Federico Fellini

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Fellini’s achievement, beginning in 1950, was to move Italian cinema away from the realistic chronicle, to concentrate on the private, inner experience and personal memory as the inspiration for art.

Early Life

Federico Fellini was born into a middle-class family in the resort town of Rimini (Emilia) on the eve of the Fascist era. His father, Urbano, was a traveling salesman. His mother, Ida, was a Roman. Fellini stated that nothing happened to him until he left high school. Yet his hometown played a major role in the formation of the man and artist, being the source of so many memories and emotions that later animated his films. Among these emotions was the yearning to leave for Rome.

Fellini was the model provincial, with a love-hatred for his point of origin, lured by the capital. Fellini first spent six months in Florence, where he earned a precarious living drawing cartoons for a satirical magazine, 420. Yet Rome beckoned, and he arrived in the capital in the spring of 1939. There he joined the staff of the satirical weekly Marc’ Aurelio as a cartoonist and writer, supplementing his income by drawing caricatures of the patrons of cafés. Fellini became a friend of the variety star Aldo Fabrizi, who introduced him to the slightly tawdry world of vaudeville, to which he had always been—and would remain—attracted. It is unlikely that Fellini toured the provinces with Fabrizi, as he claimed; however, the stories that the actor told him worked their way into his films. Through Fabrizi, Fellini was hired as a gag writer on minor comedies.

Fellini also wrote for a radio show about a young couple called Cico and Pallina. The actress who played Pallina was Giulietta Masina, whom Fellini married in October, 1943. These were perilous times for Italy. Fellini was fortunate to avoid the draft. Benito Mussolini was deposed in July, 1943. Later that fall, the Allies invaded Sicily, and the Italians, under Marshal Pietro Badoglio, surrendered. In the summer of 1944, Giulietta gave birth to a son who died after only three weeks. Her role in Fellini’s artistic life was crucial. He referred to her as his muse, and she appeared in starring roles in four of his films.

In 1945, Roberto Rossellini invited Fellini to collaborate on Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City), starring Fabrizi and Anna Magnani. This was the first acclaimed neorealist masterpiece and a huge international success. Subsequently, Fellini worked with Rossellini on Paisà (1946; Paisan) and other films. Fellini always acknowledged his debt to Rossellini, from whom, he said, he learned all there was to know about film direction and about Italy itself and the teeming variety of life to be found in its towns and countryside. By 1950, Fellini was ready to launch his own directorial career.

Life’s Work

Fellini’s first two films, Luci del Varietà (1950; Variety Lights) and Lo sceicco bianco (1952; The White Sheik), are distillations of his fascination for popular entertainment and his life as a cartoonist. The promise of his debut is fulfilled in the autobiographical I vitelloni (1953), a winter’s tale of five idlers in Rimini who spend their time reminiscing about last summer while waiting for the next, stifled by the boredom of their native town, yet fearful of the world outside. Finally, one of them, the dreamer Moraldo, does leave. For this analysis of doomed provincial youth, Fellini won the Silver Lion at Venice and the approval of left-wing critics.

Fellini’s films of the 1950’s (all in black-and-white) veer between a poetic social realism and the spiritual search for a personal truth. The latter is embodied by Masina, who starred as Gelsomina in La Strada (1954) and the heroine of Le notti di Cabiria (1957; The Nights of Cabiria). The former is a timeless fable, the drama divided between the brute Zampano, the angelic waif Gelsomina, and the philosopher-fool. The film was an enormous success abroad, notably in France and the United States, where Masina won an Oscar; in Italy, however, the film was the target of a deluge of left-wing criticism that accused Fellini of abandoning neorealism. In The Nights of Cabiria, Masina played a pathetic prostitute victimized by life and men who refuses to give up and smiles through her tears.

Meanwhile Fellini had gathered around him a group of collaborators who made unique contributions to his filmic world. Nino Rota wrote the music for every Fellini film until Rota’s death in 1979. The writers Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano worked with him on the screenplays up to Giulietta degli spiriti (1965; Juliet of the Spirits). Fellini and his troupe were now ready for their most ambitious project, La dolce vita (1960), a panoramic view of Roman café society that questions the moral rot below the glittering surface. Leading the enquiry is Marcello, who has abandoned his serious ambitions as a novelist and investigative reporter to become a gossip columnist. The film is visually stunning, and such scenes as that of Anita Ekberg in the Fontana di Trevi have become a fixed part of the annals of film history. The film raised a storm of controversy in Italy, where in some circles it was described as obscene and a national disgrace. It was embraced by the Left and condemned by the Vatican.

From the chronicle of national psychosis, Fellini, now at the height of his powers, withdrew into the dream world of the psyche in Otto e mezzo (1963; ) and Juliet of the...

(The entire section is 2333 words.)