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Fellini Satyricon
Director: Frederico Fellini
Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Brunello Rondi, and Bernadino Zapponi (based on the book by Petronius)
Stars: Martin Potter (Encolpius), Hiram Keller (Ascyltus), Max Born (Giton), Hylette Adolphe (Oriental slave girl)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1969
Country: Italy
"Fellini Satyricon" is an expansive, epic, dream-like mess of a movie. But don't get the wrong idea. When I say "mess," I don't necessarily mean it in a derogatory sense. The film is indeed a mess, but that is how its director, Frederico Fellini, fully intended it to be. And within its own confines, it works.

The film is based on the partial remnants of an unfinished manuscript by the ancient writer Petronius. Fellini uses the fragmentary source material to his advantage, allowing him to make a film that is not a linear progression of events, or even a non-linear progression of events, but rather a mosaic glued together with random shards of dreams and reality. Characters fade in and out of the story, plot lines get added and dropped, dreams and stories constantly interrupt, it has no real ending, and when the movie does come to a close, it happens in mid-sentence.

The story (if it can be called that) takes place in first-century Rome under Emperor Nero. However, this is not the historical Rome in textbooks and paintings. Instead, it is dreamy mirror-image of reality, one that infuses bits of history, but also applies liberal doses of vision and imagination (Fellini described the film as "science fiction of the past").

Fellini's specialty has always been the dream sequence, and here he chooses to make the whole film something of a dream. But, just in case that isn't enough, he inserts smaller dream sequences and stories and flashbacks into the overall dream, giving it that much more depth. It's like a wild, swirling painting that has been brushed onto a number of different canvases that have been laid on top of each other. Cutting through one canvas only leads you to part of another.

The main purpose of "Fellini Satyricon" is not to tell a story, but to make a point. The theme is debauchery, and Fellini is holding pagan Rome up as a mirror to modern Rome. He is saying that man may have progressed technologically, but he is still the same selfish, rude, violent, sexual, greedy predator that he was a thousand years ago. The promiscuous bixsexuality and gluttonous feasts in pagan Rome are no worse than the modern Roman orgies in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" (1960).

Fellini's hope lies is in the ideas and imagination of youth, embodied here in three Roman students, Encolpius (Martin Potter), Ascyltus (Hiram Keller), and Giton (Max Born). They also servce as Fellini's attempt to give the audience someone to identify with amid the chaos, but this aspect of this film never comes together. We are never allowed time to understand or empathize with these characters. Instead, they tend to fade into the cluttered mosaic as just another face in the crowd.

The focus here is not character, but vision and spectacle. The film is lavish to say the least, with bright costumes and gargantuan sets (one of which is destroyed in an earthquake that ends as suddenly as it begins). Rarely a scene passes that is not densely packed with action, making "Fellini Satyricon" almost pointless to watch in pan and scan on video. Fellini shot it in a 2:35:1 aspect ration, and he makes full use of every corner of the screen.

Many times, this includes the largest number of sideshow exhibits this side of "Freaks." Fellini must have scoured the ends of the earth to find hunchbacks, dwarfs, an armless and legless midget, a hermaphrodite, and a number of people who can only be described as either grossly obese or genderless. To get a really good idea of what kind of people populate this film, one need only read the credits for their characters' named: Oriental Slave Girl, Owner of the Garden of Delights, Nymphomaniac, Nymphomaniac's Husband, Nymophomaniac's Slave, and Suicide Husband, to name a few.

Giuseppe Rotunno, a cinematographer Fellini had worked with on several films, captures all the proceedings and grotesqueries in outlandish, radiant hues. The action takes place in a number of places, from musty dungeons to dining halls to deserts to ships in the middle of the ocean, and all of it is filmed as glorious, twisted spectacle.

Fellini has been a commanding and turbulent force in the cinematic world ever since 1963's "8 1/2." His work here is mirrored in several modern directors -- the lavish sets and brilliant use of color can be seen the works of Peter Greenaway and the disjointed fragmentary, dreamlike quality is a staple of David Lynch's work..

Like anything fine and exotic, Fellini is certainly an acquired taste. Those who understand and respect his work will love "Fellini Satyricon." Those who are unfamiliar with his work might find themselves tempted to shut it off halfway through, either out of disgust or frustrated confusion.

Overall Rating: (3)

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