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In first century Rome, two student friends, Encolpio and Ascilto, argue about ownership of the boy Gitone, divide their belongings and split up. The boy, allowed to choose who he goes with, chooses Ascilto. Only a sudden earthquake saves Encolpio from suicide. We follow Encolpio through a series of adventures, where he is eventually reunited with Ascilto, and which culminates in them helping a man kidnap a hermaphrodite demi-god from a temple. The god dies, and as punishment Encolpio becomes impotent. We then follow them in search of a cure. The film is loosely based on the book Satyricon by Gaius Petronius Arbiter, the "Arbiter of Elegance" in the court of Nero. The book has only survived in fragments, and the film reflects this by being very fragmentary itself, even stopping in mid-sentence. Written by
Steven Pemberton <Steven.Pemberton@cwi.nl>
Fellini called his "Satyricon" a science fiction film projected into the past. His expressive portrait of ancient Rome is a richly ornamented fresco of contrasts; variations within a select kaleidoscope of opposites related to the sacred, the pure, the just, and the beautiful.
Reportedly a free adaptation of the now fragmentary writings of Petronius, the film also makes fleeting references to various scattered works and myths of antiquity. Even the language is a blend of various dialects and accents, effectively brewed together into a type of "primordial soup."
The film features a young man named Encolpio and his sometime friend Ascilto; both of whom seem to prefer participatory experience as a means to finding meaning in life while primarily disregarding status, power and possessions. Contrasting some of the film's more serene scenes with those of unrest and discord, patterns supportive of a life lived from a similar experiential perspective begin to emerge. Some examples are as follows:
During the "Death to the Classics" scene, the poet Eumolpo says that the arts have declined because the desire for "virtue" has been lost. Dialectical discussion and philosophy have been replaced with drinking, vice and monetary greed, thus preventing further creation of works of art at the same pinnacle of excellence as the classics.
Later when Eumolpo and Encolpio recline in the open field encased in an early morning mist, the elderly poet bequeaths to Encolpio a series of "natural" phenomena; among them mountains, rivers, clouds, love, tears, joy, sound, song and the voices of man...
During the "Matron of Ephesus" scene, a young woman mourning her deceased husband by starving to death in a cave has her chalk white face returned to its natural radiance after accepting the embrace of a handsome soldier. The moral being "...better to hang a 'dead' husband than to lose a 'living' lover..."
A politically doomed and suicidal married couple free their slaves whereupon a reference is made to the "sacred" earth. Their children are sent away to a place free from tyranny which will be "beautiful." Later, Encolpio and Ascilto arrive at the couple's elegant home and enjoy a night of revelry during which Encolpio quotes the "poet" as having said "...as for me I have always lived to enjoy the present moment as if it were the last sunrise..."
The tale of the beautiful Enotea and her subsequent punishment after she tricked the wizard who had professed his love for her seems to be a warning to remain "true" to expressions of affection.
Following what appears to be his final corruption after having abandoned his idealistic philosophy, Eumolpo proposes an interesting last will and testament. Those wishing to inherit a part of his worldly fortune are asked to devour his remains. Reflecting the hippie generation's symbolic scorn of rampant materialism during the shooting of this film, Encolpio and his friends smile and turn away, heading onward toward a new adventure.
The scenes of discord in the film appear to reflect issues related to social and political methods of enforced control over others. For example, during the banquet of Trimalcione, his sycophants eat, laugh, chant, dance, perform and throw objects on cue. While a captive at sea, Encolpio is made an object of entertainment for the pirate Lica. Later he is forced to battle a huge "minotaur' for the entertainment of a proconsul and his puppet court during the "gladiator prank" sequence.
Fellini makes strong use of colour symbolism in "Satyricon." The film opens in what appears to be a large Roman steam bath. There is the occasional sound of water dripping, and in Encolpio's tenement a seemingly wealthy group of party goers arrive on a small boat in the water, perhaps ready to go "slumming" with the poor. There is also a bluish tint to many of these early scenes as if they were being viewed through water. Later, during Trimalcione's feast, a flame red lens filter appears to overshadow the initial candle lit display giving the impression of an envelopment of fire. During the outdoor scenes on Lica's boat, the sound of the wind is recurrent and a blitz of snow appears providing a possible reference to the air element. Near the end of the film, Encolpio enters a maze by sliding in the dirt down a hillside. Following his battle with the minotaur, a dust storm blows as he attempts to make love with Arianna. Later, when he visits the elderly Enotea, she lets dirt fall from her clenched fists as if giving a silent reference to the earth element.
There are also many references to the supernatural and paranormal. Eyes stare into the camera as if to give reference to phantoms from antiquity looking at those presently alive as if to question. While Encolpio and Eumolpo have their discussion in the art gallery, a two tiered galley of soundless faces inexplicably passes by like unknown entities observing the men's conversation through a hole in the wall. There is a curious space-like object on the deck of Lica's ship. In addition, a momentary glimpse of supernatural visionary lights appear during the abduction of the "mystical" hermaphrodite who subsequently dies after having been exposed to the "light" of day. The film also presents a recurring symbolism of carved and imprinted heads eventually given great emphasis with Lica's startling decapitation. Perhaps the question is, has society become too obsessed with the intellect at the expense of the heart and the inherent value of the individual person? Perhaps not so for Fellini, as the entire film is intensely alive with a glorious blend of color; each face, each person, in Fellini's words, serving as an integral part of his artwork on film.
Finally, like the eternal wheel and his initial greeting, Encolpio's farewell is presented in front of a stone background and he is interrupted in mid sentence giving ....
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