Although much of what appears in Federico Fellini’s 1963 meta-confessional masterpiece, 8 ½, was taken from the director’s past memories, its final scene—in which his thinly-veiled alter ego, director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), conducts an imaginary three-ring circus around the towering metal husk meant to serve as a spaceship set for the science fiction opus he has just abandoned—would prove nothing short of a psychic glimpse into Fellini’s future.
Following the international success of 8 ½, Fellini embarked upon an actual science fiction project: Il viaggio di G. Mastorna, or The Journey of G. Mastorna. That film’s premise—a recently deceased musician traverses a surreal afterlife that resembles a skewed version of our reality—is not so far removed from the fictional film-within-a-film of 8 ½ , so it was perhaps inevitable that Fellini should succumb to the same case of director’s block as Anselmi, and end up walking away from the project after a sizeable expense had already been spent on pre-production.
But while Fellini’s failure to bring The Journey of G. Mastorna to fruition would forever haunt him, he still managed to make good on his desire to direct a science fiction epic a mere four years later.
On paper, Fellini Satyricon seems the antithesis of that genre: a baroque period piece set in our pre-science past. But filtered through Il Maestro’s cosmic vision, it feels as far removed from historical drama as possible, playing instead like—to borrow Fellini’s own description—”a documentary about the customs and habits of the Martians.”
After the collapse of G. Mastorna, Fellini moved on to 1965’s Juliet of the Spirits, his first feature-length color film and a headlong dive into the waters of phantasmagoria he’d been wading further and further into since 1960’s La Dolce Vita. He followed Juliet with an even more hallucinatory blast of sound and color: Toby Dammit, his contribution to 1968’s Edgar Allen Poe omnibus film, Spirits of the Dead. His only foray into horror, the 40-minute short also served as a dry run for his and co-writer Bernardino Zapponi’s next project, which would prove his largest, most expensive, and most challenging up to that point.
By this time in his career, Fellini had moved away from the location shooting of much of his earlier work, preferring instead to recreate the world to his liking within the massive backlots of Cinecittà Studios. This level of creative control no doubt instilled in him a God—or Jupiter, if you will—complex, so it only made sense that his next picture would be a Roman epic.
Fellini Satyricon—or “The Fellinicon,” as it was nicknamed by its cast and crew (his cognome was added to the title to distinguish it from a competing project based on the same source material)—is a loose adaptation of the Roman courtier Gaius Petronius’s comic novel, one of the earliest examples of the form. Thought to have been written in the late first century AD, the Satyricon is, to use Fellini’s summation to journalist Eileen Lanouette Hughes—whose 1971 memoir, On the Set of Fellini Satyricon: A Behind-the-Scenes Diary, stands as the essential document of the film’s production—a picaresque on “the life and licentiousness of Neronian times as seen through the eyes of two break-neck kids with completely unhinged lives and pan-erotic dreams.”
Rather than attempt to bind the existing fragments of Petronius’s work within a linear story, Fellini embraced their fractured nature by staging his film’s narrative across nine episodes, or “frescos,” each one “distilled from time and living in a void.” Of these nine frescos, only a few are taken directly from Petronius, with Fellini and Zapponi pulling inspiration from disparate sources of antiquity—Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, as well as sundry Greek, Sumerian, and Medieval myths and legends—in order to create a work of pure fantasy. Paradoxically, Fellini held that said fantasy had to be presented “precise [and] mathematically”, while coming off as “absurd [and] drunken.”
Paradox is at the heart of Fellini Satyricon. Fellini described his movie as a documentary of a dream, although Hughes claimed it was really “a documentary of a nightmare.” She also called it “the most unerotic erotic movie ever made,” and, indeed, the juxtaposition of its coldly detached tone, aesthetic sumptuousness, and sheer carnal overload make for a wholly discombobulating and exhausting experience, one that is closer to—and you’ll excuse the cliché, but it really is true of this film—a fever dream than full-on nightmare. The viewer emerges from Fellini Satyricon in a queasy stupor, their mind grasping at individual images and sensations from within the larger hallucination, even as they seek to push the whole experience away.
Come to think of it, fever dream might not even be the most accurate analogy. Fellini Satyricon more resembles a close encounter of the second kind.
