Fellini Satyricon

Though a common opinion, it's not really fair to say that the '70s, the decade in which Federico Fellini became most concerned with portraying decadence, coincided with Fellini's own period of decadent self-indulgence as a filmmaker. The evidence simply doesn't bear this out, at least not in the wonderful Amarcord (1974), the recently reissued elegy for Europe The Orchestra Rehearsal (1979), or the film most often singled out as the beginning of Fellini's decline, Fellini Satyricon, new on video in a much-needed widescreen version. Released in Europe in 1969 and elsewhere in 1970, Satyricon took viewers aback with its sprawling, ambitious, almost expressionistic adaptation of Petronius' Latin prose satire of life under Nero; the film broke, at least superficially, with Fellini's other work. Martin Potter stars as a young man-about-town whose episodic journey through the Roman Empire is set in motion when a friend (Hiram Keller) steals from him a pubescent boy (Max Born) of whom Potter is especially enamored. This eventually leads Potter to encounter characters from all walks of Roman life—including a wealth-loving freed slave, the inhabitants of a slave ship, and the handler of an albino hermaphrodite "demigod" said to be able to tell the future—each of whom is reprehensible in his or her own way. Fellini clearly spared nothing in translating his vision to film, and the results are visually remarkable. But, just as importantly, it's a vision with teeth. The director captures the timelessness of Petronius' attack, re-creating a Rome rotten at its core but also conveying that the all-too-human sources of its rottenness—greed, lust, narcissism—are eternal. Viewed as a film about the end of the '60s, when the world (and Europe in particular) seemed ready to collapse, or as a companion piece to La Dolce Vita, Satyricon takes on added resonance. But no matter how you interpret it, it demands to be seen.

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