Satyricon was the first Fellini film I ever had the pleasure of viewing and, though I consider Fellini a true master, it has remained my favorite after repeated viewings. In fact, it easily tops my favorite films having spoken to me on so many levels about the importance of the cosmic fool, the charm of the scoundrel, the familiar sting of betrayal, and the importance of myth. I’ve witnessed many viewers daunted by the fragmented nature of the film, mirroring the incomplete shards of mythology provided by the classic Petronius epic. But I’m somewhat offended when I hear someone slag Satyricon off as pretentious because I connect to it so strongly. I recognize the questionable nature of making such a bold statement about a movie that basically follows the exploits of two degenerates in the age of Nero involved in an often literal tug of war over the affections of a teenage boy. But there are such colorfully melancholy truths beyond the details.
Science Fiction of the Past
The aesthetic of Satyricon was accurately described by Fellini as “science fiction of the past.” Shrill horns merge with atmospheric synths as unsettling gazes stare directly from the screen at you, constantly breaking the fourth wall as if you are some alien observer. Fellini’s depiction of Rome in the age of Nero flows like a casual nightmare with monolithic tenements jutting forth from ever-present shadows. The characters seem as disoriented as the viewer, falling from one absurd situation into another, asking disjointed questions such as “Do you know where I live?” Some characters speak undecipherable languages while the dubbed voices carry on strange conversations forcing the spectator into the role of the stranger in the strange land. My DVD offers dubbed and subtitled options but I find the dubbed version far superior, with lines such as “he sits down to piss as if he’d never been born a man” and a vicious fight between former friends ending with an exasperated “I’m sorry, love.” This unforgiving apocalyptic landscape is almost a character in itself yet serves as the lightbox that so gorgeously contrasts the archetypes I adore.
Beginning a Sci Fi Fantasy Film with a Towel Fight
SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ONWARD: The moment I truly connected with Fellini’s Satyricon comes early in the film. We’re initially greeted by the oiled Roman Ken doll Encolpio, Rocky Horror before there was Rocky Horror, pushed into a homicidal rage by the betrayal of his teenage lover, the supernaturally cherubic Gitone. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it can be reasonably assumed that Gitone wouldn’t actually be everyone’s cup of tea, but the film reinforces his super pheromones quite regularly. As the scene progresses, we’re introduced to Ascilto, Encolpio’s darker more clownish roommate who raped Gitone while the boy slept in Encolpio’s embrace. This obviously causes a rift between Encolpio and Ascilto and we see this played out in an oily wet towel fight in a bath house where Ascilto has just severely beaten if not killed a john.
The Familiarity of Betrayal
Eventually, Encolpio tracks down Gitone who seems to sort of just go with the flow; he doesn’t seem overjoyed to be united with Encolpio but he willingly absconds with the older man to the tenement squat they share. Bear in mind, this was ancient Rome where the love affair between a man in his 20s and a teenage boy was accepted. If you can’t suspend your repulsion of that, Satyricon will be an impossible film to absorb. Anyway, Encolpio ends up getting intimate with Gitone and later Ascilto sneaks into the tenement to find the two sleeping. Encolpio, high on reuniting with his lover, no longer wants to murder Ascilto but instead seems content to simply kick him out of the flat. Finally, Ascilto asks how they will divide up Gitone, a question that Encolpio can’t even seem to fully process. Ascilto suggests they allow Gitone the free will to choose who he will follow. To our surprise as much as Encolpio’s, Gitone chooses his rapist, Ascilto, leaving Encolpio suicidal and shattered. This all happens within the first 15 minutes or so of the film.
Few cinematic moments gutted me with the severity of the scene where Gitone chooses Ascilto. In fact, I think they are the only words Gitone utters in the duration of the film so Fellini obviously intended them to speak volumes. In that moment, I divorced the fact that Gitone was a boy choosing between two sexually predatory men. Encolpio’s actions speak of infatuation and a gentleness but in that vulnerability, Gitone actually dominates him. In a moment of true darkness, Gitone chooses the man who cares less for him but also the man who is not so easily tamed. It’s a nauseating twist but so beautifully illustrates these bizarre yet relatable archetypes, no matter that they may be difficult to face.
I find the exploration of archetypes to be crucial in my artistic work with the archetypal influence of Satyricon still resonating strongly in my visual art, stories, and music. On the forthcoming Peppermint Pumpkin record The Children’s Crusade, I explore the volatile reaction between true romance and dark sexual urges on “The Degenerate.” The Degenerates was an alternate title for Satyricon. The character of Encolpio had a tremendous visual influence on my design of the golden youth who is cloned to provide an army for the King of Pentacles in the Pentacles Suit portion of the tarot set on which I’m working.
But less directly, though no less potently, the strange connections of romance, rivalry, friendship, and betrayal that connect the characters of Encolpio, Ascilto, and Gitone find their ways into my ideas; into the ways I imagine my characters interact. On a fundamental level, Gitone is a victim of pedophilia. But when removed from the mores and seen through safe filters of fantasy and mythology, Gitone is a cunning coquette and a natural prostitute. In this perspective, Encolpio is actually the fly in the web. Ascilto may be a murderous criminal but there are moments where his sneer is lost in shock or anger that we see he most likely cares far more for Encolpio than Gitone, for whom he impulsively sacrificed his relationship with Encolpio. As if to clarify this point, Gitone is lost to both of the fools halfway through the film, no doubt carried away on his own adventures spurned on by his otherworldly charm. As Encolpio and Ascilto face minotaurs, commit crimes against hermaphroditic demigods, struggle against impotence, and even, in one case, meet an unglamorous fate, Gitone is never mentioned again.
I can’t quite find the words for the higher truths that these relationships and circumstances speak or how they so strongly inform my own art, but somewhere in that ancient Roman bravado and clownish charm, I feel the love of an enemy, the cold cruelty only accessible through love or obsession, and a forgiving nature of familiar friendships, set against the iciness of alien environs, that is all heavily worked into my art.