Given the evolution of Fellini’s aesthetic, which steadily moved from late neo-realism into sur- and even magical realism, it was inevitable he’d eventually turn his cartoonist’s eye to the dizzying debauchery and hysterical hedonism of his homeland’s imperial past. Having been introduced to cinema by way of early silent Roman epics, Fellini had always wanted to set a movie in the pagan world, although when he finally embarked upon adapting the Satyricon, he was adamant his interpretation not look or feel like anything that had come before. He didn’t visualize his picture as a historical drama, but as “science fiction projected into the past…a journey into the unknown, where the people are unknown.”
In order to achieve this, Fellini worked against even the most basic conventions of the Roman epic. To wit: rather than dropping the viewer amongst the grand monuments we associate with the era—the colosseums, public squares, and palatial estates—Fellini ushers us into it from the bottom up, by way of its asshole.
We spend the entire first third of the film moving through the bowels of this rotting empire, following our trio of proto-hippy antiheroes—lovelorn student Encolpius (Martin Potter), his best friend/bitter rival Ascyltus (Hiram Keller), and the object of their shared lust, sly teenager Gitón (Max Born)—across a chiaroscuro anti-world of shadow and stone. We skulk across graffiti-strewn bathhouses where steam and sulfur rise from the watery depths; blood-strewn temples where haruspexes perform fertility rites; a pyre-lit theater where a grotesque performance of the Marriage of Venus gives way to a gruesome display of corporal punishment; and a winding “street of pleasure” known as the Lupinari that stretches the length of the canal—sex and shit borne along the tide side by side, its myriad individual brothels serving as windows into a multiverse of pleasure and depravity.
We pause briefly at the Insula Felicles, a massive tenement building carved into the walls of a giant cave—the apex of which opens up to reveal the stars hanging in the firmament so that we appear to be looking up and out at the cosmos from within the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey—before Fellini tears it all down with an earthquake of Biblical proportions. Ever the lapsed Catholic, he can’t help but imbue the picture with Christian symbolism, the most notable example found in this scene by way of a stampeding white horse that Fellini places in the middle of this apocalypse.
However, in this no-man’s-land where wonder and terror are the norm, this is but one in a series of everyday apocalypses—and, before we know it, we find ourselves in the above-ground world, a place no less debauched or surreal.
We partake of dour bacchanalias where depraved guests gorge themselves on severed pig snouts, bloody horse heads, giant eyeballs dripping with green slime, fat black eels, and the main course: piles of steaming offal served straight out the belly of a giant hog that’s been roasted whole. We sail across the sea on a slave ship-cum-pleasure barge modeled after modern-day aircraft carriers (although with its giant, claw-like anchor, reflective glass weaponry, and black stone Godhead of indeterminate origin—it may be Egyptian, but the slender female visage replete with insectoid features recalls the xenomorphs of H.R. Giger—it more resembles an Unidentified Sunken Object or even an alien being itself, one of H.P. Lovecraft’s immortal Great Old Ones).
From here, we traverse desiccated countrysides lorded over by crimson skies, palatial estates resting on vermillion sands, desert wastelands where the wind howls like banshees, a half-buried temple belonging “not [to] a god, but a monster, something alien to Roma—an exotic, Oriental cult,” a man-made minotaur’s labyrinth, a swinging hothouse of delight modeled after Persian brothels and Japanese gardens, and a system of cave tunnels that host primordial spirits belonging to the Earth herself.
The people and creatures we meet are stranger yet: there’s Vernacchio, a monstrous actor famous for his flatulence; Trimalchio, an obscenely wealthy upstart whose ego is matched only by his gluttony (one wonders if George Lucas mightn’t have been thinking of this character when he created Jabba the Hutt); Lichas, the cycloptic captain of the Emperor’s pleasure barge—tyrannical and homicidal one moment, tender and submissive the next. There’s the boy Emperor himself, slain on a lonely rock without ceremony. There’s a beautiful family of nobility, who, in the wake of their Emperor’s assassination, commit a leisurely suicide in order to avoid the indignity of execution (this scene is clearly based on Petronius’s own suicide following his falling out with Nero).
The further we move into this ancient terrain, the less recognizably human the figures become. There’s the caravan belonging to a noblewoman cursed by a sorcerer with insatiable nymphomania; a sickly and doomed child demigod; craven soldiers of fortune and sadistic gladiators who seem more beast than man; and an ancient sorceress who takes the forms of a beautiful seductress, a voluptuous Earth Mother, and a skulking mirabeau.
