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Fellini Satyricon
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Fellini Satyricon

Fellini Satyricon

"Rome. Before Christ. After Fellini."
Tagline for Fellini Satyricon

The line on the U.S. movie posters for Fellini Satyricon may have been historically inaccurate (the director's 1969 anti-epic was actually set in the first century A.D., putting it after the time of Christ), but somehow that seems totally fitting for the most original vision of ancient Rome ever filmed. Although adapted from a classic tale by first century courtier Gaius Petronius, the film is really more a projection of Federico Fellini's personal vision of modern life onto the world of antiquity than an historical re-creation. His rootless, sexually fluid protagonist was, in truth, a '60s flower child adrift in a world of pleasure, violence and rampant corruption.

Fellini had first encountered Petronius' sexual epic in high school and had designed a cover for it in his days as a cartoonist. Later, he had considered making a musical version to star his longtime friend Aldo Fabrizi, who had helped get him into films. During a serious illness in the '60s, he re-read the work and began entertaining more serious thoughts about filming it. Nonetheless, he would later describe its inception as an accident. While trying to raise financing for the film after ending his association with Dino De Laurentiis, he met with producer Alberto Grimaldi, who had scored a hit with the Sergio Leone "spaghetti Westerns" that made Clint Eastwood a star. When the producer put a contract in front of him and demanded a title, the Satyricon was the first thing that came to mind.

While searching for ideas for his episode in the fantasy film anthology Spirits of the Dead (1968), Fellini had been intrigued by the stories of film critic Bernardo Zapponi and had enlisted him to co-write the episode with him. He turned to Zapponi again for help adapting the Satyricon, which had only survived in fragments. They spent seven months researching Nero's Rome and drawing on Petronius' work and other writings to create the script. Ultimately, Fellini, who said he was fascinated by the "dark places" between the surviving segments of the work, decided to make the script as fragmented as his source material, jumping from episode to episode, often picking up or leaving scenes in the middle. Although there was one central character, Encolpius, who keeps losing his lover, Giton, to various rivals, including best friend and former lover Ascyltus, the film script devoted much of its time to subplots and supporting characters Encolpius encountered in his journeys through the Empire.

Shortly before production began, producer Alfredo Bini started shooting a rival version starring Ugo Tognazzi. Fellini was outraged, telling the press that although he realized he was influential, this was the first time a film of his was being imitated before it began shooting. United Artists, which was financing Fellini's film, sued to stop Bini from using the same title, but the rival producer had already registered it. As a result, Fellini's film was re-titled Fellini Satyricon, and UA eventually paid Bini $1 million to delay his picture's international release. The Italian release was delayed, too, when the courts there declared Bini's film obscene.

Initially, Fellini announced an all-star cast, including Groucho Marx and Mae West (both of whom he had also sought for his 1965 Juliet of the Spirits), Danny Kaye, Jimmy Durante, Boris Karloff and, in the leads, Alain Delon and Pierre Clementi. Karloff was too ill to play Tremalchio, whose mammoth feast provides the film's centerpiece. Fabrizi campaigned for the role, but the director ended up casting a non-actor, restaurant owner Mario Romagnoli, whose sunken cheeks provided the perfect mirror of the character's bored debauchery. When Delon and Clementi asked for too much money, Fellini gave the leads to unknowns Martin Potter, a fledgling British actor, and Hiram Keller, an American who had appeared in the Roman production of Hair. When asked why he had cast foreigners to play the leads in a story of Roman history, he claimed to have done it "...because there are no Italian homosexuals."

Production on Fellini Satyricon proceeded over the course of nine months. Working almost entirely within the studios at Cinecitta, Fellini had 89 sets built, including the exterior of a multi-story Roman apartment building and a lavish banquet hall that filled an entire soundstage. All were a combination of antiquarian research and his own visions of what would film well. Although Fellini Satyricon was officially budgeted at $3 million, observers have claimed he ran through that amount quickly and needed another $1 million to finish it.

Along with the hundreds of extras needed for several scenes, the set was also filled with journalists there to cover the production, including a reporter from Life Magazine who ended up writing a book about the film, a German writer doing another book on the film, a photographer working on a picture book, numerous journalists and a documentary film crew. Some historians have called Fellini Satyricon the most heavily publicized production to that time. What most of their publicity revealed was Fellini's tireless commitment to create a new universe on the screen, a cinematic world that would reflect his most personal reactions to the real world in which he lived. Even before the film's release, his statements were an inspiration to a new generation of filmmakers more interested in their own personal visions than box-office formulas.

Fellini Satyricon premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where scalpers were able to get $100 for tickets. The first showing was met with stunned silence from the audience and generally favorable reviews praising its surreal qualities and labeling it "a fairy tale for adults." As a result, the movie was a box office success in Europe. For the U.S. release, United Artists sent Fellini on a major publicity tour. In New York, they arranged a special screening after a sold-out rock concert in Madison Square Garden. The screening attracted the very audience it was seeking - the counterculture. Soon, younger viewers and college students were flocking to screenings, often in altered states which many claimed made them more open to the director's vision.

The U.S. reviews were more mixed than those of the European film critics. Some, like Vincent Canby in the New York Times and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Tribune, hailed the film as a masterpiece, with the former calling it "a magnificently realized movie of his own -- and our -- wildest dreams." Others, like Pauline Kael and John Simon, derided it as cinematic trash. Film scholar Parker Tyler raised eyebrows by calling it "the most profoundly homosexual movie in all history," which he intended as a compliment. Fellini, however, put the film's sexuality in context: "For me it is a sexless film -- made as if I were filming rats or birds in the act of copulating. I am completely detached. I am creating a universe, and I let it develop according to its own rules in front of the camera. It is like a trip to the origin of human beings, of our consciousness."

Producer: Alberto Grimaldi
Director: Federico Fellini
Screenplay: Fellini, Bernardino Zapponi, Brunello Rondi
Based on the fragment Satyricon by Petronius
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Art Direction: Giorgio Giovannini, Luigi Scaccianoce
Music: Nino Rota
Cast: Martin Potter (Encolpius), Hiram Keller (Ascyltus), Max Born (Giton), Capucine (Tryphaena), Salvo Randone (Eumolpus), Magali Noel (Fortunata), Alain Cuny (Lichas), Lucia Bose (Suicide Wife), Gordon Mitchell (Robber).
C-138m. Letterboxed.

by Frank Miller