FILM REVIEW: FELLINI SATYRICON (1969) – dir. Federico Fellini

This review originally appeared in VIVID.ID (July – August 2007), an online film magazine of the International Black Women’s Film Festival

The first time I watched Fellini’s SATYRICON, I had the same reaction I had after watching the horror film JACOB’S LADDER –namely, “What in the hell did I just watch?” Though not a horror film, it brings the same surrealist sensibilities as any other Fellini film, including NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, CASSANOVA and the classic LA DOLCE VITA. As an Italian film, it’s more sexually blatant than any non-porn American film of the time (1960’s).

THAT’S what threw me off! I watched it thinking I had just witness late-60’s soft core porn and exploitation, but on second viewing, it wasn’t that at all. Why would this film be included in VIVID.ID? It’s filled with Black women characters, but they have virtually no speaking parts but represent larger ideas of salvation and redemption!

Set in imperialist, ancient pagan Rome and on Petronius¢ “Satyricon” and Roman frescoes, this film’s commentary on the hedonism and exploitation will shock and disturb many viewers. However, if you’ve ever seen any episodes of HBO’s ROME, it shouldn’t surprise you…at all. Our protagonist is a young man surviving and finding his way through the dangers of ancient Rome. If you thought being a fine young woman in ancient Rome was dangerous, try being a fine young man. If you understood that sentence, then you that you’re going to have to leave your righteousness at the door to see SATYRICON.

The absurdist storyline follows the young man as he blossoms into ancient Roman manhood. He is expected to find his salvation in virility and domination. He fails miserably –and many times laughably– as he attends unfamiliar pagan rites and he cannot understand why he cannot “perform” as a man, thus become a man. His dalliances are many, but he’s never in control, and hence, he is still a child destined to be led by others and ruled by women.

It isn’t until he meets with various Black women in Rome that he finds some glimpse of the salvation and redemption he seeks in becoming a man. When he interacts with white women in his life, they appear manipulative, “social climbers,” and willing to use their sexuality as a stepping stone to greater things in life. His experiences with Black women appear to be life itself, with the act itself as the salvation to his existence and the universe. When he finally meets the consummate Black woman in Africa –who represents womanhood, wisdom, perfection and bliss– his wish is fulfilled and the act is presented as in favor of “the gods,” and as the direct acceptance of his entry into manhood by “the goddess” herself.

As I mentioned before, if you’re uncomfortable with direct sexuality within the context of excellent storytelling and filmmaking, then don’t see SATYRICON. If you’re willing to look deeper into the psyche of salvation, redemption and rites-of-passage of ancient sensibilities, then sit down and watch SATYRICON.

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