By 1969, Federico Fellini was not only one of world cinema’s most acclaimed contemporary figures–he was also one of its most interesting artists. Having spent the preceding two decades developing and expanding his style and sensibilities, he stood at a turning point as promising as it was ominous. His previous film, 1966’s Juliet of the Spirits, had been regarded as a relative failure – his first work in color, it was indeed lauded for its visual splendor but dismissed by critics and audiences alike as the pretentious result of an artist over-stretching himself. Pushing the limits of the haughty, hyperreal, theatrical style he’d cultivated and capitalizing, by way of suggestion and allusion, on the rumors of bisexuality that had begun to swirl around him, Juliet had been an ambitious, challenging step forward. Would he step forward once more, risk pushing himself yet further, taunt the prospect of greater failure again? Or would be step back toward comfort, safety, critical and financial security?

Freely adapting ancient Roman writer Petronius’ controversial Satyricon, our modern Roman maestro did precisely what all expected such a bold, uncompromising filmmaker to do: he didn’t just step forward, he leapt forward with typically frenzied abandon. Called Fellini’s Satyricon to differentiate it from another, contemporaneous adaptation starring Fellini regular Franco Fabrizi, it’s more than just ambitious – it’s audacious. Even now, more than half a century later, it’s characterized by its inventiveness, its oddness and its astonishing singularity. Never again would Fellini plumb such peculiar, perverse depths within what the medium of cinema could express. Thankfully, his audacity paid dividends: the critics were back on his side, his career was back on track and the emerging definition of “Felliniesque” art underwent a serious transformation.

Ostensibly the picaresque story of a young man in ancient Rome wandering the streets of the city after his lover ditches him for his rival, Fellini’s Satyricon is a bewildering, willfully disorienting story of cruelty, debauchery and wild artistic expression. Identification with any one character is actively discouraged – they’re each and all reprehensible, from the pedophilic relationship between protagonist Encolpio and his adulterous boyfriend, Gitone, to the abuses of rich, powerful, murderous figures like wannabe poet Trimalcione and wretched pirate Lica. Even a sense of connection with scenario or locale is thwarted as Fellini moves from place to place, time to time with startling abruptness, mimicking the sense of distortion of Petronius’ book, which only survives in part. A filmmaker known to source both stylistic and narrative inspiration from his own dreams, Fellini here evokes a most oneiric sensation with surreal sets by the brilliant Danilo Donati and with jarring editing, even eliding apparent swathes of time within individual sequences.

If Juliet of the Spirits was Fellini’s exuberant, resplendent release of all the colors he’d long refrained from unleashing onto his cinematic canvases, with Satyricon he’s freed from any sense of stylistic obligation. He’d filmed in color before, so he was free to explore more mature, nuanced uses of color and light; he’d experienced both success and failure, so he was free to do whatever he liked, free to stop chasing the critical validation that had led to the perception of a forced, stilted tone to the overworked Juliet three years prior. He promised to make the most homosexual film of all time at a time when much of Europe and 49 of 50 states still banned same-sex sexual activities under law – a claim that, alas, stands up only to subjective scrutiny and to which some would counter he’d arguably made the most bisexual film of all time. Even today it’s uncommon to see a film so brazenly, (semi-) nakedly queer, distinctly sensual and erotic in its queerness; less common still to see such a film become a critics’ darling, revitalize a filmmaker’s career and earn him a Best Director Oscar nomination.

That the nomination was the film’s only nod at that year’s Academy Awards is something of a travesty, not least since the Academy was never shy about expressing their appreciation for Fellini. It’s an incredible work of art, from the beautiful musical score to the stunning cinematography by the great Giuseppe Rotunno. It remains one of Fellini’s most impressive artistic feats, a work of superb choreography both in his well-acknowledged flair for staging and blocking and in his orchestration of multiple artistic elements in pursuit of a single, cohesive stylistic goal. Indeed, in Satyricon’s bizarre, discombobulating approach to narrative design and in its striking dislocation of sound and image, shot and counter-shot, it may be best regarded as a movie less about its subject and more about, well, just itself. It’s one of cinema’s purest, most profound representations of the famous (and appropriately Latin) phrase “Ars gratia artis” – art for the sake of art. For the sake of art, Fellini’s Satyricon is one of the most important films not only of the great director’s storied career but in the history of cinema.

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