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Federico Fellini 1921–
Italian director, screenwriter, artist, and actor.
Fellini's films are an intense mixture of fantasy and reality. He often appears to be a naive bystander observing the carnival of life. His films are deeply personal; for example, his wife plays herself in Juliet of the Spirits, the story of their marriage. While many critics find his films imaginative and perceptive, others accuse him of egotism and self-indulgence. But even though the quality of his work is disputed from film to film, his exuberance is undeniable; he revels in the eccentric, the colorful, and the bizarre, but he does not mock the characters he depicts. Rather, he seeks to understand them.
Born in Rimini, Italy, Fellini moved to Florence at the age of seventeen. Already he had acquired traits that reappear in his work: a love of the sea and antipathy toward the Catholic hierarchy. In Florence, he worked as a street artist until he was offered a position in a vaudeville show. He became a gag writer, then progressed to scriptwriting. An assistantship with Roberto Rossellini on Open City exposed him to neorealism, the cinematic movement that used non-professional actors and worked on location, thus bringing about an effect of verism. Fellini's first directing effort, with Alberto Lattuada, was Variety Lights. Though critics deemed it a failure, its revenue enabled him to direct his first solo film, The White Sheik. Its strict adherence to neorealistic style gave little indication, however, of Fellini's creative prowess.
I Vitelloni is regarded as a transitional work that retains various neorealistic elements of The White Sheik while foreshadowing the broader thematic aspects of La Strada, the film which brought Fellini international renown. Fellini used a carnival metaphor in La Strada for his theme, a lonely person's search for love. Some view it as Fellini's first acknowledgement of Christian belief, seeing La Strada's structure as a pilgrimage. Others interpret it in more secular terms. In their opinion, Fellini is merely sympathetic towards all humankind.
La Dolce Vita caused an uproar in Italy due to its condemnation of Rome's upper class. Some critics misunderstood its mockery and felt Fellini was glorifying, rather than lampooning Roman society and its morals. Not surprisingly, it most upset the very people it attacked.
8 1/2 marks a new stylistic development and is considered his most poetic film. Though the story of a filmmaker, 8 1/2 is actually the story of a man in the process of finding himself artistically and personally. It, too, is subject to more complex interpretations that examine Fellini's concern with aging and religious ambivalence.
The films following 8 1/2 have been more intimate, interspersed with fantasy and reality. Some, such as Satyricon, are blatantly flamboyant, and it is in this film that his obsession with the grotesque and bizarre is most evident. His most recent film, Orchestra Rehearsal, received mixed critical reviews due to his controversial treatment of an orchestra rehearsal as a metaphor for the cyclical nature of life.
Although many critics have accused Fellini of immorality and conceit, his uniquely personal means of depicting life has resulted in innovative cinematic expression. Indeed, flaws are considered part of his personal statement. Fellini brushes aside accusations of egotism with "If I made a movie about a filet of sole, it would be about me." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)
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The first film of Federico Fellini, a highly touted young Italian director, to be shown publicly in these parts is a 4-year-old item called "The White Sheik."… In fairness to Signor Fellini, we will not speculate on his talents until we see a few more of his films.
For the truth is that this little item, which significantly has to do with the naive and farcical adventures of a hick honeymoon couple in Rome, is surprisingly broad and ingenuous, in the manner of early silent comedies. And, except for a few clever touches, it is devoid of the robust fun of the antique form….
We won't count this against Signor Fellini. This one was just a practice swing.
Bosley Crowther, "'The White Sheik'," in The New York Times (© 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 26, 1956, p. 37.
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In its internal consistency, La Strada is more than a remarkable example of personal style. We may then ask: What is Fellini's image of the world we live in, his conception of man and the ethic he advances? Men are separated by astral distances and do not realize their unity in the human condition. Obstinately and gropingly they quest for understanding and belonging: everyone needs someone….
Undeniably, man's highest quest is to give meaning to his existence in the world. But neither pure matter (here, a pebble) nor man as a pure existent have being, or else this quest, expressed through man's conscious action, would be superfluous. In Fellini's Pantheism, however, the meaning of things and people is pre-existent to man's conscious actions; it is offered from above, metaphysically, by a spiritual agent. Meaning precedes existence. Therefore, there is no need—and no place, even—for man to create his own meaning through action of his free will, by imposing human significances upon things….
Aside from metaphysical doctrine, we also find in La Strada Catholic mythology: the Franciscan world inhabited by saints, beggars and simpletons, the weak and the oppressed who alone possess the secret of happiness and salvation—a world antipodal to that where "wealth is a sign of God's grace" and salvation is sought through efficiency….
The temptation to create myths is known to all artists. But to believe in myths is to believe in the immutability of human nature, to believe that man is in the hands of ineluctable destinies. Beyond its poetic appeal, the secret of the "ineffably touching" quality in La Strada can be summed up by a phrase of Descartes: "All our failings come from the fact that we were once children." La Strada's philosophy is for those who have secretly remained children; for those too who, not having been previously exposed to the mithridatic effects of "angelism," will be quietly drugged by its magic….
Whether we should accept La Strada's message is a matter of taste—and depth. But while a great work of art cannot be created out of slight substance, an exquisite one can. Fellini has given the screen a poem of bitter and tender beauty. Between the triumphant chant of Man in the revolutionary epic and the morbid howling of egos in the psychological drama, Gelsomina will be heard intoning the plaint of a soul and offering up an inarticulate plea for mercy. (p. 14)
Edouard de Laurot, "'La Strada'—A Poem on Saintly Folly," in Film Culture (copyright 1956 by Film Culture), Vol. 2, No. 1, 1956, pp. 11-14.
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Avoiding the studied poetic imagery of [La Strada], Vitelloni is at once a subtler and a more perceptive work. The protagonists, no longer alienated from the conventions of civilization, are now isolated within the social organism. Existing under the watchful observation of family and friends, these vitelloni, too young to have fought in the war but old enough to have suffered its consequences, are trapped in a wasteland of their own devising.
The young wastrels chosen to represent the modern generation in Vitelloni are carefully differentiated as illustrations of Fellini's ambitious theme…. These young men, their thinking molded erratically by Hemingway, Nietzsche, and the Hollywood Myth, dream of big-game hunting in Africa with Esther Williams, but settle for a drunken evening at the local pool hall. (pp. 24-5)
Fellini is incisive in mocking the empty pretensions of these youths, and employs a series of trenchant symbolic images to illustrate this contemporary wasteland….
The distinction of Vitelloni, however, lies beyond the symbolism, in Fellini's understanding of his characters, and his unusual sympathy for their problems. The rich comedy of this film is intensified by the compassion of the director's approach. There have been many faithless lovers on the screen, but the childish Fausto, whose delighted pleasure in a successful attempt of seduction turns immediately to overwhelming remorse over the tears of his betrayed bride, is a unique and memorable characterization…. In a way of life seemingly marked by unexpected variations of conduct, the final pattern is constant. Fellini's subtle technique underlines this meaning, for this technically unconventional film ends within the confines of a rigid artistic frame. Leaving the other vitelloni to continue along their fixed and unregenerate path, Moraldo, the observer, makes his final agonizing decision, and exits from the scene. As his train slowly moves away to an unknown destination, the child who represents the new generation steps tentatively onto the railroad track, and, balancing precariously along this symbol of the open road, returns to the game of life. (p. 25)
Eugene Archer, "'Vitelloni'," in Film Culture (copyright 1956 by Film Culture), Vol. 2, No. 4, 1956, pp. 24-5.
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By casting the diminutive, clown-visaged, essentially sexless Giulietta Masina as his prostitute [in Le Notti di Cabiria], Fellini has automatically divorced himself from the currently fashionable exploitation of lurid themes. His treatment is neither sensual nor sentimental. By depicting Cabiria's spirited recovery from her ludicrous betrayal, Fellini indicates his concern with the indestructibility of his heroine, and by implication, of the human spirit generally. We sense that Cabiria's dunking in the stream is not her first setback, and Fellini quickly insures that it shall not be her last. (p. 19)
God enters Cabiria's life in the guise of a miracle-seeking procession to a shrine of the Virgin Mary. Here Fellini divides his attention between Cabiria, who prays for the intangible miracle of a new life, and a crippled procurer and dope-peddler, who has come to have his limbs healed. In a brilliantly composed and edited passage, Cabiria and the procurer alternately struggle through a milling, hysterical crowd of pentitents to reach the altar. At the edge of one overhead shot, an elaborate loudspeaker subtly mocks the spontaneity of the occasion. The forward motion of the scene relentlessly accelerates until the procurer throws away his crutches and collapses, writhing and threshing briefly on the floor before Fellini tastefully fades out the scene.
Fellini's treatment of this episode is crucial to an understanding of his general position. Although he does not believe in the more obvious manifestations of the miraculous (he was the author of Rossellini's controversial work, The Miracle), Fellini does not indulge in De Sica's sly anti-clericalism. The problem for Fellini is one of individual faith rather than social responsibility. The emotional power of the religious spectacle he creates suggests that God is sanctioned by man's need for faith, possibly even that God was created by man to supply hope for a better life. Fellini never spells out his personal commitments, but he seems to accept the Church as part of the furniture of his environment. There are indications in Cabiria as well as La Strada that Fellini is more kindly disposed to the humanistic influences within the Church than to its authoritarian dogmas. A mendicant friar whom Cabiria meets on a lonely road has a greater impact on her soul than all the elaborate machinery of the miracle festival. However, like Cabiria and Gelsomina and the nun in La Strada who shares Gelsomina's sense of rootlessness, the friar is something of an outcast in the eyes of the Church. To accept the universality of these people as Fellini apparently does, it is necessary to consider the notion that in some sense we are all outcasts in our moments of loneliness and in the individual paths we follow to our salvation. In any event, by stressing the pugnaticy and indestructibility of Cabiria, Fellini comes closer to creating a viable symbol of humanity than does De Sica with his whining protagonist in The Bicycle Thief. (pp. 19-20)
In Cabiria one sees the familiar landmarks of the anarchic sub-world of Fellini's imagination. Empty fields, roads, and streets set off by solitary travelers and distant buildings convey an image of the world as a lonely desert peopled by insubstantial De Chirico figures vainly striding towards mathematically improbable intersections of humanity. In such a world, social theories are meaningless since society itself seems to exist beyond the horizon of any given individual. Personal relationships, however tenuous, achieve an exaggerated intensity, and the mystiques of romantic illusion and religious faith become the indispensable components of existence. This would be a forbiddingly dismal view of life if Fellini did not provide compensations with a rich sense of humor and a perceptive eye for colorful detail. Fellini does not merely assert that life is worth living under the worst circumstances: he demonstrates the strange joys which flourish in the midst of loneliness and suffering. Without this demonstration, Cabiria would be an unbearably sadistic experience.