Ultimately, the journey ends with the breaking of the last taboo: we watch, alongside Encolpius, a group of noblemen literally devour the corpse of his former mentor in order to inherit his wealth, as per his final will and testament.
Here, Fellini brings home his overarching religious and political themes, the cannibalism on display evoking the rites of Catholic communion while simultaneously drawing a ghastly analogy to the troubled transitionary period in which the film was made, with the younger generation—shown to be racially and ethnically diverse—”reject[ing] the values of their elders, even as the dying generation devours itself.”
This climactic act of cannibalism is also the ultimate example of therianthropy, which Fellini emphasizes so strongly throughout the film (a fitting motif, given that the founders of Rome were raised by a she-wolf)—from the foul warthog and uncannily terrifying minotaur costumes donned by certain characters; to the behavioral resemblance others bear to sewer rats, birds of prey, and entire colonies of ants; to the pair of lesbian lovers we spy kissing, per Fellini’s direction, “like lizards”—that at times he seems as intent on adapting H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau as he does Petronius’s novel.
Even more radical is Fellini’s casual presentation of a genderfluid, pan-sexual society. As we know from the historical record, this is actually one of the less fantastical elements of the film, but given how shocking such content was at the time of the film’s release—although granted, earlier epics such as Ben Hur and Spartacus do briefly, if less overtly, acknowledge the sexual realities of their times—it adds to the far-away, alien-like texture of the world Fellini created. One can very much imagine David Bowie’s androgynous starman falling to Earth from this planet.
And yet, absent from this decadent spectacle is any sense of telos or gaiety. Everything is, to use Zipponi’s description, “chaste and anguished…like a funeral…[they] laugh when they should die.” With almost every formalist choice, Fellini doubles down on this sense of anomaly: from Nino Rota’s primeval score, shorn not only of any overt gladiatorial connections, but any explanatory emotional beats (Rota described the music as “Vegetable fact…sounds from a world before conscience…music at its origins rather than civilized”); to the painstakingly detailed yet expressionistic makeup, which Fellini saw as “the most important thing in the film”; to the mix of historically accurate and anachronistic costuming. (This is perhaps its most obvious influence on the science fiction films to follow, particularly Andrzej Żuławski’s unfinished Polish epic, On the Silver Globe, the Mad Max quartet, and especially Alejandro Jodorowsky’s psychedelic midnight favorite, The Holy Mountain).
Most noticeable of all is the counterintuitive way Fellini uses the hundreds of background extras. In almost every scene, we are confronted by hordes of phantoms, who, per Hughes, “stare mindlessly at the camera, dart their tongues in and out like snakes in a pit, or rivet eyes with absurd alien gestures.”
Zipponi explained how this fourth wall-breaking technique further served to “give the audience the eerie sensation of being spied on by ghosts or extra-terrestrials…The Satyricon is a science fiction film of the epic, not of space. Everything is seen through an optical illusion…in order to give it a sense of the unknown.” This same sentiment was expressed by the great actress—and Fellini’s wife and muse—Giulietta Masina, who observed during a visit to the set, “These creatures, this ambience…it could be ancient Rome, but it could be a thousand years ahead. They’re suspended in time. They’ve already lived, but they can live again in the future.”
The most haunting scene in Fellini’s next feature, 1972’s Fellini’s Roma, sees a documentary film crew follow a group of archeologists and subway developers deep into the ancient tunnel systems of Rome, where they uncover a lost catacomb containing dozens upon dozens of perfectly preserved frescos—among which could well stand the portraits that close out Fellini Satyricon.
We think of Masina’s quote, yes, but also of the British sci-fi/cosmic horror classic, 1967’s Quatermass and the Pitt, in which subway developers uncover a buried civilization of extraterrestrials who crash-landed on earth millions of years previously—and, in so doing, unleash their psychic energy upon our civilization.
Alas, before the spirits of Fellini Satyricon’s “lunar landscape”—Masina’s description, again—can be fully awakened in Roma, a fatal gust of fresh air blows in from the team’s excavation point and wipes them away, sending these visitors back to whatever past, future, foreign planet, or alternate dimension it is they’ve appeared to us from.