire and damnation.  However, Encolpius and Giton happily skip past it into the Subura.

Calpurnia – We shift to a static profile shot of a woman named Calpurnia on the right side of the screen (note the unbalanced composition of the shot).  Is there a play on Caesar’s famously chaste third wife?  A red door is glimpsed behind her, perhaps suggesting the prostitute district they’re about to enter.  Calpurnia has a grossly half-painted face, many wrinkles, and an impossibly youthful wig.  As we will see, she is a tout working for the brothels.

“Where do we live?” – In the novel, when Encolpius is alone and lost after his education discussion, he meets an old woman and asks her if she knows where he’s staying in the city.  She cheekily tricks him into following her to a brothel, with the punch line, “this is where you must be staying.”  She appears here in Fellini’s film, although as a friendly character that discards Petronius’ original joke.

“There he is” – The noble from the theater has followed the boys in his (stylized) litter and wants to talk with them.  Encolpius runs away from him, either because he likes to stay away from the authorities (a theme from the novel), because he suspects someone is trying to take Giton away from him (a theme of the film), or because these characters are going to be separate from everything “official” and traditional.

The Tongue – Calpurnia makes a strange gesture as she is trying to get the boys to enter the prostitute district.  On the one hand, this may be a gesture like the hand gestures of the boy actor playing Caesar in the previous scene- we can sorta understand what it means but it is still strange to us.  On the other hand, David Lavery in his PhD dissertation on Fellini made the point that the “wiggling, out-thrust tongue” in Fellini’s films is a sexual gesture focused around the mouth as an orifice violated by a protruding member.[4]

Calpurnia’s other gestures are also odd, and definitely are in the same category as the young Caesar’s.  As a tiny figure (significantly in the lower right) beside an oversized, off-center yellow (!) door (evoking Roman doors from Pompeii), she waves her hands wildly and does an exaggerated pantomime of “looking”.  She is a tout, so her job is “to look”, but this is extravagant acting, not historical or naturalistic.  She is the gatekeeper to another strange world where we don’t belong.

The Sacrifice – Calpurnia’s doorway leads to a strange, unrealistic space, much like something out of a dream.  Being Rome, we would expect an atrium here, but what we get is more like a surreal amphitheater space (evoking the theater metaphor again).  A mute woman in black is on her knees praying before a foreign-looking goddess statue.  A man in red robes with red flowers in his long, hippie-esque hair looks on (seemingly a bit dazed, though this may be the Australian hippie more than the direction).  The red of his clothes is evoked in the blood from a slaughtered lamp on the nearby steps.  The priests read the entrails and announce that the woman is pregnant (keeping with the sex theme), but the boys are about to leave this “consequence” of sex (if seen along the lines of Christian morally) behind to enter a world of abundant bodily pleasure.

From what we know of the ancient Roman world, divining the “truth” from the innards of sacrificed animals was something most Romans believed in, and was part of the “package” of paganism (represented here by the, strangely blue, goddess, probably meant to be Venus).  So we are watching an expression of something historically known and intellectually understandable, despite our modern distaste for sacrificing animals in a bloody way.  However, when the man in red bends down to talk to the woman (his bride?), we see his lips move but don’t know what is being said.  With one hand we’re given something knowable and familiar about the ancient world, but we’re still being kept in the dark.

More Tongue Action – Encolpius and Giton, like us, are watching the sacrifice as mute observers.  A musical fanfare draws their, and our, attention elsewhere where a painted, effeminized man sits cross-legged in a doorway (framed off-center).  He winks seductively and uses a similar sexual tongue gesture as Calpurnia, but with him it almost seems like a tick.  It is repetitive and artificial.  We can recognize it as sexual in this context, but it is kept from being sexy to us.  He gets a few close ups.  Is he a male prostitute?  Is he the god Pan or Priapus?  We don’t know, and aren’t told.  Encolpius leaves him behind.

