Fellini, Federico (Vol. 85)
Federico Fellini 1920–1993
Italian filmmaker, screenwriter, actor, and cartoonist.
The following entry presents an overview of Fellini's life and career from 1976 through 1994. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.
Considered one of the most influential and original filmmakers of his generation, Fellini was acclaimed for his use of surreal, often grotesque imagery and for developing a fragmentary, nonlinear narrative style. Expanding on the techniques and methods of such neorealist directors as Roberto Rossellini and Alberto Lattuada, Fellini developed an unorthodox approach to filmmaking, often using nonprofessional actors and allowing his screenplays to evolve and change during the filming process. Peter B. Flint commented: "His style evolved from neo-realism to fanciful neo-realism to surrealism, in which he discarded narrative story lines for free-flowing, freewheeling memoirs."
Fellini was born in Rimini, Italy. He attended Catholic boarding schools during his youth, where he exhibited a flair for drawing. While in his teens, he left Rimini for Florence, where he worked as a proofreader and cartoonist before enrolling in law school at the University of Rome. He did not attend classes, however, and instead worked as a cartoonist and short story writer for the satirical publication Marc' Aurelio. In the late 1930s he travelled throughout Italy with a vaudeville troupe, an experience he later described as a formative part of his artistic development. He then returned to Rome where, after World War II, he and several friends opened an arcade called the Funny Face Shop. It was at this time that he met Rossellini, who initiated Fellini's development as a director. Fellini worked on Rossellini's 1945 film Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City), and made his directorial debut in 1950 with Luci del varietà (Variety Lights). Throughout his career, Fellini forged highly successful collaborative relationships, most notably with writers Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli; composer Nino Rota; and actors Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina, his wife. Fellini's numerous European and American film awards include four Oscars and a 1993 Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Fellini's early films reveal the influence of Italian neorealism—which typically emphasized social themes and employed documentary-like filming methods—and his collaborations with Rossellini and Lattuada. Notable among his early works is La strada (1954), a "poetic tragedy" dealing with the suffering and social disruption of postwar Italy that foreshadows his career-long fascination with the Italian people and landscape. In subsequent films Fellini continued to broaden the scope of neorealism to include autobiographical and subjective elements, often finding his visual metaphors in the flamboyant and decadent images of circuses, carnivals, parades, and, later, television. La dolce vita (1960), a controversial portrait of modern Rome's hedonistic cafe society, is in many ways the apotheosis of Fellini's fascination with these aspects of life, and the film established Fellini as a popular international figure. Otto e mezzo (1963; 8 1/2), a semi-autobiographical work depicting a director who cannot determine the subject of the film he is making, is considered Fellini's masterpiece as well as a landmark film that expanded the possibilities for personal expression in the cinema; the title signifies that Fellini considered this his "eighth and a half" film. With such later works as Ginger e Fred (1986; Ginger and Fred) and Federico Fellini's intervista (1987), Fellini adopted an introspective and nostalgic tone, frequently lamenting the commercialism and fragmentation that pervades modern twentieth-century society.
Some critics have observed that Fellini's reputation peaked during the mid-1960s with 8 1/2, which, for many, marked the artistic culmination of a series of progressively original and controversial works. Subsequent films, particularly those following Amarcord (1976), were frequently dismissed by reviewers as redundant, simplistic, or excessively flamboyant. Richard A. Blake observed: "With each new film, the images became more grotesque, the action more surreal and the story lines more insignificant. As critics became impatient with this development, ever more frequently the new films bore the brand 'self-indulgent.'" Some commentators have recently explained the rise and fall of Fellini's critical reputation by pointing to the popularity of several movements during the 1960s—including auteurism, high modernism, and romantic individualism—which viewed film as a medium best understood as the purely individual expression of a director's vision. Frank Burke commented: "Just as Fellini's international recognition corresponded with the rise of auteurism and the European art film movement, his decline has paralleled theirs." Despite the lack of critical consensus regarding the proper interpretation of his films, Fellini is widely considered a pioneering artist whose charismatic and distinctly personal style influenced an entire generation of filmmakers.
