Fellini Satyricon tells of two students in Rome circa AD 500, who go their different ways after fighting over a pretty boy. Their separate adventures include drunken orgies, imprisonment on a galley ship and a duel fought with the Minotaur before they meet up again.
The film is really La Dolce Vita (1959) in Ancient Rome, with Fellini looking with disapproval at the immoral goings-on in a pre-Christian society, and – by implication – modern society. He emphasises this connection by casting two unmistakably modern young men in the leading roles: Englishman Martin Potter and American Hiram Keller as Encolpius and Ascyltus, whose sole aim is the pursuit of pleasure.
Sometimes Encolpius and Ascyltus are friends, sometimes enemies fighting over the attentions of Giton, a slave played by Max Born.
Early in the film, Encolpius meets an old poor poet in an art gallery. The poet takes Encolpius to dine at the home of Trimalchio, a rich man who fancies himself a poet too.
Fellini pictures an orgy of eating that practically makes the viewer nauseous. While dining, some guests also partake of homosexual and heterosexual delights – in Fellini’s Rome, it doesn’t matter who does what to whom.
Later on in the film, Encolpius and Ascyltus encounter the poet who has become a rich man. At the end of the film, he dies and stipulates in his will that in order to get his money his friends will have to eat his body.
The old men named in the will turn up their noses for a moment and then one by one decide the money is worth the momentary nausea. Thankfully, Fellini has the good taste not to show us more than the expressions on their faces while they eat.
While the old men tuck in, Encolpius sails off on the poet’s boat and the film ends.
Cruelty runs throughout the film. Encolpius watches a scene from a play in which a man’s hand is actually cut off to gratify the jaded Roman spectators. In another sequence a wealthy man Encolpius has married is decapitated.
It doesn’t matter if it’s historically accurate or not; Fellini’s film is more like science fiction than history. The film doesn’t have a plot, but the landscape of fantasy doesn’t need plots.
Fellini employed more than 250 character actors and extras and had 90 sets built, making Satyricon the most expensive movie to be made at Cinecittà since Ben-Hur (1959).
Released in 1972, Fellini’s Roma, a kind of sequel, was unable to recapture the strange, compelling magic of the original.