Flower Man – Encolpius and Giton are being called by another old tout or pimp (like Calpurnia called them outside) to come further into the building (?).  He seems to know them, and they join him.  The statue of the goddess gets a close up, underscoring that this is a sexualized space.

We hear this Flower Man (since he wears oversized flowers in his blonde wig) before we see him.  However, his establishing shot is very important.  While he is frame left, gesturing (normally) for Encolpius and Giton to join him, a grossly painted and done up male prostitute sits (in the lower right) starting directly at the camera, and at us.  This will become a very important part of this episode- actors starting into the camera and breaking the fourth wall.  It has been done a few times before, but nowhere as sustained as in this entire episode.  On the one side of the screen, Flower Man is acting conventionally.  On the other side, nicely delineated by the two different colored backgrounds, the male prostitute is reminding us that this is all fake.  In fact, he can even be said to be challenging us, and challenging Flower Man’s naturalistic acting.  More on this sense of “challenging” in a moment.

As Encolpius and Giton walk toward Flower Man, they are engaged in a conversation (or at least Encolpius is talking).  When they reach Flower Man, the male prostitute is grabbing his belly and saying something.  We are not privy to these dialogues, yet more examples of knowledge denied.

“Venus Priapus” – Another woman (offset to the right) with thick and gross pancake makeup (semen?) prays to “Venus Priapus.”  In Roman paganism, some gods could be joined together to make a single god with syncretized identities.  However, male and female gods were not combined together, only gods of the same sex.  In doing so here, Fellini may be playing with the mingling of our concept of male and female genders in this Roman setting.  Our gender rules don’t apply in this world.

“Hold on Blue Eyes” – Encolpius briefly loses Giton again (a theme) as Flower Man leads him inside.  The male prostitute reaches for him intimately and briefly detains him.  Note that in this low camera shot, we get a shot right up Encolpius’ tunic.  This is all to produce the atmosphere of purposefully strange sexuality.

Note how the actor playing the male prostitute turns back to the camera once more when his scene is done.

Act 2 – The Prostitute District

The District – Another example of traditional acting (Flower Man is trying to suggest passive Giton take a male client until he is rescued again by Encolpius) being contrasted with actors standing around in artificial poses looking at the camera.  Many evoke static statues (another way we normally engage with the Romans).[5]  One woman in pink is just opening and closing her mouth artificially while she and her husband are in dramatic, Romanesque stances.  Gender is mixed up.  A fat man is running around half naked.

Take a moment to notice the costumes.  They are all evocative of Roman dress, similar to what we would expect of a Biblical epic film or an amateur passion play.  But they are also a bit off, a bit odd, with no attempt to make them realistic or historical.  There is, however, a nice palette of colors employed by the very famous Italian costume designer Danilo Donati.

The Water – This Rome’s Tiber is meant to evoke the great Cloaca Maxima.

Note the strange, atonal sounds have begun again, and will continue.  Mixed throughout are what seem like animal noises and random female scale singing.  It is the cacophony of the Subura and the slums.

The Raft – A woman waving her bottom sexually (remember Ascyltus doing the same briefly in the baths?) arrives on a raft alongside painted men in long, colorful robes and laurel crowns.  She disembarks playfully showing all of her bare legs under her long dress.  She is probably meant to evoke Messalina, the wife of the emperor Claudius, who according to ancient Roman historians, was promiscuous and liked to “go slumming”.  She appears in another Fellini film, Roma (1972).  Note how in the close-up her attendants are in a tableau arrangement, while she is mobile and active, all very artificial.

The Barking Man – Of course.  Why not?

The Prostitute Cells – Now the main event of this episode begins: Encolpius and Giton are walking past the prostitutes’ cells.  As in the red-light districts of Amsterdam or Tangiers, prostitutes are on offer in little cubicles.  We see this immediately in the background as two naked women are seen waving their bare bottoms through a doorway as Encolpius and Giton pass.  Note how our heroes go in and out of shadow (shadows again!) and Encolpius is still saying something we can’t hear.  As the light hits them (like a focused spotlight), they even turn toward us for the first time, acknowledging the audience briefly.

