Fellini Satyricon (1969): Fellini’s Oscar Nominated Spectacle of Decadence in Ancient Rome

A vivid portrait of decadence in ancient Rome, Fellini Satyricon, made in 1969 but released in the U.S. in 1970, was rich in decor and bold in imagery, but many critics considered it pretentious, excessive, plotless, and self-indulgent.

A fantasy spectacle, structured as a surreal travelogue, the movie is loosely based on Petronius’s work, Satyricon, a series of bawdy and satirical episodes written during the reign of the emperor Nero.

Inspired by (rather than adapted from) Petronius, an author of the first century A.D., the wildly rambling but flamboyantly colorful tale centers on the long journey of two young men, who fall for the same androgynous boy.

However, like all road movies, it’s the encounters along the way that count, including one with Capucine.

Letting loose his imagination Fellini has made a bizarre spectacle that many found dizzying excessive, while others praised the original and accomplished production values, particularly Danilo Donati’s sets and Giuseppe Rotunno’s astonishing cinematography.

Elements of Plot

Set in imperial Rome, the tale begins with Encolpio lamenting the loss of his lover Gitone to Ascilto. Vowing to win him back, he learns at the Thermae that Ascilto sold Gitone to the actor Vernacchio.

At the theatre, he discovers Vernacchio and Gitone performing in a lewd play based on the “emperor’s miracle.” A slave’s hand is axed off and replaced with a gold one.

Encolpio storms the stage and reclaims Gitone. On their return to Encolpio’s home in the Insula Felicles, a Roman tenement building, they walk through the Roman brothel known as the Lupanare. They fall asleep after making love at Encolpio’s place.

Ascilto sneaks into the room, waking Encolpio with a whiplash.  Encolpio proposes they divide up their property and separate. Ascilto mockingly suggests they split Gitone in half. Encolpio is driven to suicidal despair, however, when Gitone decides to leave with Ascilto.

Encolpio meets the poet Eumolpo at the art museum. The elderly poet blames corruption on the mania for money and invites his young friend to a banquet held at the villa of Trimalchio, a wealthy freeman, and his wife Fortunata. Eumolpo’s declamation of poetry is met with catcalls and thrown food. While Fortunata performs a frantic dance, Trimalchio turns his attention to two young boys. Fortunata berates her husband who attacks her then has her covered in gizzards and gravy.

Trimalchio recites one of his finer poems whereupon Eumolpo accuses him of stealing verses from Lucretius. Enraged, Trimalchio orders the poet to be tortured in the kitchen furnace.

The guests are then invited to visit Trimalchio’s tomb where he enacts his own death in a ceremony.  Encolpio leaves the villa, helping the limping, beaten Eumolpo to drink water from a pool. In return for his kindness, Eumolpo bequeaths the spirit of poetry to his young friend.

Encolpio, Gitone, and Ascilto are imprisoned on the pirate ship of Lichas, a middle-aged merchant; young men are delivered for the titillation of the reclusive Roman emperor. Lichas selects Encolpio for a Greco-Roman wrestling match and subdues him. Smitten by his beauty, Lichas takes Encolpio as his spouse in a ceremony blessed by his wife, Trifena.

The ship arrives at the emperor’s island, overrun by soldiers in the service of a usurper. The teenage emperor kills himself, and the soldiers board the ship and behead Lichas under Trifena’s gaze. While “new Caesar” holds victory parade in Rome, Encolpio and Ascilto escape the soldiers.

They discover an abandoned villa, whose owners have freed their slaves and committed suicide to escape the new emperor. Encolpio and Ascilto make love with an African slave girl.

Fleeing the villa, the two friends reach a desert. Ascilto placates a nymphomaniac’s demands in a covered wagon while Encolpio waits outside, listening to the woman’s servant discuss a hermaphrodite demi-god reputed to possess healing powers at the Temple of Ceres.

The men kidnap the hermaphrodite, hoping to obtain a ransom. Once exposed to the desert sun, however, the hermaphrodite dies of thirst. Enraged, the mercenary tries to murder his two companions, but he is killed.

Captured by soldiers, Encolpio is released in a labyrinth and forced to play Theseus to a gladiator’s Minotaur for the spectators at the festival of Momus, the God of Laughter. When the gladiator spares Encolpio’s life because of his well-spoken words, the festival rewards the young man with Ariadne, a sensual woman with whom he must copulate as the crowd looks on. Impotent, Encolpio is publicly humiliated by Ariadne.

Eumolpo offers to take him to the Garden of Delights where prostitutes can cure his impotence but the treatment – gentle whipping of the buttocks – fails. In the second of the stories within a story in the film, the owner of the Garden of Delights narrates the tale of Enotea to Encolpio. For having rejected his advances, a sorcerer curses a young woman: she must spend her days kindling fires for the village’s hearths from her genitalia.

Encolpio and Ascilto hire a boatman to take them to Enotea’s home. Greeted by an old woman who has him drink a potion, Encolpio falls under a spell where his sexual prowess is restored by Enotea in the form of an Earth Mother figure and sorceress. When Ascilto is murdered in a field by the boatman, Encolpio decides to join Eumolpo’s shipfor North Africa. But Eumolpo has died in the meantime, leaving as his heirs all those willing to eat his corpse.

In a voice-over, Encolpio explains that he set sail with the captain and his crew. His words end in mid-sentence, however, as a distant island appears on the horizon and the film cuts abruptly to frescoes of the characters on a crumbling wall.


Martin Potter as Encolpio

Hiram Keller as Ascilto

Max Born as Gitone

Salvo Randone as Eumolpo

Mario Romagnoli as Trimalcione

Magali Noël as Fortunata

Capucine as Trifena

Alain Cuny as Lichas

Fanfulla as Vernacchio

Donyale Luna as Enotea

Danika La Loggia as Scintilla

Gordon Mitchell as Robber

Lucia Bosè as Suicidal wife

Joseph Wheeler as Suicidal husband

Richard Simmons as Lyre Player (uncredited)


Oscar Nominations:

Best Director

Oscar Context

In 1970, the winner of the Best Director Oscar was Franklin J. Shaffner for the war drama, Patton, which also won Best Picture.  The other three nominees were Brit Ken Russell for “Women in Love,” Robert Altman for “M.A.S.H.,” and Arthur Hiller for “Love Story.”

Two of the Best picture nominees, the trashy “Airport” and the more innovative and brooding Jack Nicholson’s drama, “Five Easy Pieces,” did not garner Director nominations for their helmers, George Seaton and Bob Rafelson, respectively.