Fellini Satyricon  //  1969 Produzioni Europ. Assoc./1988 MGM/UA  //Dir:  Federico Fellini  //  Screen Story:  Fellini & Bernardino Zapponi  //  Pro:  Alberto Grimaldi  //  Freely adapted from the Petronius Classic


            [For MGM/UA National Art=Art cinema.]  Some narratives present problems only to probe solutions.  The documentary film must be satisfied with directorial omnipotence.  I place Fellini Satyricon among the great documentaries of life in Ancient Rome.  Before Christ brought order to the pagan idolators, the raw material of Nero’s reign was a symptomatic cycle of semiotic myth and magical symbolism.  Fellini structures this assemblage into a neo-realist aesthetic.  With poets, some of whom have seen too much, story-telling. 

            Fellini should be distinguished from the commercial and documentary filmmaker.  The viewer is taken through a satyr’s bacchanalia via Roman antiquity.  Encolpius, the ageless Saturnalian, is not meant to type but weak enough to enjoin.  Empathy mediates individuals not social types.  No single symbol may negotiate itself, as inherent meanings are imagined for types (and forms) but also limit them.  This brief structural analysis formulates more rational relationships ‘twixt symbol and concept; ego and volume.  Fellini::Satyricon.


                        “There is no end, no beginning, there is only the infinite passion of Life.”  --Fellini


            Satyricon places the open structure action already in progress.  We are unconcerned about when because we know that.  Now!  As long as historians continue to search, there shall be contradiction to guide them.  Encolpius searches for love’s contradictions and for a place, any place, in society.

            Fellini gives us contradictions aplenty.  Every scene has at least three warring polemics.  Youth, antiquity and corruption; life, death and decadence; flesh, desire and dirt; sea, desert and metal warships; nature, nurture and treachery; love, language and idolatry.  Now and then the internalized arguments of the director.  Maturity may well signal the decline of relevations.  Dream sequences serve to hasten time or change pace and mask face.  Fellini often moves nonlinearly and at rapid pace.  Stylistically “hot” scenes are followed immediately by burials:  Winter wedding and war in a frozen sea.  After the long war, a new Caesar comes to power, old slaves are freed, old orders pass into oblivion, but our hero, Encolpius, remains ageless in his search for his one true love, a youth named Giton.  Giton has run away with Encolpius’ brother.  And many, very many, other men.

            This search format places a very natural structure upon Fellini Satyricon.  A propagandist symmetry develops.  A high, lighted beacon proclaims the problems of intellectuals in society; then, as now.  Fellini takes each opportunity to backlight some anti-illusionist statement. 

            Then and Now and We.  Fellini uses an ancient system of sign language and tongue formations throughout Satyricon.  It alone begs a lengthy report on social stratification. In addition to the mystery of this uninterpreted semaphore, there are overlapping linguistic mechanisms at work:  The ruling class; slave class; city/court and country classes; artists; and, internal political tensions provided by twitching story tellers.  Together, these elements unite the frenzied bacchanalia.  The film may be read, therefore, as a panicky constellation of flashbacks and flashes forward.  The great mastery here is Fellini’s structure of the effects of time.  Synthetic time.  Encolpius reminds us that “[L]ife passes like a shadow.”  No matter how inconsistently his individual situation may reflect bourgeois ideology, reality is always deconstructed in the grave.

            Contradictory intertextuality constructs give transpersonal power to Fellini’s visual narratives.  Fleeting lessons in Ancient Roman art, philosophy, poetry and story telling flicker immediacy.  In the foreground, archetypes simply walk up to the camera; explode; then fade.  Mute signifiers, who never learned to speak, only to gesture, strike historic poses and we suck words from mouth holes.  Frozen in time and space, they gaze in (not out) on the viewer, thus they are simultaneously absent and present.  Time is told like a corpse.  But, our hero, Encolpius, if read as a volume, cannot grow old.  We dare not pause to devour the multitudinous statements about commercial art because [National/Art] film is, itself, ideologically fetishistic.  Fellini is reading too fast to contradict.  And in Nero’s Rome, Christian resurrection was little more than cult schizophrenia.

