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  Satyricon Friends, Romans, Countrymen
Year: 1969
Director: Federico Fellini
Stars: Martin Potter, Hiram Keller, Max Born, Salvo Randone, Mario Romagnoli, Magali Noël, Capucine, Alain Cuny, Fanfulla, Danika La Loggia, Giuseppe Santivale, Lucia Bosé, Joseph Wheeler, Hylette Adolphe, Tanya Lopert, Gordon Mitchell, George Eastman
Genre: Drama, Weirdo, HistoricalBuy from Amazon
Rating:  4 (from 2 votes)
Review: In Ancient Rome, a young man named Encolpio (Martin Potter) is a student, but life is about to take some surprising turns when he tries to fight his best friend and fellow scholar Ascilto (Hiram Keller) for the ownership for the teenage boy slave they both covet sexually as well as romantically. The slave is left to make up his own mind about this disagreement, and chooses Ascilto, much to Encolpio's dismay, but as he retires to his quarters after attending a theatrical burlesque, an earthquake occurs that stops him doing anything drastic. Thus boosted in his spirit, he decides to take like with both hands and experience it to the full...

Director Federico Fellini was at the height of his fame, and his powers, when he "freely adapted" Petronius' stories for his depiction of Ancient times, designed to resemble a dream he would have, though for many, despite the film being proclaimed as a masterpiece by the intelligentsia, it would be more like a nightmare. Faced with its capricious plotting, which brought new meaning to the term episodic, you have two options: one, furrow your brow and try to follow the rambling plotlines, or two, sit back and, as they say, enjoy the ride, assuming this was anything close to your idea of enjoyment.

The Rome depicted is a society that revolves around sex and death; it is a land without strong morals which revels in its own decadence while convinced of its superiority in culture, politics and society. Although visually striking, this is not a glamorous film, and features the largest collection of weird-looking people you ever did see, par for the course with Fellini, but he surpassed himself here. That society is also steeped in superstition: the citizens are always looking for spiritual guidance for their problems, whether it's from the hermaphrodite Oracle (who Encolpio and some cohorts kidnap at one point though their own greed leads to tragedy) or simply courtesy of a belch-reader (makes a change from crystal balls, I suppose).

It's certainly a more interesting, even vivid, realisation of the Roman Empire than, say, Gladiator, which tended to hold up the classical world as one of a strict moral code and aesthetic nobility that was undercut by its essential savagery, captivated by this dichotomy, but the alien quality in Satyricon was having none of that: if you were fascinated by those eras it was down to how disgusting and bizarre they were, meaning it had an attraction the modern viewer could barely admit to themselves. Kind of like how the twenty-first century viewed the nineteen-seventies. However, this means it's hard to be moved by the events on display, however accurate it may be in its atmosphere for the present or the past.

Yes, the present: Fellini could well have been appealing to the excesses of the sixties with its political and social upheavals in his rendering of the old world, for many believed there was little difference in the corruption of those flower power, student riot, generation and power gap violence days and the self-justifying corruption of Ancient Rome, though at least you could point out slavery was illegal in the twentieth century. Something Fellini may have got right, on the other hand, was the pansexual view of existence, and how that would be a hot topic in the decades to come, and has not coincidentally seen this film a cult among those to whom that sexuality appeals (look at Derek Jarman's Sebastiane for further proof of that). Also with: a Minotaur played by Italian trash hero George Eastman (recognisable once he takes off his mask), some disgusting-looking food whose purpose appears to be to be just that, to disgust, plenty of nudity though not necessarily from those you would want to see nude, and a novel way to cure impotence. Oh, and a punchline that literally sees the great and the good of Rome reduced to eating itself to get on. This too shall pass...

aka Fellini Satyricon
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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