300 and Fellini-Satyricon: Film Theory in the Tertiary Classroom
The University of Newcastle
Newscastle, Callaghan, Australia
Pedagogical practices in Reception-based courses on ancient Greece and Rome in film often focus on an individual film’s connections to its historical themes and meta-narrative. In contrast, courses based on Film Studies often focus pedagogical discourses on filmic techniques or the filmmaking process per se. Regularly, the two approaches remain discrete and discipline-based.
In view of this disjuncture in teaching approaches and foci, the intention of this paper is to explore the benefits of film theory, including its consideration of film technique, within Classical Reception courses. Therefore, the suggestion offered herein is that more emphasis on the pedagogies of Film Studies would provide an enhanced or richer understanding of cinematic interpretations and possibilities for the student of Classical Reception and film.
To illustrate this pedagogical suggestion, a discussion of mainstream, Hollywood-style cinema as depicted by Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007), in contrast to the independent auteur-driven film, Federico Fellini’s Fellini-Satyricon (1969), is the focus. These two films provide the tertiary instructor with a variety of theoretical and technical considerations that are important learning components in a course on ancient Greece and Rome in film. Not only do the films enable the instructor to discuss concepts such as the auteur but also to introduce students to topics such as art-house and Hollywood studio filmmaking, which further introduces subjects such as “high” art versus popular culture.
Additionally, focusing on two different styles of filmmaking and including an acknowledgment of each filmmaker’s objectives enables the tertiary instructor to explore other fields of inquiry that cover broader cultural issues such as class, race, gender, and sexuality. This, in turn, allows for a more informed interaction on specific cultural themes between the ancient and modern worlds as interpreted by the filmmakers.
Films based in ancient Greece and Rome may be generally divided into two categories: popular entertainment such as William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959), Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), and art-house films, such as Jean Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (Contempt) (1953) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969). In Classical Reception courses, both concepts of filmmaking are usually treated but are often discussed in relation to subject matter only and their connections and disconnections to antiquity. Therefore, as a means of considering the inclusion of both styles in the classroom and as a way of underlining the importance of film theory for students, a discussion of Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007) and Federico Fellini’s Fellini–Satyricon (1969) forms the basis of this article.
This approach introduces two main benefits: firstly, teaching these films opens dialogue on the role of the auteur, which is one of the most debatable issues in film and media studies, with the generally accepted view that a film should not be attributed to one person but is a collaborative effort. Additionally, these two films demonstrate to students the validity of both mainstream cinema and auteur-based or art-house films, leading to discussions of the ways in which a filmmaker’s input should be evaluated on an individual basis.
While Snyder’s 300 objectively replicates the graphic novel on which it is based to meet popular and commercial expectations, Fellini-Satyricon, as a film that is indelibly stamped with Fellini’s name, is the result of Fellini’s unique interpretationof the ancient Roman world and does not meet the expectations of the commercial, Hollywood market. Despite the differences in production and, ultimately, product, both films offer exciting and artistic readings of ancient Greece and Rome and are equally valuable contributors to tertiary courses.
Additionally, acknowledging Snyder and Fellini’s disparate modes of filmmaking opens broader cultural themes within each film’s narrative, including class, race, gender, and sexuality. This permits a more thorough understanding of each filmmaker’s interpretation of the ancient world and the ways their incorporation of different themes connect with modern concerns, which is a key component of Classical Reception Studies.
II. Pedagogical and Scholarly Approaches to Ancient Greece and Rome in Film
Present teaching focuses on the historical film’s interpretation from social, cultural, mythic, and factual bases but little emphasis is placed upon the diversity of its cinematic genres that, for instance, can include mainstream, Hollywood-style cinema, art-house, and even theatrical re-enactments. To exemplify this wide range, in his early study of Greek tragedy into film, Kenneth MacKinnon classified this ancient theatrical field into four cinematic categories: “theatrical, realistic and filmic modes, and meta-tragedy” (19; 30). This shows that even within one historically-based dramatic or literary field, cinematic interpretations can vary greatly and are reflections of different styles in filmmaking. The effect of these varying techniques is often quite different filmic readings of one ancient source, illustrated by two films based on Euripides’ Medea: Pasolini’s Medea and Jules Dassin’s A Dream of Passion (1978). Both are mainly derived from the ancient tragedy of Euripides’ Medea, yet whereas Pasolini’s film falls within the art-house category, Dassin’s Passion is a modern re-interpretation that is indicative of cinema’s mainstream formula, highlighting the cinematic variations that can be adopted based on the same subject matter.
