Here is an atypical, tranquil, ghostly interlude in Fellini’s gorgeous/repulsive spectacle Satyricon.
His newest ghastly beautiful freaky film is “Satyricon”.
WHETHER THEY'RE SHOOTING Prometheus or Beach Party Bongo, a Hollywood set looks like a Hollywood set. This set is clearly not a Hollywood set. It is not even a Roman set, although it is Rome. It's a Fellini set, which is not a set at all, but an environment, a total atmosphere. The atmosphere that Fellini has willed this day for the "Garden of the Suicides" (an episode in Satyricon, his newest, incredible "dream-on-film," based on Petronius' lascivious Roman classic) is a vast ghastly/beautiful/eerie pinky-beige, dusty nowhere. Far in the back, lining the wall, a strange cottony substance pretends to be shrubbery, and behind it, an ice-violet fresco is supposed to be sky. In the middle of this surreal arena, a black girl in a long white dress pulls a goat, who pulls a cart. In the cart sits a little girl in a short white toga, whose face is eggshell. Everyone looks drugged. But maybe they are only cold. It is very cold.
On the sidelines, as a reminder that this is not an albino hell, but only make-believe, there is a gnarl of movie equipment--cameras and black ropes--plus a knot of black-haired men in gray clothing and dusty shoes smoking cigarettes. One man is bigger than the others. He has on a bulky overcoat and a worn black hat pulled far down. He speaks to the eggshell child in a low voice. "Don't forget, Anna Maria, talk with the--how do you say--talk with the beast." The child talks with the goat. "Silenzio!" booms the big man suddenly at no one in particular. "Silenzio!" echoes one of the smaller black-haired men whose job it is to yell silenzio. The big man, who I know now is Signor Fellini, speaks again in his low voice to the child. Next to her is an actor who is supposed to be her father. The maestro has one hand on the head of the child and one on the head of the man, and, gently, firmly, as if the heads were urns, puts them together. Then he places the arms of the man around the child. "Remember," he says, holding up a finger like a no-nonsense parent, "nothing of the sentimental--just smiling, just nice." (The scene, it turns out, is the father's last moment with his child before he slashes his wrists.)
Work done, Federico Fellini pushes his hat back, scratches his (hated) bald spot, smiles a loony smile--what a naughty little mouth he has!--heads straight for the cameraman, sits on his lap, gives him a big wet wolfhound kiss on the cheek, and waits for the shot. This, friends, is Fellini the pussycat, not to be confused--no, on second thought, to be confused with Fellini the Formidable (director of La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 to name a few). For it is probably his playfulness, his humor (he was once a cartoonist) that keep his films, even the ones that don't work, like Juliet of the Spirits, from being pretentious--a rare accomplishment for a 50-year-old Directing Genius. But that is not all that is rare about Federico Fellini--man with the mind of a logician and the fantasies of a madman, from whose unwavering commitment to both come his movies. Satyricon may have, in another life, been born to Petronius, but Satyricon on film is the unlikely child of one man's trip of the mind. When he is asked by interviewers for explanations, Fellini likes to be agreeable, so he gives them: "The film is analogous to modern times," he obliges to the hum of moving pencils. Like the Romans in Nero's day, we too are in a non-Christian pagan time; when a hand is cut off in the film, he says, it is like people now cutting off each others' dignity. We are cruel in our way. Very rational. But, in a quieter moment during the shooting, he speaks the rounder truth: "My film is just a dream. If I have good artistic health, it will be a good dream--no, not good, right."
The movie is finished now, and to judge how "right" it is would be to judge the rightness of a new creature. There is, simply, nothing like it.
“Every face is important”, says Fellini, adjusting one. “Even the extras. And I must know what is behind each one.”
AS THE EYE IS DAZZLED SO THE STOMACH TURNS
ACTORS are the incarnation of my fantasy, says Fellini, in his friendly, sing-song, Italianized English. 'I like them like puppets. They help me to do this miracle. They are my children, my creatures."
Creatures is right. To spin Satyricon, to help the film ooze along with scenes of the de-boweling of pigs, the nymphomania and impotency of homosexuals, the barbecueing of old men, the orgies of oily bodies, the hacking-off of limbs, the drooling of the insane, the gorging of depraved rulers, the death by dehydration of albino hermaphrodites, Fellini has gathered an unprecedented aggregation of freaks--with credits going to God and makeup men and, in most cases, both. There are beauties, too, but even they are apparitional and uncanny--they are often as freaky as the freaks. Conversely, odder and more horrible still: Some of the freaks, like much of the horror, are strangely, phantasmally beautiful. This dream of Fellini's is a color circus--but not for children--and not even for fragile adults. As the eye is dazzled, so the stomach turns.
"MY MOVIES ARE MYSELF AND I LIKE MYSELF”
FELLINI does not live for film alone. There are women (his wife is the enchanting, waif-faced actress Giulietta Masina), there is food (at our lunch, he consumed his usual antipasto, spaghetti, ravioli, veal, potatoes chard, salad, fruit, coffee, wine), and there is talk. FederiCo Fellini is a Roman fountain of talk-high-flung and nonstop: ". .. Humor, ah, humor is good. It is detachment. But an artist sometimes needs to become the thing. Then, afterward, he needs detachment…
Psychology is the most important science. It is very silly to go to the other planets if we do not know ourselves. Psychology is the golden key [there is almost no psychology in Satyricon). An artist must live like a tourist. An artist must be a guest of the life .... When I work, I am like a fish in the Water. It is a natural process.
… I always like my movies because they are myself. And I like myself. [Naughty smile.] In 25 years, I never remake a shot, not because it is perfect but it is me." Then, over another gargantuan feed ("Eat your pasta, eat your pasta!" he scolds): "No, I do not like myself. I am not kind, I am weak. I am incoherent. I am egotistical. I am too tender. I should shout. [He often does.] My father, too, was unable to say no. He was soft. My mother was strong ...Often, when I work, I am like Christopher Columbus with a crew who wants to go back .... To be a movie director, it is very congenial. I direct because I cannot do other things. [Baloney.]"
Hylette Adolphe, top, as a slave, provides Satyricon with one of its few sweet moments. The film "stars" Martin Potter, an English actor, the blond in both photos, as a pleasure/pain-devourer. The back above is the other "star," Hiram Keller. The film's real star is its creator.