†Luci del varietà [Variety Lights] [with Ennio Flaiano, Alberto Lattuada, and Tullio Pinelli] (film) 1950
Lo sceicco bianco [The White Sheik] [with Flaiano and Pinelli] (film) 1952
‡"Un'agenzia matrimoniale" [A Matrimonial Agency] [with Pinelli] (film) 1953
I vitelloni [The Young and the Passionate] [with Flaiano and Pinelli] (film) 1953
La strada [with Flaiano and Pinelli] (film) 1954
Il bidone [with Flaiano and Pinelli] (film) 1956
Le notti di Cabiria [The Nights of Cabiria] [with Flaiano and Pinelli] (film) 1957
La dolce vita [with Flaiano, Pinelli, and Pier Paolo Pasolini] (film) 1960
§"Le tentazioni del dottor Antonio" [The Temptations of Doctor Antonio] [with Flaiano, Pinelli, Brunello Rondi, and Goffredo Parise] (film) 1962
Otto e mezzo [8 1/2] [with Flaiano, Pinelli, and Rondi] (film) 1963
Giulietta degli spiriti [Juliet of the Spirits] [with Flaiano, Pinelli, and Rondi] (film) 1965
¦"Toby Dammit" [with Bernardino Zapponi and Clement Biddle Wood] (film) 1968
Block-notes di un regista [Fellini: A Director's Notebook] (film) 1969
Satyricon [Fellini Satyricon] [with Zapponi and Rondi] (film) 1969
I clowns [The Clowns] [with Zapponi] (film) 1970
Roma [Fellini Roma] [with Zapponi] (film) 1972
Amarcord [with Tonino Guerra] (film) 1976
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SOURCE: "The Artist on His Art," in Fellini: The Artist, revised edition, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. Inc., 1985, pp. 25-34.
[Murray is an American film critic, drama critic, and educator. In the following chapter from the enlarged edition of his critical study Fellini: The Artist, originally published in 1976, he discusses visual elements, the concept of neorealism, major themes, and notable stylistic influences in relation to Fellini's career and works.]
I have no vocation for theories. I detest the world of labels, the world that confuses the label with the thing labeled.
Fellini does not espouse a theory of film. Indeed, as the quotation above makes clear, he has little respect for what he conceives to be the emasculating operations of the intellect. "I am not a cerebral artist," Eileen Hughes quotes him as saying. Fellini views the technique used in a picture as a rational process (the how), but he regards the inspiration behind that process as irrational (the why). An artist cannot wholly explain what his art means; moreover, if he attempts to do so, he destroys what is vital in the work. Hence Fellini has an antipathy for criticism: "Why reevaluate something that has moved you, water it down, control it,...
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SOURCE: An interview in Federico Fellini: Comments on Film, edited by Giovanni Grazzini, translated by Joseph Henry, The Press at California State University, 1988, pp. 157-67, 180-93.
[Grazzini is an Italian film critic. In the following interview, originally published in Grazzini's Federico Fellini: Intervista sul Cinema (1983), Fellini discusses 8 1/2 and highlights some of the philosophies and collaborative methods that have influenced the development of his films.]
[Grazzini]: 8 1/2, which many consider your finest film, [is] widely imitated to the point of becoming a genre, like the western, the detective story, the historical film, science fiction, war films. In almost every country in the world there has been and probably will be again directors who will make or want to remake their own 8 1/2.
[Fellini]: I on the other hand didn't want to make it. The night before the shooting, desperate, confused, I wrote old Rizzoli, the producer, a letter which began: "Dear Angelino, I realize that what I am about to tell you will irreparably terminate our working relationship. Even our friendship will be jeopardized. I should have written this letter three months ago, but until last night I had hoped that …"
The troupe and many of the leading actors had already been hired; sets were being completed; in fact, from the office where I was writing...
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SOURCE: "Lost Souls," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXII, No. 9, April 21, 1986, pp. 97-100, 103-04.
[Kael is a widely-read and respected film critic, consultant, and educator. In the following excerpt, she discusses the plot, style and themes of Ginger and Fred, asserting that the film lacks energy and artistic inspiration.]
I would dearly love to see Federico Fellini work on material that doesn't come out of his world-weary loins. If he worked with a script that had a story and characters and some propulsion, and if its contours made it impossible for him to get a bellyful of decadence and soullessness or to display grotesques, hermaphrodites, or even transvestites, he might be renewed and show fresh aspects of his poetic imagination. He might once again show some joy in moviemaking.