Classroom discussions of cinematic interpretations of antiquity also need to extend to a consideration of the objectives of filmmakers per se, including the topic of the auteur (discussed below). Filmmakers’ aims include molding a film to suit individually-perceived notions of historical models, which is qualified by the statement of Ridley Scott, the director of Gladiator: “We needed to revisit this world without it being a history lesson and to interpret these historical figures in a way that made sense to audiences today. Filmmaking 40 years ago tended to treat these subjects with a theatricality that wouldn’t be appropriate now” (Landau 8). In light of Scott’s comments, the director’s role and its influence on the production of a film are important interpretive considerations.
Combined, the issues discussed above advocate for a consideration of filmic principles when teaching ancient Greece and Rome in film. By acknowledging styles, production considerations, and directorial intentionality, an instructor is able to provide students with a solid foundation to differentiate between various cinematic genres and filmmaking techniques. This then extends to the benefits of providing students with important cinematic terminology.
The issues raised so far are important in view of the scholarly texts available to students enrolled in such courses, some of which uphold the view that a film is the product of a collaborative process. For instance, in Classics on Screen: Ancient Greece and Rome on Film, Alastair Blanshard and Kim Shahabudin state: “One should be wary of the fallacy of ‘auteurism,’ the tendency to attribute every aspect back to the director” (9). Additionally, in the innovative and highly influential Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History, Maria Wyke asserts that a film’s production crew act as a microcosm of society, thereby injecting their socio-historical voice into the meta-narrative of the film (24). Both texts, therefore, question the reality of the auteur and, in order for students to interact with these scholarly positions, indeed to question them, they should ideally be aware of alternative arguments as well as theoretical perspectives with which to engage with such texts.
In fact, a formulation of authorship in film is re-emerging in new interpretive approaches that take into consideration the filmmaker’s historical and cultural backgrounds in relation to the film under consideration (Ford 104), a development which parallels an approach in historicism (Villarejo 58). This perspective introduces individuality to the study of film that is similarly espoused by the film and media academic, Paul Watson, who seeks a pragmatic concept of cinematic authorship (155-157). Watson states “more precisely, that the approach one employs should be determined on a case-by-case basis in relation to the specifics of the research question” (156). To clarify his case further, Watson explains “I use it here, however, to suggest a model of analysis which stops asking the question ‘Do authors exist?’ and starts from such questions as ‘Is it useful to study this or that film as if it were the product of a creative agency?’, or ‘Might it be useful to study this or that person as if they were an author?’’’ (156).
Adopting this individual and logical approach in Classical Reception Studies creates the foundation for a more informed methodological process that sets the distinction between a mainstream or auteur-inspired film; allows for specific sub-genre classifications such as epic, fantasy, or art-house; and, in turn, takes into consideration the manner in which any of these aspects feed into the film’s narratives. This approach naturally melds with filmmaking as a fluid process. Filmmakers are inspired and influenced not just by the stories they tell but also by popular themes and technological advances, such as Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) or 3D special effects. Nor are they bound to the tenets of one particular genre or filmmaking principle, which can result in blurring the lines between, for instance, mass audience appeal and art house. Filmmaking is a constantly changing creative process and, as such, studies in Classical Reception need to recognize and adapt, where appropriate, to its changing edicts.
To clarify some of the advantages of an individual approach towards filmmaking, a brief exploration of Snyder’s 300 followed by Fellini’s Fellini-Satyricon which, on the surface, are two seemingly disparate films, will provide a basic model for further consideration in this developing academic field.
III. Snyder – The Comic Book and the Blockbuster
The plot of Snyder’s 300, involving an elite group of Spartans who, led by King Leonidas, faces King Xerxes’ Persian army in the narrow pass at Thermopylae in 480 BCE for the protection of all Greece, is a loose translation of historical accounts. Yet its actual origins as a comic book series and later graphic novel by Frank Miller positions 300 within several sub-genres: literary, historical, epic, and fantasy.
As a young boy, Miller was inspired by the story of the battle at Thermopylae after watching Rudolph Maté’s The 300 Spartans (1962), a story that remained with him until its recreation as a work of both history and fiction in his comic book series. This fictional aspect can be seen, for instance, in 300’s emphasis on larger-than-life characters (almost supernatural in their representation), extreme dramatic overtures, and a specific focus on strong, powerful messages such as honor, duty, and glory, which are features of the comic book genre and are particularly reminiscent of American political or military rhetoric. These multi-faceted layers of 300’s historical and literary conception along with its modern American sub-textual ideologies highlight its ability to appeal to a wide audience. However, 300’s most significant attraction, as exemplified by Miller’s boyhood memories, is its inspiring storyline that is based on actual events. The spectator can connect with this film, at its basic historical level, as an example of human courage and honor. Regardless of the comic book’s supernatural elements, which are then transformed into Snyder’s cinematic interpretation, the three hundred Spartans are a group of extra-ordinary men facing the might of the Persian army.