            European directors screen their films in special galleries, houses and film societies.  In Fellini’s rarefied atmosphere, masculinized paradox and decadence drink from the same socialist bowl.  The whole earth seems oppressed and broken down beneath the weight of human sacrifice as art.  Fellini’s cinematic brushfire freely jumps conflict from analytical place to ritual place weightlessly.  The social underpinnings governing human communication assume collective meaning to underlying structures, even if the obvious visuals were designed for nationalism’s symbolic consumptives.  Symbols may move backwards.  Then suddenly forward.  The auteur as psychologist proves to us:  Fragmentation may define open-endedness.

            In Satyricon, Fellini forces every image to reveal an opposing psychology and an underlying, competing system of binary rules.  This artificial selflessness propels the action forward, and is, quite possibly, the vanishing point where production meets consumption.

            Fellini’s directorial vision harvests Ancient imagery like a musical axe.  Timeless events pass violently before us.  Encolpius sees all.  He gives meaning to history’s astounded fictions by transcribing the narrative; forever entrapped in a transparent block of Art.  With all the other great lovers.

Encolpius’ final soliloquy:  “… For the first time I heard names of … KelisheRectis … on an island covered with high, perfumed grass a young Greek told us that in the years ….”


            Roman Christianity:  A family without parents …. [Dissolve] ….


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Seven Beauties // Dir/Writer:  Lina Wertmuller  //Pro:  Lina Wertmuller  //  Italy  //  1975  //  115 Minutes




“The Ones Who Should Have Been Killed In The Cradle, O Yea!”

            Woman must not grow up.  There is no place for her psychological semantics to send-off.  It would be pointless for me to believe that current white, male, supremacist domination will, or should, indulge any other ideology.  The American male fears other American males more than any other creature.  Because of his own mother (and her self image), he cannot reconcile exposing his own penis in the mythical garden, as he wants to.  So, the Hollywood director creates monolithic female penises.  Then he castrates himself vicariously.  So long as the status quo can be maintained via religion, political systems and mass media, no harm is done.  Females will continue to view themselves as vulnerable conduits and kept objects of desire.


“The Ones Who Make Love Standing In Their Boots, O Yea!”

            All Western religions consecrate female inferiority.  The Internal Revenue Service fragments woman by distorting her insignificance.  She alone is simultaneously church and state.  The church excises her vagina.  The state then provides a brand new penis for each art form and world view.  It is from Hollywood that the film world takes her cue.  We have never seen a woman.  We witness only accessories.  And now even feminism unscrews her long arms and high heels.


“The Ones Who Have Never Had A Fatal Accident!”

            Lina Wertmuller is the first woman to be nominated as Best Director for an Academy Award.  But because she is female she must settle for nominations; ever the bridesmaid.  In 1976, Seven Beauties was nominated for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Film.  But because I know so little about directorial criticism at this point, I shall limit my views to snatched points of interest from Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties.  No attempt is made at contrasting the feminist genre.  These are salient points personally derived at from Lina Wertmuller’s vision.


            In Satyricon, Fellini roped and tied a nymphomaniac wife’s legs and arms to a mythic western-styled wagon.  From the hot desert her husband supplied her with willing victims.  The husband is the object of viewer sympathy.  He maintained his maleness and was never castrated by his structuralist model.  Else his castration was vindicated by pimpdom as public service.  The mechanics are demystified on his wife’s back, not his.


            In Seven Beauties, Wertmuller’s female mental patient is “scoped” with arms and legs roped and bound to a hospital bed.  Her open blouse begging the camera lens.  Just a peek.  Pascolini begs a peek beneath her skirt.  His response is heavenly.  The answer to all hope and fear lives ‘twixt female thighs.  The tryst begins.  She asks why is he doing this.  He tells her because she wants it; and proceeds to talk dirty to her until she bitterly bites blood from his tongue.  Pascolini then violently rapes her.  I was shocked.  Well, justice rewarded Pascolini with beatings and electro-shock therapy, then placed him in a strait-jacket with many, many more ropes and holdings.  Wertmuller frames him in the center of the screen.  A female doctor has taken his gun. 


