The Film (5/5)
Fellini Satyricon is a loose adaptation of Petronius' classic text. It follows a trio of characters Encolpius, Ascyltus, and Gitone. The former pair are both friend and rivals, and spend much of the films running time competing for the affections the latter gentleman. The film takes place in what can only be described as a Fellini-ized version of Ancient Rome, and doesn't so much depend on a standard narrative, but follows the characters through a series of episodes based on the Petronius work.
When a filmmaker chooses to adapt a work of literature, especially one that could be considered as difficult as Satyricon to the screen decisions need to be made on how to stay true to what makes the original text work, and yet create something distinctive for the cinema. When David Cronenberg set to adapt William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, he decided to stay true to the spirit of the work, but didn't bother doing a straight adaptation of something that could never be treated in such a manner. Instead, he wrote of Burroughs' writing the book, with elements of the novel figuring into the process. With Zack Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore's Watchmen, the director took Moore's deep decade spanning narrative and managed to stay true to the story (some say almost to a fault). Petronius' Satyricion is an ancient text, much of it has been lost to time. The book in it's present state is incomplete, any reader who picks up a copy now will see narratives suddenly end, other narratives begin without so much as an introduction, Fellini took this not as a complication, but as an asset to the work he wanted to create.
When watching Fellini Satyricon the viewer is simultaneously viewing Fellini's most accessible, and least accessible film. Fellini adapted Petronius the way he found his work in fragments, which added a dreamlike atmosphere to the film channeling elements of the director's earlier work such as Juliet of the Spirits and Toby Dammit (his segment of the anthology Spirits of the Dead). The film begins with Encolpius standing alone in front of a wall ranting over his frustrations in losing his lover Gitone to his former friend Ascyltus. He then spends the next 20 or so minutes attempting to retrieve Gitone, first from Ascylytus, and then from a stage show performer who purchased Gitone as a slave. After all this the boy chooses to be with Ascyltus when he shows back up. Soon after this an epic earthquake takes out the living quarters of the trio, this occurs suddenly without warning, and with that the film jumps into a different episode. Choices such as these add to the success of the film as an adaptation, and also add to the dreamlike ambiance of the piece. The film being Fellini also has the high camp, and high production values of his earlier work. The former making this work in particular feel like an influence on Pasolini's later Trilogy of Life, and the dreamlike atmosphere helps place it alongside the works of his low budget countryman like Mario Bava.
The film is certainly Fellini's most violent and excessive work. With this film Fellini had his largest budget to date, and the viewer can easily see that all up on screen. The sets in this film creating Fellini's version of Ancient Rome are larger than life, much like the director himself. Fellini Satyricon is not a film for everyone, but for a viewer looking for beautiful, challenging cinema this is certainly recommended.
Criterion presents Fellini Satyricon is what I must describe as a glorious 2:37:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer. The films colors pop from the screen, blacks are inky and deep, detail is excellent, and there is a healthy level of grain present throughout. The last go-around I had with this film was with the MGM DVD release now almost a decade old, and that transfer even for it's time was a largely murky problematic affair. This new transfer courtesy of Criterion offers detail where previously I could not discern any.
One controversial detail about this release, and I didn't realize it was so until recently is the decision by Criterion to only include the Italian language track for the audio. It has been rumored that Fellini found the English dub version the definitive sound for his Satyricon, or so it is said. That being said Italian films of the period where shot without on set sound, and were dubbed later for international release, but even with that in mind I tend to prefer the native language track when viewing foreign language films, so I am pleased to report that the LPCM 1.0 track included on this release sounds quite excellent. The dialogue, score, and the films effects all come through nicely, and I did not detect any issues with pops, cracks, hissing, etc on my listen.
Criterion have put together an excellent extras package for their release of Fellini Satyricon. The Blu-ray contains a commentary track/on screen reading of the memoir On the Set of Fellini Satyricon. We are then presented with numerous documentaries and interviews, some new, some archival, a leaflet is contained within the physical package containing an essay on the film, and there is also a trailer, and poster gallery.
I can't say Fellini Satyricon is one of the masters greatest films, he has too many of those to simply put it that way. It is, however, one of his most visually stunning films, and Criterion's new Blu-ray takes those visuals and beautiful renders them in HD. The film also sounds better than it ever has, add to that the extensive package of extra features, and of course Fellini Satyricon comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.