Petronius’s Satyricon and Fellini’s film version. Two versions of a pagan world as it was in Nero’s time and may be in ours…
For Fellini, Satyricon is not crude melodrama or pure fantasy, but a view of paganism as it was and as it will be. It is pre-Christian Rome even if Saint Paul was preaching at the time. And it pre-figures the post-Christian world still lurching towards its birth. The vulgar Trimalchio is a prototype of our own rich, extravagant, selfish contemporaries. Emolpus is the cynical and dissolute intellectual, whose keen brain and fine taste are at war with his sensual appetites. Encolpius and his two companion drifters are post-modern hippies, flower children with a violent undercurrent.
Fellini’s extrapolations of the violence of youthful conflict, many of them his own inventions that punctuate the film, prefigure the irrational savagery of our own era in which arson, anarchy,organized mob violence and outright terrorism threaten to supercede the orderly process of social and political life.
Fellini engages in a profoundly pessimistic view, a pessimism born from the overall impression the images convey: he sees imperial Roman society as passionate and chaotic, American in togas, inhabited largely by monsters except for two or three young, energetic, bisexual Nietzschean vagabonds. Encolpius, thebest of them, is not the redeemer of this society, but because he dodges it and uses it, and derides it, and evades its systematic grasp, he is still a victor and not a victim.
Satyricon follows something of the emotional pattern of Dolce Vita. The dazzling beauty of Anita Ekberg sliding into a dismal, joyless orgy and a misshapen sea monster dying on the beach. Satyricon shares the same world weariness and sense of the disgust, drained of Italian vivacity or the American knack of re-invention. To Fellini, Satyricon is a metaphor for our own world, the worst of all possible worlds, one endurable only through intense irresponsible pleasure followed by interminable escape. His romanticism borders on the nihilistic, held back by a yearning within and leavened by the lucid belief that the only real people are exiles or realize they are in exile, and for whom the rest of life is to navigate the brutto spettacolo that engulfs.