Nevertheless, the comic book’s sub-textual nuances regarding modern American beliefs are noticeable and, suggestively, deliberate. Miller’s outspoken political views are, at the very least, patriotic and the comic book’s release in 1998 occurred shortly after tensions between the United States and Iran, formerly Persia, had eased. This significant factor cannot be overlooked when considering the film’s release in 2007. On September 11th, 2001, two planes flown by Islamic extremists from the terrorist group Al Qaeda flew into the World Trade Center in New York, killing thousands. The shock, anger, and worldwide reverberations of the attacks, known as 9/11, continue to the present day and are a reflection on the timing of 300’s cinematic release, occurring after the initial alarm had subsided but still remained vivid in people’s memories. In response to 9/11, Miller stated “Patriotism, I now believe, isn’t some sentimental, old conceit. It’s self preservation” (“That Old Piece of Cloth”). This theme is evident in 300’s basic storyline, yet, regardless of Snyder’s consistent disclaimer that he did not make the film as a comment on current tensions (a view that was also supported by Warner Bros.), Miller’s overt views and influence cannot be ignored.
This may seem an irrelevant factor when considering the differences between mainstream cinema and the role of the auteur; however, the popularity of Miller’s comic books such as Sin City and Batman: The Dark Knight and Dark Knight Returns, which were later made into high-grossing films, coupled with his own forays into filmmaking including The Spirit (2008) and scripts for RoboCop2 and RoboCop3, exemplify his influence in popular culture, a culture that often thrives on the cult of the celebrity and filmmaking industry. Miller’s popularity and influence in an emerging billion-dollar filmmaking sub-culture that focuses on bringing the influence of comic book genre to the screen would almost certainly have piqued Snyder’s interest.
As a filmmaker who had previously made a remake of the comic-based Dawn of the Dead (2004) and was a “self-professed fan of Frank Miller” (DiLullo 7), Snyder’s aim of “faithfully translating Miller’s singular, bloody depictions of war exactly from the page to the screen” (DiLullo 7) reflects his admiration for Miller and confidence in 300’s storyline and high-grossing potential. Consequently, 300’s reach into several sub-genres, the popularity of Miller, and an inspiring storyline suggested its potentiality for mass-market appeal.
An exciting story and commercial popularity are common features of mainstream, classical Hollywood cinema, but a distinction needs to be made between this and the studio system already in place. Unlike the former studio system that operated from approximately 1920 until circa 1950 that, under the control of the major Hollywood studios such as MGM and Warner Bros., oversaw all facets of a film’s production, distribution, and exhibition (Nelmes 499), mainstream, current classical Hollywood cinema offers a more flexible approach. As the name implies, mainstream cinema involves a feature-length movie with a linear narrative that is aimed at the mass market as a potentially high-grossing form of entertainment. This means that this style of film is not restricted to Hollywood but all films that pertain to this model. Thus, to be more specific, the additional designation of a classical Hollywood style defines the linear narrative further to include cause and effect, continuity editing, a mise-en-scène (the composition of a shot, including everything that appears before the camera) that alludes to a sense of cinematic realism, the inclusion of cultural stereotypes that plausibly meet social or genre criteria, and a main protagonist(s) who has clear-cut goals and problems (Villarejo 153). This overall emphasis on almost invisible production methods to make the visual perspective of the film, its plot, and its characters seem as if they are real and to specifically meet social and cultural expectations defines the narrative and cinematic approach adopted for 300. To understand the manner in which some of these descriptions operate within film, let us briefly consider the actual differences between Miller’s novel and 300’s cinematic interpretation operate within film, let us briefly consider the actual differences between Miller’s novel and 300’s cinematic interpretation.
One of the clearest examples of the differences between Miller’s novel and Snyder’s interpretation is the film’s seamless mise-en-scène that offers no comparison with comic book frames. Any attempt to replicate the comic book on this level would offer a disjointed narrative and a complete lack of realism; however, Snyder’s familiar use of slow motion techniques, such as in the fight scenes between the Greeks and Persians, accentuates the brutality of war and pays homage to the individual frames of Miller’s work, which are not evenly divided but vary in size to emphasize certain significant events. The closeness in their visual appearance with Miller’s novel illuminates his artistry and beauty of the Spartan’s physiques during battle, while the overall effect intensifies the action, encouraging viewer interest and excitement.
