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Dreaming Up Petronius

Alberto Moravia, translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal

Fellini Satyricon

directed by Federico Fellini, produced by Alberto Grimaldi

The Satyricon of Petronius, as everyone knows, is an “open” novel, like the novels of Henry Miller and Louis Ferdinand Céline, and unlike the closed, tightly closed novels of Flaubert and Manzoni. An open novel—a series of events and adventures without a beginning, middle, or end; without a story, an internal structure. One could add whole chapters to the Satyricon, as to the novels of Miller and Céline, and not damage it at all. Unfortunately, in the Satyricon‘s case, whole chapters have disappeared, to its serious impairment, so that today we have only the conclusion of a long, saga-like novel of antiquity. Yet the fact is that even with these amputations the meaning of the work is not lost. But just try to amputate part of a novel by Flaubert and see what you have left.

What is the reason, though, for this open, serial construction, that is, a novel told in episodes or segments barely tied together? We believe that it was that Petronius, like Miller and Céline, reflects in his work a world that is also “open”—the world of the Roman decadence, bereft of rigorous social structures, respected moral conventions, reigning intellectual patterns; but, in recompense, rich in the unexpected, in novelties, absurdities, incongruences, and surprises. Closed novels reflect closed milieux: salons, houses, palaces; open novels, like that of Petronius, the open milieu par excellence—the street. In the salons, houses, and palaces we encounter the castes, classes, professional groups; in the street, the crowd.

It is obvious that Petronius was only partly aware of all this. As the refined and cultivated man of letters, he was in his novel simply using a genre that had by then most likely attained a definitive maturity: the satire or picaresque novel of ancient times, which in fact demanded that the narration pass with ease and agility, without order or logic, from episode to episode, from subject to subject, with the sole apparent aim of amusing the reader.

Of course, such a novel can only be comic. The scale of values lies shattered on the ground; not only does the writer not believe in anything but he also does not feel any yearning or desire to believe. Standing just above his contemptible characters, he establishes a distance of derision between himself and them, in the very way that the people in certain groups or, better, certain cliques mock each other, even cruelly and harshly, without the mockery implying any real moral differences.

Petronius is superior to his characters in only one respect: that of culture or, more precisely, good literature. It is understood that Petronius, even in his cynicism, always preserves his detached and scintillating gentility; but this aristocratic trait is chiefly expressed in the dazzling stylistic virtuosity which ranges with an incomparable adroitness and freedom from low tones to high, from the courtly to the dialectal, from dialogue to description, from magniloquence to realism, and so on. Hand in hand with this stylistic skill so ingrained in Petronius, the elegant rhetorician, goes a vast knowledge of life; and so we have psychological nuances set down with unerring aplomb. And, finally, Petronius is amusing because he is amused; this too is the quality of a great storyteller, and among all the most gracious.

There is no obscurity in the Satyricon, not in the personality of its author, its characters or events. There is so little that at least two of its main characters have become proverbial: Giton, the lewd and inconstant young man, and Trimalchio, the crude and vital host. To these two characters who have, so to speak, broken away from the novel’s orbit and now roam the world, we must add Eumolpus, the pseudo-philosopher and small-time street littérateur, Encolpius and Ascyltus, Giton’s two reckless and cynical vagabond lovers, and a mob of pimps, prostitutes, ladies of good society, tavern wenches, merchants, actors, and jugglers. Encolpius, Ascyltus, Giton, and Eumolpus proceed from one place to another, from one adventure to the next, just as happens in everyday life.

The sole connecting thread of all these comings and goings is Encolpius’ sexual prowess, which, after having been above average for a good part of the novel, is suddenly destroyed by the enraged and vindictive God, Priapus. Which, if one thinks about it, is just and meaningful—in the absence of other values, sex obviously provides the most suitable ground for keeping an action going and giving it a dramatic appearance.

As we have already said, even though mutilated and incomplete, the Satyricon is a very clear novel not only in its plot and characters but also in respect to its author and his intentions. In short, we are not at all sure that certain famous contemporary novels will be equally clear some twenty centuries from now. As for the antiquity that forms the novel’s background, this too is clear and well known. Indeed, no period of history has been so minutely studied, analyzed, and sounded to its depths as that of Latin classicism. So much so that the sum of these studies, researches, and analyses in the end exploded in that imposing cultural phenomenon, the Renaissance. But the renaissance or rebirth or resurrection of classical culture did not take place only once. It might be said that as a stone skips over the water producing at each contact ever smaller circles, there were several rebirths. Of course, always less profound, less committed, less trenchant. And the last Renaissance is precisely the one on which Federico Fellini draws in his movie version of Petronius’ novel.

What is the nature of this last rebirth of antiquity? Here we find the explanation for the definition Fellini offered some time ago for his film—“the documentary of a dream.” The last Renaissance is somewhat like a farewell. The contemporary world, by now definitively “projected” out of the humanistic orbit and definitely “entered” (in this case the space-age terms are appropriate) into the technological orbit, bids farewell to antiquity, which, if appearances can be trusted, will progressively fade away, so that in a few centuries it will be nothing but a shadow, like the archaic and prehistoric cultures today.

