(Previously – Satyricon 7 – Scene III: The Subura)
Sound – The cacophony of the Subura reaches a climax and then is suddenly silenced as Encolpius and Giton reach their quarters. Fellini really likes that juxtaposition between loudness and silence. The entire lovemaking scene of Encolpius and Giton is in complete (anxiety producing?) silence.
Lovemaking – In a scene not present in the novel, Encolpius and Giton make love. Or at least that is what we think they’re doing. It is not entirely clear. The scene opens with a shot of Giton (frame right) looking what we think is supposed to be seductive. It is a bit odd. His eyes are closed and open languidly. Cut to Encolpius (frame left) looking up with desire (note the interesting reversal of their supposed sexual relationship as the older Encolpius is in a lower position with Giton standing and dominant- Fellini is subverting your preconceptions). Encolpius reaches up to undress Giton who is wearing white (purity), bringing him in from his frame right position. Giton reaches over and caresses Encolpius’ arm before helping him undo his belt.
What follows is one of the least erotic sex scenes in cinematic history. It is incredibly stylized and artificial, completely ignoring what we would suppose (or some viewers would fear) two men would probably do together. Even sex is not what we think it is in this world.
Fellini employs slow motion fades-in and fades-out to compress time. This evokes conventional filmmaking that often uses that technique to create a sense of romance, and also reminds us of how Encolpius and Giton faded in and out of focus in the previous Subura scene. Encolpius remains mostly in shadow.
The lovemaking utilizes some conventions we recognize. There is kissing, but it is the odd sucking on the wrist (one of the least erotic parts of the body). The white, feminine body of Giton is contrasted with the tan body of Encolpius, but the usual sexual roles are reversed as feminized, passive Giton does all of the work. A little shoulder rubbing and that is it. Again, we’re only able to glean a surface meaning, but are at a loss when we look for details. The next shot is an unusually (for this film) balanced one where the camera has retreated to show the whole room and an exhausted pair are asleep in each other’s arms.
Ascyltus Returns – Another person enters as a shadow. Ascyltus has intruded into the empty middle of the balanced shot and rudely wakes the lovers. With Ascyltus’ return we are back to the novel where he loudly bursts into the room (a bit of a theme in the book) while Encolpius and Giton are still in the middle of making love (section 11). Laughing and applauding, he playfully rolls Encolpius out of his cloak and makes a crude joke akin in English to asking him if he is using it to “pitch a tent”. Fellini keeps the joke, but loses the cloak that would make it meaningful.
Dividing Property – The idea of the two friends dividing their property and separating comes directly from the novel. Fellini directly uses the novel’s language of being “students” and not wanting to be a “laughing stock”, as well as reference to the original opening of the story as we have it with Encolpius having to listen to the “master” alone. This culminates in the decision of who is to retain ownership of passive Giton. Although Giton appears to be asleep throughout in the film, and Ascyltus displays unbalanced anger, Giton chooses to go with Ascyltus. Poor Max Born playing Giton, someone else dubs his only line of spoken dialogue in the whole movie.
Encolpius Rejected – Like Calpurnia and others in the Subura scene, Encolpius strikes an artificial pose to convey information to us. It is a striking contrast with the naturalistic acting we just saw with the property division scene. He is a silent, static figure. We are reminded of mime, or Roman statues, or even silent films- anything other than conventional and naturalistic acting.
Ascyltus and Giton Leave – Giton now does his weird sign language speak with another man. Although it remains purposefully strange, we’re still able to pick up some meaning. We understand that as a betrayal of Encolpius.
Silence – Notice how everything is still mostly silent. No music or Subura sounds. Felllni is doing this purposefully because of what he will do next.
Encolpius Weeps – Another close up of a shadow on the wall, and then a pull back to the actor. Across the room, Encolpius spies an unsheathed sword, and instantly we understand what he intends to do. Why do we understand? Because it is a filmic convention- upset person sees a weapon, close up on a thinking face, silence. We’ve been conditioned through countless films to recognize that he is going to try and kill himself. Or is at least thinking about it. Even without dialogue, we understand because of our conditioning. This ingrained drive to understand and immerse a narrative film is the difficult state Fellini is striving to subvert. However, he is about to do it expertly.
In the novel, when Giton chooses to go off with Ascyltus, Encolpius is enraged and plans to kill them both (section 81). His speech is the one that Fellini put at the start of the film, chastising Giton for being “womanly”. He is not despairing, as he is here in Fellini’s version.
The Earthquake – It starts with a rumble. It shakes the camera and startles Encolpius out of his suicidal thoughts. Apart from his cries, it has been the only sound heard since Ascyltus and Giton left.
An earthquake was in the novel, but not in the extant fragments. Encolpius just makes passing reference to wishing that it has swallowed him up when Giton abandons him. Here, Fellini films it, beginning with eerie, forewarning tremors. We get a few mood shots- the tenement block courtyard empty (except for the white horse- a bit of foreshadowing for two important subsequent shots), an old woman and a wimpering child nudged awake by the shaking, dust falling from the compluvium. All done in silence to heighten the tension. We know what is coming (again, we’ve been conditioned to interpret this). We haven’t identified with any of these strange people before, but we’re about to see them confront danger and we’ll be moved to pathos because we recognize familiar tropes.
When the earthquake arrives, it is prolonged and destructive. We revisit the shot of the courtyard with a man and the horse frame right, while in the center, a section of the wall buckles and falls. Now the tension breaks and we get a camera-shaking, wall-collapsing action sequence similar to the disaster movies of the 1970’s. Half of Encolpius’ room dramatically falls away. Adults rush through the dust and falling stones carrying children to safety. Heavy blocks fall on unfortunately people. Horses are spooked. Although here, there is also weirdness. Someone walks up the staircase naked, dragging their clothes (surely going the opposite way they should be going in such an emergency). There is the static shot of the old woman screaming in a very artificial way over some over-the-top dubbing.
And then amid the height of the crisis, punctuated by the pathos we feel as we watch the poor white horse try and jump out of the sunken fountain…. Fellini pulls the rug out from under us completely. Another whiplash jump cut, another shift from noise to silence, darkness to light. Encolpius is in an art museum. How did he escape? What happened to all the people in the earthquake? We’re not told. We’ve skipped ahead, like in the original novel where one fragment ends and another starts, with nothing to provide a link between the two.
You were getting too complacent. Fellini was playing with you. There was the oddity of the sex scene, but then a rather conventional back and forth between two friends dividing their possessions. And even with the unrealistic static pose of the rejected Encolpius, or perhaps because of it, you sought the safety of immersion and understanding with the highly conventionally filmed bits of Encolpius considering suicide and the foretold arrival of the earthquake.
You probably were frustrated when the scene shifted. You were just getting into the whole destruction by earthquake scene. It was action. It was suspense. You were getting immersed in the story.
Fellini winks, and pulls out the rug. He wants you to see how easily you can let that happen, and why he needs to remind you that it is all artifice and technique. We can’t be seduced into thinking we can be at home in the past. This isn’t history. It’s not real, just like the Styrofoam blocks raining down on actors’ heads.
(Up Next- Satyricon 9 – Scene V: The Art Gallery)