Nevertheless, although Snyder does replicate Miller’s novel by closely adhering to the main characters, visual impact, and thread of the story – in fact, many images and script lines can directly be cross-referenced to the novel – Miller incorporated historically-based, social and cultural depictions of the Spartans that may have not been palatable for contemporary audiences. For example, in his 300 a frame depicts the Spartans combing their hair and grooming themselves before battle (ch. “Honor”; cf. Herodotus 7.208), an instance which was omitted by Snyder. Similarly, Snyder added scenes, which do not detract from the original novel’s intent, but rather act as embellishments to emphasize specific elements or add to the film’s emotional drama. For instance, the additional scene featuring the “Tree of the Dead” depicts a lifeless tree in a scorched landscape covered with the naked, dead bodies of citizens from a village. An orphaned, dying child nearby confirms that the destruction of the village is a direct result of the Persian invasion. The gruesome effect of the “Tree of the Dead,” although shocking, adds a spectacular element to the film, which draws on its comic book origins and simultaneously emphasizes Persia’s evil exactitude (the emphasis on Persian malevolence most likely the motivation behind its inclusion), resulting in visually and narratively re-affirming the importance of the Spartans’ mission.
The Persians’ razing of the village and the lone, orphaned child are also symbolic indicators of the susceptibility of Sparta and, consequently, the destruction of the family unit. Snyder places more emphasis on familial ties than Miller. This emphasis can be seen in the bond between the Spartan’s captain and his son and, more significantly, in the close family relationship between Leonidas, Gorgo, and their son, Pleistarchus. Thus the film illustrates the effects of war on families, which is a theme that would have resonated with many Americans affected by tensions between the United States and the Middle East. This is offset by Snyder’s extension of Gorgo’s role, which takes her from her previously limited role as Leonidas’ devoted wife to a woman who faces the Spartan Council to rally support for her husband, which reflects the woman’s voice speaking out and being heard in a masculine society. Gorgo’s extended role also adds a strong female element to an otherwise masculine-based story that may have alienated female viewers. Yet like Sparta and the family unit, Gorgo is also vulnerable.
Thus, as an additional sub-plot, Gorgo’s exceptional beauty and delicate body are also forms of physical weakness susceptible to attack. Her deal with the councillor Theron ultimately leads to her rape, yet like her husband, the hero Leonidas, Gorgo emerges as the principle hero(ine) by gaining support from the council and vengefully revealing Theron as a traitor. Theron’s death at Gorgo’s hands, which mimics the violence associated with her rape, inspires the film’s continuing sense of honor, courage, and moral righteousness that similarly echoes the Spartans’ deeds in battle. By adopting these additional descriptive devices within the film’s narrative, Snyder emphasizes the two sides of war: the glory of battle and the vulnerability (and strength) of those left behind.
Additionally, the film’s physical embodiment of Miller’s comic book heroes and villains meets mass social and cultural expectations that associate the heroes with beauty and the villains as ugly. Consequently, the three hundred Spartans’ physiques are lean, muscular, and attractive, which are attributes that generally find their inspiration in historical accounts of the Spartans’ strict diet and training regimes. Their trunks and red capes mimic familiar comic book superheroes like Superman, and with strong morals, courage, and strength, they offer extreme versions of perfect warriors and all-round good guys. Xerxes’ beauty and statuesque presence similarly reflect his comic book heritage and, as the Spartans’ arch enemy, he must be a worthy, if not, superior opponent. His appearance, which (historically) symbolizes every extravagance the Spartans opposed, means that for them he is repulsive. This can be sensed in the hero Leonidas’ barely concealed aversion and disrespect to Xerxes and his demands.
In contrast, the irreversibly disfigured characters, who are mainly of Spartan origin, such as Ephialtes and the ephors, are revealed as traitorous or incompatible with the Spartan cause (with the exception of Theron), and are alienated from society. Their disfigurement is offset by examples from Xerxes’ super-sized army, such as the massive rhinoceros and elephants, the man with saws for arms, and the chained giant with sharpened teeth and characteristics of a rabid dog. Their inclusion in Snyder’s film connects with its larger-than-life comic book origins and emphasizes the Spartans’ heroic ability to counter these monstrous creatures with their human skill and fighting tactics. Of particular note, however, is an additional scene that features Xerxes’ “harem” in his sumptuously furnished tent. The depraved nature of these depictions is not about the fantastical, but instead suggests the brutality and immorality of Xerxes’ reign. For instance, many of the women appear to have been deliberately disfigured either through amputation or scalding and are overtly sexually immoral and licentious. This treatment of the female form is a depiction that reflects their close association with evil and results in destroying the beautiful and manufactured image of Xerxes.