The camera skims past the rooms, offering glimpses inside.  One old man pays a madam to allow youths to jump on him.  An old prostitute is seen eating in front of a mirror used for sex.  Male and female touts yell.  A mostly naked fat man in a funny hat displays his kink- giggling and running around while someone (seen only as a shadow) makes weird gestures.  More people try to pull Giton away from Encolpius (aggressive female whores this time).  Meanwhile, others just stand either in artificial statue poses or in ways that evoke some sort of everyday activity is being staged.

At times you can see that the names of the prostitutes have been written next to the doors in bad Latin, as well as their prices in the made up currency of the nummis.  The names came from the plays of the ancient Roman comedy writer Plautus and the fake coinage both keeps us from understanding what era of Roman history this is (the coins changed) and keeps us at a distance from real Roman culture.[6]

Mumblers – A group of people standing in a line are all mumbling something as the men pass.  One of the words is “patron”.  Are they meant to represent the clients lined up for a salutatio ceremony?

The Water Organ – A large prostitute in an odd corset garment is glimpsed playing a water organ, while what looks like a transsexual prostitute stands in the doorway.  This was a real instrument, although of course Fellini’s version is abstract and surreal.

Note how as we’re trying to get a good look at the water organ, a man steps out from inside to block our view.  We don’t belong here.  Move along.

We Don’t Belong Here – As the camera skirts past all of these rooms and scenes, actors looking at the camera continually confront us.  Their look is a challenge.  Anyone who has wandered into a foreign neighborhood in Naples will be familiar with the stares of the locals.  The subtle but effective act of declaring that you aren’t welcome, or at best, letting you know that they know you’re a stranger.

Since I see this episode as evocative of Fellini’s larger message about the past, I see these breakings of the fourth wall as examples of that idea that the past is irrevocably foreign to us.  We can understand parts, but we are still strangers to the whole.  It is a neighborhood where we can “get” some of the things that are happening on the surface, but we aren’t allowed to stay.  We never move inside any of these rooms before the camera moves on.

The Cacophony – The noise in this scene grows and gets stranger as it progresses.  There is a martial sound to announce the group of soldiers that march past, but even it is weird and non-traditional.  It is mechanical and highly anachronistic with the Roman setting.  Noises and some dialogue are heavily processed.  This all keeps you out, and keeps you from immersion.

The Grotesque –Much has been written about Fellini’s use of grotesque and strange looking people in his films.[7] Recall the strangely shaped rooster-impersonating actor from the Vernacchio episode along with these grossly painted whores.  William Free and others see artists of Fellini’s generation using the grotesque to comment on the horrors of the 20th century that are ultimately beyond everyday comprehension.[8] Others see it more akin to Fellini’s stated intention to use them to undercut our idealized notions of beauty:[9]

But they are not monsters. They are innocent.

This is his rejection of all perceived ideals, including beauty and “true” history.  We can probably understand this approach as rooted in his opposition to the fascist obsession with idealized forms and purity.

Grotesque characters provide a “dissonance which leads to discovery.”[10] Commentators who did not understand what Fellini was doing (such as in the Satyricon) often objected to his use of the grotesque.  Film critic Vernon Young complained “when everything and everybody in a film is grotesque, our pleasure is diminished”, but surely this moan would only be relevant if the goal of the filmmaker was to encourage immersion.[11]  That is the exact opposite to what Fellini wanted to do in this scene and in this film.

The whore harassed by the soldiers is disgusting, and reinforces this idea when she makes her ugly gestures while arguing with the men.  Behind her through the doorway is a morbidly obese woman jiggling (another Fellini trope believe it or not).[12]  This is the height of the grossness of the prostitute district section.  It ends, as the camera and our heroes move to the calmer and less extravagant working class district, a stark contrast.

