(Previously – Satyricon 16 – Scene X: Encolpius Captured)
Soon, Ascyltus is showing his reconciled friend how to entertain himself during the journey, since Ascyltus is all about seeking pleasure. He shows Encolpius a spy hole in the wall of their hold, a wall where Fellini artfully arranges almost naked bodies in boxes to further suggest the idea of confined men.
Through the peephole, Encolpius and Ascyltus can see some of the treasures being delivered to Caesar on his island, some half-naked dwarfs wrestling, and also Tryphaena in her bath. This, along with all of the male skin on display, creates a rather sexual atmosphere. A slave (with odd blue eye makeup and decorated hair evoking but not imitating Roman style) spies them peeping. She and Ascyltus both find the situation amusing, and infuse it with another layer of eroticism (voyeurism). Tryphaena, now out of her bath, also notices and she and Encolpius relive their eye contact from Trimalchio’s party.
The camera then becomes Encolpius’ view as it witnesses more scenes through the peephole (we’ve presumably jumped forward in time, although this is not clearly indicated). Loud shouting (contrasting with the quiet of Tryphaena’s bath) heralds another wrestling contest, this time between normal sized men. The camera swings back and forth in front of the hole, mimicking a swaying caused by the ship’s movement. This movement, and shifting light filtering in from outside, allow us to see some aspects of the scene while obscuring others– the ongoing motif of concealing to create doubt.
Along with the shouting crowd of men, some women, including Tryphaena, are arranged as spectators. The wrestler is an older man with a band around his head. He quickly seems to dispatch (and kill?) his opponent, to the cheers of the men who call for him to be given a golden crown. He turns toward Encolpius’ gaze as the light goes away (paralleling in a way how actors have been directly engaging with the camera’s gaze throughout the film). When the light returns with the rhythm of the rocking boat, we’re confronted with a frightening and unsettling visage. Our brains probably only have time to register in the brief shot that one eye is weird. It is a glass eye, and the expression on the man unnerves us, as it unnerves Encolpius. This is Lichas.
Spying through a peephole occurs in the novel Satyricon (Encolpius and a priestess of Priapus spy on Giton sleeping with a virgin through a keyhole (section 26)), but also more importantly in the other great novel to survive from the Roman world, Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Fellini took inspiration from that book as well, as we will see later. In an early section its tale, the main character, Lucius unwisely spies on a witch through a hole in a door and sees her change into a bird. He attempts the same spell and accidentally turns himself into a donkey.
Cuny who played Lichas was a well-known French movie actor. He did not like wearing the fake eye and insisted on it being on his right eye so at least, as he thought, it could be somewhat offset by his “good side”. Latex applied to his other eye made it droop to add to his monstrous appearance.
To mark the passage of time, Fellini both uses the fade out as well as an exterior establishing shot of the ship on the water. We are next back in the hold with the near-naked slaves. Giton is performing a song on an instrument that is native to Indonesia (this anachronism creates confusion and artificiality). Encolpius attempts to get close. The light fades down much like with the peeping scene and we jump forward in time simply with an edit. Giton’s song is truncated. He does not finish it.
When the slaves are asleep in the heap, many of them have their knees raised because floor space is so limited. This nicely evokes the crowded conditions while the camera pans and rocks to simulate the rocking of the ship. It also creates both angles and horizontal lines. Only one figure at first is raised above the rest: Encolpius who seems to wake from a disturbed dream. Wordlessly, and with only the sound of the sea and the continued motion of the camera, we see Encolpius picked out from the crowd by a shadowy figure in the foreground. Visually we are being told what is going on, and the lack of spoken lines, the shadows, and the violent way Encolpius is dragged off tell us that this is not good.
In the novel, Encolpius and Giton disguise themselves as slaves in order to hide from Lichas and Tryphaena (sections 103-105). When they are rounded up and whipped for a perceived misdeed, Giton cries out and they are discovered. Lichas identifies the camouflaged Encolpius by fondling his exposed genitals. In Fellini’s film, Encolpius and Giton begin as slaves and are selected out because Lichas is enamored with Encolpius’ body.
We soon learn that Lichas has chosen Encolpius to be his next wrestling partner. We saw what happened to the last one, and realize Encolpius is in danger. The way in which Lichas’ body is rubbed, the lights fading in and out, and all the bare male skin also tell us that partly the danger is sexual even before people begin commenting on Encolpius’ beauty. Lichas begins to circle his prey like a predator, calling Encolpius his “sweet beauty” with breathy tones that periodically erupt into intimidating shouts.
Wrestling was a common sport in the ancient world, and one that also always kept a degree of homoeroticism. Most of the males watching the bout are excited and cheer. The females, including Tryphaena, do not show emotion. This is for the men.
Fellini allows the violent spectacle to continue, with a leering Lichas enjoying the bodily contact between him and Encolpius. Lichas is a disgusting character because of his age, his sweatiness, and of course the weird glass eye (which is never commented upon). In fact, much is made of Lichas holding Encolpius in his gaze. In modern society, there is much male paranoia around objectifying the male body and submitting it to “the gaze”. Fellini is playing with this as a way to threaten our male hero, forcing him to become the “object” of desire. At one point, Lichas even makes reference to Encolpius’ beautiful eyes, underscoring this threat to Encolpius’ masculinity.
The bout climaxes in a buggery-like bear hug and then an awkward pin that completely exposes Encolpius’ stilled body to the gaze of Lichas. A smothering kiss ends it, a figurative defeat and death to contrast with the earlier bout’s suffocated victim. A weird German (slave?) whispers to an enigmatic but inert Tryphaena, saying something akin to “I think we both have a pretty new Dominus (lord) now and there will be the wedding with lots of love and……”
During the filming of the bout, Martin Potter (Encolpius) cut his thumb on the breastplate worn by Lichas. Fellini insisted that the two actors kiss for real, telling Martin that it was “the exigence of art.”
In the novel, Lichas, Tryphaena, Encolpius, and Giton all settle their differences peacefully and have a picnic on the deck. Eumolpus tells the story of the Widow of Ephesus (sections 111-112) to the assembled crowd, but in the film that story was transferred to the Trimalchio section.
(Up Next: Satyricon 18 – Scene XII: Encolpius Married)