As a film based on Miller’s comic book series, then, Snyder’s 300 pays deference to the medium in several ways: the use of Miller’s loose interpretation of real events; the semi-historical and semi-comic book characters; and the visual imagery and aesthetics (particularly its mise-en-scéne). Additionally, the majority of the film was shot in a studio with a vast production crew and a special effects team going to great lengths to achieve the visual imagery of Miller’s 300, imagery that fits the perceived quintessential model of ancient Greece. Snyder’s adaptation does reflect some variations of mainstream, classical Hollywood-style cinema but, instead of stepping outside the confines of these cinematic definitions, they re-affirm the film as a form of popular, commercial entertainment. Snyder’s approach encourages identification with ancient Greece and the story of 300 from a mass-market contemporary perspective that can be appreciated from his use of popular, cultural signifiers such as good versus evil, emotional bonds, family values, the hero, and slow motion techniques, all of which acknowledge Western society’s recognition of cultural stereotypes and expectation for the spectacular visual imagery of ancient battle. In this sense, Snyder’s 300 is formulaic in its conception and represents a mainstream, classical Hollywood-style film.
IV. Fellini-Satyricon – the Auteur and Art-house Cinema
Since its inception in 1954 the idea of the auteur or auteur theory has provoked controversial responses from film critics. The concept and term were the result of the French film critic François Truffaut’s essay “Une Certaine tendence du cinema française” (“A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema”), which was published in the French film journal Cahiers du cinema. Therein Truffaut criticized some of the most admired French directors and scriptwriters of the day for being too reliant on literature rather than art, thereby heralding the auteur’s role in cinema. Truffaut advocated the need for a film’s director to creatively override any other person involved in the film’s production; in other words, he believed a film should represent a personal form of cinematic expression. Juan Carlos A. González, a contributor to the film journal Senses of Cinema, explains Truffaut’s doctrine: “As a critic, it would permit the development of his theory of authorship, the ‘politique des auteurs,’ a concept that distinguished the profound knowledge of the film director and put forth an undefeatable defence of his style – manifested through mise en scène – and his conception of cinema, unconcerned if some of his films did not reach an expected quality” (ch. “Using Film Criticism Like a Sword”).
Truffaut’s espousal of the role of the auteur in film was later popularized by the American film critic Andrew Sarris in his essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Sarris acknowledges that there is no definition of the auteur theory in the English language (561): “In fact, the auteur theory itself is a pattern theory in constant flux” (563). He does attempt, however, to provide a series of loose parameters for the role of the auteur in film: “The three premises of the auteur theory may be visualized as three concentric circles: the outer circle as technique; the middle circle, personal style; and the inner circle, interior meaning. The corresponding roles of the director may be designated as those of a technician, a stylist, and an auteur” (563). Thus, taking these accounts into consideration, auteur theory is broadly indicative of the individual style of the director, permeating the mise-en-scéne of a film with his or her own indelible mark or signature and is a continuous creative process with no definable technique or structure.
Nevertheless, one of the first outspoken opponents against the auteur theory was the American film critic Pauline Kael, whose article “Circles and Squares” lambasted Sarris’ defining principles, questioning their theoretical place within filmmaking (12-26). Kael heralded an increasing trend away from the role of the auteur that has continued through to the present day. However, there is no alternative theory that acknowledges a director who does not adhere to filmmaking practices such as mainstream, classical Hollywood cinema. Thus, while art-house or avant garde cinema are recognized as original and unique, the director, who is often the inspiration behind such films, is grouped within a collaborative process. This is not to deny the role of a production team, as Fellini acknowledges:
I am now up against the production people, trying to salvage something that belongs to me and no longer to the film. The film, now, has changed into a financial operation which the production people defend tooth and nail; and the film itself gives up the struggle. I am on this side, defending the origins from which I have seen it born, with all the imprecision and oddity that obviously governed it. I have my own algebra. Hence grudges, rage, flight, illness, all of which must be endured. (162)
Fellini’s words exemplify his self-determination to retain the film as he envisioned it, accentuating his singular and exacting influence against current trends. He has also admitted: “No producer has ever controlled my work and I have always done what I wanted” (109). This individual, dominant, and creative force substantiates Fellini’s role as an auteur. He has no desire to reach the expectations of a mass audience; rather, his aim is to achieve his vision of the film without any preconceived cinematic formula.