His latest film, Ginger and Fred, has one big thing going for it: that yummy, alluring title. Those two names have a happy aura all over the world; they're probably part of every moviegoer's (and many a TV watcher's) pantheon. But the movie isn't about those tapping, twirling icons. It's about two mediocre dancers, Amelia (Giulietta Masina) and Pippo (Marcello Mastroianni); in the nineteen-forties, they entertained Italian vaudeville audiences by copying the ballroom numbers from the Astaire-Rogers movies, and were billed as Ginger and Fred. Lovers, they quarrelled and broke up in the mid-fifties;...
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SOURCE: "Clean Shaven," in National Review, New York, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 8, May 9, 1986, pp. 54-6.
[Simon is a Yugoslavian-born critic and educator. In the following negative assessment of Ginger and Fred, he asserts that the quality of Fellini's films declined following 8 1/2.]
There is a splendid story by the Italian humorist Massimo Bontempelli, La barba di Federigo, about a man with a gorgeous beard no woman (or anyone else) could resist. But the devil in disguise asked him with seeming innocence whether he slept with his beard inside or outside the covers. Trying to figure out the answer drove poor Federigo nuts, to the point where he couldn't sleep either way and, in despair, shaved off his precious beard. "He no longer had a reason for living," Bontempelli concludes, "but he didn't die for all that, as one can live exceedingly well without having the slightest reason." This might almost be the story of Federico Fellini.
When he made his early, wonderful movies, Fellini was a natural talent—perhaps the most natural of all. Despite a distinctly autobiographical flavor, the films managed to be sufficiently different; indeed, in the greatest of them, I Vitelloni, Moraldo, Fellini's alter ego, is neither the most important nor the most interesting character. The last Fellini film to show intermittent strength was 8 1/2—even as it also admitted creative...
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SOURCE: "Out of Step," in New Statesman, Vol. 112, No. 2903, November 14, 1986, pp. 23-4.
[In the review below, Williamson offers a positive assessment of Ginger and Fred, praising Fellini's ambivalent treatment of the role of television in the modern world.]
Where does authenticity lie in a world infinitely replicated by video, computer, and representations which are as much about other representations as about a real world? This is the question which preoccupies theorists of post-modernism (whose answer, incidentally, is 'nowhere'); and in a sense it preoccupies everyone in a world increasingly experienced through electronic media at a time of breakdown in social and political consensus. If our identity no longer fits snugly into place in an ordered world, how indeed can we have an authentic sense of ourselves? While theorists have diagnosed a loss of depth, of sincerity, of affect in this 'postmodern' world, movies have taken it to the logical conclusion of videodrome addiction, computer warfare, and—significantly—have turned 'replicant' into an everyday word.
Ginger and Fred confronts the problem of sincerity in a world of spectacle—but neither by theorising nor by projecting it into the future: Fellini the showman, who so often looks backward (or inward) for his circus material, has no need in this project to search beyond the surface of modern life...
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SOURCE: "Fellini's Magical 8 1/2," in American Film, Vol. XIV, No. 8, June, 1989, pp. 16-17.
[Pierson is an American screenwriter, director, producer, and educator. In the following essay, he discusses the thematic strengths of 8 1/2, focusing on Fellini's depiction of the character Daumier.]
Actors, and most directors, want to experiment, improvise, fly on gossamer wings of inspiration into all kinds of irrelevancies and distractions. The story is, to them, a series of situations to embroider and exploit. The screenwriter's job is to throw cold water on all this and try to keep everyone focused and on track. The screenwriter becomes something between a conscience and a critic—an irritating, nagging presence, defending the director against the director's own wonderful, but irrelevant, ideas.
In forcing the director to firmly address story problems, instead of just having fun, the writer often comes to be perceived as the story problem. Then a new writer is hired, one who will shut up and do as he or she's told.
Fellini's first treatment of the screenplay, 8 1/2, was not a story at all but a short letter to Brunello Rondi, one of the credited writers of the movie. Fellini describes a confused film director facing a picture he wants to make, for which he has only the intimation of a feeling, and a few characters, in mind. The letter lists a few of...
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SOURCE: "Fellini: Changing the Subject," in Film Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, Fall, 1989, pp. 36-48.
[In the following essay, Burke discusses how Fellini's major works reflect key issues in literary and film theory, namely the notions of authorship and identity.]