In what way does this very last of the Renaissances bid farewell to antiquity? That is, in what way does Fellini, in his movie, bid farewell to Petronius’ world? He does so by finding it obscure, incomprehensible, half-obliterated, absurd, mysterious. In short, as one might say psychoanalytically, dreamlike. After having been many different things in turn, antiquity has become a dream from which we feel we might awaken at any moment, so that at any moment it could be transformed from a dream to the memory of a dream. Do dreams have a meaning as do the events of one’s waking life? Yes and no. In waking events the meaning is, finally, always accessible to our intuition; in the dream it is there but irretrievable. For Fellini antiquity is a dream whose meaning has been lost, while still being there and making its presence felt at all times.

But how does Fellini avoid, indeed ignore, the rich knowledge we have of antiquity? By one of the simplest of operations, to which, moreover, he is led by the specific nature of his craft: by overlooking all that has been “written” about antiquity and adhering to what has been “depicted.” And he does this, first of all, because very little remains of ancient painting and that little fragmentary, incomplete, and therefore mysterious. In the second place, because in painting the legible margin is, in contrast to literature, very limited; and so, basically, painting is by its nature an obscure and enigmatic art. Indeed one says, or rather used to say, of certain portraits: all that it lacks is the power of speech; but one has never said of a biography: all that it lacks are the colors. So Fellini, a perhaps unwitting participant in the last Renaissance, the one that bids farewell to antiquity, has shown a remarkable intuition, discarding what has been written and sticking to what has been painted.

All the qualities and the limitations, the very character of his film, derive from this intuition. Which finds its confirmation in the last scene of Satyricon, when, according to the words of the scenario, the plot “fills with cracks, is blurred by the dust of the centuries, is transformed into an ancient faded fresco in Pompeian colors, where Encolpius is only one of the many ambiguously smiling faces which adorn the fresco.”

So, through his film, Fellini takes leave of antiquity, treating it as a dream, documentable and documented but inexplicable. Fellini’s intuition finds expression in various stylistic and technical procedures which it is worthwhile to trace and mention. To begin with, a strong aestheticism or, if one prefers, a marked aesthetic contemplation. The ancient world is not reconstructed in accordance with naturalistic convention, as, for example, in D’Annunzio’s movie Cabiria; but rather contemplated in those pictorial representations of itself which it has left behind. On the other hand, Fellinian aestheticism is packed with cultural references, ranging from surrealism to functional modernism, from cubism to abstract expressionism, from expressionism to pop. Without, of course, forgetting Pompeian art, Byzantine art, barbarian art, l’art nègre, and the archaics and primitives in general.

Fellini has never read a thing; we take him at his word; but he has seen and examined many things and from all of them he has drawn some inspiration. To use a generic term, it must finally be said that his Satyricon is an expressionist film. Less in the sense of historical expressionism than in that of a representation where subjectivity pushed to the borders of the unconscious signally prevails over objectivity.

Besides aestheticism, one of the most frequent devices which Fellini makes use of to create the atmosphere of the dream is that of dissociation, or an alienated and incoherent simultaneity. As the scenario says apropos of the theater of the actor Vernacchio: “The audience must not give a feeling of compactness but rather of disunion; in fact, each person behaves in a different way from the next…in short, somewhat the atmosphere of a lunatic asylum.” Moreover, this dissociative process has been inspired by painting. Greek and Roman painting, first of all; but also Italian classic painting, from Giotto to Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, and Giorgione.

In these models, the violence of the depicted episodes creates a mysterious contrast to the serenity and indifference of many of the characters witnessing them. Fellini has pushed this procedure, which in classical painting was motivated by a quest for harmony and contemplative calm, in a romantic, surrealistic direction, halfway between de Chirico’s metaphysics and Magritte’s surrealism. But above all he has exasperated it to the utmost. The alienating dissociation which in classical painting is a marginal element, in Satyricon invades the representation. There is no longer a distinction between the drama and the dream. All is dream.

But if Satyricon were only, as Fellini has said, the documentary of a dream, it would merely amount to the modern illustration of an ancient text. Yet we have said that this is a basically expressionist film. By this we mean that Satyricon has a specific content, that Fellini has expressed in it not only his own taste but also the least explicit part of himself. Now what is this content which makes Satyricon a movie in which imagination is so much more significant than illustration?

The content, obviously, is the usual one in Fellini, which he has already expressed in his “realistic” movies; but precisely because his Satyricon is not a realistic movie, this time Fellini seems to have drawn more directly and profoundly on his unconscious. This content is, broadly speaking, religious. In the sense that Fellini, at the very moment that he pronounces an elegiac farewell to antiquity, situates and defines in it, almost despite himself, all of his nostalgia and metaphysical terrors. In an interview we had with him not long ago we said that Fellini’s conception of antiquity was essentially not so different from that of the epoch immediately following antiquity, i.e., the high Christian and barbaric Middle Ages. An age which, fearing antiquity and having just issued out of it, was compelled to view it from a distance.

