Petronius and Fellini collaborate on a picaresque romp.
Fellini Satyricon is based on the first century "novel" by the Roman writer Petronius Arbiter, who was a sometime crony of the degenerate emperor Nero, and who was ultimately one of his numerous victims. If any writer from this period is a perfect match-up for movie adaptation by Fellini, it is certainly Petronius. The structure of the book is similar to the organization of many Fellini movies -- a series of somewhat loosely related stories woven around the adventures of a central character, who in this case is an attractive scoundrel, or, rather, two scoundrels. The movie itself features comedy of several varieties -- the simultaneous send-up of the hedonistic ex-slave Trimalchio's pretensions and of the hypocrisy of the philosopher who is one of his meal-grubbing guests; the loss of sexual prowess in front of a jeering crowd of onlookers; the attempt to steal a hermaphroditic "god" from his/her shrine; the escapes from death by the hand of Nero's grim sea-captain (who marries Encolpius in a homosexual sailor parody of a wedding ceremony) and from the Minotaur (who says, "Today I have lost the contest but I have made a new friend"). And there is much more, often bizarre and always entertaining. The ambience of Rome and of various corners of the empire is depicted beautifully. There are brief visual "flashes" only marginally related to the story which are penetrating and lasting in their imagery (for instance, the Roman general leading a column of soldiers on a destructive march). And the movie ends on a beautiful note -- the fading of Encolpius at a banquet into a wall mosaic that has lasted to the present day -- a symbol of the timelessness of humanity? Perhaps, but by the way, Fellini has led us here by means of a very special banquet, a cannibalistic feast on the corpse of a wealthy man who makes this ceremony a condition of sharing in the proceeds of his last will and testament. After two thousand years the grimness is gone, but the beauty and humor remain.
- Feb 10, 1999
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