In Dave's review of Grand Canyon, he made the following observation about movies that might not appeal to us at certain points in our lives but that we find ourselves warming to as we grow older:
The fact that I passed over [this film] so easily all those years ago was a mistake of youth, and yet I’m not sure I would have appreciated it then the way I do now. Lacking any viable worldly experience in 1991, the underlying message ... might have simply rolled off my shoulders. Seeing it today, it has settled comfortably in my mind.
Case in point, the 1969 film Fellini Satyricon, the most unsettling movie I have ever seen. No really, I'm serious. This movie is an acid trip, a celebration of sweat and soot and bodily fluids so disorienting that when I first viewed it back in college in 1984, I walked out at the reel change.
What’s ironic about my walkout is that around the same time I had no problem sitting through other films considered far more disturbing than Satyricon, films like Last House on the Left and Cannibal Holocaust. Those movies were intense, yes, but none of them smacked me like Fellini’s film. So what was it about Satyricon that rocked my world for all the wrong reasons? To fully understand that, let me give you some back-story.
I grew up in the 1970s, in a small Kansas town. I remember the decade as an ugly time of urban myths and horror stories spread by a queasy religious right resistant to change. For example, as a kid, I believed marijuana gave you cancer, and that hippies kidnapped children, got them addicted to drugs, and turned them into homosexuals.
As for movies, our local theater didn't get new releases until about four months after their initial run. It never screened foreign films, seldom showed anything controversial, and in all my years, the most distressing thing I saw in that place was the trailer for The Return of Count Yorga.
In 1983, I escaped this small Kansas town and ran off to attend college … at another small Kansas town. Still, as I say in the afterward to my novel Pitch, I though I had died and gone to Paris. I was out from under my parents’ roof, living on my own, and something about the college experience made me feel hip and trendy.
And then I saw Fellini Satyricon.
Suffice to say, Fellini’s eleventh feature film hit me like a prison shower rape.
Set in ancient Rome, Satyricon tells the story of … actually, it doesn’t tell much of a story. The film opens with Enculpio (Martin Potter), a young Roman, standing before a grafittied wall. His monologue begins with a phrase that I have found myself memorizing and using over and over in life, my go-to response to the rhetorical question of “How are you?":
The earth has not dragged me into the abyss ... nor has the tempestuous sea engulfed me …
I’ll admit it. In 1984, I had no real exposure to the homosexual lifestyle, and the idea of two men together kind of freaked me out. I was able to get past the scene with Enculpio and Giton, which was rather tame, but about the time Enculpio wrestles the aging merchant Lica (Alain Cuny) and is forced to give in to the older man’s advances, I was done. I walked out on Satyricon, and was scorned by both my instructor and my hipster peers for weeks. It would be another decade before I had a chance to see Fellini Satyricon again. While I can’t say it sweetened like fine wine, I am now at least able to sit through it and appreciate it on its own terms.
Fellini’s tale of ancient Rome is without cause and effect, lacking a set of complications in the first act that are to be resolved in the third. It views the past through a scrim of romance and surrealism, but it denies any real significance to its concatenation of episodes. In the film’s final shot, when Encolpio’s narration is cut off in mid-sentence and his image fades into a fresco on a crumbling wall, we are struck by the transience of life, and we question whether our life experiences have philosophical meaning or if profundity is merely an aesthetic we impose upon them.
I’m sounding like a bearded, balding literary type now, so let me dial it back a bit. The real question is, do I like Fellini Satyricon? Well, yes and no. Like Pasolini’s Saló, the film is disgusting, but it can also be fascinating, what writer Gary Indiana might call an “ugly butterfly.” The imagery overload and the disjointed nature of what passes for story were designed to make a viewer uncomfortable, and guess what? It does.
Still, now that I am older and have seen Fellini’s other work, I appreciate the film’s place in the canon, particularly as a transition between Juliet of the Spirits, which I did not care for, and Fellini’s Roma, which I rather enjoyed. In many ways, Satyricon derives its episodic nature from La Dolce Vita, my favorite Fellini film, and its dreamlike disposition is evocative of 8½, my second favorite Fellini film, so I can’t to be too hard on it.
Immediately after, Encolpio and Achyltus arrive and decide to enjoy the luxuries of the house, even frolicking with a beautiful African slave. In this progression of images, great tragedy has given way to the indulgence of life’s pleasures, and Encolpio waxes poetic about living each day as if it were your last.
To me, nothing else in Fellini Satyricon better illustrates the film’s central theme of life’s transitory nature, encouraging us to enjoy the moment for we too will pass, and most of us won’t even get a fresco.
If I can say anything positive about my 1984 experience, it’s that the first half of Fellini Satyricon opened my eyes to cinema, making me realize that there were other ways of telling a story through film than the pulpy but no less wonderful narratives I had previously enjoyed. As upsetting as it was to my naïve red state sensibilities, Satyricon stayed with me for years. It encouraged me to explore. Had I not experienced it, even in its truncated state in 1984, I may not have been open to other films and certainly to nothing by Fellini.