(Previously – Satyricon 9 – Scene V: The Art Gallery)
Illustrating the episodic nature of the novel and film plot, Encolpius and his new friend Eumolpus make their way next to a lavish dinner party thrown by a vulgar freedman named Trimalchio. Encolpius’ story, and his role as main character, almost completely recedes into the background for a bit. He becomes the observer, our eyes, watching the absurd spectacle unfold in front of him.
Farmers – It is a bit unclear in the film, but in the screenplay Fellini transferred Trimalchio’s party from the urban setting of the novel to a new villa that is still under construction in the countryside. The guests have to trudge out to it through fields where cows are grazing. Some of them ride in litters carried by slaves. The flaming braziers mark the path to the (still mostly un-built) property.
“His land provides everything” – Trimalchio is super rich. He was once a slave, but is now a free man. His name means literally “thrice blessed.”
Camera – As in the journey through the Subura, the camera walks along with the guests. Some turn toward it. Is it the detached camera of the Subura sequence, or meant to be Encolpius and Eumolpus walking? Or both? Notice that we only hear Eumolpus in a voice over. We don’t see them until these walking shots are mostly over.
“And he thinks he is a poet” – There is a running joke in the novel and the film that because he is rich, everyone tells Trimalchio his poetry is good. Eumolpus, dedicated to his ideals, knows the truth but has to keep up the pretense because he is poor and relies on Trimalchio’s patronage.
“You’ve escaped torture” – One grossly painted guest overhears Eumolpus claiming he is treated better at Trimalchio’s table than the other richer guests and begins to insult him. Historically, under Roman law, the authorities could not torture those who held the rights of citizens, nor could citizens be flogged in punishment. Non-citizens could be subjected to torture and flogging, and for much of Roman history testimony presented by slaves in court cases could only be attained through torture. This is what the guest is referencing as he berates Eumolpus. Their argument is full of very Italian hand gestures and insults.
The baths – It was customary to visit the baths before a party, and Encolpius (along with his rhetoric teacher and Giton) does this in the novel when they arrive at Trimalchio’s house (sections 26-27). However, the baths in the novel are nothing like the one in the film, which is one of the most striking and memorable images in a film of striking and memorable images. The guests arrive at an outdoor swimming pool where both sexes are bathing (or rather standing still and naked in the water). A row of peasant farmers in the background look on mutely as the elites are massaged and cleaned by slaves.
During filming, the pool was kept heated to 95 degrees for the comfort of the actors. However, Fellini caused a bit of a situation when he ordered the female actors to take off their bras before filming. They had not been informed that they would be topless.
Two thousand lit candles surround the pool. This may be meant to evoke a church-like atmosphere in these very pagan times. In the absence of Christianity, the pursuit of pleasure is these people’s religion.
The Music – We hear more sounds and processed music suited to a science fiction film. This part of the episode without Eumolpus’ voice is mostly in silence except for the strange music and piercing bird noises (possibly denoting either the countryside setting or the birdlike grooming of the nobles).
The Litters – We get a few shots of the rich getting out of their litters. Some are looking at the camera, one even walking directly up to it, underscoring the artificiality of everything. Eileen Hughes made the observation that the litters are not naturalistic, but resemble coffins or sarcophagi standing upright in the fields. A comment on the decrepit aristocracy? (A theme he would revisit later in the Ecclesiastical Fashion Show segment of Roma (1972)).
“Even Venus was cross-eyed” – Another allusion to Eumolpus’ interest in boys from the novel, when we hear his voice again he is chatting to two youths. The “cross-eyed” line references a popular Italian saying, “strabismo di Venere” which references being slightly cross-eyed and turns it into a compliment. It was thought to be connected to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus painting where the goddess is slightly cross-eyed. It was probably not an ancient saying. The youths respond by giggling and kicking their legs in the air.
Cross-eyed people are mentioned once in the novel where Trimalchio wittily describes the characteristics of people born under each of the star signs (section 39). He mentions those born under Sagittarius are cross-eyed and look at the vegetables while stealing the bacon. I’m not sure what the joke is (which sounds more like a joke made about someone with a lazy eye rather than a cross-eyed person).
The Pedicure – Encolpius is shown receiving a pedicure from a slave as the gong sounds announcing Trimalchio’s arrival. In the novel, one of the extravagant things about dinner at Trimalchio’s is that slaves work on the feet of the guests as they sit down to eat (section 31).
“Viva Gaio!” – The gong announces Trimalchio and after a pause, the guests in the pool begin to hail him with the Italian word for “long live” or “good health to” and Trimalchio’s first name (Gaius). This is usually not subtitled, and is out of sync with the actor’s mouths. The guests receiving their massages remain mostly artificially still like statues.
Trimalchio – He arrives on a litter and attended by wreathed musicians. This is very different than the way Trimalchio is introduced in the novel (section 27). Petronius has Encolpius see an older man in red clothing from a distance at the baths. He is playing a ball game with some youths, but is obviously important because when someone drops the ball, no one retrieves it. Instead, a slave is standing by ready to offer a new ball. This is Trimalchio. As Encolpius watches, the rich freedman calls over a slave with a silver vessel and uses it to urinate in before returning to the game. Later, when he actually arrives at the dinner after the guests have been seated, he arrives on a litter to musical accompaniment (section 32).
Our very important framed close-up of Trimalchio shows another off-centered shot.
“You’ve come too, brother” – Echoing Eumolpus’ words on the road, Trimalchio singles him out as the only guest he directly greets. Trimalchio, like the stereotypical nouveau riche, has pretensions of sophistication. Eumolpus tolerates this for now, swallowing his pride and returning his attention to the youths.