Some movies you just have to see -- forget about plot synopses or snippets of dialogue, you just have to see it to understand. For these movies, there's no way to answer that most natural and inevitable of questions: What's it about? Satyricon is one of these movies.
I've been a fan of Satyricon for about four years, when I first took it out of the public library. I'd heard it was weird and had also seem some stills in movie books like LIFE Goes to the Movies. Something about freaks, absurdity, ancient Rome, I gathered. Maybe that was actually as much as I needed to know since that's what it all boils down to, at its essence.
I probably would have had more of an idea what to expect that first if I'd simply known about the director, Federico Fellini. At that time, I didn't, and so when I first sat down with Satyricon it struck me not just as an anomaly but as a major shock. Sure, I'd heard of Fellini, but this? This was Fellini? Why hadn't anyone told me? They should have shown this movie to me while I was in the crib, it was so cool.
Later on, through watching another great and bizarre film of his, Roma, I figured out what some of the Fellini motifs were and how strongly his personality and taste come through, but at the time, it was a bit of a mind-blower. This guy had survived making this film? Nobody put him in an insane asylum? He was considered great? Certainly I thought he was great, watching the movie, but I tend not to give fellow humans that much credit.
Knowing a bit more about Fellini at this point, I can say that while Satyricon isn't the anomaly I once thought -- Roma is pretty similar and I've heard other of his films also follow along in a similar style -- it is certainly in a class of its own. What's it about? Again, I can't say really, but pressed to the wall with a gun to my head, I'd squeal and saying it's a crazy experience, a vicarious exploration of insanity, of dreams, of an absurd adventure by a blond-haired poet who just wants to get his boy lover back and be done with it all. That summary doesn't really express any of it, but it's the best I can do and there it is.
Perhaps giving a little background would help. First of all, Fellini didn't make the story up, although the film is certainly a product of his imagination and he did make up a few scenes. The plot, such as it is, springs from that most bizarre and unprecedented of ancient works, Satyricon by Petronius. Nobody actually knows much about the author and this is his only work, but what can be said is that it's a book very different from what most people would expect of an ancient book. You can actually get a hint of this by its very title, which is a pun on satyr (from the Greek saturos) and satire (from the Latin satira), meaning that it's an attack on human vice or folly and a depiction of some serious depravity. Did I mention that this was written around the time of the reign of Nero?
Again, having read the original book -- had to having seen the movie -- I can say that it's nothing like any ancient work I've ever run into except possibly the poetry of Catullus, which is hysterically coarse at times. It's simply not ponderous. It doesn't dwell on gods or philosophy or sublime human comedy. No, instead, the book just creates its own territories and definitions. People have tried to analyze it -- the fragments that are left, now that several sections have been missing for ages -- and the general conclusion, so I've read, is that the novel, like the movie, is something far afield from the norm, a twisted tale of such originality as to make analysis within normal frames of reference irrelevant.
The question resurfaces: What's it about? A few scenes may help to convey a sense of its atmosphere at least, if not the plot, since the plot is rather secondary. Picture this: Our hero (well, anti-hero really) Encolpio ends up on a mission to collect a hermaphroditic god(ess) from a hidden temple. He and his companions show up in a cave where they find the god(ess) pale and weak, lying in a pool surrounded by worshippers seeking to be healed. They steal the god(ess), throwing the deity into a cart and fleeing across the desert. Unfortunately the god(ess) is weak and needs water. The god(ess) dies and for that, there is a punishment.
Encolpio and friends end up in another town (where he ends up in a battle with a man wearing a bull mask... don't ask) and although Encolpio is basically rewarded by getting to bed an insatiable woman, he is embarrassed before a crowd of hundreds when he can't get it up. He's been made impotent! To make things better, he's sent to a special treatment facility where he's put in a room filled with dozens of extremely exotic prostitutes who proceed to try just about everything to get a rise out of him. They pin him down and flog him. There's something about a giant swinging canopy with bevies of girls on it but even thought I've seen the film a half dozen times, I can't remember the specifics, nor do I remember if the "cure" was successful. It's besides the point.
I do remember more, though. I know an Roman couple lives in home built into the base of a cliff. They end up committing suicide by slitting their wrists. Later Encolpio and friends run around inside their house and find an African slave girl who speaks in clicks and squawks. There's another big section with a huge ship on rough seas; they capture a giant creature that looks like an ancient depiction of a whale. There's a theater of the absurd, a gallery of freaks, a hysterically fake earthquake, a massively disgusting feast, and oh, it's all in dubbed Italian (at the time, the Italians dubbed over everything, even Italian) with the subtitles making some sense but not all that much since really you use your eyes to understand. Ah, why do I bother trying to explain? What does it add up to? What does it mean? What's it about? Go and see it -- that way you'll find out.