1970 / Best Director

Film #576: Fellini Satyricon (1970)

Continuing our look back through the Best Director nominated films of Fellini we come to a film that name checks the man himself; Fellini Satyricon. Loosely based on Satyricon by Petronius, Fellini was forced to add his named to the title after another film based on the ancient Roman text was released at the same time as his film. Just like Amarcord, Fellini Satyricon is made up of a number of different segments all strung together by the same set of characters which in this case is scholar Encolpius and his friend/love rival Ascyltus who attempt to survive during uncertain times in imperial Rome.

Another similarity shared by Satyricon and Amarcord is that both are a little obsessed by sex and from the opening in which Encolpius and Ascyltus compete for the love of Giton; a young attractive boy who disappears from the film about halfway through. There a copious amounts of love-making throughout the film including our two heroes sharing the affections of an African slave girl and later we see Ascyltus satisfy the appetite of a hungry nymphomaniac. Additionally there are also several moments of extreme violence; at one point a pirate ship captain is decapitated whilst a couple later commit suicide instead of await their presumably grisly fate under the reign of a fearsome new emperor. If the loose structure of Satyricon wasn’t confusing enough there are also moments in which certain characters narrate stories to Encolpius about Gods or funerals which are meant to help him on his way. The film has a very Austin Powers-esque final act when Encolpius loses his mojo after failing to make love in front of a big crowd and finally curing his impotence thanks to a little bit of magic. However the ending of Satyricon was incredibly abrupt due to the fact that Petronius’ book ends mid-sentence so Fellini decided his film should do the same. What I did like was the final camera movements as we see a crumbling wall depicting frescoes of the faces that had loomed large on the screen for the past two hours.

My views on Satyricon are very similar to those that I had about Amarcord; as both are visually engaging films that struggle slightly on the narrative side. In my opinion I would say Fellini Satyricon is the better movie as it’s easier to follow thanks to a more recognisable protagonist even though again we are ensconced in a world of sex and violence. Thankfully the sex and violence is all artistically shot thanks to the camerawork of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno who brings all of Encolpius’ antics to life expertly. Nino Rota and his very contributors bring a very unique take to the score which gives Satyricon an almost futuristic feel that doesn’t quite gel with ancient Roman setting of the film. In fact, according to Fellini’s co-screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi, the director set out to create a feeling of estrangement throughout the movie and I think he certainly achieved that. I’m surprised in a way that Fellini Satyricon didn’t garner more than a best director nod as there’s a lot to admire in terms of how the movie looks. I personally felt that the film’s costume design and art direction were better than those that featured in Airport; which was oddly nominated in both categories. However one nomination Airport didn’t get was that of Best Director and I’ll analyse whether it should have done when I’ve watched the other Best Director film from 1970.

What I will say that Fellini Satyricon worked as a love letter to the epic films of the 1940s and 1950s which this film seemed to be have a lot of admiration for. But again I would say that my impression of Fellini films are still that they are brilliant to look at but lack any characters that you can really empathise with. Next time join me to see if that impression changes when the Best Director film quest delves into the 1960s for the third instalment of the Fellini quartet.


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