Federico Fellini called his adaptation of Satyricon an exercise in “autodestruction,” a burning bridge leading out of the hall of funhouse mirrors that he’d traversed most famously in 8 1/2. That wry, feverish parable of director’s block still seems like his quintessential film, not least for striking an anxious balancing act of self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation. But stripped of metanarrative soul-searching and lured by Petronius’s randy ancient-Rome farrago in 1969, Fellini simply steeped himself in the same fermented juices he’d been stirring for years: writhing carnival freaks, all manner of lust-crazed, overfed women, and tacked-on afterthoughts on the relation between Art and Commerce. Fellini Satyricon (so named to differentiate the film from a rival production; an alternate title was The Degenerates) is the beginning of the end, and not just of the ’60s.
Encolpius (Martin Potter, in a role once intended for Terence Stamp!) is a flaxen-haired aspiring poet who has earned a slot on the god Priapus’s shitlist, which has rendered him, as one scornful would-be lover has it, “a squashed little worm.” He’s head over heels for smirking jailbait Giton (Max Born), but when shark-grinning, toga-snapping scamp Ascyltus (Broadway Hair alumnus Hiram Keller) steals the boy away, Encolpius’s heartbreak would seem to move the earth—a quake promptly demolishes his Guggenheim-for-spelunkers apartment complex, rendering homeless its dissolute, dirty, universally horny sideshow of tenants.
The choppy narrative, which bears some spiritual relation to Godard’s similarly episodic and cannibal-populated postcard from hell, Weekend, subsequently follows Encolpius to a revolting feast (the coup de grâce: servants hack open a massive pig and its steaming organs tumble out), communal-spa gymnastics, an ill-fated encounter with a hermaphroditic albino demigod, a civil union at sea toasted with a decapitation, a battle with a Minotaur (“Why aren’t you fighting a gladiator instead of me? I’m a student!”) and a climactic boink with a massy Mother Earth. There’s more, of course, but the louche kitsch value flickers, then fades. At once fragmented and bloated, trippy and static, Fellini Satyricon is best absorbed not so much as a noble failed experiment as a Cinecittà head movie.