The career of Federico Fellini offers remarkable parallels to the recent history of individualism and the subject, especially in the domain of film theory. Particularly evident is the concurrence of Fellini's reputation and the fate of auteurism: 1954 was the year of La Strada and of Truffaut's promulgation of a politique des auteurs; 1959 saw the shooting of La Dolce Vita and the emergence of the French New Wave; 1962–63 brought 8 1/2 and Andrew Sarris's influential "Notes on the Auteur Theory."
Without question, Fellini's reputation benefited by an auteurist moment which valorized the film director as artist, gave strong impetus to the European art film movement, and, in so doing, aligned itself with the tradition of high modernism in the arts—privileging the uniqueness of artistic self-expression as an oppositional force in the face of industrialized society.
To some extent, that reputation was sustained through the sixties by proliferating auteurism (Sarris's book American Film Directors appeared in 1968), high modernism, and perhaps most...
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SOURCE: "Fellini and the Literary Tradition," in Perspectives on Federico Fellini, edited by Peter Bondanella and Cristina Degli-Esposti, G. K. Hall & Co., 1993, pp. 191-202.
[In the following essay, originally published in Italian Journal in 1990, Lawton discusses the unifying motifs of Fellini's oeuvre.]
In no country more than in Italy, does "high culture" play so prominent a role in "popular culture." In fact, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish the two. This certainly is the case where Italian cinema is concerned. And while literate viewers are, for the most part, conscious to some extent of the presence of the Italian literary and artistic heritages in the films of Bertolucci, Pasolini, Visconti, and Zeffirelli, among others, their presence in the works of Federico Fellini has, for the most part, been slighted.
Critics speak regularly of a "Fellinian universe," but the expression is rarely explained or defined. What characterizes his films to such an extent that his touch can be recognized immediately? What do such apparently different films as La strada, Fellini—Satyricon, The City of Women, and Ginger and Fred have in common? All of Fellini's films reflect a common structure: a mysterious original sin (inevitably some manifestation of materialism), a downward spiraling series of misadventures, a desperate search for some sort of...
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SOURCE: "Making the Best of It," in The New Republic, Vol. 207, No. 24, December 7, 1992, pp. 30, 32.
[Kauffmann is an American dramatist, editor, and theater and film critic. In the following review of Intervista, he applauds Fellini's nostalgic and poignant examination of his life as a movie maker.]
Federico Fellini can be called the most naked genius in the history of film. In 1963 he made 8 1/2 a quasiconfessional comedy-drama about the modern artist's torment: he or she is bursting with talent and can find nothing to expend it on. Out of this crisis Fellini made a masterpiece; since then, that same crisis has been often more evident than acknowledged in his work. Then in 1987 he faced it again, without pretense, and made a film although he had no film to make. He simply poured forth his virtuosity for 108 minutes, like a master pianist-composer improvising.
At last, after five years, that improvisation (so to speak) reaches the United States. Intervista is the context of 8 1/2 without its center. The title means "Interview." In it Fellini discloses—though obliquely, gorgeously, wittily—that he is desperate. (In 1969 he made a T.V. film called Fellini: A Director's Notebook; I haven't seen it, but according to accounts it's a much more conventional interview, not an implicit confession.)
In Intervista the framework is a...
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SOURCE: "Warm Memories and Hot Nightmares Are Etched in Fellini's Singular Vision," in The New York Times, October 29, 1993, pp. B1, B7.
[Canby is a novelist, playwright, and the chief film critic for the New York Times. In the following excerpt from a review of a Fellini retrospective held just before the filmmaker's death, Canby provides an overview of the major films of Fellini's career.]
Now that the Fellini career is approaching its end, one can follow its splendid arc with a certitude not possible before. It begins with the early, bracingly comic, sometimes somber neo-realist black-and-white comedies, and includes the breakthrough with his two black-and-white masterpieces, La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), after which he forever abandoned conventional narrative.
There followed his simultaneous discoveries of color with Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and of the power that the Cinecittà studio facilities gave him. Working within the studio, he could not only manufacture fantastic settings and the weather of his choice, but also remodel the looks of his actors. In the studio Fellini created worlds that never existed, stylized in a way that calls attention to, and celebrates, the artifice of film making in a manner that no director dared before or since.
It was also in the studio in the post-8 1/2 years that he created his...