Fellini's work since The White Sheik has been a continuous adventure in symbolism within the framework of unusually complex plots. Yet, Fellini's technique does not lend itself to what we are accustomed to in the way of symbolic imagery. He does not give surfaces or objects any special gloss or lighting to emphasize their significance. There are never any meaningful shadows in a Fellini film, nor any unusual contrasts between sunlight and darkness. His shots, day or night, fall into a neutral zone of grayness. (p. 20)
It is odd to think of Fellini following in the footsteps of the neorealists, but it would be an error to consider his work completely apart from their influence. Indeed, it is the realism in Fellini's technique that enriches his symbols. He does not prettify reality although he tends to control it somewhat more than his predecessors. He does not shrink from dirt or grime or the garish ugliness of stage make-up. Indeed, like most neorealists, Fellini seems more at ease with settings of poverty and moderate means than with citadels of luxury. His cheap, noisy music hall in Cabiria seems more authentic than the plush, unusually quiet night club. Cabiria's drab house seems less of a caricature than the actor's incredibly palatial villa. It is not a question of visual reality, but one of camera treatment. Fellini looks at the poorer settings objectively, picking out their most characteristic elements. However, the luxurious settings are viewed satirically and only their most ridiculous features are emphasized.
Similarly, in Cabiria at least, the upper class people—the actor and his mistress—are seen mechanically from the viewpoint of a lowly wide-eyed prostitute. Fellini's unwillingness to study a wider range of social strata does not imply an inability to do so. Still, with all its merits, Cabiria may represent the point at which Fellini's concern with the stragglers of society begins to yield diminishing returns. Somehow Cabiria does not have the feel of greatness that Vitelloni communicates. In Vitelloni every character counts for something and every incident advances toward a common truth. Cabiria is too much of a one-woman show with Giulietta Masina's heroine achieving a sublime illumination while all the other characters linger in the darkness of deception and irresolution. Like La Strada, Fellini's other near-masterpiece, Cabiria has some of the limitations of an acting vehicle that sometimes loses its way on the road of life and forks out into the by-path of a virtuoso performance. (p. 21)
Andrew Sarris, "'Cabiria'," in Film Culture (copyright 1958 by Film Culture), Vol. IV, No. 1, January, 1958, pp. 18-21.
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La Dolce Vita amazes indeed the very faculty of eyes and ears. Eyes and ears are not just the targets, though, but recurring symbols for what author-director Fellini has on his mind. (p. 425)
The music of the film parodies itself, and the point of Fellini's images of sound seems to be that they fail. It was, of all people, Robinson Crusoe (though he was surely not the first) who pointed out that sound and language are the means of which human beings can achieve more than an animal relation with each other. Sound and language in La Dolce Vita, however, seem always to fail to create such a relationship. (p. 426)
La Dolce Vita seems more tied to reality than Fellini's earlier work, but only "seems." It really has that same strange hankering after myth as his other films. His script for The Miracle reached essentially toward the traditional mating in the fields of sun-god and mortal woman. The White Sheik with its horseplay on different kinds of hats balanced the impotent male of church and marriage against the absurdly sexual male of the fumetti (visual images again). I Vitelloni constitutes a parody of the whole male pantheon, while, in Le notti di Cabiria, a tawdry and pathetic image of Venus renews herself in water after venal Adonises have chosen and abused her. La Strada is the clearest of them all, a classic agon between eiron and alazon over a (more or less) mute woman that could have come straight out of Cornford's Origins of Attic Comedy. La Dolce Vita has the same theme and mythic dimension as the others, men overpowered physically, morally, or psychologically by the gorgonlike image of woman. (p. 427)
In this matriarchal world, men become mere consorts, lover-kings, ridiculous, impotent….
Throughout the film, from the vulgarized Christ at the opening to the transvestite dance of the homosexuals at the end, man seems weak and helpless. Throughout, women lead men—Maddalena leads Marcello to the prostitute's apartment; Sylvia bounds up the steps of St. Peter's leaving behind clusters of exhausted Romans, and the haunted-castle sequence ends with the old principessa-matriarch leading the shamefaced "men" of the tribe off to Mass. Throughout, men seem awed, overcome by women, often trying to make themselves into women, sinking down into women. The men seem unable to get places; they have to clamber, grope, fly, break into places women seem to sink into effortlessly. (p. 429)
The film, then, uses its two central images, sight and sound, to set off men against women. The women are goddesses, mythical, unreal belles dames sans merci, the sight of whom bewitches men into a kingdom of improvisation and illusion. Man is impotent, helpless, Marcello's dying father or Steiner, with his sounds and language, frozen, turned into stone by the fixity of his life. (Indeed, sacred to Cybele was a small meteoric stone acus, supposed to have fallen from the heavens.) Marcello, Everyman, is caught between these two alternatives, male and female, his mistress vainly seeking to play the role of goddess and petrify him into matrimony.
These themes all come together in the final dreary episode, the despairingly hedonistic party that follows Marcello's appearance at the scene of Steiner's suicide. (p. 430)
As with any important work, La Dolce Vita defines its own art. Fellini's concern about turning people into images finds its expression in what might be called the rotogravure style of the film. Fellini had both sets and costumes of La Dolce Vita designed to photograph in exaggerated blacks and whites, so that everything in the film would have the hard, contrasty look of a flash photo. The film itself seems almost to be composed as a series of stills rather than as a moving picture. Fellini's sense of the new, the unexpected, his theme of improvisation, finds its expression in the episodic structure (here, as in Vitelloni, this episodic quality seems a weakness of the film; only in La Strada, it seems to me, did Fellini overcome this his besetting vice). Fellini's brilliant use of dissolves also suggests a kind of impulse or improvisation (the best example being the opening dissolve where the gilt image of Christ suddenly, startlingly becomes a gilt Siamese dancer). This sense of improvisation, by the way, is not inappropriate for perhaps the only major director in the world who likes working on a chaotic set, who insists a script can only be an outline and "writes" his pictures by improvising on the set….
The good, grey Times insists on a Fellini "taking the temperature of a sick world," and that is no doubt true, but it is also a Fellini preoccupied with dehumanizing people, making them into things (Cabiria) or heroes (La Strada) or gods (The White Sheik), but in every case, dehumanizing them, making them into images—not an unnatural preoccupation for a man whose work in life is to turn people into celluloid. (p. 431)
Norman N. Holland, "The Follies Fellini" (copyright © 1961 by Norman N. Holland; reprinted by permission), in The Hudson Review, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Autumn, 1961, pp. 425-31.
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Fellini's La Dolce Vita is a great bas-relief of the day-dreams and the ideals of an age—the rootless hedonism, the sensationalised religion, the spiritual nostalgias and an erotism which is blatant and obsessive because it is rootless….
If ever erotism and social context were inseparable, it is in La Dolce Vita. The film itself is massive yet disjointed, its structure recalls the tumbled slabs of a Roman temple. One feels Fellini chose the images that he fancied; because he is a poet, and, more important, a poet who does not disdain to use images which have common currency, these images are solid and relevant. Still, their import has to be felt rather than restricted by a literal exegisis (art always suggests more than it says), which is why everybody can understand it except most critics. (p. 17)
Raymond Durgnat, "Some Mad Love and the Sweet Life" (© copyright Raymond Durgnat 1962; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 8, No. 6, March, 1962, pp. 16-18, 41.∗
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Like Baroque art, of which it is a belated golden ray, "8 1/2" is complicated but not obscure. It is more Handel than Beethoven—objective and classical in spirit as against the romantic subjectivism we are accustomed to. It's all there, right on the surface, like a Veronese or a Tiepolo….
[In] "8 1/2" Fellini borrows from everybody, just like Shakespeare. Borrowing on this scale is creative: "8 1/2" is an epitome of the history of the art. His borrowings are also creative because they are returned with his fingerprints all over them. The childhood episodes are Bergmanesque chiaroscuro, as the great scene on the beach when La Saraghina dances for the schoolboys, which echoes, right down to the brutal beat of the music, an even greater beach scene, that between the soldiers and the clown's wife at the beginning of Naked Night: but this is a Latin Bergman, sensuous and dramatic and in no way profound. (p. 152)
Dwight Macdonald, "Fellini's Masterpiece" (copyright © 1964 by Dwight Macdonald; reprinted by permission of the author), in Esquire, Vol. LXI, No. I, January, 1964, pp. 149-52.
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What we are seeing [in Il Bidone] is Fellini in a kind of Stylistic transition, and a search, too, for an adequate expression of the director's highly personalized vision of, as he has said, "the terrible difficulty people have in talking to each other—the old problem of communication, the desperate anguish to be with, the desire to have a real, authentic relationship with another person." Il Bidone … is the second part of what Fellini has called "my trilogy of solitude" and the religious theme which so permeates all his work is easy to trace through these three films: in La Strada, the anguish of Zampano on the dark beach; Augusto's ritual death on the hillside in Il Bidone; and [in Le Notte di Cabiria] Cabiria's symbolic resurrection, a sweeping re-affirmation of life. But this film is the weakest of the three; Fellini quite obviously knows what he wants to say, but he seems in Il Bidone unsure about exactly how to say it. (p. 55)
Around [an] essentially simple tale is woven the sur-neorealistic fabric of Fellini's own dream world which manifests itself in images of the seashore, of empty landscapes and fairgrounds, of lonely piazzas with a fountain bubbling, of empty streets, of big, expensive cars, of bizarre nightclubs and loud parties, of alienation and, ultimately, of life without resolution…. But there are scenes too which come close to disaster, which approach, tease and barely escape sheer bathos. Augusto's first meeting with his daughter is at once too pat and too abrupt to be entirely believable…. (pp. 55-6)
Social reality (the scene in the slum with the trio passing themselves off as government representatives of the new housing project), spiritual reality (the conflict between Augusto and the peasant girl …), metaphysical reality (Crawford's walk home, alone, New Year's morning across an empty piazza with two whores casually accosting him as he moves along the rainy street), all have been touched upon, but it is not until [the final scene when Augusto is stoned] that Fellini finally manages to probe any deeper than his brilliant surface. And by now it is almost too late. (p. 56)
Admittedly Il Bidone seems to be more underkeyed than the other two sections of the trilogy, but these several glaring abridgements only make it seem clumsy and uncertain.
Il Bidone remains an interesting addition to the Fellini canon and a flawed but vital second part of the trilogy. What we see in it perhaps most of all is the disquieting, almost painful struggle of one of the major film poets of our time to make a statement about which he seems uncomfortable, from which he seems almost at time to retreat. (p. 57)
John C. Cocks, Jr., "Film Reviews: 'Il Bidone'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1964 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Fall, 1964, pp. 55-7.
