FILM DIRECTORS - Federico Fellini

Born in the seaside town of Rimini in Italy in 1920, he quit the provinces for Rome at age 18. Enrolled in law school, he abandoned the degree. He never considered attending Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, whose graduates he would later collaborate with. And unlike his contemporaries, he never frequented the cinema clubs that screened the best Italian directors’ films and international titles from France, Germany and Russia. When pressed for his influences, Fellini preferred Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx brothers, Pietro Germi, and Buñuel (with his black humor) to “cine-club” names such as Dreyer, Griffith and Eisenstein. Young Fellini supported himself as a wandering caricaturist until hired by Marc’Aurelio in 1939. The famed humor bi-weekly served as an unofficial training ground for scriptwriters and directors of the postwar period.

Federico Fellini would seem to need little by way of introduction. He may be the best known of the postwar Italian directors. He is also among the most noted filmmakers in the history of the medium. In 1980, Harry Reasoner claimed on CBS's Sixty Minutes that Fellini was "maybe the premier filmmaker of the age"--a pronouncement which may seem a bit exaggerated from the perspective of the 1990s but which also suggests the role Fellini played in international cinema from 1954 (La Strada) to at least 1973 (Amarcord). He was awarded five Oscars, and though he suffered decline in the public eye through the 1980s and early 1990s, his final Oscar was the 1993 lifetime achievement award of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He received a similar award from Cannes as early as 1974, as well as the outstanding cinematic achievement award of the Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York City) in 1985.
Perhaps more important, Fellini's work continues to be a significant influence on the contemporary filmmaking scene. In a 1992 Sight and Sound survey, while neither he nor any of his films made it into the top ten of critics' favourite movies and directors, he ranked first among international directors surveyed. As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith put it in a subsequent issue of Sight and Sound: "The word is out. Federico Fellini is the directors' director par excellence...."


While neorealism may have been Fellini's postwar cinematic context, individualism was the prevailing ideological current as he emerged as a scriptwriter and director. Individualism, of course, has a long history in Western culture. However, in the last 200 years, it has become synonymous with American ideology--and Fellini was heavily influenced in his youth by the American popular-culture promise of individual freedom . . . .
Within the larger context of Western and American ideology, Fellini fashioned his own brand of individualism as an anti-authoritarian response to his Fascist and Catholic upbringing. . . .

Though Fellini abhorred Catholic dogmatism, this did not prevent him from fusing individualism in his early work with a secularized form of Christian humanism: a belief in the "salvation" of the individual via psychological individuation. The road to salvation was not the Way of the Cross, but the evolution of consciousness from the unconscious and the integration of all the fragmented and repressed aspects of the individual psyche.


“I don’t like the idea of “understanding” a film. I don’t believe that rational understanding is an essential element in the reception of any work of art.Either a film has something to say to you or it hasn’t.If you are moved by it, you don’t need it explained to you. If not, no explanation can make you moved by it.”

Federico Fellini

Making a Film

Before high school I’d never asked myself what I’d do with my life; I couldn’t envision my future. I used to think of a profession as something unavoidable, like Sunday mass. I never said, “When I grow up I’ll…!” It didn’t seem like I’d ever grow up, and deep down I was right.
From the day I was born to the first time I set foot in Cinecittà, it seems as if my life was lived by somebody else; by someone who, only in brief moments and when I least expected it, suddenly decided to allow me to participate in a few fragments of his memory. Therefore I must admit that my films composed of memories tell completely invented tales. In the end, what difference does it make?

Essential Films

LA Strada (1954)

La strada (1954), the film Fellini called “the complete catalogue of my entire mythological world,”  is a starring vehicle for wife Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina, a clownish waif who communicates best with nature and children. Sold by her mother to Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), a travelling circus strongman, she accompanies his act on trumpet. They are joined by the Fool (Richard Basehart), who walks a tightrope high over provincial squares. When brutish Zampanò accidentally kills the Fool, Gelsomina goes mad and eventually dies. News of her death wrings tears from Zampanò at film’s end. The first entry in what Bondanella deems the “trilogy of salvation or grace,” these figures derive meaning from their emotional impact and symbolic significance, not their material circumstances. Gelsomina and Zampanò play out the grim relations between the sexes, a vagabond version of “Beauty and the Beast,” and the roles of “savior” and “convert.” So much so that Fellini was savaged by the Left for betraying his neorealist origins.