            In each film, the images are intensely sexy to me, and probably politically sexist.  I am embarrassed to admit how sexually exciting were the sounds of the female victims.  I am more embarrassed to admit that each camera selected body parts (arms, legs, thigh, moaning lips, bound wrists, etc., but no! vaginal shot) in an order which seemed to travel along my own body parts, titillating as it went, and it was very hard not to touch myself.  When the victim’s breasts were stroked, my own breasts and groin leapt, itched and twitched.  My lower abdomen growled as if from hunger.  I felt slashing, uncomfortable guilt.  I don’t know why.  Probably fear.


            Now, might a good director, like Wertmuller, teach me how to hurt myself?  What should be done about my arousal?  What is expected of me, the viewer?  Should I be concerned about the economics of pistol-packin’ sexism?  And why?  In films that make it to 1975 Hollywood, women are too often portrayed as unable or unwilling to shoot to kill.  Even as old men on the United States Supreme Court control the female reproductive system.  And, likewise, film history.  I felt deep alienation. 


“The Ones Who Believe Christ Is Santa Claus As A Young Man, O Yea!”

            Pascolini is the bastard son in a house with eight women.  (He is as much an icon in his household as Wertmuller must be amongst male directors.)  Against his mother’s wishes, Pascolini wears a gun.  The gun “…gets you out of trouble” or so he thinks.  Indeed, Pascolini is smaller than most men.  He compensates, but cannot bear compensation on the part of women who, during WWII, turned to prostitution to feed the families the government left behind.  Women are objectified.  We find women on stage stripping for military men or through half-cracked shell spaces.  Stages are filled with absurd women in sex wear equated with feeble males in clown suits.  Audiences are filled with men.  Viewing the spectacle, males bond by degree of insult hurled at Pascolini’s sister.  Only in the theatre do dancers freely respond to males.


            Wertmuller’ cynicism:  Pascolini attempts to uphold female “honor” and “respect.”  Husbands must be secured for his seven sisters.  He must keep his sisters “clean.”  So he (accidentally) shoots and kills his sister’s lover because her lover has lured her into prostitution.  The lover’s body, much like the female body in mass media, is chopped up and stuffed into three suitcases and shipped to three different cities.  Now, we must differentiate women from both men and the Virgin Mary ideal.  The Virgin is assumed, probably because of her son, to be beautiful and intelligent.  Jesus is bastard to both Jew and Christian.  Pascolini is attractive to women because of his sexist street sense; his lack of physical beauty (instead Wertmuller cynically promotes (briefly, then she takes it back) the idea of women seeking something beneath the surface, beneath dirt; or, when Pascolini takes off his gun); and because Pascolini’s mother, early in life told him how to charm a woman.  She taught:  “There is a little Schubert romanticism in every woman’s heart.”  No matter how “cruel and sadistic.”  Is the message, then:  That man naturally exposes his deepest romanticism, but woman’s romanticism is hidden?  If so, the Virgin Mary is the whore assumpted.  An insane asylum is another form of assumption.


“The Ones Who Believe In Everything, Even In God, O Yea!”

            Wertmuller’s women control the economy with their bodies, instead of guns.  Sex is basic economics.  The men are shooting and killing Germans.  Killing is contrasted against dense natural forests which seem to try to hide the human killers from themselves.  This screenplay projects the effect of mythic gamesmanship.  War as a romantic game men play.  Women are not to be denied.  It is unusual to hear, in the prison yard filled with hanging bodies; dead, dying and rotting bodies (and the extremely sexual nature of young soldiers with bare asses being beaten), over all this the shrill voice of a female Fascist dictator.  She is as cruel and sadistic as her male counterpart.  Possibly moreso because of our socialization.  Overlaying this carnage, Wertmuller shows us considerable fine art from Germany and Italy; old structures that have withstood previous conflicts.  German opera.  Italian opera.  Great Italian architecture.  Wertmuller is sensitive to the creative/artistic cost of war as well as the long ranks of rotting flesh.  Hers is highly aggressive direction.


“The Ones Who Sleep Soundly, Even With Cancer!”

