(Previously- Satyricon 10 – Scene VI: Waiting for Trimalchio)
Here we go with an iconic bit of ancient Roman literature, the dinner with Trimalchio scene. It is most complete section of the original novel and many people who have done an upper level Latin class have had to translate it. Meant as a satire of wealthy freedmen, Petronius’ Trimalchio episode uses absurd extravagance to mock the nouveau riche of Nero’s Rome. Fellini’s take is a bit less satirical and more universal in its treatment of luxury, while keeping with his theme about the unknowable past.
Freedmen were a special class in Roman society. Unlike American pre-Civil War slavery, which most of us are more familiar with, Roman slavery (at least urban slavery) was not necessarily a permanent condition. Almost uniquely in ancient cultures, the Romans created a social space where slaves could earn, purchase, or be given their freedom, allowing them to join society as newly liberated individuals. These “freedmen” were not full citizens. They did not posses voting rights or many of the other privileges of full participation in the society, but they were no longer servile. They usually kept close ties with their master’s family, and often took his last name. Additionally, any children they produced after their liberation were given full citizen rights. Since slaves were almost exclusively non-Italian, by Nero’s day Roman society was extremely heterogeneous in its citizen body.
Because they did not have full citizen rights, freedmen were not bound by many of the rules and regulations that citizens had to follow. One of the most important of these was the very old, Republic-era law that forbade citizens from becoming merchants. “Buying and selling” was considered beneath the dignity of the Roman male citizen, but suitable for a freedman, who also presumably utilized the business connections of his former master. Therefore, many freedmen became very wealthy, particularly by the early first century CE. Trimalchio, however, inherited all of his wealth in the Satyricon, but the “wealthy freedman” was a common stereotype in Roman society.
Most of Petronius’ criticism of Trimalchio comes from that character’s obscene displays of wealth and his pretentions. He is a nouveau riche whom the aristocratic class can laugh at. In Fellini’s film, a real-life, bourgeois, rough-around-the-edges restaurant owner named Mario Romagnoli played Trimalchio. He was not an actor, but brought a dose of authenticity to the famous role. The entire dinner took three weeks to film.
The Guests – Encolpius and Eumolpus take their seats with garishly painted and dressed elites. The two main characters recede into the background so the camera can concentrate on the dazzling spectacle. We know they are elites because they are wearing a lot of gold jewelry, are dressed in brightly colored “Romanesque” clothing, and are contrasted with the poorer guests dressed more modestly and seated on an elevated mezzanine. Only the poorer guests shout “Viva Gaio” again as a toast.
Several of the guests, including the large man whose close-up starts this scene, have painted faces. In the script, Fellini explains some are sunburned because they have come to the countryside to Trimalchio’s villa and are not used to being outdoors. Other colors suggest extravagant fashion cosmetics are to blame.
The elite guests all recline on a triclinium, a three-sided dining couch, as we expect in a Roman film (what Fellini described as “the most trite and conventional depiction of a Roman banquet which the cinema has worn out by now.” The couch is very similar to the masonry triclinia Fellini would have seen at Pompeii. This custom probably came to the Romans through the Greek colonies in Southern Italy, which passed it to the Etruscans in northern Italy, and then to Rome. At elite occasions, your ranking was based on how close you sat to the host at the head of the triclinium. Honored Eumolpus gets to sit very close (as does his guest Encolpius).
The House – For this long episode, were are mainly in this narrow orange and ochre colored room. These are very earthy colors, allowing the guests’ garments to stand out. However, it is not a naturalistic room. The pillars suggest Roman architecture, but none of it is practical. It is quite clearly a designed set.
Clapping Dwarf – More of Fellini’s beloved “grotesques” (or more progressively, “unconventional bodies”). The Romans, however, made no qualms about their attitude toward difference. Roman society found physical deformities incredibly hilarious. The cultural norm was to associate distortion on the outside with distortion on the inside. Thus, difference was to be laughed at and mocked. The figure of the dwarf was especially funny to them, and it was not uncommon to see individuals such as the one here in the film acting the role of jester. This is an association that was not isolated to just the Romans, and more or less continued until the present era. Fellini’s dwarf is banging together two large hands on the ends of sticks to encourage them to applaud the spectacle.
The Food – Several courses are carried in, letting us know the feast is underway. They are massive and large, befitting a gathering of gluttonous nobles, but are not really of any identifiable animal we know. Lawrence Russell calls them “ambiguous torsos from ambiguous creatures in an ambiguous universe.” In the script, Fellini wrote “The content of the dishes are generally not very clear: dark shapes of incomprehensible food. Sometimes we note the shape of a fish or a bird, however, of some unlikely color.” In an un-filmed scene, he described Trimalchio as having “an enormous bird, monstrous, the result of crossbreeding”, a reference to vulgar extravagance. Here, it shows up on a huge platter, roasted.
In the novel, the food is presented as over the top pretensions of elegance, and curiously, as the opposite of what it actually is. For example, pork is passed off as poultry.