Fellini’s Fellini-Satyricon is a film based on the extant fragments of the ancient Roman novel the Satyricon by Petronius. The latter, written sometime during the reign of Nero, focuses on Encolpio who, after offending the fertility god Priapus, is rendered impotent and is thereby in need of regaining his virility. There is much scholarly debate on the placement of the remaining fragments, whether it was written during Nero’s reign (prior to AD 69) or later, the approximate length of the finished work, and even whether it was written by Petronius Arbiter – Nero’s arbiter elegentiae (director of elegance) – or another unknown Petronius, accentuating its uncertainties and showing that in its current form the novel itself is an interpretation of what may have been. Thus, the Satyricon’s disparate episodes and narrative structure show a remarkable similarity with the sequence of frames and text of a comic book, which results in forming a common ground between these two seemingly different films currently under analysis. There is the argument that a comic book series is hardly at the same level as the perceived literary “high-status” that is afforded to Petronius’ Satyricon, yet the gaps that were prevalent in its remains are what intrigued and inspired the former cartoonist (caricature artist) Fellini.
Fellini’s inspiration automatically highlights the different approaches of these two filmmakers. Snyder’s main objective was to replicate Miller’s work, but with adaptations that either enhanced or softened elements in the film’s story. Although Fellini rarely adapted literary texts into film because he believed it restricted an auteur’s artistic expression (Bondanella 229-230), the gaps prevalent in Petronius’ story allowed Fellini the artistic freedom he sought in filmmaking. Additionally, while Snyder’s decision to adapt Miller’s 300 was based on its mass market potential, the Satyricon as an ancient and fragmentary text with an uncertain and complicated story offered limited popular appeal. There is no evidence to suggest this latter aspect concerned Fellini; rather, his approach challenged preconceived notions of ancient Rome, which meant that he stepped outside the confines of popular understanding and academic interpretations of ancient Roman society. In fact, Fellini wanted “to achieve a portrait of the Roman world that goes beyond the false information in history books, [to] what remains of the Rome of emperors now” (Kezich 290).
To achieve his objective, Fellini never loses the thread of Encolpio’s loss of virility, but nor does he necessarily attempt to replicate Petronius’ ancient text. In other words, Fellini encapsulates the Satyricon as his film’s main storyline and then acknowledges its disconnected or partial nature by injecting his own subjective, interpretative mark within the film’s narrative. Fellini explains his creative process for Fellini-Satyricon:
[The] sparse fragments, in large part repressed and forgotten, [are] made whole by what might be called a dream. Not by a historical epic reconstructed philologically from documents and positively verified but by a great dream galaxy sunken in the darkness and now rising up to us amid glowing bursts of light. I think I was seduced by the possibility of reconstructing this dream with its puzzling transparency, its unreadable clarity. (Bondanella 240)
Fellini’s fascination and consistent exploration of dreams within his filmic oeuvre indelibly mark them with his own personal vision(s). They are unique.
Thus, just as the novel is fragmentary, this same sense of disjointedness occurs in Fellini’s film but with new scenes and characters emerging without any initial sense of overall context or meaning. The film’s progressive element is then obscured by its comparable fragmentary nature (cf. Bondanella 243), which Fellini has similarly “re-jumbled” to achieve some form of linear intent. The effect, however, is a sense of de-familiarization, which is enhanced by his incorporation of non-natural colours, disembodied voices, and an oddly contrasting musical score that is mainly comprised of “folkloristic music from Japan, Africa, Afghanistan, Tibet and Hungarian Gypsies, in addition to twelve-tone classical compositions and other unidentified pieces” (Kezich 293-294). Their purpose, combined with a narrative that acknowledges and distances itself from the original text, is reminiscent of a dreamlike state and substantiates his aim to move away from preconceived notions of ancient Rome.
This disengagement is also seen in Fellini’s rejection of familiar, stereotypical cinematic portrayals of ancient Rome that feature wide promenades and stately, luxurious marble-columned palaces and temples with gold adornments and rich, luscious furnishings. Most of the citizens are shown attired in (aristocratic) togas and there is emphasis on emperors and their consorts, senators and generals, the military, battles, and grand triumphal marches. These familiar portrayals are usually the result of a film’s subject matter, which invariably concentrates on key historical figures and events that are of interest to a wide audience and, like 300, offer an inspiring or thematically didactic story, such as the strong Christian element in Henry Koster’s The Robe (1953). In contrast, Fellini opens the film in Rome, a location that is not featured in Petronius’ Satyricon, focusing on its lower-class domestic quarter, the Subura (cf. Theodorakopoulos 122-127). This means cinema’s stereotypical grandness of Rome is replaced with narrow streets and deconstructed buildings with exposed staircases and missing walls, which are enhanced by the narrow angles of Fellini’s camerawork, reducing the more familiar largesse of Rome to a minimal perspective that redefines its landscape back to the common man. Nor does Fellini typically depict Rome during the day, but instead, at night. Consequently, there is a focus on strange people and events, such as the bust of an Emperor stealthily being moved through the streets, or a theater scene that defies and yet still retains the elements of, suggestively, a comedy by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE).