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[Luci del Varieta is the first real Fellini film.] It is so, obviously, in the subject-matter: the faded underside of show-business, the gaudy, tawdry, improvised world of one-night stands and not knowing where the next meal is coming from. Here Fellini is speaking from his own experience of people he has known…. What makes it a film which no one but Fellini could have invented (both conceived, that is, and put on the screen) may perhaps best be illustrated not by generalities but by studying two particular sequences: the party at the castle and the wanderings of Kecco, the comedian-manager, after he leaves his new star Liliane one night in the city. Each is developed according to a ravelling and unravelling process which is to become characteristic of the key sequences in Fellini's work: from a simple beginning, through a complex action in which the main characters and their problems become swallowed up, or nearly, and then a gradual disentanglement which leaves them alone at the crisis of their troubles before they and those around them are scattered—to a new and probably joyless day, I nearly said, taking it for granted that all these scenes take place at night, and their aftermath in those bleak, cheerless dawns which punctuate Fellini's films with confirmation of the old despair. (p. 19)
As might be supposed in a private world so coherent as Fellini's, there are certain backgrounds—and, naturally, the characters and situations they so intimately complement—which recur again and again, and so acquire, beyond their general effectiveness in colouring our vision of what takes place in front of them, the quasi-independent significance of a constant symbol. Once one starts trying to pin them down in this way, though, it is all too tempting to force everything into the pattern, and clearly Fellini's mind does not work that way. (p. 20)
[This can be illustrated by a consideration of] the sea, which dominates much of Lo Sciecco Bianco and plays a significant part in all his other feature films except Il Bidone, where its marked absence is equally significant. In Lo Sciecco Bianco it might be taken to symbolize romantic adventure: the young bourgeois bride runs off from her conventional tourist's honeymoon in Rome and encounters her favourite dream, the 'white sheik' who stars in a silly photo-romance she follows, on the sunny sands by a glistening sea. In other films it appears much more gloomily as perhaps the reminder of impossible dreams, unrealized possibilities (the grey uninviting sea of I Vitelloni, the bland sea from which the monstrous fish is drawn in La Dolce Vita), and Fellini commits himself no further than to say that for him in general the sea is a comforting mystery, conveying the idea of permanence, of eternity, of the primal element. But, he adds, of course it takes colour in any given situation from the character and attitude of those who see it: again the inescapable union of foreground and background, of people and things in Fellini's work, which makes such terms as 'objective' and 'subjective' quite irrelevant to the central phenomenon and totally incapable of indicating its nature. The sea is a real sea; the sea is also a sort of extension of the characters' moods and attitudes, a mirror to which their natures are held up; a stage further, and both characters and location are embodiments, or rather the single unified embodiment, of their creator's moods and attitudes—those of the little God who within his own world can make everything be as he would have it be. (p. 21)
There is something almost womblike about a Fellini film; Fellini does not so much sympathize with his characters—often he clearly doesn't approve of them at all—as envelop them, and however uncomfortable they may be in the world he has made for them there is always the comfort, for the spectator, of knowing that they are watched over and in some way protected—perhaps because they are fragments of Fellini himself, or of the past which has made him, and so he cannot bear to see them totally lost. It is the consciousness, basically, in Fellini and in us, that by salvaging these fragments and embodying them in works of art that he has saved them, that temps perdu has become temps retrouvé. (pp. 22-3)
All this, of course, even if it conveys a little of the overall effect a Fellini film has, is impossibly vague unless one can explain also to some extent how he does it: it is one thing to say that Fellini is all his characters and all his places, quite another to show how this identification is made a reality on film. Perhaps the best place to start doing so is with his [second] film, and for many still his masterpiece, I Vitelloni. (p. 23)
[What] is Fellini's attitude to his film vitelloni? There has been much argument, and in the abstract, judging solely from the script, a number of solutions are possible. The film might, for instance, be a light social satire about wild boys with a happy ending when the two principals reform and opt respectively for happy fatherhood and a new constructive life somewhere else. It might be a grim picture of a lost generation, cut adrift in the modern world from their roots in a settled faith and a stable social order. It might be a denunciation of the decadent petty bourgeoisie A case, of sorts, could be made out for any of these views from the script, but the film itself rejects them all. To begin with, it is clear at once from the way the actors are directed that though none of the characters is exactly a shining hero, they are certainly not either double-dyed villains, but merely contradictory, likeable, insufficient human beings. Nor can the 'happy ending' of the ringleader, Fausto, with his wife and their child be taken at its face value: his last appearance, playing childishly with his new son under the troubled gaze of his wife, makes it clear that the child is just another new toy, and that nothing has really changed. And as for the view of the film as a moralistic tract for the times, one can set against it scene after scene in which the camera is very much with the characters, involving us willy-nilly on their side, inviting us irresistibly to sympathize with them instead of shake our heads.
The first way that this is done is by a very flexible, subjective attitude to time. The time of the film is the vitelloni's time, not ours. It can expand suddenly for an improvised dance in the street, an impromptu game with the stones or, stretched out beyond endurance, it can crucify its victims in an aching void before the aimless, endless fury of an icy, windswept sea. Equally it can contract as the camera weaves and dodges and turns in an ecstasy of swift motion at the climactic ball sequence which swallows them all and then at length spews them out into the empty, unwelcoming streets. We are with them; this is the way not so much that it was as that it felt. And as the film progresses it becomes heavier, as the characters becomes heavier with the weight of ills unremedied and chances missed…. (pp. 23-4)
[There is a] magical tenderness which irradiates Fellini's evocation of this life no longer wholly innocent but yet rejecting the fruits of experience and the adult responsibilities that come with them. It is an intensely romantic view, of course, and the physical appearance of the film is similarly romanticized: the real streets taking on the aspect of deserted baroque stage sets; the delicate, diffused greys of the railway and Moraldo's morning departure; the harshly etched scene on the shore; the almost expressionist lighting of the theatre sequences; the hysterical, nearly indecipherable eddies of movement which rip and swirl over the screen during the showily impressionistic ball scene. Indeed the vitelloni, whose real background one half appreciates to be drab and ordinary, live through Fellini's eyes in a world full of unexpected, inexplicable beauties…. (p. 25)
The technical means by which Fellini achieves his effects, here as elsewhere in his work, are in principle very simple, though the application of the simple principles is often extremely complex. Fellini's films are built round a number of long, sustained scenes worked out in the characters' own good time: not only are we encouraged to adjust our time-tense to that of the characters, but we are forcibly compelled to, since there is no escape in constant changes of locale, artful intercutting of separate sequences or anything like that: once we embark on a key sequence we are with it obsessively through to the end. Fellini loves to begin his scene with a long shot establishing at once the place, the number of people involved and their spatial (and generally by implication emotional) relationship with each other and their surroundings. This done (as in the scene on the seashore, or the aftermath of the ball) he can move in to a closer examination of his actors…. [The] face, one sometimes suspects, is for him the ultimate in symbolic landscape, the object which is at once a thing-in-itself and a token of something more. (pp. 25-6)
[While] proclaiming himself a realist and indeed making [La Strada], save for the employment of professional actors, in a way of which even the earliest, most doctrinaire theorists of neo-realism would have to approve, Fellini has produced something which has more genuine validity on practically any level one can think of than that of straightforward realistic observation of things as they are. And in doing so, of course, he has shown up the fallacy of doctrinaire neo-realism very clearly: its failure to accept that film realism is entirely in the eye of the beholder. We may say that Rossellini's early films are more objective—and therefore more 'realistic'—than Fellini's, and mean something by it; but what we mean is that when his camera is turned on a scene it is likely to be recorded with the emphases falling where they would normally fall for most of us, and with the ordinary and typical receiving more attention than the atypical and extraordinary. When Fellini looks at the same scene, though, with equally 'realistic' intentions, it is precisely the extraordinary, unexpected, and unpredictable which catches his eye.
When, for example, at one point in La Strada Gelsomina is sitting alone and dejected by the side of the road a solitary, riderless horse suddenly traverses the screen the effect is positively surrealistic: totally arbitrary, yet giving an instant visual reinforcement to the mood of the scene. The lost horse might well be a figment of Gelsomina's imagination, an image of her own state. But it is also a real horse, and its appearance here at this time is not impossible, only mildly peculiar. There may, for all we know, have actually been a stray horse there at the time of shooting which was seized on and pressed into service, in the same way that the three musicians whom elsewhere she falls in behind as they march along playing cheerfully to the empty countryside were, in fact, itinerant musicians who turned up in just this way. But what has struck Fellini about the horse and the musicians is their peculiarity and oddity, their—terrible word to the neo-realist—picturesqueness, their ability to embody the mental states of the protagonist, rather than their value as documents of any sort. All Fellini's films filter and select—and therefore colour and distort—external realities in this way, but the process is so much clearer, so stripped of ambiguity in La Strada that it can at once be recognized and accepted for what it is.
Up to I Vitelloni, or even Un' Agenzia Matrimoniale,… it would have been quite possible, if increasingly odd, to continue regarding Fellini as a realist with a special gift for social satire, but La Strada makes it clear (or should have made it clear, though by La Dolce Vita many seemed to have forgotten the lesson) that he is nothing of the sort and never has been: his forte, even when his films have nearly all the trappings of external reality in their expected places, is symbolic fantasy of almost baroque elaboration and artificiality (the word, in this context, had no hint of denigration). Looking back from the viewpoint of La Strada at the earlier films we have been considering, indeed, we are likely to find that the perspective changes everything, and that brilliant though the touches of observation are (whatever else one may say about Fellini's films, every frame of them is undeniably bursting with life) it is the non-realistic side which now comes uppermost in the mind, so that even the most obviously comic and 'social' in its outlook, Lo Sciecco Bianco, comes in retrospect to look like a variation on the plot of La Strada, played for laughs and with the male and female roles reversed. (pp. 29-30)
[The] later films, while not deserting Fellini's basic source of inspiration in his own experience, become increasingly complex in their handling of their resources, the interplay between 'real' reality and imaginative reality becomes increasingly involved and elusive. (p. 30)
[At] its inception La Dolce Vita had in it the makings of a summary of Fellini so far, a complete statement of his mature views on all the recurrent themes in his work. And so, perhaps too readily, it has been taken to be by many critics, a savage denunciation of the world as he sees it now, bringing his spiritual autobiobraphy on film up to date with a gesture of despair because the visionary gleam of his childhood (which shone most brightly in La Strada) has now faded for ever. This seems to me a dangerously partial view of what the film actually says, and an evident distortion of Fellini's interests and intentions in making it…. [It] is highly doubtful if Fellini ever sets out to make a film of ideas, putting forward a certain interpretation of society and human personality: these may emerge, though invariably defined exclusively in terms of the single, special case (his films are more like novels or fairy-tales than allegories), but embodying them never seems to be the first impulse towards creation. (p. 39)
[We] appreciate the film. To begin with, we should accept the immediate impact of the film on our senses, which is not at all that of a reasoned argument against a way of life and its representatives. Rather, it is as a series of vast decorative compositions on the same basic theme, like, say, Doré's illustrations to Dante's Inferno. They trace a sort of intellectual rake's progress downwards in seven giant steps, represented by seven confused, dreamlike nights and seven terrible dawns stripping away whatever illusions the nights have left. One of the compositions, that involving the mistress of Marcello, the central character, and his curious philosopher friend Steiner, is fragmented to provide a sort of continuity, but when put together the pieces of this fit into the same pattern as all the rest, which is precisely the scene structure which we have noticed as the basic shape throughout Fellini's work, the principals starting alone, being drawn into a more and more intricate pattern of action as the night draws on, and then unwound, left alone to face their own personal problems, and scattered as day breaks. (p. 40)
Fellini's Inferno leaves us looking sadly across the stream at Paradise; a paradise of sorts is assumed to exist, somewhere else, back in time or removed in space, but whichever it is, and whatever the precise nature of this paradise may be we are not told. However, the very fact of its existence, and the way that its existence is expressed, serves to discountenance the view that La Dolce Vita is a complete picture of Fellini's imaginative world at the present stage in his career. It is, rather, an exhaustive exploration of one side of that world: the dark side which we have previously encountered with some admixture, particularly in I Vitelloni and Il Bidone. (p. 42)
Fellini's habitual selection of reality could hardly go further: here all is monstrous, misshapen, overgrown, the settings, the clothes of the characters, the faces, startlingly beautiful or shockingly grotesque, but never ordinary. All these elements are found in life, everything that appears in the film may well have been seen somewhere in the streets or clubs of Rome, but this unremitting concentration on the peculiar, the exceptional, the larger-than-life gives the film, within its superficially realistic coating, a feverish, expressionistic quality which takes it in effect farther away from reality than anything Fellini had previously done, even La Strada. 'This town is not Rome—it is my Rome,' says Fellini, 'a town which has its external appearance in common with Rome because that is the place I live in and know best, but is really a creation of my own imagination.'… Fellini's Rome corresponds no more and no less to the world we normally live in than his time—the long, hectic nights, the almost non-existent day—corresponds with ours; that is to say, it has imaginative validity as a nightmare image of modern life, but hardly any literal validity as documentary picture of things as they prosaically are.