Il Bidone (1955)

A bishop and a priest are chauffeured to the rural home of two peasant sisters. They recount the story of an unnamed man who has made a deathbed confession of burying a treasure chest along with a murdered victim by a tree in the middle of their property. The confessor has bequeathed the hidden bounty to the landowners, in exchange for 500 masses to be held in his memory. It is a fantastic tale that is made plausible by the seeming benevolence of the two clergymen. But these men are not emissaries from the Catholic Church. An earlier scene shows the middle-aged Augusto (Broderick Crawford) and the younger Carlo (Richard Basehart) (who goes by the nickname Picasso) preparing for the confidence game, as the charismatic Roberto (Franco Fabrizi) switches license plates. The unsuspecting sisters have just surrendered their life savings to a band of career criminals. And so the ritual of their existence is revealed: posing as housing officials, selling worthless watches, bartering inexpensive coats for money and a full tank of gasoline. Augusto has grown weary of his profession, but has never known any other life. One day, he encounters his daughter, Patrizia (Lorella De Luca) on her way home from school. She wants to become a teacher, but can neither afford the tuition, nor pay the deposit required to earn a decent wage to fund her studies. Augusto is clearly devoted to her, but can only make empty promises of support. While spending the afternoon with Patrizia at a movie theater, he is recognized by one of his nameless victims, and is promptly sent to jail. Separated from his daughter, he returns to the familiarity of his disreputable trade.

Le Notti di Cabiria (1957)

Nights of Cabiria is a touching, humorous, and poignant film about hope and survival. As the first film of the trilogy of loneliness, Federico Fellini pares the story of an endearing prostitute searching for love and happiness down to its fundamental substance. The result is a social criticism that is honest, impartial, and searing. We first see Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) walking by the lake with a lover who steals her purse, then throws her into the water. It is a familiar pattern with the hapless Cabiria: men who exploit her, then abandon her. She is not morally bankrupt, but deeply spiritual, interminably optimistic, and trusting. She attempts to project an image that she is confidently in control. Yet, we see that she is a victim of circumstance. She resorts to prostitution as a means of income in an economically depressed city. She is duped by pilgrims professing to witness a miracle. She is denied an evening with a celebrity when his girlfriend unexpectedly returns to reconcile. Nights of Cabiria is a simply told, profoundly affecting film about the misery of existence, and the triumph of the human spirit.

The imagery of water is a prevalent theme in Fellini's films. It is the symbol of catharsis (as in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue) and eternity. (In Fellini's La Strada, Zampano returns to the tranquil cadence of the sea after a heartbreaking revelation.) InNights of Cabiria, the film begins and ends with water. It is an imagery that illustrates that life, itself, is cyclical - eternal - as the human condition. Water is also a symbol of purification. Cabiria's soul remains untainted, despite her sordid profession (a theme that echoes the works of such writers as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Gustav Flaubert, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others). It is a humanist idea that people are innately good, but forced by their circumstances into acts of desperation (a familiar neorealist theme). The result is a powerful metaphor: a fusion of hope and misery, perseverance and suffering, a synthesis not unlike life itself.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Few films have indelibly defined society as caustically and honestly as Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a frustrated writer, is reduced to tabloid journalism in order to make ends meet. He spends every evening in Via Veneto - the venerable hotspot for people who want to be seen - vicariously awaiting the next scandal, party invitation, or sexual proposition. One evening is spent with an enigmatic woman named Maddalena (Anouk Aimee), whose dark sunglasses conceal a bruised eye. Her declared love for Marcello is merely whispered from a distance, deflected by the reverberating walls. Another evening is in Steiner's (Alain Cuny) penthouse, a wealthy intellectual. 