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SOURCE: "Arrivederci, Fellini," in America, Vol. 169, No. 18, December 4, 1993, pp. 10-11.
[A Roman Catholic priest, Blake is also an American film reviewer, editor, critic, and educator. In the following essay, he argues that Fellini's Catholic heritage was an important source of artistic inspiration.]
News of Federico Fellini's death on Oct. 31  at the age of 73 came as less of a surprise than the discovery, a few weeks earlier, that he was still alive. The Maestro had regained the attention of his public during his final illness, beginning with a stroke in August and reaching a climax with heart failure in mid-October. With an irony that only he could appreciate to the full, just as he was preparing to leave this life, a retrospective of his works opened at the Film Forum in Manhattan. He lives on as memory, history, monument.
Clearly, something had happened to Fellini the artist long before his final seasons among us. His latest film, Voices of the Moon, was released in Italy in 1990, and three years have now passed without a screening in the United States. Thirty years ago, in the age of La Dolce Vita (1961) and 8 1/2 (1963), English-speaking critics and audiences would have demanded subtitled, dubbed and sanitized screenings of the latest Fellini before the emulsion dried on the work print. Here was no Alfred Hitchcock, who continued making interesting...
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SOURCE: "Fellini, Farewell," in The New Republic, Vol. 210, No. 5, January 31, 1994, pp. 28-30.
[In the following tribute, Kauffmann discusses the contrast between Fellini's early and late films, their critical reception, and Fellini's unique approach to filmmaking. He also reviews Voices of the Moon and relates some of his personal memories of the filmmaker]
Federico Fellini died in Rome on October 31, 1993. Three days later, Alan Cowell wrote in The New York Times, with appropriate tremolo:
In the studio where he made his movies and his name, Fellini lay in cinematographic state today, the lights soft, the music no more than a whisper, the tenderness of the thousands who filed by his burnished coffin mingling with the ghosts of his creations.
His funeral service was held in a Roman basilica, and, reported the Times, the huge crowd flowed into the piazza outside. Millions watched the ceremony in a live T.V. broadcast. When the coffin was brought in, "applause filled the basilica."
The coffin was then taken back to his hometown of Rimini. Variety reported that, through narrow streets packed with thousands, the coffin was carried from the main piazza to a memorial service, which was held in the theater where Fellini saw his first films and which was featured in Amarcord (1973)....
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SOURCE: "Federico Fellini and the White Clowns," in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Vol. 18, No. 4, April, 1994, pp. 28-30.
[Dillard is an American educator, poet, novelist, and film critic. In the following essay, he emphasizes Fellini's lasting influence on a generation of filmmakers and comments on the importance of individual, rather than "politically codified," expression in his films.]
Near the beginning of Federico Fellini's Intervista (1988), a very large camera crane is about to rise, wreathed in smoke and artificial moonlight, high above the sound-stages of Cinecittà. One of the camera operators calls down to his director (Fellini being played by Fellini), "Aren't you coming up?" "No," Fellini immediately replies, "I can imagine it from here." The cameraman shrugs, turns to his colleague on the crane, and says, "What did I tell you?"
That brief exchange about sums it up: both the distinctive personal, imaginative, and visionary quality of Fellini's cinema and, at the same time, the response of his detractors, who for years have claimed that his work is composed of predictable and repetitive fantasies, without experiential, intellectual, or ideological content. But, in fact, the only truly predictable thing about Fellini's films over the years was the response of the critics, repeating in chorus "What did I tell you?" or perhaps a Reaganesque "There you go...
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Stubbs, John C., with Markey, Constance D., and Lenzini, Marc. Federico Fellini: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978, 346 p.
Bibliography of writings on Fellini through 1978.
Alpert, Hollis. Fellini: A Life. New York: Atheneum, 1986, 337 p.
Discusses Fellini's life and films.
Kezich, Tullio. Fellini. Milan: Camunia, 1987, 567 p.
Considered an authoritative biography of Fellini which debunks several myths surrounding Fellini's life.
Betti, Liliana. Fellini. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979, 249 p.
Memoir by Fellini's friend and assistant, also discusses Fellini's approach to filmmaking.
Bondanella, Peter. The Cinema of Federico Fellini. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992, 367 p.
Presents critical analyses of various aspects of Fellini's career, including his influences, the neorealistic and political aspects of his works, and the role of dreams, women, and "metacinema" in his films.
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