In May 1970 Federico Fellini wrote a feature for US Magazine Playboy in which he explains the challenges he faced while filming his then latest film Satyricon. It offers a unique insight into the mindset of Italy's greatest director as he embarked on one of his more obscure and challenging projects. Choosing to depict pagan Rome through a dreamlike imagining, the analogy of a decadent Rome in decline and the counterculture movement of the late sixties in America are not lost on the Italian. Now with The film restored to its former glory thanks to Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana it is worth reading the directors thoughts with the benefit of hindsight, also one wonders, if he were to make the film today, how would society affect the outcome.
I first read the Satyricon of Petronius a long tiime ago, in school, with the pleasure and the morbid curiosity of the adolescent. The memory of theat first distant reading has never left me during all these years, but little by little it was transformed into a constant and obsscure temptation to which, three years ago I yielded: I had to sign a contract for a film and the title I chose was Satyricon.
When the moment came to honor the contract – when it was a matter of executing the project whose end up to that time I had only dreamed of – I was seized by panic; I felt lost. What kind of mess had I got myself into? Why was I making Satyricon? What kind of mess had I got mysekf into? Why was I making Satyricon? One never knows why one makes one film rather than another. At least I don't know. Pressed by journalist friends I can invent all sorts of motives and reasons , chattering on in bad faith about urgencies, coincidences, analogies, anger, nostalgia, memories. But they are all fabrications, an artifice of screens and lables that, in part unwittingly, have have the function of protecting and camouflaging the real and unforseeable growth of what I realy wanted to do.
Anyway, when I said that I wanted to make Satyricon, a number of friens whom I esteem kept repeating to me: "It will be your best film!" "You couldn't have chosen better!"but apart from the fact that this plebiscite made me suspicious and full of icy doubts about the validity of the enterprise, I did not really know what what to say to thiose who encouraged me in that way. How could it be my "best" film? What could I have incommon with the pagan world? Of one thing at least, I was absolutely certain: All those enthusiastic affirmations of my presumed undeniable capacity to make a film like Satyricon contained the sinister shadow of the film that I did not want to make, that I should not make and that I have not made. Nothing – but nothing – did I know about the Romans; they seemed to me unknown and remote as a cat or a crab could beThe busts I saw at the Capitoline Museum said nothing to me; their splendid inertia had only the familiarity of academic knowledge or the casualness of personal associations.
Perhaps for this reason, the choice of faces for this film found me faltering, disorientated. In general the human tapestry of a film of mine is the most precise element for penetrating the meaning of the film itself; but this time its plot was hard to structure, precarious, even inconguous. There existed no models, no aesthetic canons to copy, each conventionally expressive perspective was confused, upset; and if, prechance, I let let myself be tempted by it, the result could be unexpected or catastrophic. The Appian Way? The ruins of the coloseum? Picture postcards. Nothing was coming to me. Less than nothing, save that vague sense of funeral melancholy that photographers have invented, showing those ruins silhouetted with a couple of lambs in the foreground.
Then one night, in the Colosseum, I saw that horrendous lunar catastrophe of stone, that immense skull devoured by time, as the testimony of a civilisazation with a different destiny andit communicated to me for one instant a shiver of terror and of delight; and for the first time, I felt myself immersed in the convulsive lucidity of dreams, in the feverish temperature of fantasy and forebodings. ANd this seemed to me the exact tone that the film ought to have.. Satyricon should have the enigmatic transparency, the indecipherable clarity of adream. The greatest effort, therefore, that this film has required of me has been to make two parallel and completely cpntradictory operationd coinside. In the film everything is reinvented: the faces, te gestures, the situations, the atmosphere, the objects.To obtain all this I committed myself to the burning and passionate dimension of fantasy. but the I had to objectify the fruit of this fantastic operation, to detach myself from everythingin orer to re-explore it from a disquieting point of view – to find it again intact and yet altered beyond recognition, as in a dream. To give a sense of strangeness to the film, therefore, I have adopted a dream language, a figurative code that has elusiveness, the ineffability of a dream. The detachment, the estrangement, in fact, often seemed to me the only means that I could defend me from the danger of a dialectic relationship, whatever that might be, with a remote and unknown reality, the only perspective from which to regard pagan Rome with eyes unclouded by the myths and ideologies that have fiollowed in these 200 0 years of Christianity. In the Rome of deline that IIwas preoaring to conjure up, Christ did not yeat exist; to forget, to put aside this idea, this experience that has modified us almost biologically was psychologically a most difficult and exhausting task, but only its success could allow me to show the Roman world with the same wonder, the same curiosity, the same amazement with which we approach a tribe of the Amazon or observe a human magma sunk in mystery.