The lower-class quarters reflect Encolpio’s status within society. His loss of virility alone may have been a disconcerting subject for a contemporary audience, contrasting with Snyder’s deliberate efforts to avoid scenes that may have alienated the spectator. This is coupled with Fellini-Satyricon’s transparent displays of homosexuality and bisexuality between the main characters Encolpio, Ascilto, and their young boyfriend Giton, who flits in and out of the film’s narrative (symbolic of its fragmentary nature). These young men are specimens of male beauty yet, unlike the Spartans’ moral and courageous codes that are then embodied in their attractiveness and strong physiques, these men are marred by their capricious and selfish natures. This aspect has nothing in common with the stereotypical imagery that, as in Snyder’s 300, associates the good with beauty and the bad with ugliness; rather, by approaching their characters in this manner, Fellini challenges this general expectation. In contrast, the women are mostly unattractive, often clothed in outrageous, extravagant attire that bears no resemblance to extant images and descriptions from antiquity; rather, they could be likened to caricatures. Their garish makeup, unusually coiffed hair, almost inhuman voices, and strange, physical quirks result in an overall disengagement with their humanity. In fact, none of the people in Fellini’s film are portrayed as likeable or offer admirable traits.
Although these physical characteristics are a strong feature of Fellini’s film, it must be acknowledged that some of their inspiration is derived from Petronius’ novel, such as the eccentric and spectacular narrative on Trimalchio’s feast. But the film’s emphasis on spectacle also finds its origins in Fellini’s former career as a cartoonist or caricature artist, as reflected in the film’s depiction of the prostitutes in the brothel at the Subura. This scene has a distinct cartoon element that is enhanced by Fellini’s camerawork which, as it pans past each wall of a “room” that contains a prostitute, gives the stylized impression of the frames of a comic book. Similarly, the prostitutes are often seen in unexpected stances and attire (or lack thereof) that emphasize their incongruous physicality, as if they were part of a circus sideshow. This latter perspective is illuminated by the crowds of people walking between the lens of the camera and the open fascia of each “room”; at times, a prostitute looks directly at the camera – the audience – attempting to attract attention to her body and the show. The insertion of these episodic cartoon effects indirectly and unexpectedly find their connection with Snyder’s 300.
Nevertheless, both films’ treatment of the female as a form of objectification, sexuality, and spectacle should be considered within the context of the respective films. Thus, Snyder’s 300, with its disfigured imagery of women enclosed away from main society, positions them into something that is “Other.” In contrast, Fellini’s interpretation concentrates on the women’s natural bodies, which are not hidden from view but openly displayed to encourage spectatorship, and forms the backdrop of ancient Roman life, an aspect that is rarely acknowledged in films based in ancient Greece and Rome.
Fellini’s film is not reliant on a sub-plot that involves a female lead; instead, women, like the prostitutes at the Subura, often form a backdrop. Nor do physical appearances distinguish between good and evil; rather, any attempt to assess Fellini’s characters’ personality traits based on their appearance often leads to an ambiguous reading. This ambiguity is similarly reflected in Encolpio’s search to regain his virility; he is neither hero nor anti-hero, nor does his role as the film’s protagonist influence the progression of the story. Instead, Encolpio’s “appearance” in some of his new encounters shows him confused and dishevelled, as he attempts to evaluate the position he unexpectedly must confront. His bewilderment is echoed by the lack of closure in many scenes and supported by the film’s obfuscation of its narrative linearity.
Alternatively, Encolpio’s disorientation meta-narratively symbolizes the confusion regarding the Satyricon’s historical uncertainties and current form, illuminating Fellini’s recognition of the “gap” between the ancient Encolpio and Fellini’s re-interpretation of him as the bewildered protagonist. These gaps, which were the main inspiration for Fellini, also provided him with the opportunity to insert additional scenes into the film’s narrative, thus deconstructing or destabilizing stereotypical or familiar themes prevalent in films based in ancient Rome. For instance, the additional scene featuring an albino hermaphrodite introduces a different consideration of mystical or Christian themes. This highly unusual being is imbued with a mystical, life-sustaining, or rehabilitative persona that inspires the sick, infirm, or simply curious to witness its magical healing powers, which is achieved by the sprinkling of water onto their ailing bodies and is reminiscent of baptismal or Christian healing services. The being’s uniqueness is then exploited and eventually destroyed by man’s selfishness, as seen by Ascilto and Encolpio’s decision to steal it for the purposes of a ransom. Their lack of respect or forethought becomes evident as they transport the albino across a dry, desert landscape without a sufficient supply of water, resulting in its eventual death.