I must apologize for labouring this point, which ought to be obvious, but the film has been so much misunderstood as a piece of savage social criticism, an inside picture of Roman high life by a man who knows (and praised or blamed according to the critic's assessment of its efficacy in these fields) that I can only suppose it is not so obvious after all. The very look of the film, surely, ought to put such commentators on their guard: the bizarre locations; the intricately baroque chiaroscuro effects of light and shade in the night scenes, often not even vaguely explained in realistic terms; the highly artificial composition of many of the shots, the complete antithesis of unvarnished actuality; the bold use of symbolic trappings like the deceptive echochamber from which Marcello makes his proposal to Maddalena; the occasional excursions into complete unreality like the instantaneous and in this instance overtly subjective dawn over the fountain of Trevi. And yet, and yet….
La Dolce Vita, then, remains a monument, and a very imposing one, to Fellini's doubts and fears. Life here is hell, and no one escapes from it, like Moraldo, or learns from it, even in extremes, like Zampano and Augusto, or even manages somehow to pass through it unscathed, like Cabiria. Relentlessly the film gathers force, as one after another every escape route Marcello might consider is closed in his face, and instance piles on instance; it works not by logical argument, but sheer agglomeration of circumstances, each one weighing the protagonist down further. But there is always one character, the girl on the beach, free from all this, living in a different world, and it is towards this world, with its clear, pearly grey light (visually very much the world of La Strada), that our attention is turned in the closing sequence. (pp. 43-4)
[8 1/2 seems] to be the ultimate summary and personal confession that La Dolce Vita was rather prematurely taken to be. (p. 45)
The hero of his film … is a film director with all the means of making a film at his disposal and no film to make. Or at least, he has a lot of ideas for a film, but they will not crystallize into a coherent script; essentially because, though he does not at first realize it, he is trying through the film to work out the problems of his own life, and so cannot make sense of the film's pattern until he has made sense of his own life as well. The action of the film takes place at a weird and dreamlike Edwardian spa (one occasionally suspects parody of L'Année Dernière à Marienbad lurking at the back of Fellini's mind) where Guido, the director, is taking a cure, scouting locations, and generally trying to sort things out while a gargantuan set of a rocket-base rises inexorably on a near-by lot and the whole machinery of a mammoth production little by little engulfs him. Throughout the film we, and he, flit backwards and forwards between dream and reality, sometimes seeing bits of the film he means to make as they form in his mind, sometimes the dreams which come to him while he sleeps, and sometimes the discussions with his producer, his unhelpful script collaborator and others in which ideas are considered, modified, or rejected. Indeed the film, finally, proves to have a structure rather like Gide's Les Faux Monnayeurs, being at once a film about making a film, and the film which in the process is made, and containing in addition a complete auto-critique, in that the harshest things which can be said against it—that it is pretentious, empty; that Fellini has nothing to say and does not alter that fact simply by openly admitting it to be true—are already said, by the director himself or by the critical intellectual he works with. (p. 46)
Guido has in the end to face the fact that even suicide, of which he dreams as the climax to a disastrous press conference, is not possible for him, and that the must just settle down to live with his own contradictions; not to seek the one, 'true', uncomplicated him, but to accept instead that all the different aspects of his character are necessarily and inescapably part of him for the rest of his life. His only answer is the classic artist's answer: to try again to make sense in his art of what in his life remains ever unsatisfactory and elusive. In his life he may be hopelessly incapable of coming to terms with the world around him, but in his own world of cinema, where he is a little god, he can order things as he thinks they should be…. (p. 49)
The material of 8 1/2 evidently, and deliberately, recalls at many points that of Fellini's earlier films. Favourite images recur: the sea, suggesting freedom and infinity, the empty square at night as a setting for self-examination. So do Fellini's two principal types of women, the thin, angular, exacting wife and the plump, warm, complacent mistress, as well as the unseizable, mysterious innocent who passes momentarily across the scene, like the boy in I Vitelloni and the girl on the beach in La Dolce Vita…. The list could be continued almost indefinitely; 8 1/2 is rather like a poet's notebook, which can only exert its full fascination for someone already well acquainted with the author's previous work and his whole imaginative world.
But that is only one aspect of the film. It remains part of the film, to the extent that it perhaps never quite achieves total independence as a self-sufficient work of art (one wonders what someone who had never seen a Fellini film before would make of it). But if the comparison with a poet's notebook suggests that the film is unpolished, unfinished, a succession of parts which never add up to a whole, this is quite unfair. In construction the film is Fellini's most intricate and in some ways his most masterly; the pieces, apparently so different and incompatible one with another, ultimately fall into place with fantastic precision and inevitability. Above all, it is a triumph of style; a new, fuller, wider-ranging Fellini style which finally leaves realism, in any sense that a neo-realist would recognize, far, far behind…. Fellini has evolved an ornate, extravagant visual style to match the fantasy of his plot. Not only do the dream sequences veer towards the expressionistic in their nightmarish exaggeration—never have we been drawn more deeply by the camera into the centre of Fellini's world; never have we been forced more ruthlessly to live by the characters' time rather than our own—but the 'real' scenes are often equally dreamlike, as in Le Tentazioni del Dottor Antonio, so that the edges of dream and reality are constantly blurring for us, as they are for Guido. When we start with a blanched, ghostly panorama of the springs themselves, with dozens of mysterious figures in black standing out in hallucinatory relief, many of them extremely strange and grotesque, are we in a dream or in life? In life, as it turns out, but by the time we can be really sure the significance of the distinction is liable to escape us. In 8 1/2 Fellini clearly shows himself to be what we have always at least half suspected him of being, a baroque fantasist whose private world has nothing more than a few accidents of apparent time and place in common with any 'real' world which we may obstinately persist in supposing we know and can recognize. (pp. 49-51)
As a film-writer, as a creator of plots and characters, Fellini is remarkably gifted, but by no means unique: where his real greatness lies is the complete certainty with which he builds up his films not by a series of careful translations and transformations from a purely verbal origin, but by a process of co-ordination, bringing together and into focus sights and sounds, the character he sketches on a menu-card and the place he knew as a child, the hut on the Via Veneto and the face on the Spanish Steps, the fold of a dress and the manner of speech of a tawdry vaudevillian or a sleek aristocrat, into one complex, coherent, indivisible film. If any creator expresses himself in film first, last and always, it is Fellini; his films may sometimes appall the nicer sensibilities with their unashamed sentimentality, their occasional self-indulgence, their complete lack of inhibition, but these, if faults they are, are the necessary faults of his virtues. Above all with his films, even the most complex, one has the feeling of instantaneous creation, an undivided and joyful process from first conception to finished result. If that is not the mark of a great film-creator I don't know what is. (p. 51)
John Russell Taylor, "Federico Fellini," in his Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear: Some Key Film-Makers of the Sixties (reprinted by permission of Hill & Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; in Canada, by A D Peters & Co Ltd; copyright © 1964 by John Russell Taylor), Hill & Wang, 1964, pp. 15-51.
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[Juliet of the Spirits] is specious and hollow, in addition to being very boring; and its failures bring into focus what has been bothering me about Fellini's more celebrated successes: they are indebted less to true perception than to carnival showmanship….
In La Dolce Vita Fellini revealed himself to be deeply attracted by the very things he was pretending to ridicule or expose (upper-class orgies, intellectual parties, Catholic ritual and pageantry, Anika Ekberg's chest); and in "8 1/2" he dropped the mask of impersonality entirely, initiating some superficial explorations of the unconscious which, for all their disarming self-irony and technical dazzle, seemed to me little more than a cinematic acting out of his own autoerotic fantasies, resolved by an outrageously dishonest conclusion. In Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini's artistic flashiness and moral ambiguity are even more conspicuous; and while the fantasies he invents are now supposed to belong to a middle-aged housewife, they are still more appropriate to a Hollywood producer with a gaudy mind, or a pubescent male weaned on girlie magazines. (p. 22)
The film is well-photographed, and some of its ideas are interesting as a series of visual balances—the conflict between sex and religion, for example, is illustrated by a contrast between a bevy of blowsy whores with smeared lipstick and exposed breasts, and a somber procession of hooded, faceless nuns in black habits. Still for all the obvious expertise, the conflict itself has no more depth than a secularized morality play; while the development of the action despite the manipulation of dream images, owes less to Strindberg than to soap opera. I am well aware that narrative line is of little importance in this film, but it is still disturbing to find what little plot there is so predictable and sentimental; and the climax, dependent as it is on Giulietta's defiance of a mother who is of marginal importance in the action, is simply arbitrary and contrived.
