Fellini Week, Day 3: Satyricon

I was going to say we have a weird one for today's entry, but I suppose they're all weird ones in Fellini's ouevre, especially post-La Dolce Vita.  Still, I feel like this one stands out as unusual even in his catalog, perhaps because it's based on some very far removed source material, and so much of Fellini's material seems to come straight from his heart and experiences.  Our film today is 1969's Satyricon, based on the first century writings by Gaius Petronius of the same name.  or more accurately Fellini Satyricon.  That's because another Italian filmmaker, Gian Luigi Polidoro, was making a film of the Satyricon that same year.  So when you see posters for Fellini Satyricon, that's more than the standard trend of putting the auteur's name above the title.  In this case, it is the title, made in order to legally distinguish it from the other project that had already registered Satyricon (I guess Italian copyright handle works in the public domain a bit differently).
The other Satyricon often seems to get written off as a cheap knock-off, and indeed, even the briefest of looks at the two films will make obvious the inherent superiority of Fellini's vision: masterfully staged images full of dynamic costumes and locations.  But Polidoro's film is no mere cheeky sex comedy; it's a smart and well produced work, with strong performances and a shockingly catchy theme song.  It also seems to be substantially more faithful to Petronius's work.  Now, the original Satyricon as we have it is incomplete (not all chapters have survived the passage of time), and Fellini's film feels equally fragmented.  But there's no doubt that he took substantial liberties, for example the addition of a deadly centaur lurking in a maze.  Anyway, my point is that, despite UA famously buying this film just to sit on it and prevent it from being shown (to compete with their distribution of the Fellini film), the two are quite different, and have their own distinct qualities, that there's easily room enough for both.  But for now let's focus on the one we do have on home video.
I didn't like Satyricon the first time I saw it.  I was impressed right out of the gate by the imagery, but thought they would've been better off putting them into a coffee-table photography book than a motion picture.  The slow pace, the choppy story... if you're expecting an artsy Clash Of the Titans, you'll probably hate this.  But I have to say, in more recent versions, I've been able to latch onto the film's sense of humor, the drama of Encolpius's jealousy (another story element handled completely different in the Polidoro version) and seemingly immutable fate and even Fellini's desire to excavate his Roman history before it's too late.  The end of this film evokes the soon-to-be-filmed pulse-pounding race to film the fading frescoes in their last few seconds of beauty from the subway scene in Roma.  The novel's already incomplete, the walls are already crumbling, what last glimpses of bygone life and art can we grab a hold of before it vanishes?
MGM first put Satyricon out on DVD in 2001.  It was barebones, but otherwise a perfectly sufficient anamorphic widescreen presentation of the film.  Which is good, because over the next couple years, MGM issued the same disc in pretty much every other region around the world, and that's been it for Satyricon throughout the SD age.  But now we're in the HD era, and yes, in 2015, Criterion put out a special edition blu-ray.  And unlike the case of Amarcord, Criterion released their blu-ray after the film was restored in 4k, so yes, this is it.
2001 MGM DVD top; 2015 Criterion BD bottom.
If Criterion's blu doesn't look so much better, that's only because MGM's DVD looks surprisingly good for a 2001 DVD.  Non-interlaced, anamorphic, well defined colors... you can even see touches of the natural film grain.  Sure compression makes it a little clumpy, but for an old DVD, you can't ask for better.  Still, Criterion's BD is naturally superior on all fronts.  It corrects MGM's 2.31:1 aspect ratio into a proper a wider 2.37:1, which reveals not only more on the sides, but even a bit more along the top and bottom.  Colors are a little more naturalistic.  For example, check out the dude's orange robes in the first set of shots, where a broader palette allows his outfit to look less cartoonishly saturated.  Print damage, which was already light on the DVD, has been cleaned up as well.  Notice how the two white specks on the right side of the frame in the second set of shots have been cleared away.  And as good as the fine detail and grain looked on the MGM disc by DVD standards, it obviously looks sharper and clearer on the blu.  ...That said, though, the grain does look a little blocky and digital when you zoom in.  Most people probably won't notice anything in motion, but Criterion could've done a little better on the compression.

Interestingly, Criterion took some options away from the DVD.  MGM had both English and Italian mono with optional English, Spanish and French subtitles.  Now, I don't miss (and didn't expect to see them port over) the Spanish and French subtitles, but I'm surprised they dropped the English dub.  I can't imagine many people don't believe that the Italian track with English subtitles is the ideal way to watch the film, but since the English audio option exists, I wouldn't have expected Criterion to let that alternate option fall through the cracks.  If nothing else, the alternate dub is a minor historical artifact.  But oh well, not a huge deal.
So, as I mentioned earlier, the DVD was barebones.  It had the trailer, but that was it.  but Criterion's turned it into a proper special edition.  Even compared to some of their other Fellini packages, this one's a good 'un.  We start pout with an audio commentary by Fellini scholar Eileen Lanouette Hughes who has the rewarding advantage of having been on set during the filming of Satyricon, so we get more considerably more firsthand insight than we usually do from expert commentaries.  Then there's an hour-long documentary called Ciao, Federico!, which was filmed at the time of Satyricon and includes plenty of fascinating behind-the-scenes footage.  Then, there are a couple of vintage Fellini interviews, including an audio-only one that seems to have been recorded in or around the same session as the one on their Amarcord blu, and two very brief television appearances, including one with Gene Shalit.  Then, there are several new on-camera interviews, including one with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and one with photographer Mary Ellen Mark who took the on-set stills for Satyricon.  Another pair of interviews cross-edits between historian Luca Canali and Joanna Paul, who was a consultant on the original film, and it focuses primarily on the historical work Fellini's film is based on, and how the two compare and contrast.  There's also a photo gallery, the trailer and a booklet with notes by critic Michael Wood.
So admittedly, this still isn't a favorite Fellini for me.  But every decade or so, it does seem to rise in my estimation.  So in the unlikely event I live into, say, my 70s, this could end up taking the #1 spot.  But if you're not there yet either, or even where I am now with this film - heck, even if you share my initial negative first impressions - Fellini Satyricon is a film that you should definitely see at least once.  And Criterion's blu is an excellent, highly recommended, way to do that.  Now, maybe they'll work on getting us Polidoro's Satyricon in 4k.

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