Starring: Martin Potter, Hiram Keller
Director: Federico Fellini
This loose adaptation of Petronius’ notoriously naughty Latin classic finds Fellini learning a thing or two from his fellow Italian director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in particular his sun-baked, Afro-centric approach to ancient myths and stories. He’s even happy to carry over Pasolini’s tormented homoeroticism, as hapless foil of fate Encolpius (Martin Potter) seeks his lost love Giton (Max Born), who has been snatched by his musclebound frenemy Ascyltus (Hiram Keller) and sold into a theatre troupe. Later, Encolpius learns how Giton feels when he himself becomes the toy of a sadistic slaver; whirled from one bizarre encounter to another, he becomes embroiled in an imperial coup, hatches a plan to steal an hermaphrodite faith healer and undergoes various other undignified scrapes.
Where Fellini goes one better than Pasolini is in the impact of his visual language and the amount of cash he has to splash on evoking the splendour and barbarity of the classical world. It’s difficult to imagine any director today commanding such lavish production values for what was such a wilfully uncommercial project – uncommercial because Encolpius’ trials are too random to form a proper narrative and drama is inevitably swamped in spectacle. Who’s complaining, though, when the spectacle is so richly embroidered and arresting?
The story twists through grey catacombs, monumental baths, maze-like brothels with strange things happening in the corners. The screen flickers with ash, smoke, painted skin, dazzling robes in all the colours of a spice market. Then there are Fellini’s meta-cinematic games, his use of non-realistic sets and process shots that make ancient Rome look like something out of science fiction – squint and you’re seeing Zardos, Barbarella, Mad Max, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars. And then on top of that, there’s a clangorous, dissonant oriental score which disorientates the viewer still further. With another director, the end product might have seemed still-born, trivial; with Fellini, it’s alien, primal, crazed, and haunted by a sense of melancholy and desolation, the hangover that follows any great party. 8/10
This is a very real-looking transfer. No damage, very little in the way of grain, and the shadowy, twilit quality of the early subterranean scenes is captured with plenty of nuance and crispness. Set-pieces such as Trimalchio’s feast have a near-psychedelic vibrancy – copper-green robes, hot reds, dusky flesh tones – and the water rite with candles, against a process shot sunset, has a radiant eerie beauty. 8/10