The film has even less validity as a study of character, for the female protagonist is convincing neither as a woman nor as a human being…. Giulietta is simply a sponge, soaking up visual experience, a passive witness to expert cinematography, whose responses and attitudes are commonplace in the extreme…. (p. 23)
Fellini's use of color … while vivid and daring at first glance, is ultimately too garish to serve his purposes…. [His] strategic error is to superimpose fantasy on romance; but there is not sufficient difference between the two styles, and he compounds his error by his choice of background music—a tinny ragtime score, dominated by saxophone and piano, which marks every action that should be real and convincing as a piece of romantic nostalgia. In short, where Fellini could once be trusted implicitly, his choices have not become eccentric, doubtful, and random, and one begins to suspect that he will sacrifice anything—form, character, coherence itself—for the sake of a sensational image or an ingenious effect. (pp. 23-4)
At the present moment, Fellini is using his camera as an expensive toy, and his love of luxury is accounting for a lot of fakery and sham. Unless he can learn to control his excesses, his films, I suspect, will continue to deteriorate until they become mere stimulants for the jaded appetites of precisely that world that he travesties and mocks. (p. 24)
Robert Brustein, "La Dolce Spumoni" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The New York Review of Books, Vol. V, No. 10, December 23, 1965, pp. 22-4.
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Fellini's imagination is inexhaustible. He rarely uses scripts, but follows his own inspiration from moment to moment to decide what sequence to adopt, working out the details, via facendo, as he goes along.
What emerges is the full and varied complexity of modern life. The existential noia, the lethargy of man face to face with his reconstituted tabula rasa, is but a single moment, a small corner of that life. Fellini does not dissipate his artistic energies in the desperate task of trying to extract meaning out of a meaningless existence. The existential theme is there, not as a philosophical axiom, but as a subtle epiphany which illuminates the vast canvas at key moments. The naive prostitute, the pimp, the aristocratic dandies, the corrupt society women, the humanitarian writer, the shrewd peasant, the pathetic yet laughter-provoking idiot, the suicide, the insensitive cruel children, the everyday saints, the callous men and women who know how and where to pick their ripe pleasures, the bigots who pray for the salvation of others; the secularism of priests who have lost sight of their divine mission, the self-effacing beauty of the pure-hearted—all are depicted with human compassion and understanding in what T. S. Eliot has described as the dramatic objectivity of the "third voice of poetry."
In the end, Fellini too shows the false values of the world to be self-destructive. There is perhaps a greater feeling of despair in his films than in Antonioni's, because the loss can be measured against an articulate reality. The realization of the meaning of love, in La Strada, is felt to be hopeless precisely because it rises from a powerful contrast between the man's rough indifference and the girl's inexpressible sympathy; the abandonment in La Dolce Vita is felt all the more keenly in the insistence with which Fellini draws the nostalgic yearning of the hero to lose himself in some all-consuming faith; in Nights of Cabiria, simple childlike trust though crushed by petty interests and deceit seems somehow to rise above its humiliation. Fellini's stories strike deep in the human soul; his characters cast a haunting spell over us. We are painfully aware of hard truths in the midst of commonplaces, of noble spirits touching, for a moment, spiritual depravity and illuminating with sudden insight ordinary, everyday events. The procession in La Strada, like Dante's pageant at the top of Purgatory, is recognizable in all its details, but the final effect is strange and nightmarish; the all-night orgy in La Dolce Vita is, in its isolated moments, perfectly clear, but the surrealistic Matelda-like encounter at the end, jolts us into perplexity; the scene between the prostitute and the magician in Nights of Cabiria seems perfectly commonplace as we see it unfold, but inserts itself into our troubled consciousness later. (pp. 563-64)
In 8 1/2 we see the drama of life with all its confusion of values, its pain, its sordid pleasures, its human mistakes, the short-lived joys which haunt the memory but can never be recaptured. The innocent love of the past and the rote-like lust of the present are shown side by side in an expressive juxtaposition that is grim and sad and beautiful all at once. (p. 564)
Anne Paolucci, "The Italian Film: Antonioni, Fellini, Bolognini," in The Massachusetts Review (reprinted from The Massachusetts Review; © 1966 The Massachusetts Review, Inc.), Vol. VII, No. 3, Summer, 1966, pp. 556-67.∗
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[Taken by themselves the] reels of dazzling visual images [in Giulietta degli Spiriti] may well come to seem gratuitous and even tiresome. A terribly earnest and pathetically ingenuous wife makes her psychological journey through facts and hallucinations in sequences of astonishing exoticism. The scenes are often not so much in color as coloristic, and the settings, both actual and hallucinated—with no particularly insistent demarcation—are not so much extravagant as extravaganza-ed. Virtually every shot has a contrived air, to the spent and twitching point of mannerism. Hence the frequent characterization of the film as "baroque." But the dialogue, precisely by being just as "frou-frou," just as "spumone," as the visual style, does something other than provide information and develop a story. Dialogue turns out to be a way of life in Giulietta's milieu, or more exactly, a way of escape from a genuine life of action for the people who surround her. (p. 22)
Fellini's strategy for accomplishing this mutual reinforcement of dialogue and image is not to emphasize to any abnormal degree what things are said, but to emphasize more than usual the ways in which they are said…. When the visual exoticism is thus taken in conjunction with the unremitting dialogue, it ceases to look gratuitously mannered or exaggerated; for together they are the warp and the woof of a major theme of Fellini's work: the incessant conflict between the comparative concreteness of Giulietta's responses, however ingenuous and even hallucinatory they may sometimes be, and the triviality of her milieu….
Another theme of the film, as has been frequently noted, is the conflict in Giulietta between the sentimentalized asceticism of her convent childhood and the sexual libertinism of the Italian bourgeoisie—which includes her own repressed, bourgeois fantasies. But Fellini has set this erotic disturbance in a context of deafening glibness that gives to the personal dilemma of Giulietta a larger and unusual social setting. Words themselves, if you like, are one of the chief problems of Giulietta's life with her "grand openings" husband and well-heeled friends….
The role of dialogue as a false mode of behavior, as a substitute for action, rather than as a means of effective communication of ideas and feelings, is thus firmly established from the outset, and returns again and again throughout the narrative. (p. 23)
The film is … about, not only infidelity, eroticism, and childhood repression, but a profound and far less explored evil, personal and social, having nothing directly to do with sex as such. Dante, I suggest, would have placed Giulietta's entourage, with his famed sense for the really relevant fault, not in the upper circles among the lustful, but deep in the malbowges, where are punished abusers of words, sinners against one of the highest of human faculties.
The dialogue thus provides, it would seem, the social context of the film at least as strikingly and satirically as do the visible settings. Fellini has produced an auditory Inferno which exactly parallels the visual phantasmagoria, and his Giulietta emerges as a kind of sacred fool in a perfectly hellish world of talk, talk, talk. (p. 24)
Forrest Williams, "Fellini's Voices," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1968 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXI, No. 4, Spring, 1968, pp. 21-5.
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Go to see Spirits of the Dead about an hour after it begins. It's a three-part film—three Poe horror stories made by three different directors. The first two are silly bores, by the justly disregarded Roger Vadim and the greatly overrated Louis Malle. The third is by Federico Fellini. And his horror story is joyous.
Joyous, not because Fellini has no sense of the macabre—after all, his story ends with decapitation—but because he revels in making films and because his darting invention never stops playing around and through the picture, so that even this film of terror plunges us into a sort of Satanic champagne. Fellini's career easily divides into two periods: the first, in which his cinematic mind serves his humanist concerns; the second, in which his humanist concerns are the base for stylist exultation. (La Dolce Vita is the transitional film between the two periods.) This short film is very much a matter of execution, not content; although I don't suppose there is a "new" visual concept in it, Fellini's familiar ideas are still exciting.
Toby Dammit, liberally adapted from Poe's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," is about a sodden English film star (Terence Stamp) as he arrives in Rome to make a Western that will allegorize the myth of Redemption. Stamp, as we can see and the others cannot, is haunted by the devil in the figure of a sly little girl who bounces a white ball. (p. 196)
Sparkling as it is, Toby Dammit is not as good as Fellini's previous short film, The Temptation of Dr. Antonio in Boccaccio '70. Dr. Antonio was a simple antimoralistic morality tale, but its very simplicity made the complex style tickle. The new script is a solo for Stamp, with various accompaniments, but it never much engages us as a morality drama and Stamp has little chance to do more than look damned, which he certainly does. But from the first moments of his arrival in Rome (echoing Anita Ekberg's arrival in La Dolce Vita) on through a TV interview that made one TV interviewer (myself) wriggle with its truth, to a sort of Italian Oscar-award ceremony, the switch is turned, the motors are humming, Fellini is flying. And if a director is going to concentrate on flash, as he does here, short films are better than long ones, for an obvious reason. I wish the script of Toby Dammit were more diabolical, but Fellini's deviltry is almost enough. (p. 197)
One point about Fellini's lighting is specially interesting. In his recent films the lighting has been much more theatrical than realistic: low angles, profiles cut out of the dark, the frequent recurrence of silhouettes, and the changes of light during a shot. In Toby Dammit an additional theatricality is clear. Often, but especially in the TV interview and in the award ceremony, scenes are lighted like stages and are surrounded by dark, the location in the world is treated like a setting in a theater, and we get the feeling that these lives—by implication, our lives—are being enacted before an unseen audience. Before whom? Perhaps Fellini has remained more of a Catholic than he likes to admit. (pp. 197-98)
Stanley Kauffmann, "'Spirits of the Dead'" (originally published in The New Republic, September 27, 1969), in his Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment (copyright © 1968, 1969, 1970 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1971, pp. 196-98.
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The idea that sticks out in every direction from "Fellini Satyricon" is that man without a belief in God is a lecherous beast. I think it's a really bad movie—a terrible movie—but Fellini has such intuitive rapport with the superstitious child in the adult viewer that I imagine it will be a considerable success…. Fellini is not a sanctimonious manipulator …; he makes fantasy extravaganzas out of tabloid sensationalism, but he appears to do it from emotional conviction, or, perhaps more exactly, from a master entertainer's feeling for the daydreams of the audience. He seems to draw upon something in himself that many people respond to as being profound, possibly because it has been long buried in them. When he brings it out, they think he is a great artist.
Fellini's pagans are freaks—bloated or deformed, or just simulated freaks with painted faces and protruding tongues…. The freak show of "Fellini Satyricon" is a grotesque interpretation of paganism, yet I think many people in the audience will accept it without question…. Fellini's popular strength probably comes from primitive elements such as these in a modern style that enables audiences to respond as if the content were highly sophisticated. (p. 134)
Like a naughty Christian child, Fellini thinks it's a ball to be a pagan, but a naughty ball, a bad one, which can't really be enjoyed…. In "Fellini Satyricon" the party scenes are no longer orgiastic climaxes. Fellini uses Petronius and other classic sources as the basis for a movie that is one long orgy of eating, drinking, cruelty, and copulation, and he goes all the way with his infatuation with transvestism, nymphomania, homosexuality, monsters.