On the other hand it was not possible to to ignore the obvoìious anaolgy between the Roman society described by Petronus – corrupt, dissolute, cynical– and the society of toiday.. At the height of its magnificemce but already revealing signs of a progressive decay; a society where every religious, philosophic, idealogical and social belief has crumbled, leaving in its place a sick, frenetic occultism, an impotent promiscuity. Likewise the priciple characters of the story – Encolpius, Ascyltus, Giton – could be the long-haired students that one sees today on the Spanish steps of Rome or in Paris, Amsterdam or London; people who go from one adventure to another , even the most retched and impudent, without the least hesitation or the slightest repentance, with the innocence and vitality of young animals. Their revolt has none of the character of traditional revolt – neither the faith nor the desperation nor the will to change things nor the will to destroy them. Rather it reminds a rebellion that expresses itself in terms of total indifference and seperation from society surrounds it. Their interests in life are natural and elementary: They eat, they make love, they live together, they wander here and there. They find te mans to live through casual, often illegitimate expediences. They are outside of ay system, free from obligations, constraints, duties; they are completely insensitive to the often blackmailing rules of conventionsl emotionality, from family ties; they do not even have the cult of friendship, which in its traditional exression they consider a precarious, contradictory and self-interested sentiment, and thety are ready to deny and betray it at any moment. They have no illusions about anything because they do not believe in anything, but theirs is s new form of cynicism, a sort of peceful engagement, a heakthy concrete common sense, a singular realism. I tink that young people will react positively to Satyricon, because it seems to me that they are living in the same free, adventurous way as the boys in the film. During a trip to America last January, I had occasion to meet many university students and I spent time in the company of hippies. It is. above all, the nonviolent revolution of the latter – its significance the sweet and indifferent passivity with which it is being lived – that has troubled and shocked me, so much so that feels powerless to formulate even an approximate judgement about them, because one is afraid of mistaking everything, of being too conditioned by a certain code of ethical, conceotual and emotional values to be able to look at such a new and strange phenomenon with sufficient clarity and openness.
These young people, who live in large communities, who move about continuosly and always together like schoolss of fish seem alrady to belong to another race, another species, giving the impression that there already exist some modifications on a chemical-cellular level. They dress differently form we, they eat differently – they are all vegitarians – they have negated the factors that are the motor of our society: money, the spirit of competition, egotism, the sense of ownership, and the most clamorous one, that of sexual possession. They seem to cultiìvate a rekationship with life that is wholly private, introverted, religious, and fantastic. Their presence explodign in the carnivallike and excessive manner of every liberation, is nothing but the other face of man that our culture has, up to now repressed: spontaniety, instinct, fantasy. After filming Satyricon I visited an underground club in New York – The Electric Circus – imense and dimly lit, the usuak band blasting the dancefloor populated with muti-coloured algae shaking with tremors or lost in a composed or interminable trance, the floor carpeted with semi-nude bodiesand enormous holes in the wall from which hung four, five, six pairs of legs, masculine and feminine, black, white, yellow.
In the damp darkness of cockroaches in that dense, placental promiscuity , all thoise boys and girls, suddenly appeared to be like a single giant individual huddling itself for warmth, to nurture that part of itself, that deepest and darkest part, without which the individual himself is nothing, that is to say, not man. It was agonizing to watch, because this process of being transformed into animmense, breathing ameoba, this being lost in an enormous crucible where everything burns and is disolved – the old myths and burned out ideologies, the obsolete utopias, the unreal idealisms – has something sacrificial about it. It is a tiotal and very gentle suicide, a spreading and magnificently anonymous interregnum in which salvation, a new way of being human is perhaps still possible.