Four films by Fellini

Federico FelliniTimes are changing, and reputations with them. Once one of the major figures in cinema, now many viewers and critics are ambivalent about Federico Fellini. You hear “unstructured”, “self-indulgent”, “egotistic” until you imagine the reproach is that Fellini didn’t have more shoot-out and car chase scenes. So let me state my bias: I think he is important in film, comparable to figures like Picasso or Kafka in other media. Further, the films I like the most are “La Strada” (1954), “Fellini Satyricon” (1969), “Fellini’s Casanova” (1976) and “Intervista” (1987) ie I don’t believe, as some have it, that he created some good films near the start of his career, then fell into a 30 year decline.

Fellini was a painter with light who explored deep in his subconscious and returned with mythic images that can evoke a powerful response in us: if we let them. We can always refuse, and say he is self-indulgent, just as Picasso is confusing, Kafka obscure. We can ignore him another way, by saying he is ‘great’, a kind of dismissal. Fellini was a warm, caring person who loved and was loved by his colleagues as well as a charismatic, visionary one who inspired them. And he was also an entertainer, someone who loved show business and loved to entertain others.

La Strada 1954
One of several films often cited as Fellini’s ‘greatest’ film, La Strada is also picked on to highlight his early so-called ‘neo-realistic’ style, as contrasted with the extravaganzas of his later career. But a closer look reveals preoccupations common to all Fellini’s films: clowns (Gelsomina is a typical tragic clown, even when not performing as one for a living); fascination with the grotesque in human nature and visage (Zampano could be a bit part in Satyricon); Fellini’s tart humour, as exemplified by the whole episode of Il Matto, reminding viewers that Fellini was a cariacaturist long before he was a film maker.

All this is placed in the context of a melodramatic and sentimental – and, let’s face it, extremely moving – story, about how we all have a purpose in life, even those lacking ordinary abilities, and which we often don’t see by focusing too closely on self gratification.

Often overlooked as an actor, Anthony Quinn does a superb job of depicting the brute Zampano: sluggish in his habits, a bully in his behaviour to others, Zampano is obsessed with the constant need to earn a living, and discovers too late that the bond between human beings can be even more important. The film belongs however to Giulietta Masina, who portrays with stunning authenticity an adult who has remained an innocent child in her emotional makeup. Masina brings out with great poignancy the symbolic elements in the story of Gelsomina’s relationship with Zampano that might so easily have been either overlooked, or rendered too ponderously. Fellini somewhere tells the story of the thieves who snatched Masina’s purse in the street and returned it the next day once they realised whose it was, with a note: “Sorry Gelsomina!”

Another key element in the film is the music of Nino Rota, working with Fellini for the first time, and here as elsewhere a key element in his success.

Somehow Fellini managed to do the whole thing again, with The Nights of Cabiria of 1957. The architypal characters, the symbolism, the sentimental story, the authentic performance of Masina and the music of Rota meld to create another ‘greatest’ Fellini film. But things were about to change.

Fellini Satyricon 1969
Two things can make all the difference when viewing this film. The first is that Fellini uses the fragmentary structure of Petronius’ work, which has survived only in a medieval manuscript which describes it as selections from the 15th and 16th books of the original. And the second is the realisation that this is a personal interpretation, not a recreation of ancient Rome, but the satirist Fellini taking the satyrist Petronius’ stories, of Trimalchio’s dinner, the widow of Ephesus and others, and using them to poke fun at Italian manners of his own day.

In many ways the actors play a subservient part to the sets. Fellini manages to give the impression at times we have strayed into an Hieronymus Bosch picture. Indeed Bosch is an interesting analogue, as both artists use symbols to reflect meanings beyond the realistic nature of what they depict. Fellini was interested by the ideas of Jung, and his films are littered with images that reflect this, such as the Christ shipped over Rome by a helicopter in La Dolce Vita, the roller skating nuns in the ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma or the ship-bound rhinoceros in The Ship Sails On. In Satyricon the shattered fragments of a fresco start and end the film and stand for the ambiguous and finally unknowable nature of the past, our own or others’. The earthquake scene has the main characters descending down and further down a gigantic brothel, a trip to the subconscious where vignettes are displayed like repressed obsessions.

Fellini’s style in this film has flamboyantly left the story behind, just as Tarkovsky did. Satyricon is more than fragmentary, it attempts to create a mood, just as La Strada did, but its structure is one of impressions, not one of narrative. Fellini is not using a melodrama as he did in the earlier film, but a series of primal images from the collective subconsciousness. The battle with the minotaur, the dying hermaphrodite, the funeral of Trimalchio and many others are like beads on a rosary we can finger till we reach enlightenment. The boldness of conception show that Fellini was at the height of his powers. The generally favourable reception show that Fellini was at the height of his reputation.

Treatment of images and their structure into a film is less overt than in Juliet of the Spirits of 1965. Satyricon is more free verse that Juliet’s sonnet.

Casanova by Federico Fellini 1976
This is the story of a man, and of his reputation, and of how the two take a divergent path under the influence of illusions, both of other people’s and of self. The story is Casanova’s but the dilemma is Fellini’s own, cast by his reputation in a role where he must produce masterpieces.