Consumed by self-doubt and fleeting happiness, he is unable to enjoy his success. Still another evening is spent with a famous actress named Sylvia (Anita Ekberg). With the advent of dawn, she, too, returns to home to her boyfriend. Away from the nightlife of Via Veneto, he finds himself caught up in the carnival spectacle of a false sighting of the Virgin Mary (an episode that is also recounted in Nights of Cabiria). Soon the empty evenings seem to weave together into some decadent rhythm, punctuated only by the regret of the following morning. 
Fellini visually conveys the cycle through stairs: the descent to a prostitute's flooded basement apartment, the climb to a church tower, the walk to a public fountain, the exploration of an unoccupied section of the princess dowager's estate. Thematically, the film begins and ends with the same incident: Marcello, unable to hear the cryptic message, returns to his latest distraction... perhaps still dreaming of attaining the elusive sweet life.


Interview on 'La Dolce Vita' w/ Federico Fellini, Marcello Mastroianni & More! [audio]

8 1/2 (1963)

8 1/2 weaves fluidly through the visually intoxicating landscape of Federico Fellini's subconscious, seemingly to seek inspiration and validation for his life and work. In an opening scene that symbolizes much of Fellini's films, a suffocating man, trapped inside his car, inexplicably begins to float into the skies, only to be abruptly tugged back to the ground. But it is also an indelible image that shatters any preconceived illusion of "typical" elements in a Fellini film. The film, 8 1/2, literally marks Fellini's work on 8 1/2 feature films (the "1/2" derived from collaborative direction films), and proves to be a transitional film in his artistic career. In addition to being his final film shot in black and white, the subtle forms and religious iconography of his earlier neorealist films have been replaced by precisely composed, comic absurdity and exaggerated, hyperbolic imagery - of what was to become his signature, Felliniesque, style. 

His alter-ego on this surreal, introspective journey is Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), a successful director of films "without hope" who takes a holiday at an exclusive health spa in order to overcome a creative dry spell. But Guido is not a suffering, tortured artist. He is narcissistic and self-indulgent, preferring to spend his time networking with wealthy resort patrons and arranging liaisons with his oversexed mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo) than in formulating ideas for his next film. In fact, Guido's words prove hypocritical and contrary to all his actions. 

His creative retreat is spent surrounded by people who are most familiar with him: his mistress, his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee), his producer (Guido Alberti), and several actors who want to appear in his film. He claims to be in the process of creating a simple film that "would bury all that was dead" between Luisa and him, but approves plans to construct an elaborate movie set for a science fiction film. He supplements his mineral water treatments with cigarettes and alcohol, leading a life of excess instead of undergoing physical (and psychological) cleansing and purification. 

Unable to derive inspiration from his chaotic environment, he immerses himself in the distraction of childhood memories and indulgent fantasies: conversing with an emotionally inaccessible father; reciting the magic words to a hidden treasure; sneaking out of class to watch the carefree Saraghina (Eddra Gale) perform a sensual dance; attempting to tame the women in his life using circus props. In essence, Guido is searching for balance: between childhood traumas and idealism, the sensual and the intellectual, artistic integrity and commercial success. Inevitably, Guido is as much a reflection of Fellini as he is of ourselves: striving for greatness, only to achieve the ordinary and familiar... with episodes of momentary abstraction in between.


Great Films : 8 1/2 (1963) >>>


Amarcord returns to the provinces of Fellini’s childhood for a sampling of his “invented memories” of Rimini in the fascist era. The subject  of Amarcord is a group caricature of the town’s inhabitants, but its main thrust is its dissection of the origins of Italian fascism. Fellini juxtaposes a vignette of an individual character with sequences that show the consequences of his or her symptomatic behavior on a grander scale. When Gradisca (Magali Noël), the village beauty and object of masculine desire, catches a glimpse of the Fascist federale welcomed with a parade in the town square, she almost faints with sexual excitement. In the following sequence, main character Titta’s (Bruno Zanin) family takes their “insane” Uncle Teo (Ciccio Ingrassia) from the asylum for a day excursion. Teo escapes, climbs a tree, and screams from the treetop, “I want a woman!” Without outlets for sexual drives, the townspeople go mad or displace their stifled desires onto political symbols manipulated by the regime.

Popular Posts