From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Satyricon (Fellini Satyricon) is a 1969 Italian film by Federico Fellini. It is loosely based on the Petronius novel Satyricon, a series of bawdy and satirical episodes written during the reign of the emperor Nero and set in imperial Rome.
Petronius's original text survives only in fragments. While recuperating from a debilitating illness in 1967, Fellini reread Petronius and was fascinated by the missing parts, the large gaps between one episode and the next. The text's fragmentary nature encouraged him to go beyond the traditional approach of recreating the past in film: the key to a visionary cinematic adaptation lay in narrative techniques of the dream state that exploited the dream's imminent qualities of mystery, enigma, immorality, outlandishness, and contradiction.
Though the two protagonists, Encolpius (Martin Potter) and Ascilto (Hiram Keller), reappear throughout, the characters and locations surrounding them change unexpectedly. This intentional technique of fragmentation conveys Fellini's view of both the original text and the nature of history itself, and is echoed visually in the film's final shot of a ruined villa whose walls, painted with frescoes of the scenes we have just seen, are crumbling, fading and incomplete. Fellini's interest in Carl Jung's theory of the collective unconscious is also on display with an abundance of archetypes in highly dreamlike settings.
A year prior to the release of the film had already seen another Satyricon film (directed by Gian Luigi Polidoro) – hence the addition of "Fellini" to the title. A "making-of" film shot by Gideon Bachman, entitled Ciao Federico – Fellini directs Satyricon is also available.
The film opens on a graffiti-covered wall with Encolpio lamenting the loss of his lover Gitone to Ascilto. Vowing to win him back, he learns at the Baths that Ascilto sold Gitone to the actor Vernacchio. At the theatre, he discovers Vernacchio and Gitone performing in a lewd play based on the "emperor's miracle": a slave's hand is chopped off and replaced with a gold one. Encolpio storms the stage and reclaims Giton. On their return to Encolpio's home in the Insula Felicles, a Roman tenement building, they walk through the vast Roman brothel known as the Lupanare, observing numerous sensual scenes. They fall asleep after making love at Encolpio’s place. Ascilto sneaks into the room, waking Encolpio with a whiplash. Since both share the tenement room, Encolpio proposes they divide up their property and separate. Ascilto mockingly suggests they split Gitone in half. Encolpio is driven to suicidal despair, however, when Gitone decides to leave with Ascilto. At that moment, an earthquake destroys the tenement.
Encolpio meets the poet Eumolpus at the art museum. The elderly poet blames current corruption on the mania for money and invites his young friend to a banquet held at the villa of Trimalchio, a wealthy freeman, and his wife Fortunata. Eumolpus’s declamation of poetry is met with catcalls and thrown food. While Fortunata performs a frantic dance, the bored Trimalchio turns his attention to two very young boys. Scandalized, she berates her husband who attacks her then has her covered in gizzards and gravy. Fancying himself a poet, Trimalchio recites one of his finer poems whereupon Eumolpo accuses him of stealing verses from Lucretius. Enraged, Trimalchio orders the poet tortured by his slaves near the villa’s huge fireplace. The guests are then invited to visit Trimalchio’s tomb where he enacts his own death in an ostentatious ceremony. The story of the Matron of Ephesus is recounted, the first of the stories within a story in the film. Encolpio finally leaves the villa, helping the limping, beaten Eumolpo to drink water from a pool in a tilled field. In return for his kindness, Eumolpo bequeaths the spirit of poetry to his young friend.
Encolpio, Giton, and Ascilto are imprisoned on the pirate ship of Lichas, a middle-aged merchant in the emperor's service. Lichas selects Encolpio for a Greco-Roman wrestling match and quickly subdues him. Smitten by his beauty, Lichas takes Encolpio as his spouse in a wedding ceremony blessed by his wife, Trifena. The seasons pass. Rebel soldiers under the new Caesar assassinate Caesar, the albino boy emperor. One day, the soldiers board the ship and behead Lichas under Trifena’s satisfied gaze. Violent political discord is evoked in a montage sequence of Roman armies on the march.
To escape the new emperor, the owner of a patrician villa sets his slaves free and commits suicide with his wife. That night, Encolpio and Ascilto discover the abandoned villa and make love with an African slave girl who has stayed behind. Fleeing the villa when soldiers on horseback arrive in the courtyard, the two friends reach a desert. Ascilto placates a nymphomaniac's demands in a covered wagon while Encolpio waits outside, listening to the woman’s servant discuss an albino hermaphrodite reputed to possess healing powers at the Temple of Ceres. With the aid of a mercenary, they kidnap the hermaphrodite in the hope of obtaining a ransom. Once exposed to the desert sun, however, it sickens and dies of thirst. Enraged, the mercenary tries to murder his two companions but is overpowered and killed.
Captured by soldiers, Encolpio is released in a labyrinth and forced to play Theseus to a gladiator’s Minotaur for the amusement of spectators at the festival of the God of Laughter. When the gladiator spares Encolpio’s life, the festival rewards the young man with Ariadne, a sensual woman with whom he must couple as the crowd looks on. Impotent, Encolpio is publicly humiliated by Ariadne. Eumolpo offers to take him to the Garden of Delights where prostitutes are said to effect a cure but the treatment - gentle whipping of the buttocks - fails miserably. In the second of the stories within a story in the film, the owner of the Garden of Delights narrates the tale of Enotea to Encolpio. For having rejected his advances, a sorcerer curses a beautiful young woman: she must spend her days kindling fires for the village’s hearths from her genitalia. Inspired, Encolpio and Ascilto hire a boatman to take them to Enotea’s home. Greeted by an old woman who has him drink a potion, Encolpio falls under a spell where his sexual prowess is restored to him by Enotea in the form of an Earth Mother figure and sorceress. When Ascilto is murdered in a field by the boatman, Encolpio decides to join Eumolpo's ship bound for North Africa. But Eumolpo has died in the meantime, leaving as his heirs all those willing to eat his corpse. Encolpio hasn't the stomach for this last and bitter mockery but is nonetheless invited by the captain to board the ship. In a voice-over, Encolpio explains that he set sail with the captain and his crew. His words end in mid-sentence, however, as the camera films a distant stretch of land then cuts to frescoes of the film’s characters on a crumbling wall.