            Pascolini can only do wrong.  Every initiation leads to greater tragedy.  The ages of one man are structurally documented.  Pascolini matures from swaggering urbane gigolo to:  (1)murderer; (2)convicted of insanity; (3)rapist; (4)soldier; (5)prisoner of war; (6)murderer; (7)post-war civilian willing and ready to marry an ex-prostitute and produce “[T]en children, or as many as possible.”  His ultimate goal, therefore, is to neutralize Fascism with his penis.  As these ages unfold, the temporal nature of existence is highlighted.  Contrasts abound.  Wertmuller also provides frighteningly perverse humor.  After deserting the Italian Army, Pascolini lands in a concentration camp, whose commandant is a German giantess.  Pascolini is not nearly one-third her displacement.  Driven by his will to live, he seduces her.  He cannot achieve an erection.  She brutally whips him, feeds him and threatens him:  “Fuck!”  “Don’t Fuck, You’re Kaput!”  “Your thirst for life disgusts me … you disgust me….”  Wertmuller shot this scene as if Pascolini were fucking to liberate all humanity.  Pascolini refers (in dream sequence) to his child-woman sex object.  Pinching buttocks.  Male martyrdom.  Male omnipotence.  Sexually “real” women, that is, whores and temptresses.  But woman must kill for the male erection.  Camera angles from the commandant’s point-of-view:  Looking down her monolithic breasts nursing his head which emerges as if she were giving birth.  There is not a hint of sex in this highly charged scene.  It is cynical black comedy.  Darker still:  Because of his sexual performance, Pascolini is placed in charge of his prison wing.  His first order is to designate six men to die by firing squad.  The others will be spared.  He has befriended two men.  They are passionately sympathetic, moralistic and religious characters who disagree with Pascolini’s plan and would rather die than endure inhumane treatment.  In a series of unsettling scenes, the first man throws himself into a sewer and drowns, even as concentration camp guards empty their guns into his dead head and spewing belly.  The second man, a very young, loving character exhorts Pascolini to be merciful and to personally shoot him rather than allow him to be shot by the enemy.


            In Wertmuller’s most moving scene, Pascolini senses the desperate love of his only male friend and shoots him in the head.  I wept for “The Ones Who Started Early, Haven’t Arrived, and Don’t Know They’re Not Going To!”  This, Pascolini’s second murder, is deeply contrasted against the first.  It is an act of Humanity, clearly distinguished from other acts of God.  It is a death for “The Ones Who Keep Going Just To See How It Will End!” 



            Wertmuller herself may be the living image of Female as Metaphor.  If there is a “femaleness” to Wertmuller’s work, or even “feminist” ideology, it must surely lie in the quality of her logic and her ability to extend that transcendence over a wide grip of earth-bound emotions.  In Seven Beauties, there is psycho-mythic philosophy enough for every female.  Wertmuller achieves in a single film what some critics point to entire male oeuvres to construct.  Wertmuller is the auteur.  Pascolini is not an artist, he knows (perhaps the concentration camp commandant taught him, as she made sure we knew) he cannot be assumpted in this Eden.  So, he sends his battalion home from the battle stage in stolen trucks because:  “I said to my men, where are we going?  Who wants to go around killing. . . .  Let’s go.  You can’t work for people who send you [to the war] in cardboard shoes.  So, I grabbed two trucks and sent the men home.  I hope they made it.”  It may be that females have less hesitation to nakedness because women are depicted as body parts.  In addition, the viewer never loses sight of a certain Fellini-esque edge in Wertmuller’s flirting tensions and ironic contradictions.  Seven Beauties is clearly defined.  Yet within that narrow boundary, well-drawn characters explore Fascism, Socialism, sex roles and family structure in light of the whims of populist politics birthed by men.  Nakedness is unusually handled as well.  Death is naked.  Unlike her male contemporaries, Wertmuller shows us that Death is a body part; a body part no gun can amputate.  Death grows out of Pascolini as seven psychic heroes, shamelessly perverse.


            In the grotesque German commandant, women fit the myth of national contradictions.  Pascolini’s seven beauties surrender as prostitutes to American soldiers.  Civilian women in sweatshops are equated with concentration camp victims.  They are nationalism’s nameless.  But they are killed with greater equality and in greedier numbers.                                                                                    Reviewed by travis