"Fellini Satyricon" is all phantasmagoria, and though from time to time one may register a face or a set or an episode, for most of the film one has the feeling of a camera following people walking along walls. The fresco effect becomes monotonous and rather oppressive. It's almost as if the movie were a theatrically staged panorama, set on a treadmill…. Fellini never does involve us: we seem to be at a stoned circus, where the performers go on and on whether we care or not. And though there's a story, we anticipate the end a dozen times—a clear sign that his episodic structuring has failed. Afterward, one recalls astonishingly little; there are many episodes and anecdotes, but, for a work that is visual if it is anything, it leaves disappointingly few visual impressions…. It's a tired movie; during much of it, we seem to be moving past clumsily arranged groups and looking at people exhibiting their grossness or their abnormalities and sticking their tongues out at us…. Fellini's early films had a forlorn atmosphere, and there were bits of melancholy still drifting through "La Dolce Vita" and "8 1/2;" if the people were lost, at least their sorrow gave them poetic suggestions of depth. There was little depth in "Juliet of the Spirits," and there is none in this "Satyricon." Perhaps Fellini thinks Christ had to come before people could have souls, but, lacking emotional depth, the movie is so transient that elaborate episodes like Trimalchio's banquet barely leave a trace in the memory.
Somewhere along the line—I think it happened in "La Dolce Vita"—Fellini gave in to the luxurious basking in sin that has always had such extraordinary public appeal…. And, though he doesn't appear in them, he became the star of his movies, which are presented as emanations of his imagination, his genius; he functioned as if the creative process had no relation to experience, to thought, or to other art. As this process has developed, the actors, and the characters, in his movies have become less and less important, so at "Fellini Satyricon" one hardly notices the familiar people in it—it's all a masquerade anyway…. I feel that what has come over Fellini is a movie director's megalomania, which has not gone so far with anyone else, and that part of the basis for his reputation is that his narcissistic conception of his role is exactly what celebrity worshippers have always thought a movie director to be…. People coming out of "La Dolce Vita" and "8 1/2" could be heard asking, "Where do you suppose he found them?"—as if he were a magician of a zookeeper who had turned up fabulous specimens. This increasingly strange human zoo into which he thrusts us is what people refer to when they say that there is a Fellini world. (pp. 134, 137-39)
Fellini's work has an eerie, spellbinding quality for some people which must be not unlike the powerful effect the first movies were said to have. Perhaps the opulence and the dreamlike movement of his films and the grotesques who populate them are what some people want from the movies—a return to frightening fairy tales. I don't think "Fellini Satyricon" is effective even on this level, because I don't find the Pop decadence beautiful…. I should say that emotionally his "Satyricon" is just about the opposite of "free;" emotionally, it's a hip version of "The Sign of the Cross." There's a certain amount of confusion in it about what's going on and where, so some people may take it "psychedelically" and swallow it whole…. Maybe if Fellini personally didn't impress people so much as a virtuoso they'd become as conscious of the emotional and intellectual shoddiness they're responding to in his films. The usual refrain is "With Fellini, I'm so captivated by the images I don't ask what it means." But suppose it's not the "beauty" of the images they're reacting to so much as that step-by-step intuitive linkage between Fellini's emotions and their own almost forgotten ones? I'm sure there are people who will say that it doesn't matter if Fellini's movies are based on shallow thinking, or even ignorance, because he uses popular superstitions for a poetic vision, and makes art out of them. The large question in all this is: Can movie art be made out of shallow thinking and superstitions? The answer may, I think, be no. But even if it's yes, I don't think Fellini transformed anything in "Fellini Satyricon." (pp. 139-40)
Pauline Kael, "Fellini's Mondo Trasho," in The New Yorker (© 1970 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLVI, No. 4, March 14, 1970, pp. 134, 137-140.
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Fellini's life has been spent in the service of both reality and nonreality, largely because he knows, as one of the few film masters who also understand theatricality, that theater without artifice is a fake ideal and a naïf's idea of truth.
His movie dream of Petronius [Fellini Satyricon] is another work of truth and artifice…. [Fellini Satyricon] is elegiac, joyless, resigned. There are many scenes of revel and of sex in it; there is very little gusto.
Another burden from which Fellini has to be freed is our expectation of method. He has taught us to expect lightning play in his editing, swift referential humor and counterpoint, drama and dialectic by deft junctures of material, and he has used this method even in his recent short film Toby Dammit (a part of Spirits of the Dead). There is some splintery referential editing in Satyricon, but the principal method is immersion in texture and color, steady progression through the "feel" of a scene, rather than any lightning mosaics or kaleidoscopic flow. (pp. 250-51)
[What] is there—in the picture itself—that indicates why this man, who has made only contemporary films that were psychologically pertinent even when stylistically extravagant, has abandoned pertinence for extravagance: has chosen a subject that freed him of pertinence and allowed him to concentrate on the extravagance?…
[There is] a connection, at the very base, between this Satyricon and Antonioni's Zabriskie Point. Both are the works of mature artists that reflect the contemporary artist's relation to the world as material for art. Experience is not less than it was, it is too much more: our culture's expanded consciousness (within) and amplified communication (without) overwhelm and enervate some artists and produce, finally, a bankruptcy, rather than a surfeit, because of a sense of incompetence to deal with that enlarged experience.
Still, artists must work or wither. Antonioni's solution … was an emigration to a different place and a different generation. Fellini's emigration was to the past: where his sense of futility and oppression was relieved of the necessity of point and could express itself as a function of film making itself…. It is difficult—at least for me—to imagine Fellini making this film unless, in a way, he was forced to. Satyricon is a step past 8 1/2, which was about a director looking for a film to make and (despite the desperate ending) failing to find one. Satyricon is the film that Guido, the hero of 8 1/2, might have made. (p. 253)
It does indeed deal with the monstrous and impure; its moral tone is funereal. It might better have been called Fellini Inferno, rather than his Satyricon. But the inferno, I believe, is the sum of the conditions of life, and his life in particular, that forced him to make the film at all.
So the film depends for its being entirely on the way it is made. There are of course recognizable Fellini hallmarks: the silent opening (as in 8 1/2), the big fish (La Dolce Vita), the abrupt ending (like the freeze frame at the end of I Vitelloni), the earth mother whore (from several pictures). But it is the first Fellini feature film that has, in the post-Renaissance sense, no characters. There are only persons, some of whom are on screen more than others. The film has no cumulative story, let alone drama. There is not even a cumulation of adventures, in the picaresque manner; many of the sequences are simply scenes observed. Satyricon depends entirely on its look, and, unlike 8 1/2, which finally lives through its style, there are few afferents to bind us to the style, to make us care about it in anything more than a graphic arts, "gallery" way—a way that is directly opposed to theatrical experience. (p. 254)
Stanley Kauffmann, "'Fellini Satyricon'" (originally published in The New Republic, April 11, 1970), in his Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment (copyright © 1968, 1969, 1970 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1971, pp. 250-54.
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[Satyricon] starts where Giulietta degli Spiriti left off, moving wholly into a world of dreams and visions, bigger and more bizarre even than the highly-coloured fantasies of Giulietta in full flight. The result should be impossible, utterly indigestible, but paradoxically it is not: one adjusts rapidly to accepting the extreme ornateness of the action (what is going on in front of the camera much more than how the camera records it) as a sort of norm, so that effects which even in Giulietta would have drawn attention to themselves as extraordinary and exceptional here seem hardly more remarkable in themselves than a dead metaphor in everyday speech….
Charm and grace are not particularly Fellinian qualities, and the last thing he ever is is a sophisticate. In a way this is his greatest strength. In all his films, though particularly of course those from La Dolce Vita on, it is the sheer spate of ideas that pours from him and on to the screen, like a force of nature, which silences criticism if anything can. Of discretion, good taste, or anything namby-pamby like that, he knows and cares nothing.
Especially in Satyricon. For the light and good humour of Petronius he substitutes something dark, menacing, lit at best with flames of hellish fire from some John Martin vision of cosmic disaster in the ancient world. Hardly any of Fellini's Satyricon is actually funny; it is instead a sort of nightmare vision of a civilisation on its last legs, over-rich, over-ripe, decorating its surfaces with a neurotic elaboration because form has come to be the only consideration, and what the form should express counts for nothing….
8 1/2 is a work which shows Fellini's creative imagination working at maximum intensity. Its greatest effect lies in a paradox of which, one suspects, Fellini was hardly aware while he was making it: that while it is about the mind at the end of its tether, the imagination exhausted and impotent, the film he has made on this subject is full of imagination exuberantly and fruitfully at play. Giulietta is a work of fancy rather than imagination, if we may try to preserve the Coleridgian distinction: lighter, slighter, less deeply involved or involving, it frolics pleasurably with and on parts of Fellini's regular mental furniture. What Satyricon does is to return yet again to these materials, but now using them in such a way that they contain a built-in criticism of themselves. The spate of invention is still there, but it is no longer joyful. Its effect in Giulietta is sometimes smothering, suffocating, where one senses it was not meant to be. Here, even as one is battered and weighed down by the sheer accumulation of detail, one can recognise it as part of Fellini's intention that one should be. (p. 217)
[The] film does, though sometimes by a very narrow margin, function as a work of art, recreating effects rather than reproducing them. It even achieves that most difficult of feats, conveying boredom without actually boring…. We are not touched by the characters, we do not care at all about their fate …, the characters are simply part of the overall pattern, and it is the pattern which works on us if anything does.
As with all Fellini's later, more confessional films, I suspect that Satyricon is a film you have to succumb to completely, live along with for more than two hours and accept the discomforts as well as the insights involved in seeing things as Fellini sees them, if it is to work at all. But for those who can let it work on them, Fellini's journey to the end of night is a chastening and, surprisingly enough, an elevating experience. (p. 218)
John Russell Taylor, "Film Reviews: Fellini 'Satyricon'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1970 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 39, No. 4, Autumn, 1970, pp. 217-18.
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La Dolce Vita is not so much long as redundant. Scene duplicates scene; and scene after scene is protracted long after its every point has been unmistakably made. The trouble would seem to be that the film is conceived on a grand scale, but imagined only within rather narrow limitations. Fellini almost invariably extends all his scenes beyond every interest save the visual…. [A] negative compensation in all of this is in the proof it offers that the film is definitely more than a visual medium. (pp. 39-40)
There is nothing more beautiful or more terrible in La Dolce Vita than what is suggested by, and contained by implication in, its opening. It is a metaphor charged with meaning that the rest of the film strives in vain to equal.