Act 3 – The Working Class District

The Blacksmith – Bellows, fire, and armor tell us we’ve now encountered a blacksmith.  We seem to be in more familiar and conventionally understandable territory.  It is a slum.  Hooded poor people are wandering around.  There is coughing (poor health), someone doing laundry in public, and unsupervised children running around.  For some reason there’s also a white horse in a fountain (okay, maybe not wholly conventional after all then).

As the camera pans left (something it has not done for a while now; it has been steadily moving right through the prostitute district), we pick up a few men conversing in the foreground.  Again, we are not privy to their words, but from the left come Encolpius and Giton to walk up a flight of stairs behind them.  We began by following in the pair’s footsteps through the Subura, but somewhere along the way Encolpius and Giton faded into the background, only to re-emerge now back into our frame of reference.  We were doing the conventional thing, which was to suppose that the camera was standing in for them (as it does in a regular narrative film) and that the denizens of the prostitute district were looking at them.  But we’re reminded that the camera was us.  Encolpius and Giton had continued on their own way without us.

Also, metaphorically-speaking, the men disappearing and reappearing in the narrative can be seen as another example of us only having part of the stories of the past.  Our ability to follow in the footsteps of historical people fade in and out depending on how good our evidence is.

Giton’s Gestures – Finally we get something out of Giton.  Up to this point, he has been completely mute and passive (no doubt an expression of his sexuality).  When he does “speak”, it is via a weird sign language we can’t understand.  I’m always reminded here of a brilliant essay from Marguerite Yourcenar musing on the fact that we possess no direct accounts of speech patterns from the ancient world.[13]  Written texts, even letters, were highly constructed.  We do not possess any examples of vernacular speech, except perhaps in the graffiti from Pompeii, although those could also be seen as constructed (or at least too limited in scope to give us an idea of how the Romans actually talked to each other).  We’re also largely ignorant of such matters as Latin and Greek dialects around the empire.  To find the earliest example of recorded vernacular speech, Yourcenar had to resort to testimony from the medieval inquisition, since this was recorded verbatim and we still possess these records.  Our inability to understand Giton’s speech could be seen as related to our deficiency in understanding all Roman speech.

More Doorways – Crowded homes in this squalid part of the Subura are contrasted with the prostitute cells.  Again, the camera pans to the right on a dolly shot, showing us glimpses of people inside.  Individual dramas play out amid their daily lives.  People sleep and chat and gossip, men fight, a small fire breaks out, etc.  The challenging gaze of the locals is back, particularly with the large woman in a white dress.  But again, we’re not allowed to linger.  We don’t belong here.  And the disassociation is underscored by some more weirdness like the shouting brick game.

Once more, we can catch glimpses of understanding (old husbands and wives arguing) amid bizarre, incomprehensible contexts (the old husband is trussed up in linen on the dirt floor next to a pig).  (In fact, pigs seem to be ever-present in Fellini’s Subura).

Music Shift – Felllini brings us to the most sordid parts of the Subura, literally with someone taking a shit in the corner while the brick players shout in masculine aggression, and then abruptly switches to beauty.  The harsh noises disappear and are replaced with a tender harp tune.  Encolpius and Giton walk past the musician (a rare depiction of synchronous music in this episode) who is calm, still, and watched by innocent children.  This combination of the grotesque and the beautiful is right in line with how Fellini saw the world, as we explored above.  Beauty resides in the common and the offbeat and even the scatological, not in the unobtainable and tyrannical world of the ideal.

The Tenement – Most of ancient Rome’s underclasses lived in large, multi-story tenement buildings called insulae in Latin.  Here, at the end of this long episode, the camera retreats and pans slowly upwards.  It shows people living their lives in a dirty structure that is both suggestive of historical Roman structures and at the same time distinct, abstract, and stylized.

The calm harp solo is gradually replaced again with the cacophony of the Subura, which ultimately drowns it out, or absorbs it.  The very last shot of this episode is of a hole in the ceiling- no doubt meant to represent the conpluvium in a Roman house.  However, are we inside or outside?  Our expectations are confounded and confused for the final time in this sequence.

