“Although these two films seem largely connected through their breathtakingly bold homoeroticism, they also share a fascination with ancient times, and the absurdity of trying to bring that age to life on the big screen. Taking the barest of historical suggestions, they construct ravishing, complete worlds that also go to great lengths to undermine their own credibility. This self-destructive impulse somehow frees the filmmakers to create fantastical, poetic conceptualizations of life, love and sacrifice that have yet to be equaled.” ““ Noah Cowan
For the final entry in its fantastic Fellini/Felliniesque: “Dream” Double Bills program, TIFF Bell Lightbox brought viewers back to ancient times with its August 26th screening of Federico Fellini’s Fellini Satyricon (1969) and Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976). Chosen by TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Artistic Director Noah Cowan, this pair of films offers two splendid visions that quite effectively highlight their makers’ distinct sensibilities.
Following two students, Encolpius (Martin Potter) and Ascyltus (Hiram Keller), through first century Rome and beyond, Fellini Satyricon presents their various adventures in an episodic manner. In depicting the world and events of Petronius’ original book Satyricon , Fellini truly goes all out in immersing his audience in a vibrant, grand and strange tour of wonders and sensations. That tour also largely consists of the director’s own obsessions ““ carnal impulses, bawdy and scatological humor, a veritable menagerie of grotesque faces and bodies. Not for nothing did Fellini attach his own name to the film’s title, nor do the opening titles bill it as “a free adaptation” of Petronius’ source work. Some may be wholly entertained by the spectacle of adventure and decadence being shown onscreen, but this is just as much an intensely crafted auteurist statement as it is a freestanding escapist epic, if not more so ““ to the point that you can almost see Fellini’s signature in the corner of every one of the film’s grand sets.
While set in the same era, Jarman’s Sebastiane (co-directed by Paul Humfress) differs quite substantially from Fellini’s assortment of feasts, battles, ceremonies and sexual escapades. Aside from the remarkably Felliniesque opening sequence ““ an opulent party featuring highly erotic court entertainment ““ the innovative British director’s breakthrough in narrative filmmaking takes a much sparser approach in terms of depicting the period. The main setting is an isolated Sardinian outpost in the middle of a desert wasteland where a troop (or one might say troupe) of Roman soldiers is exiled. Among them is the enchanting Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio), whose Christian beliefs make him a target for the other men’s scorn.
As Cowan highlights in his provided explanation for this double bill, the two films are undeniably linked not only by their bold, up-front portrayals of homoerotic lust, but also the curious ways they go about evoking the culture and customs of ancient Rome. Both Fellini and Jarman do so with liberal doses of humor; the former with his trademark absurdist touches that at times are positively creepy, while the latter includes many scenes in which his Latin-spouting soldiers roughly tease one another, trade crude innuendoes and playfully occupy themselves by hunting and playing Frisbee. All the while, both filmmakers and viewers are drawn towards a consideration of the era’s more theatrical qualities. Severus (Barney James), the blond-haired commander who pines for Sebastian, seems quite out of place dressed up in his armor, which serves more as an ornate status symbol than anything else in the desert ““ in contrast, his men wear little to no clothing for the full duration of the film. Sebastiane ‘s characters perform their scenes of desire, affection, aggression and sadness before natural backdrops of sand, rock and water, whereas Fellini Satyricon ‘s adventurers travel from one spectacular setting to another ““ some clearly sets, some astoundingly transformed outdoor locations. All the while, one can’t help but consider all the stories, rituals and gestures that are carried out in both films as well as their formality, earthy sensuality and how these ancient events as interpreted and staged by Fellini and Jarman seem so surreal when viewed today.
Those who attended this special double bill on the 26th will be generously treated to a dizzying series of undeniably beautiful images and stirring moments. Sebastiane certainly makes a deep impression as a creative achievement, laden with an extremely sensual visual style and such highlights as a mesmerizing slow motion grapple between two nude men and Sebastian’s famous death scene in which his arrow-pierced body is presented by Jarman as an art object of sexuality and death. And as one of Fellini’s most ambitious efforts, comes with its own genuinely impressive moments, including the cataclysmic destruction of a massive brothel and a deadly confrontation with a Minotaur. Whether this distant era of power and indulgence will ultimately seem more tangible to viewers after they see these films is hard to say ““ but if nothing else, its significance as a bountiful source of artistic inspiration should be quite solidly affirmed based on the wonders achieved by Fellini and Jarman.