Fellini seems unable, but is more likely unwilling, to accept this…. [When he] goes after the Big One, he brings back the bulk of La Dolce Vita and La Strada. Where, as in that earlier film, all else gives way to allegory and abstraction, there must at least, by way of justification, be some compensating profundity and complexity of ideas. In La Strada, we are deprived of all the density of life and lifelike art, and, in its place, served up one simple, huge abstraction; you know it: Love. And in La Dolce Vita: Innocence. Reductio ad abstractum; the operative word is reduction. (p. 42)
Fellini is a fine artist; he might be a great one. La Dolce Vita is, I think, a failure, but not, I believe, a disreputable one. Fellini has failed before, but never disreputably. Of how many other artists can we say as much? (p. 43)
William S. Pechter, "Two Movies and Their Critics" (originally published in a different version in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Spring, 1962), in his Twenty-Four Times a Second (copyright © 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by William S. Pechter; reprinted by permission of the author), Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1971, pp. 37-50.∗
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Urban chaos is used as spectacle in Fellini's Roma, an ambivalent celebration of decay. The opulent rotting city of the film is indeed his own, with extras painted up as voracious citizens, and mock excavations, and a high-camp ecclesiastical fashion show that is also meant to be some sort of glittering, satirical comment on the old aristocracy, though it's hard to know exactly what the point is. Roma is an imperial gesture at documentary—a document about the city of Fellini's imagination, an autobiographical fantasy in which he plays ringmaster to the Roman circus…. The usual critical encomium "No one but Fellini could have made this movie" is certainly appropriate…. [Who] but Fellini would construct in a studio parts of the motorway circling Rome, in order to stage a traffic jam that would be a miracle of lashing rains and stalled cars under darkly beautiful skies? And in the middle of it there is another false movie crew, pretending to be shooting what we see—the camera high above the congestion, with silky while plastic flapping around it, as if protecting a mikado. The conceits are becoming so ornate they're getting spooky. (pp. 25-6)
This ringmaster feels no need to relate to the circus people. Fellini is an unparalleled extrovert, even for a profession rich in extroversion; he is so extroverted he has abandoned interest in characters and is interested only in his own projections. He is at the center of the movie, played as a young man fresh from the provinces by a toothsome, lusciously handsome actor …, and then by himself, speaking in English—most of it dubbed—in this version. He interacts with no one; he is the only star, our guide, and, like many another guide, he often miscalculates our reactions, especially to his arch, mirthless anticlerical jokes. The ambience is least oppressive when he stages a forties vaudeville show—a return to the world of his early movies. Here his nostalgic caricatures aren't so cruelly limiting, and the performers briefly take over. Emotionally, Fellini obviously lives in the past; the modern scenes have no emotional tone and no precise observation—not even any new caricatures. One modern sequence—a sci-fi treatment of subway digs and the uncovering of a Roman villa, with frescoes that disappear as soon as the air from outside hits them—is so clumsily staged that we may become embarrassed for the Maestro, and particularly by the Sears, Roebuck quality of the frescoes. The tragedy of their disappearance is a blessing. The new elements in this film are the psychedelic use of sound—din, actually—to empty our heads and intensify our sensory impressions, and the semi-abstraction of several of the modern sequences: the torrents of rain falling on the movie company caught in traffic, the wind in the subway excavations, a horde of black-leather-jacketed, death-symbolizing motorcyclists speeding to an unknown destination, and so on. Some of these images are magisterial and marvelous, like a series of stormy Turners. If one could turn off the assaulting noise—a lethal mix of car horns and motors and gothic storms—these passages might be mysteriously exciting, though they go on too long. But whenever there's dialogue, or thought, the movie is fatuous…. Fellini appears to see himself as official greeter for the apocalypse; his uxorious welcoming smile is an emblem of emptiness. (pp. 26-7)
Pauline Kael, "The Irish Inheritance" (originally published in The New Yorker, October 21, 1972), in her Reeling (copyright © 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1976, pp. 21-7.∗
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'Fellini's Roma' is perhaps three-quarters Fellini and one quarter Rome; a very good proportion for a movie. Although an appreciation of the city informs every part of the movie, Rome is not so much the subject as the occasion for a film that is not quite fiction and surely not fact, but rather the celebration of an imaginative collaboration full of love and awe, suspicion, admiration, exasperation and a measure of well qualified respect. It is also, for me, the most enjoyable Fellini in a dozen years, the most surprising, the most exuberant, the most beautiful, the most extravagantly theatrical…. The director's mind, whether you like it or not, is one of the most important phenomena of contemporary filmmaking and 'Roma' gives it a kind of freedom I have seen in no other Fellini movie. Its capacities for pleasure and terror, for sympathy and irony, are all perfectly met in 'Roma.'
Roger Greenspun, "The New Movies: 'Fellini's Roma'," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 22, 1972, p. 7.
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[Fellini's Roma is] another quasi-documentary: of what the city meant to him as a provincial youth, how it seemed when he arrived, what it seems to him today.
Not a bad commission for a picture, and anyone who has never seen a Fellini film might be struck by the fertility and easy skill of this one. Unfortunately not many of us have the requisite ignorance of Fellini. We keep seeing remakes here of what he has done before. The scenes of youthful longing are varied only slightly from those in The Clowns, which even then were not as good as in I Vitelloni. The burst of outdoor communal eating in Rome is only a domesticated modern version of the feasts in Satyricon. Fellini's "typage" (Eisenstein's term)—the ability to select unusual faces that are self-explaining, that serve their functions without dossier—used to be a kind of wonderful caricature; here the method caricatures itself because it is so repetitious and because there is no main substance to which it can contribute. The brothel scenes are the nadir in this matter; the use of raddled faces of cheap whores is always the last infirmity of a social commentator's art. Besides, after La Saraghina in 8 1/2, Fellini has said everything he has to say on the subject—which is precisely his problem on most subjects.
He hasn't even enough resource and observation to fulfill his own commission for this film. Desperate for material, he tacks on a long parodic ecclesiastical fashion show near the end, saying that he and his camera crew are going to visit an old lonely princess who lives in a huge palazzo. The fashion show is her dream. Why her dream in this picture?—except that it gives Fellini one more chance for clerical mockery, complete with drifting mist, and dramatically shifting lights? Besides, why would a pious woman have dreamed this satirical dream?
He pads the picture with some rainy-day traffic sequences—blurred auto lights in the mist, for heaven's sake, from Fellini! (Together with a brief recap of the traffic jam from the beginning of 8 1/2.) And things are so low with him that the only way he can think to finish is to follow a bunch of nighttime motorcyclists as they vroom through the city. (p. 149)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Fellini's 'Roma'" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. 167, No. 17, November 4, 1972), in his Living Images: Film Comment and Criticism (copyright © 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1975, pp. 148-50.
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[The traffic sequence in Roma] is one of those ever-more-rare sequences in Fellini's work which treat a simple, daily matter in an abstracted, symbolic way, but still so beguilingly realistic as to become prototypes of the matter portrayed.
This ability to make one see that which one should really have seen all along but somehow hasn't seen, has been Fellini's major force. Because of it, his films have a haunting quality between realism and stylization even when they are (or rather, were) about everyday things….
[The mixture of reality and fantasy] is still the thing Fellini does best. In fact, sometimes the suspicion grows that he may be on the road to losing the capacity for distinguishing the difference.
Thus for those to whom a certain tie to reality is not one of cinema's essentials, this must appear to be Fellini's best film since 8 1/2. It is certainly the most formally cohesive. And if self-expression at the expense of engagement is a choice you are willing to make, Fellini provides marvellous alibis for renouncing social and political concerns….
[His] self-deprecation, or the surface appearance of it, has become a major confessional tool: the film is permeated by breast-beating cameos of people who berate him. (p. 37)
But there is no absolution and the self-criticism falls flat, because what he makes Romans say about him is not invented: it is what they actually say about him, and with good reason. They don't trust him, and they are right not to. This is no longer the real Rome. His reality-fantasy pendulum has swung all the way. This is a Rome of dreams and illusions. He is doing what he set out to do when he said: "Reality doesn't exist. The artist invents it."
On the other hand, it is an admitted subjectivity. It would be wrong to tag as simple presumptuousness Fellini's habit of calling his films by his own name or by opus number (8 1/2, Fellini Satyricon and now Fellini Roma are the original Italian titles; Juliet is his wife's name). Foreign, more modest renaming may not do them justice, because in fact these titles accurately describe the contents of the films.
Unfortunately, they also raise our hopes, inasmuch as we expect to encounter a personality of some universal meaning, or at least a continually changing one, a character, as it were, who walks with the times.
In Roma, his most avowedly autobiographical work to date, Fellini does in fact seem to try to do that. But the result can only be defined as sad….
The whole film is in fact overlaid with [a] vague underarm odor. (p. 38)
Add to this the strictly additive style of cutting, the musical underscoring for effect, fabulous decor often wasted by careless camera use, the lack of dramatic development, of character exploration, of viewer identification elements, of subtlety, of social consciousness, of storyline, involvement or even just plain compassion, and you begin to realize that the antiquity aspect, the faint mustiness, permeates not just the subject matter but the form of the work as well. It is the nostalgic odor of an aging talent.
But in all honesty, the space of a review does not allow one to do justice to a work which in essence is like the top tip of an iceberg….
[Finally] one finds oneself with a certain compassion towards this man who in his time has well-nigh revolutionized film language, and who for a period was perhaps a dying craft's major exponent. The is why the adjective that springs to mind is sad; nothing really critical, really destructive, because somehow one is left with the feeling that to attack Fellini on a serious level, to demand responsibility or realism, becomes irrelevant in face of his patent inability to go beyond himself. (p. 39)
Gideon Bachmann, "Reviews: 'Fellini Roma'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1972 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Winter, 1972–73, pp. 37-9.
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Fellini is totally autobiographical but unproblematic: like those Renaissance painters who filled the walls and ceilings of innumerable villas and palaces with exuberant portraits of their mistresses and friends, barely disguised as figures of classical or biblical allegory.
Such reflections are brought to the fore by Fellini's latest film, Roma, which presents a dual portrait of the city and the cinéaste. The confrontation of these two runs as a unifying thread throughout the film. All great baroque art is a cry of defiance against death, and Rome, seen as a dying city eaten away from within, provokes Fellini to some of the most dazzling sequences of his career. The opening is deceptively idyllic: Rome as it is seen from the provinces…. Above all, it is a paradoxical mixture of past dignity and present temptation…. Fellini's handling of these sequences—recreating his Cinecittà epic as well as his Fascist newsreel … is an important clue to his stylistic methods in the later portions of the film, where even the most apparently direct passages of cinéma-vérité are in fact staged reconstructions.