We also said that, whereas for the humanists of the Renaissance antiquity was the ideal age of luminous and perfect forms, for Fellini, as for the primitives of the not yet humanistic Middle Age, antiquity was the era of a fallen and corrupt nature, teeming with physical and moral monsters, not yet redeemed and saved. Now having seen the completed film, we can only confirm that first judgment. Antiquity is seen by Fellini as the decadence and death of the life of the senses, a period which was perhaps at one time happy, innocent, and pure; but today is unhappy, corrupt, impure, ugly, and saturated with death.

To understand Fellini’s special kind of religiosity, we believe that the greatest importance must be attributed to his manifest preference for the monstrous and impure. In Satyricon the monstrous and impure regularly take the place of the ugly and beautiful. The monsters are the old, the sick, the infirm, the unattractive; the impure, the young and the beautiful. Monsters populate the fantastic backgrounds of the brothels, the Subbura, Trimalchio’s house, the garden of delights (we cite at random three important episodes); against these backgrounds are set the “impure” beauties of Giton, Encolpius, Ascyltus, and many other “beautiful” characters.

The hermaphrodite is not by chance both monstrous and young, beautiful and impure. One does not have to make a great effort of the imagination to trace back this preference for the monstrous and impure to a fascinated and funereal moralism. Fellini is attracted by antiquity precisely because he sees it as corrupt and moribund. There is in him a decadent who is magnetized by the most celebrated and most historic of all decadences. And Fellini’s double and triple decadence is punctually confirmed by the film’s images. Nights, twilights, dawns, never full day; dark, inflamed, or murky air, never clear and bright; hallways, blind alleys, caves, courtyards, cells, never open spaces; natural settings that are deserted, squalid, arid, craggy, denuded, never inviting; clothes in washed-out colors that go from black to brown and red and suggest dust and mud, never luminous, sharp tints; finally, even the water transformed into something sordid: the subterranean flow of a sewer.

This theatrical representation varies in quality from episode to episode. It runs from picturesque, decorative, stagy backgrounds to subtle suggestions typical of the art of painting. Fellini seems freer and more capricious in the parts where he gets further away from Petronius’ novel; this defines quite adequately both Fellini and Petronius.

To sum up, the difference between the author of the novel and that of the film is that the first, with all of his Gadda-like linguistic and stylistic refinement, is nevertheless always a realist; while the second is not and above all, at least in this movie, does not want to be one. Fellini’s invention flows freely in the episode of the death of the emperor and in that of the labyrinth; whereas it appears more circumspect and restrained in the scene of Trimalchio’s banquet. But all in all Fellini seems, in this his most recent movie, to have completely surmounted the personal crisis which, objectified and transformed into a subject in 8 1/2, almost got out of hand in Juliet of the Spirits. This is eloquently proven by his dilation of Petronius’ text. In fact, not only has Fellini succeeded in interpreting the Latin text in his own fashion but he has expanded it to include his own ideas about life and death.

At this point, to indicate the movie’s limitations would not be very difficult. As always happens in the work of mature artists such as Fellini, they are to be found in the very character of the work. The rhetoric of the original text has been transformed into an aesthetic contemplation and this produces a static quality in the film. Versatile and raffish realism, wavering between satire and parody, has been supplanted by a monumental and mortuary epic tone. With the oars of his galleys suspended in the air, Fellini revives for us the lances of the battle in Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky; but he does not recapture the real homosexual passion of Encolpius and Ascyltus for Giton that lives beneath the fiction. In Petronius there is psychology, even when changed into eloquence; in the movie it is sacrificed to the dreamlike effect.

Is there a psychology of dreams? Yes, there is, but it is not that of the characters who appear in the dream but rather that of us who dream about them. Only in two episodes does Fellini show himself intent on representing a reality that is not dreamlike: the episode of Trimalchio and that of the villa of the suicides. These are two contrasting and equally significant situations. The rich man who vulgarly and unrestrainedly enjoys his wealth; and the rich man who not only rejects wealth but also life—in this contrast one might say the ultimate meaning of the film is expressed. That is, a feral attachment to life which, at any moment, can change into disgust, denial, and a desire for death.

This account of Satyricon would not be complete without some mention not so much of the art of the actors as of the use that has been made of their art. It is clear that in order to make the documentary of a dream it is crucial that the actors should not become characters but must remain apparitions; and this is what happens through much of the film. Martin Potter as Encolpius, Hiram Keller as Ascyltus, Salvo Randone as Eumolpus, Max Born as Giton, Mario Romagnoli as Trimalchio, Magali Noël as Trimalchio’s wife, together with all the other actors who appear in the film, have been fundamentally changed by Fellini into strongly expressive and ambiguous images, precisely as if they were figures in a fresco. So one might say that their task as interpreters consists principally in pretending to be just that—painted images. And that this is extremely difficult, indeed an authentic feat on the part of the actors, can be seen when we compare the truly “painted” apparition of Salvo Randone, for example, with the realistic and not at all “painted” interpretations of some of the minor actors.

(Translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal)

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