Similarly, Fellini’s additional interpretation of the Roman arena subverts its familiar, grandiose style into a primitive spectacle. Encolpio, who has been captured by soldiers, is thrust into an encounter with a gladiator dressed as a Minotaur, which is a crude re-enactment of the Ariadne and Theseus myth. His fear, confusion, and desperate attempts to ward off the Minotaur as he flees through the stony maze of a makeshift labyrinth culminates when he capitulates and begs for mercy. This is granted and his “reward” is to copulate with a woman in the role of Ariadne but, without his libido, he is humiliated in front of the spectators who watch from the heights of a rocky cliff. Apart from the film’s reinforcement of Encolpio’s fear and lack of heroic valor, the Roman arena is reduced to a basic rusticity and farcical nature that re-asserts its influence as not necessarily violent but instead as a demoralizing game.
In summary, these additional scenes acknowledge and then disengage from familiar models of ancient Rome. Their episodic nature connects with Petronius’ Satyricon yet, as unique forms of expression, also act as de-familiarization techniques that posit their creation back to Fellini. Similarly, their unusual content is reminiscent of a dreamlike state, a factor that is unique to Fellini, encapsulating the singular, creative expression of the auteur. As such, Fellini’s film is the antithesis of familiar, cinematic models of ancient Rome. Fellini-Satyricon’s descriptive devices such as strange music, disembodied voices, unnatural colors, and a script that offers a linear but obfuscated interpretation of Petronius’ fragmented story accentuates its disconnected nature, in effect, alienating the spectator visually, narratively, and aesthetically. There are no distinctive heroes and heroines, good versus evil, or famous, historical figures; rather, as it pertains to the Satyricon, the film is about the common man’s quest to find his virility.
Current pedagogical practices in Classical Reception courses based on ancient Greece and Rome in film tend to concentrate on each film’s connections to its historical themes and meta-narrative without a consideration of current trends in film theories that may add further meaning and a deeper understanding of the ways these films connect with contemporary society. By focusing on two different techniques of filmmaking, which include an example of mainstream, Hollywood style cinema as represented by Snyder’s 300, in contrast to Fellini’s independent, auteur-driven film Fellini-Satyricon, this paper has shown the benefits of incorporating Film Studies into the tertiary classroom for Classical Reception. Not only does this approach expose the objectives and technicalities of filmmaking, it also introduces broader cultural issues in each film’s narrative including class, race, gender, and sexuality.
Thus, Snyder’s aim to closely replicate Miller’s 300 was based on its inspiring storyline and potential mass-market appeal. His decision to omit or add new elements to the story may have been made from a creative perspective but, in this respect, the purpose behind these changes needs to be considered, which was to soften or enhance certain aspects from the original story to make it more palatable for a contemporary audience rather than offer a unique reading. His film’s overall objective was to meet specific criteria of the mainstream, classical Hollywood-style model in order to meet mass cultural and social expectations. This is in contrast to Fellini’s re-imagining of Petronius’ Satyricon, which embraces the gaps (or spaces) in the missing fragments as inspiration for a re-working of its linear structure, character portrayal, and additional scenes. There was no desire to meet cinematic stereotypical images of ancient Rome; rather, Fellini saturates his film with his unique dreamlike visions, ensuring that he consistently distanced the film from its familiar social, literary, and historical bases to an interpretation that defied current modes of thought towards the novel and ancient Rome. For all of Fellini’s visionary stamp – even name – on Fellini-Satyricon, it would be naïve to assume that it did not involve technical assistants, financiers, production crew, and so forth. The argument for the auteur is the manner in which literature is transformed into a personal art form with the director’s original, indelible mark.
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Leanne Glass is a PhD candidate at The University of Newcastle finalizing her dissertation in Classical Reception Studies. Her research examines the influence of the auteur in re-imaginings of the ancient Greek world on film and its ties with themes of nationhood. She has lectured in Greek and Roman epic and the ancient world on film and, with her interest in literature and its cinematic interpretation, is an advocate for innovative pedagogies in the classroom.
Glass, Leanne. “300 and Fellini-Satyricon: Film Theory in the Tertiary Classroom.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 1.1 (2014). Web.