Casanova, like Zampano, is an architype, in his case the great lover. It’s interesting that Casanova himself has a dual reputation: the great lover status is derived from an earlier editor’s rewrite of Casanova’s memoires, with much added and much omitted from the original text. Casanova is now considered, in a recent, accurate presentation of his own text, as one of the great French writers of the 18th century. Fellini is not interested in setting the record straight, nor in exploiting salacious details of Casanova’s love life. He makes continuous contrast of Casanova’s self opinion, and of how others see him.

We see the contrast between the intelligent, cultured courtier (it is self-appraisal) making his way in a world of wealthy louts and titled buffoons and his reputation, all anybody is interested in, as the great lover. There is a kind of tragic humour pervading the entire film. The cult of honour is shown as a kind of facade overlaying the man. Fellini shows this literally, with Donald Sutherland, in an extraordinary performance, encrusted in makeup, wig, corset and brocaded costume, increasingly unable to act freely despite the freedom he gives himself by his self conceit. A storm at sea is treated the same way, and Casanova is shown rowing valiantly over a tempestuous sea of black plastic waves that merely look the part.

A man of vast erudition who knew many languages and wrote on politics and mathematics, Casanova’s self conceit made this learning superficial. The man played the part of the scholar as much as he played the part of the great lover. It is this role playing which both Casanova and his contemporaries demanded of him that interests Fellini. In a scene approaching the slapstick of a Hal Roach film, Casanova displays his skill as a lover in competition with another braggart with a reputation: who will have the most staying power? In a jibe at the illusion of love and sex that is directed just as much to the audience as to those who take this kind of thing seriously, Fellini has a sex scene which involves Sutherland doing pushups over the body of one of the court ladies willing to participate in the experiment.

Gone is the flamboyance, the sentiment and the overt symbolism of images. In what may be his greatest film Fellini makes a heartfelt cry of despair about the straightjacket that imprisons us all – yet has the strength to laugh at the results.

Intervista 1987
Intervista is an homage: to film, to Cinecitta, to Fellini cast and crew. In it Fellini richly draws on his memories, dreams and emotions, as often before. Egotistic? What else do any of us have to draw on? It is also laced with a spicy humor based on Fellini’s eye for the absurd in people, places and situations which is basic to his work and often overlooked.

The film tells three stories. In the first, Cinecitta in the 40s when the young reporter Fellini first arrived there, to interview an actor; in the second, the heyday of Fellini’s career, the 60s, when La Dolce Vita launched him, stars such as Marcello Mastroianni and Italian cinema itself on a triumphant and influential trajectory around the world; in the third Fellini shows us what it is like to make a film now (the 80s) when one is a celebrity, under the burden of expectations from cast and crew members and the public, represented by a Japanese TV crew trying to interview him.

The film is structured as films within film. The young Fellini’s first visit to Cinecitta is itself a film, taking place on another lot, while Fellini is busy making a version of Kafka’s Amerika. Memory, he seems to suggest, comes from the same source as imagination. We invent our past as much as we imagine our future: both intermingle to produce our present. This structure enables Fellini to switch backwards and forwards between the various periods represented in the film, the same way our minds work.

In another, famous, scene, Fellini shows Anita Ekberg and Mastroianni watching their younger selves perform in La Dolce Vita. Both are affected, Ekberg to tears. What do they regret: the passing of time, the passing of fame? Or has Fellini made them see the precarious border between illusion and reality, that beauty and fame are a strip of celluloid with light shining through it?

Cast and crew have a lot of screen time. This is one of the greatest films about film making, surpassing even Truffaut’s La Nuit Americaine, Day for Night. All seem solicitous for the “Maestro”. “If he gets sick, we don’t work” says someone. Funny scenes abound as a line of hopeful would be actors claiming to have ‘Fellini faces’ vie for parts. This was a man whose habits and work methods were known to many Italians, not just to film workers. And the more famous Fellini got, the more power he had on the lot, until he carried and cared for over a hundred people, all dependent on him, as he strove to make another Fellini masterpiece under the expectant eye of film journalists. How unlikely a situation to inspire creative ideas is that?

1950 Luci del varietà Variety Lights
1952 Lo sceicco bianco The White Sheik
1953 I vitelloni
1953 L’amore in città (segment Un’agenzia matrimoniale)****
1954 La strada*****
1955 Il bidone
1957 Le notti di Cabiria The Nights of Cabiria*****
1960 La dolce vita***
1962 Boccaccio ’70 (segment Le tentazioni del Dottor Antonio)**
1963 8½****
1965 Giulietta degli spiriti Juliet of the Spirits ****
1968 Histoires extraordinaires (segment Toby Dammit)**
1969 Fellini: A Director’s Notebook
1969 Fellini Satyricon*****
1970 I clowns**
1972 Roma****
1973 Amarcord ***
1978 Il Casanova di Federico Fellini *****
1978 Prova d’orchestra Orchestra Rehearsal***
1980 La città delle donne City of Women***
1983 E la nave va The Ship Sails On***
1986 Ginger and Fred***
1987 Intervista*****
1990 La voce della luna The Voice of the Moon***

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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