It is Fellini time again.
Even in his better moments I am a bit apprehensive about his movies. “Satyricon” is in my opinion not one of those better moments and whatever it is, it is not easy.
I am having some trouble describing what I have just been watching. It is something about a young man called Encolpius (Martin Potter), who travel through a number of scenes in an LSD version of ancient Rome. The various scenes do not have a lot connecting them. We never know how one scene turns into the next and most seem to serve as a story on their own. Only Encolpius appears in almost all of them and a common theme is sex. Not love, but an indulgent, self-gratifying obsession with sex. Sex with young boys, prostitutes, orgies, rape, impotence, sex as divinity, sex as depravity, you name it.
Encolpius wants a very young boy called Gitón (Max Born) for some sexy time. His friend Ascyltus (Hiram Keller) has taken him and sold him to a theater, where they chop a hand off a man to give him a golden hand instead. Encolpius extracts Gitón and takes him home through a brothel, but Gitón prefers to be with Ascyltus. An earthquake ruins the building where Encolpius lives. He attends an orgy with lots of food and half naked women and he is enslaved on a ship. Here he is forced to marry an older man. Then there is a guy who is rehearsing his funeral and another man and wife who free their slaves, send their children away before they kill themselves. Encolpius and Ascyltus movies into their vacated house, finds a slave left in the building and have sexy time in the pool. There is also a battle with a fake minotaur and a goddess who literally creates fire between her legs.
For me it is a problem that the storyline is as chopped up as it is. The lack of a progressing story reduces the movie to a series of vignettes and very random ones at that. At some point I was not confused any more, just resigned, realizing that I did not care very much. I have no idea what Encolpius wanted except for sex and potency. Boys, girls, young, old, thin, fat, he gets to try it all and so what? There is a feeling that all this sex is not important at all, just a lot of emptiness, and violence, random and casual, is just around the corner.
I also found this weird Roman setting very disconcerting. It did not feel like antiquity or reality of any kind but a depraved dream or a fevered fantasy. It may have been the intention, but it was very unpleasant to watch as if on the verge of vomiting.
A movie this random and disjointed is obviously aiming at something else than telling a coherent story. The trouble is just that I have not figured out what that is. A psychological theme? A political theme maybe? A search for the meaning of life, looking the wrong places? A Christian denunciation of the heathen hedonism outside Christian moral? Without that key it all feels too random.
The theme of the depravity of ancient Rome as a counterpoint to Christianity is an old and very well-known story. Gibbons work on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire rested on the assumption that it was this depravity that ruined the empire and gave rise to Christianity. I have no doubt the early church was busy assigning all sorts of depravity on the foul heathens that prosecuted the early Christians and indeed some of the books surviving to this day are surprisingly raunchy. Maybe Fellini just thought all that was pretty cool.
I think “Satyricon” is mostly for Fellini fans. Not one I would actually recommend to anybody else.