(Previously – Satyricon 15 – Scene IX: Eumolpus’ Bequest)

16aIn the previous scene, an overhead shot showed Eumolpus in the final moments of his speech.  Once silence, except for the wind, descends, Encolpius receives an overhead shot, but we notice that it is different.  It is horizontal (Eumolpus’ was vertical), light appears at the top (Eumolpus was completely in shadow), and it is immediately clear that it is a location shot (the previous scene was obviously staged in a studio).  This marks our transition into another chunk of the narrative, another chapter in Encolpius’ adventures where he is kidnapped and put aboard a ship.

In the Petronius novel, after some more quarreling over Giton, Encolpius and Ascyltus reconcile and they, along with Eumolpus, plan to make a journey somewhere (section 99ff.).  There is a break in the surviving text and suddenly the characters are on a ship.  Fellini has preserved the disjunction in the text on the screen, although he allows a roughly-woken Encolpius to be, like us, momentarily confused as to what is happening.

Encolpius opens his eyes, creating a link with the previous scene where he fell asleep.  But it is soon clear he is not in the same place as before.  Instead of a cultivated field he sees sheer, rocky cliff faces (contrast).  Giton and Ascyltus are there, standing artificially at the base of the cliff, off center in the frame.  Both are dressed in black.  Expecting a straightforward narrative, we wonder if Fellini is showing us a dream– dream sequences are a staple of cinema, and audiences expect them.  However, this is not a straightforward narrative movie.  It is not a dream.  They really are there but we are given no explanations why, as the original novel’s explanations have been lost.

16b“I still see you…” – Encolpius’ voice over narration reminds us of his relationship with Giton and Ascyltus, and lets us think for a few moments that he is indeed dreaming.  A crying Giton suggests to us that something is wrong.  A swift kick brings Encolpius around and we soon learn that he and his friends are in chains.

16dThe ship – We briefly see the black ship in a long shot. Like many other things in this film, it suggests the form of something Roman (a trireme), but is abstract and odd.

16fThe dire situation Encolpius, Giton, and Ascyltus are in is graphically shown not only in the artfully staged row of chained men on the beach but also the nightmare jetties containing a black cage packed with prisoners. Some of the captors, who include Roman soldiers, are speaking German (in a Roman context, the language of barbarians and slaves).

Where is Eumolpus?  Did he die?  We are not told.


Tryphaena – In two brief but significant shots, we see Tryphaena in a jetty, although she does not seem to be a prisoner. We immediately recognize her, even from afar because Fellini both spent time giving her a significant entrance during Trimalchio’s dinner scene (where she locked eyes meaningfully with Encolpius) and also because her look, with the costume, makeup, and wig, is distinctive. She gives an off-center, sly reaction shot to the camera.

Drums – Fellini taps into the traditional soundtrack of slaves and Roman ships, namely the drum which is beat to keep the slave rowers moving in unison. It is a sound that goes back to Ben Hur and any film of the ancient world that shows triremes. We soon get a shot that actually shows the deck of the ship (tilted and off-centered) through its raised oars (note their resemblance to prison bars).

16hEncolpius, Giton, and Ascyltus each get a camera moment as the jeering soldiers push them below deck.  Utilizing very dark shadows, and historical imagery of crowded African slave ship holds, Fellini expresses the characters’ dire situation visually.  People are shouting and laughing.  It is noisy and cramped.  Rebellious Ascyltus is forced to sit.  The three heroes are even kept apart, with masses of men between them, which Encolpius claims is ironic since the lovers are close but so far from each other.

Lichas of Tarentum – The English subtitles misspell Tarentum, the southern Italian city (in old Magna Graecia) where the captain of the black ship hails from.

In Petronius’ novel, Encolpius and his friends willingly board a ship and only after they are at sea does he learn the captain is someone Encolpius knows and fears from a previous encounter (section 100ff.). Tryphaena, not present at Trimalchio’s villa in the novel, is also on board because she has been exiled (possibly for a sexual offense involving Giton) and is journeying to Tarentum. Apparently, Encolpius and Giton are fleeing these two people for offenses related to the reason the god Priapus is angry with them. Lichas and Encolpius were once lovers, and Encolpius also seems to have seduced Lichas’ wife. There may have been a (now) missing episode where Lichas was involved in a theft of a holy rattle and robe of Isis (in her capacity as a patron goddess of sailors) but those parts of the novel have not survived. In the original script, Fellini followed the novel’s plot closely, but in the end decided to dispense with all this back-story (which Petronius partly seems to have made to satirize the tropes of romantic adventure novels), and his Lichas is merely the weird captain of the ship that the gang find themselves aboard as slaves.

The voice over narration tells us Lichas is partnered somehow with Tryphaena and they both now roam the seas looking for precious objects “to give pleasure to Caesar’s lonely life on his island” (a reference to the emperor Tiberius who exiled himself to Capri and, according to some ancient historians, gave himself up to luxury). The slaves are also objects, suggesting they will be used in a violent or sexual way.


The ship’s prow – The prow (?) shows a stylized female head that is most definitely not Roman, but is of the same black material as the rest of the ship. It is not clear, however, if the ship is actually wooden. In some shots it anachronistically looks to be made of metal.

The ship was built in two pieces and put in the water around the island of Ponza where its exterior shots were filmed.[1]

These sequences are among the most brilliantly executed in all film drama to date. The photographic compositions isolate Nature and exalt the machine. The screen is sectionized into the geometrics of ocean horizon and the raised oars of the slave galley — dramatic simplicities that give imaginative and emotional depth to the historical reality. No matter how fantastic the characters and their actions, there’s a raw authenticity continuously seeping from the expressionism. This, says Fellini, is how it was. – Lawrence Russell: Fellini Satyricon

16kEncolpius is unable to defend himself, or Giton, from the other slaves. When one takes his cloak, Ascyltus comes to his rescue, showing that the two friends are now reconciled.

(Up Next: Satyricon 17 – Scene XI: Encolpius Confined and Pinned)


[1] Kezich, Tullio (2006), Federico Fellini: His Life and Work (New York: Faber and Faber), p.293.