By the late 1960s, Federico Fellini had more or less permanently transitioned from filmmaker to icon. The autobiographical 8½ basically ensured his films would be permanently inseparable from himself, the sort of commercial accomplishment of which most film directors can only dream. Most directors are fortunate to be recognized for putting their “touch” into an accepted format. Fellini was the format. His follow-up, Juliet of the Spirits, is an equally indulgent affair that serves loosely as an apology to his wife (Giulietta Masina, who also stars in the film), on whom he cheated for more or less the entirety of their marriage; the resulting film is as much his fantasy (sexual extravagance) as hers (Masina had a keen interest in the psychic realm). And so the template is set – Fellini would continue to make films about himself, but largely under the guise of someone else’s perspective.
He wasn’t shy about using his own name to commercial ends. NBC commissioned Fellini to do an hourlong documentary (Fellini: A Director’s Notebook) on his own work, which was broadcast in 1969. That same year, he laid all his cards on the table, adapting Petronius’s comic novel Satyricon into a feature film, and releasing it intractably under his own name. As far as I can tell, the novel had never been adapted before, but curiously, fellow Italian Gian Luigi Polidoro made a film of it the exact same year as Fellini. It was his claim for the title Satyricon that compelled Fellini to add his name to his version, in the process ensuring that nobody would care about Polidoro’s at all. When you have two Satyricons on the market, good luck getting people to see the one not branded with the name of an internationally celebrated celebrity. Nevertheless, United Artists didn’t want to take the risk, allegedly paying $1 million just to keep Polidoro’s out of American theaters entirely.
Does Fellini’s result deserve all this hoopla? It is easily the most indulgent of the twelve films of his I’ve seen, and this is a filmmaker frequently dogged for his indulgence. It’s less a resurrection of this long-dead civilization than a political cartoon of it, exposing and reveling in the emptiness of earthly pursuits. The sometimes-incomprehensible, paper-thin plot sees Encolpio (Martin Potter) bounce from adventure to adventure, lover to lover, mostly alongside Ascilto (Hiram Keller). Fellini likened them to the hippies of the era, who would occupy a good deal of his concern in 1972’s Roma; all live for the moment, seeking love (or the semblance thereof) and spirits before concerns of marriage, career, responsibility, or faith. It’s not hard to see why Fellini – who made his own fantasies of the flesh a chief subject in film after film – was so taken with them, even as his more traditional upbringing (he was nearing fifty when he made Satyricon) prevented him from cutting all such cultural ties. 8½ opens with his onscreen persona attempting to float away, pulled back down to earth by his financiers. I wonder how many other ropes tethered him.
Even above his visual imagination, I find Fellini’s greatest talent to be in guiding his audience from place to place without many typical, logical connections between incidents. It’s as though he builds a river of cinema, gently guiding us through a surrounding forest of clowns, prostitutes, eroticism, memory, gluttony, and gladiator battles. The transitions between events and places seems sudden, but are so compelling to the eyes and ears. His sound design (no sound designer is credited) does so much here, dropping hints of the scene to come right before we’re whisked away, or letting that from the prior scene drift into the new one. He creates a masterful, gentle rhythm, so that two hours of nonsense seem to absolutely fly by. That we’re given so much to look at certainly helps – shots that seem impossibly achieved are tossed off, and layer upon layer of imagery is thrust before us. Not in the least because food factors in so regularly, this is an absolute visual feast.
It’s difficult to imagine that feast looking much better on home video than how Masters of Cinema presents it here. Sourced from a new 4k restoration, this is a rich, dense, immaculately detailed transfer, loaded with detail yet never over-sharpened. Grain provides solid texture, sometimes a bit more present in processed shots, but always in a way that appeared to these eyes to be totally natural. There is, for all intents and purposes, nothing wrong with this, and it goes a long way towards bringing the film to life. It’s among the best transfers I’ve ever seen on Blu-ray.
While Criterion’s edition bests this in terms of disc supplements (a commentary, documentary, and interviews are hard to beat), MoC has included one thing on its disc that they did not – an alternate English language track used for its release in some territories. While I generally prefer the Italian audio (it’s an Italian film after all), the knowledge that the two lead actors, Potter and Keller, are English and American, respectively, does lend that version some credence, though I couldn’t say whether their actual voices were used on the track or not. As was common practice in Italy in those days, Satyricon was shot silently and dubbed later into whatever language each territory saw fit. I would imagine Fellini had a bit more of a say over the Italian, and it’s certainly more pleasing to the ears than the onslaught of cockney jargon that discordantly accompanies this Roman tale.
MoC, as they tend to do, does go a long way towards making up for the lack of disc supplements with a robust booklet (Criterion is sticking to their now-standard folded sheet of paper), featuring a “Preface to the Treatment” (and thus the film) by Fellini; essays by critic, filmmaker, and artist Sabrina Marques and film scholar Pasquale Iannone; and an interview with Fellini from 1969. While a robust option of video supplements may seem the more compelling, I often find myself with far more time to read essays; for those in a similar boat as I, the MoC may prove the better (and cheaper) purchase.
Masters of Cinema have continuously done an excellent job bringing Fellini’s films to Blu-ray (they’ve previously released City of Women, Roma, I Clowns, and Il Bidone), and this makes an excellent entry into that array. It is because they have focused on less-heralded works by the filmmaker that I’ve come to have such great affection and appreciation for the immensity of his talent.