So why is this famous section of the film a great metaphor for Fellini’s whole approach to the past?

The director aimed for total aesthetic detachment in order to distance the characters and their lives from contemporary moral judgment.  ….  dubbing so exaggerated that it looks like a technical flaw – all orchestrated to make the audience feel uncomfortable, to force people to look at history as an objective reality and from a completely alien perspective.


  • We are continually wrong-footed and kept at a distance by filmic techniques, the acting, the sound, the scenery, the costumes…. everything.  We are not allowed to reside in the past by immersing ourselves in what is on the screen, as is done in conventional films about antiquity.
  • We are reminded we do not belong there.  The past is dead.  We cannot re-inhabit it (like the Fascists tried).
  • Don’t think that the Romans were like us.  They weren’t and these aren’t Romans.  They are actors in a constructed set and we are the unblinking camera.
  • We do not truly understand the past.  It is fragmentary like the colossal head.  It is mostly strange and unknowable, like the motivations and actions of the citizens we see.  We can catch glimpses of meaning, like the domestic scenes, but there is little detail.  We can’t push for deeper understanding because the camera (time?) has moved on.  We can’t go back.

But we can go forward.  Encolpius’ adventures continue with the next episode…

(Up Next- Satyricon 8 – Scene IV: Encolpius Rejected / The Earthquake)


[1] Quotes from Chandler, Charlotte (1995), I, Fellini (Cooper Square Press), p.171, and Hughes, Eileen (1971), On the Set of Fellini-Satyricon (Morrow), p 15.

[2] Sullivan connects this head with the downfall of the emperor Vitellius who, according to one account (we don’t know if it is true or not) had his detached real head paraded through the streets.  I think this may a bit of a stretch (especially since Vitellius was a few emperors after Nero), but is just evocative of the overthrow and mutilation of a hated emperor’s statues. See Sullivan, J. P. (2001), “The Social Ambivalence of Petronius’ Satyricon and Fellini Satyricon,” Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema, In M. M. Winkler (ed.) (Oxford University Press), p 264.

[3] This observation was made by Lawrence Russell at http://www.culturecourt.com/F/Fellini/FSat.htm

[4] Lavery, David (1978), “To Discover That There Is Nothing to Discover”: Imagination, the Open, and the Movies of Federico Fellini, Doctoral Dissertation, University of Florida, p. 63.

[5] In Hughes (1971), p. 15-16, Fellini said, “What we know about Rome, we know from statues. The people have died and come to us from minerals, from the earth, from excavations. There is a stone dimension to them.”

[6] Hughes (1971), p. 80.

[7] See for example Cox, Harvey (1970). “The Purpose of the Grotesque in Fellini’s Films,” Celluloid and Symbols. Ed. John C. Cooper and Carl Skrade (Fortress Press), pp.92-101. Also Lavery (1978), pp. 56-63.

[8] Free, William J. (1973), “Fellini’s ‘I Clowns’ and the Grotesque.” Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 3, No. 2. Film as Literature and Language (April), p. 215-216.

[9] Quoted by Hughes (1971), p 62.

[10] Lavery (1978), p. 56.

[11] Yong, Vernon (1978), “The Grotesque in Some Recent Films,” The Hudson Review, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Summer), pp. 329-336.

[12] Huges (1971), p. 84-85 touches on this motif, and tells the story that in the shot someone short is behind her, jiggling her.

[13] Yourcenar, Marguerite (1993), “Tone and Language in the Historical Novel,” That Mighty Sculptor, Time (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), pp.27-46.  See also this quote from Luca Canali, the scholarly adviser to Fellini for the Satyricon:  “Scholars of the language disagree as to how the Romans spoke but there is almost total agreement that the pronunciation of the Latin was different than ours…  Fellini wanted to give a far-off quality to the language.” (quoted in Hughes (1971), p. 17.)

[14] Kezich, Tullio (2006), Federico Fellini: His Life and Work (Faber and Faber), p.287.