Posted in: Essays

Off the Beach: Fellini Satyricon

Fellini has been widely perceived as a moralist, ruthlessly portraying the corruption he saw around him in the social, political, and cultural flounderings of postwar Italy. But to regard him as a sometimes appreciative but more often critical observer of his world is to see only half the puzzle—the less interesting half. For Fellini always knew that he was part of the world he beheld, and what haunted him most was the impossibility of objectivity. The quasi-documentary approach of neorealist film-making became meaningful—and honest—only in combination with the self-examination more commonly associated with expressionism.

Fellini Satyricon: Bodies as landscape

La dolce vita and 8½, still for most viewers the two jewels in Fellini’s crown, present unapologetic self-portraits of the director at two stages of his creative life: the passionate would-be novelist, underemployed as a gossip reporter, unable to avoid becoming what he beheld; and the celebrated film director struggling to reconcile his creative visions with the expectations of an increasingly demanding public and to find common ground between his personal life and his public image. They also reflect a pivotal two-step process by which Fellini moves away from the linear neorealism of his earlier work and toward the surreal episodic narrative form that to one degree or another informs all of his later work.

Audiences who had seen in the wild color imagery of Juliet of the Spirits simply a re-application of the form and content of 8½ to the point of view of the woman rather than the loving but philandering husband were unprepared for Fellini Satyricon. Indeed, Juliet appeared downright conventional next to Fellini’s seemingly unrestrained, barely structured, wildly imaginative sortie into Petronian satire. An adaptation from Roman literature in only the loosest sense, Fellini Satyricon is no more about ancient Rome than 8½ is about the making of a science-fiction film. Rather, it is one more in a series of deeply personal efforts by Fellini to address his love-hate relationship with Rome—and with his inescapably Roman self.

The imagery comes as much from Fellini’s own imagination as from the myth and literature in which the film’s loose narrative is grounded. And the mainstay of that imagery is Fellini’s favorite tool: the human body. Unusual, sometimes hideously deformed bodies … normal bodies moving in abnormal ways, twitching and signaling mechanically like anachronistic automatons … unforgettable faces (Fellini usually cast faces, not actors) … all burn themselves into the viewer’s memory. These are not the images of historical or literary drama; they are a landscape of a haunted mind, and once you see them, you don’t forget.

The film’s episodic structure recapitulates that of La dolce vita—indeed, many of the characters and episodes of Fellini Satyricon are surreal or mythic analogs of those found in the earlier film. Most obvious is the use of a central character, Encolpio, who is both in and out of the story—an observer, chronicler, and critic who is also a participant, with wavering degrees of willingness. But if the film is a savage reexamination of the Rome of La dolce vita and of Fellini’s own lifetime, it also goes La dolce vita one better by offering something that consistently eluded the trapped gossip reporter Marcello: redemption. In La dolce vita, the possibility of redemption is always there, but Marcello never grasps it; decadence-groupie that he is, his indulgence of his own appetites renders him unable to extricate himself from the morass into which he all too eagerly slips. At the finale, he finds himself on a beach—an image Fellini was drawn to recurrently and obsessively throughout his career.

La strada’s Gelsomina was raised on a beach, is at home there; but her strong-man lover-tormentor Zampano cannot be caught with his back to the sea. His need for the crowd is too great, but he ultimately belongs nowhere, like Marcello in La dolce vita. The beach is a trap, a no man’s land between two different kinds of oblivion. Marcello has moved as far as he can from the temptation and corrosion embodied in Rome, but has to turn back; he can’t escape. And in 8½, when Guido as a boy goes to watch Saraghina do her lurid dance by her shanty on the beach, though the priests have warned him that she is “the devil,” the image is one of a young man caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, between the oppressions and corruptions of society and the inexorable dominion of nature. Guido ultimately must find redemption in a reconciliation of his self-indulgent bad behavior with his love of the people and world around him. But Fellini Satyricon’s Encolpio goes further: he gets off that beach.

The garish, nightmarish imagery of Fellini Satyricon knocks your eyes out, and haunts you forevermore. But it leaves you with a feeling of hope—not the helpless, uncomprehending shrug of Marcello but the adventurous spirit of Encolpio, ready for wherever the sea may take him, the open-endedness of “Once upon a time …” filled with possibilities. It’s a triumphant finish, and, in Fellini’s 10th feature film, it’s been a long time coming. It is, among other things, Fellini’s own high-spirited embrace of the new voice, style, and vision he had built for himself out of the ruined worlds of the neorealism he left behind.

Satyricon plays through Tuesday, April 7 at Northwest Film Forum, as part of the year-long series “69,” an exploration of the films of 1969.

© 2009 Robert C. Cumbow