Fortunata – We first see Timalchio’s wife, played by Magali Noël, in a close up laughing. But it is the strange, unexplained, over-the-top laughing of the audience in Vernacchio’s theater. Her make up is also very strange, very off-putting. The makeup team shaved off her eyebrows and then made up the two sides of her face differently, originally so Fellini could choose which version he preferred. He liked the asynchronous look where one side smiled and the other frowned, and went with it. Beside her, Trimalchio is completely in shadow.
The Music – Also like the theater scene, we get a bit of synchronous sound. An orchestra (depersonalized because they are also filmed in shadow) are stuck in a pit. These people are just props for the elite. In the script, Fellini wanted their music to be completely anachronistic (“like certain Japanese music”).
The Napkin – Speaking of people as props, we get a close up of an older woman to the right of Fortunata (her mother) using a slave’s bushy hair for a napkin to wipe her hands. This actually comes from the novel when Trimalchio, after pissing, washes his hands and wipes them on the head of a slave boy (section 27).
“I don’t have to buy anything” – To show how rich he is, Trimalchio brags that everything he serves comes from his own estate holdings, although they’re so big he’s not exactly sure of their boundaries. In the novel, a guest gives this speech to Encolpius as gossip (sections 37-38).
Because Mario Romagnoli had no desire to learn any lines, in his scenes he is just reciting numbers or the menu from his restaurant. The dubbing comes from another actor.
First Beard – A slave brings a glass vessel where Trimalchio has kept the shavings from his first beard. In Roman society, these were usually dedicated to the gods at a special ceremony that marked a youth’s transition into puberty. In the novel, this just resides in a golden casket in the household shrine (section 29). Fellini has it brought out and applauded by the sycophantic guests.
Household Gods – The little figurines brought out like holy relics are what self-important Trimalchio worships, “Great Business, Great Satisfaction, and Great Profit.” They are based on the lares, or household gods, that the Romans believed protected each family. That Trimalchio has given them titles, representing abstract success, shows his priorities. This scene is a simplified version of what happens in the novel (section 60), where the guests are required to kiss the statues of the household gods, as well as one of Trimalchio himself.
Note the three women in Trimalchio’s life lined up in this shot (his wife, her sister, and her mother). Their elaborate hairstyles are based on what we expect extravagant Roman hairstyles to be like, although they are exaggerated versions of Flavian era fashion (the period after Nero).
The Mural – As the guests eat, artisans are creating a mural of Trimalchio’s head. Partly this is to remind us the villa is still being constructed. This is also partly an expression of Trimalchio’s massive ego.
In the Subura scene, I mentioned that disembodied heads make an appearance several times in Fellini’s Satyricon. Here is another one, this time applied to the wall.
“Born here or did I buy you?” – Trimalchio is so rich he doesn’t even know how many slaves he has or where they all came from (they are so numerous they even have “divisions” like an army). Three pigs are dragged before him and he is asked to choose which one is for dinner. Trimalchio warns the man that he better cook it well, setting up a “joke” he will play on the guests a little later. This scene and its dialogue comes from the novel (section 48).
Note how this shot is framed. We hear Trimalchio, but only see his pointing hand in shadow. It is off-center lower left. The slave is off-center lower right. The poorer guests are at the top but nothing is framed traditionally here.
Trimalchio Leaves – After making a clever joke, for which he is congratulated (from the novel, section 48), Trimalchio is helped to his feet by two slaves and leaves for the toilet.
Note the position of Fortunata and her female friend. It is very artificial and staged, but is also foreshadowing a same-sex kiss she will (scandalously) engage in later.
“The daylight is fading” – With the exit of Trimalchio, the guests are left to their own devices. When he leaves in the novel, Encolpius makes a point to say they are relieved to have a respite from such an overbearing presence (section 41). A few have monologues where they muse about topics such as the brevity of life and Trimalchio’s deviant sexuality. We have more actors directly engaging with the camera, reminiscent of the Subura scenes and the theater. In fact, the song from Vernaccio’s theater returns (as well as the screeching bird and barking dog).
More strange dishes are brought in, including one where the guests have to suck its juices through golden straws.
Tryphaena – Tryphaena, the courtesan, arrives with her entourage of maids. She steps from the shadows, silent but significant. We get a shot of Encolpius noticing her, although he is not centered in the shot, but rather a blue painted elite woman who seems to have eyes for him. Her gaze, to see what has caught his eye, and her looking between the two, helps us frame as meaningful Tryphaena’s introduction.
The wordless exchange of looks between Tryphaena and Encolpius is very conventional. Completely without dialogue, Fellini is able to convey the relationship between these two, and introduce a new character, despite being at a loss when we try and explain what exactly she is doing when she bends down. We are brought back to Encolpius’ story, which for the first time concerns heterosexual desire. Thus, Fellini reminds us that our rules about sexuality and sexual identity don’t apply here in this world.
A production note about the old man chewing in the background of Encolpius’ shot. Hughes tells us that Turkish taffy was distributed to all of the extras to keep them chewing throughout the filming.
The dinner continues with Trimalchio’s return…