Roma is a film without a story in the conventional sense, but it does move in a roughly chronological fashion from these memories of the distant past towards a vision of the present and premonitions of a possible future. But within this pattern it is the contrasts set up that are most important and give the film its impact. (p. 119)
Fellini captures with incredible precision the extravert side of Italian life, that of existence conceived as a show. Even the neo-realists failed to convey so powerfully the profound deception underlying this vivid surface. In their dimensions these scenes are no less impressive than the orgies of the Fellini-Satyricon in which the very vivacity of the participants carried such an undertone of death and decay. In Roma too one senses something of the same despair, for this is Rome on the brink of the futile Fascist adventure into war. The noise is there to cover a void, the eating is an excuse for ignoring the world outside. This is the Rome of Fellini's early experience…. (p. 120)
With a meticulous attention to detail … Fellini conveys his vision of the urban environment. This is far blacker, for the highway leads, as darkness falls, to a nightmare picture dominated by an accident that has left dead calves scattered over the road and a truck in flames and then to police brutality in an assault on youthful demonstrators. Parallel to this chaos above ground is the other contemporary piece which again begins disarmingly as cinéma-vérité. (p. 121)
Roma is a film of total maturity. Gone is the sentimentality of La strada, the pretension of La dolce vita, the self-conscious intellectualizing of '8 1/2'. Instead we find a filmmaker with full confidence in his own powers and an amused eye for his own foibles and those of his gallery of grotesques. His vision is pessimistic—pleasure is a prelude to death, the church and state are farcical or brutal, the present erodes the past without mercy or humanity—yet there is a great exhilaration in Fellini's virtuosity. Like '8 1/2' (where a critic shouts at Fellini-Mastroianni 'He has nothing to say!') Roma contains within itself the cliché judgements we might be tempted to use. If we find it too long, there is Anna Magnani saying 'Go home, Federico, it's late.' If we are tempted to literary allusion, there is the bespectacled intellectual rebuffed for his perpetual evocations of Proust. Roma is clearly Federico Fellini's masterpiece to date. Continually playing on our acceptance of the reality of his images and delighting us with startling innovations, Fellini displays to the full his supreme talents as storyteller and master of spectacle. (p. 122)
Roy Armes, "Rome, from Rimini," in London Magazine 1973), Vol. 12, No. 6, February-March, 1973, pp. 116-22.
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Federico Fellini, discussing his film I Clowns in the French periodical L'Arc, attributes the disappearance of the clown to the sense of absurdity and disorder which pervades modern life. "The clown," he says, "was always the caricature of a well-established, ordered, peaceful society. But today all is temporary, disordered, grotesque. Who can still laugh at clowns? Hippies, politicians, the man in the street, all the world plays the clown, now."
Fellini's explanation of the disappearance of clowns is appealing in its simplicity and stimulating in its suggestiveness, but it is hardly an adequate accounting for either the phenomenon of clowns or for the film which his remarks intend to illuminate…. [The] clown represents the modern world most of our literature describes—absurd, grotesque, meaningless, chaotic, suited only for the blackest of comedies or the most ironic of tragedies.
Yet Fellini is also right when he says that the clown has all but disappeared…. Paradoxically, the absurd clown may be an alien in the age of absurdity.
This paradox, central to Fellini's lifelong involvement with the clown, goes deep into his own work and into modern art. Baudelaire said that one of the artist's tasks is to expose those qualities of life lacking in his age so that it might recover a sense of wholeness. To this purpose, he must be alienated from his society to gain perspective. No one would seriously contend that the sense of the grotesque is lacking in the twentieth century. (pp. 214-15)
Fellini's world is no less grotesque than that of his contemporaries. But, unlike most modern artists, he does not see a dialectic of despair. He administers no doses. His reaction to the absurd world is joyous, his laughter optimistic. (p. 215)
I will concentrate on his film I Clowns because it seems central to an understanding of his other works and because its apparent simplicity has misled many reviewers and viewers to misunderstand its form and tone. But before discussing the film, I shall trace the outline of a theory of the grotesque within which I think Fellini is working and which provides an alternative to the language of the grotesque as dark absurdity which dominates much of the art of our century.
The word grotesque originally designated a style of decorative art which flourished at the beginning of the Christian era and which came by the Renaissance to suggest, as Wolfgang Keyser states, "not only something playfully gay and carelessly fantastic, but also something ominous and sinister in the face of a world totally different from the familiar one—a world in which the reality of inanimate things is no longer separated from those of plants, animals, and human beings, and where the laws of statics, symmetry, and proportion are no longer valid." (p. 216)
But the grotesque was not a single vision. It had two faces, the fanciful and the sinister, perhaps best represented visually by the works of Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch.
The grotesqueness of Brueghel's paintings comes about chiefly through two techniques, the amassing of detail and the distortion of the human face and figure….
This irreverent attitude toward subject, combined with the distortion of perspective and the caricature of faces, gives Brueghel's canvases a comically grotesque look which conveys the artist's joy at contemplating the hurly-burly confusion of life which swallows up any attempt of history to impose meaning on it.
Bosch, on the other hand, presents a terrifying grotesque which expresses demonic forces through the mixing of distorted human, animal, and vegetable forms. (p. 217)
The circus has captivated Fellini's imagination throughout his life, and from this fascination has come much of the reckless abandon and comic optimism which characterize both his fictional world and his method as a director. "Clowns," he says, "are the ambassadors of my profession. In my childhood they were the premiere image of disrespect." I Clowns champions the need for disrespect in a solemn and all-too-respectable world.
Fellini has talked a great deal about I Clowns and has, consequently, planted many mistaken expectations. Most of the comments concern a White Clown-Auguste game which Fellini likes to play with contemporary figures: "The white clown is the symbol of authority. He is your mother, or your teacher, or the nun who was always right…. the augusto is yourself, doing all the things you'd like to do: making faces, shouting, rolling on the ground, throwing water at people." (p. 219)
[The] Clown-Auguste contrast does not necessarily imply as neat a psychological dialectic as Fellini's statements indicate, a fact that Fellini's own use of clown figures attests to…. The Clown and the Auguste are a contrasting pair. This contrast, to operate successfully, needs some sense of the normal against which the grotesque image appears aberrant. In caricature, the norm is our perceptual experience with the human face; we perceive the caricature as a distortion of recognizable features, but a distortion still. In the contrast of Clown and Auguste, the same perceptual structure operates. Clown becomes the norm against which Auguste is a comic contrast. (p. 220)
Auguste has in a sense taken over the traditional role of the Clown as bungling and bewildered country bumpkin and the Clown, descendant of the mild-mannered Pierrot and the English rustic, has assumed a new identity as haughty, elegant, and somewhat effeminate. However, this seems to be a functional contrast for the purposes of the comedy, not the kind of psychological sheep and goats game which Fellini the thinker made of it.
The second irrelevancy comes from the assumption that Fellini the artist set out to make a documentary illustrating the Clown-Auguste contrast, a mistake which most reviewers seem to make. The mistake is understandable. (pp. 220-21)
Through [the relationships between the two sets of clowns] Fellini develops a set of interlocking themes which are central to his concerns as an artist.
Fellini's first theme is the ambiguity of the clown and the average man in our time. (p. 221)
The structure of the [opening] episode, and of the film, involves a complex set of multiple Clown-Auguste relationships (understood as just such a functional contrast as described above). The villagers of Fellini's youth and the clowns of the circus ring which open the film exist in a shifting Clown-Auguste contrast. In one sense, the villagers provide the norm of human conduct which the clowns parody. But in another sense the clowns are a norm by which we recognize the grotesqueness of the villagers….
Beyond both levels, functioning as the eye of "reality," is Fellini. The villagers are stylized and grotesque in their own right. The village of Fellini's youth resembles a film version of an Italian village, a parody of the world created at Cinecittà, and even of Fellini's own films. (p. 222)
But the most obviously and broadly comic parody is the pool room scene….
At this point we become acutely aware of a third clown, Fellini himself, manipulating the act in the ring and emerging as the ultimate grotesque of the performance, the creator who rebels against absurdity by creating the ultimately absurd performance in which he himself is the star clown; for, if, as is frequently contended, the face of reality in the modern world is grotesque and absurd, and if that grotesqueness stems from man's alienation from himself, to rebel against the grotesqueness of reality is to attempt to create a unified and meaningful self. But the nature of the world makes such an attempt the act of a clown.
A second theme of the film records Fellini's quest for the clown—an abortive attempt to find reality and to film it. From the blank expressions of the camera man and sound man to the fumbling incompetence of the script girl Maya, the film crew is as clownly a collection of bumpkins as was ever assembled. Fellini also indulges in a luxurious series of self-parodies. (p. 223)
The parody also has its serious side. Fellini is a fool to attempt such a film. Seeking reality (the clown), he finds only old men, memories, faded photographs, and legends. No one cares any more. People have forgotten how to laugh. The question keeps recurring: why make a film about clowns? The circus no longer exists; the clown deserves to die….
The third theme of the film presents the consequences of that conclusion. If the clown is dead, Fellini will resurrect him in a bizarre and fantastically imagined funeral played in the circus ring. Here is the creator at his most arrogant and clownish….
But three ideas undercut and finally destroy the funeral. First, there is age. (p. 224)
Secondly, there is the continued comic reminder that Fellini's clownish crew is making a film. This comes particularly in two bits of comedy. In one, an elaborate piece of special effects machinery repeatedly fails to work, to the growing irritation of the clowns, and then explodes unexpectedly, setting fire to the equipment around it. The structure of this action duplicates that of Grock's famous violin bow act. It parallels another fire set by the clowns in the ring to bring on the traditional clown fire company. In this way, the reality of film making and the fictional action being filmed are intermixed. The machine becomes the Auguste.
The second bit of comedy comes at the height of the mayhem. We cut to a shot of Fellini and a reporter sitting behind the lights. The reporter asks Fellini, what is the meaning of all this? Before Fellini can answer, a bucket thrown from the ring where it is part of the clown show falls over his head. Another falls over the reporter, silencing them both. The author of the spectacle is thus mocked by his own creation. The idea of "meaning" in the sense of an explication of the comic action into ideas is ridiculed.
But the most serious undercutting comes from the idea of death itself. (pp. 224-25)
The white clown in tails clearly represents death and order. He is the driver of the hearse, and in that role he has urged the funeral to its completion and has become the dignified foil of much of the clowning, particularly that of the horses….
Fellini concludes the film by reproducing [the elderly] clown's act and in the process summarizes the film. (p. 225)
This ending is clearly reminiscent of the conclusion of 8 1/2 in which Guido, having decided to try again to make order of his life and to make another film, assembles the people from his past, who are also characters in the film he is to make, in a circus ring, and leads them through a dance around the ring and out, leaving only the uniformed child version of himself in the spotlight to exit into the darkness playing a piccolo. Both scenes appear almost as codas. Both are grotesques verging on sentimentality. Both record the triumph of the creative imagination over the absurdity of the world.
In each of four feature films—8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits, Satyricon, I Clowns—Fellini has shown us characters almost destroyed by the grotesqueness of their times but at the end saved by acceptance or exuberance….
In these films, I think, Fellini has widened the dimensions of the grotesque vision in contemporary art. He has rebelled against the darkness which is so pervasive that it is the established view of life for the modern artist. (p. 226)
Fellini's films function like Brueghel's paintings. Reality and the grotesque become completely merged in the illogicality and detail of the work of art, so that rather than being frightening or apocalyptic, as are the works of Bosch and most twentieth century artists, the grotesque seems natural and acceptable. Acceptance is essential to a true comic vision. In I Clowns Fellini accepts the comic grotesqueness of his own obsession with clowns in a world in which the clown is dead and the grotesqueness of the artist's attempt to create a meaningful vision amid a grotesque and humorless reality. In the process of laughing at his own and the world's absurdity, he accomplishes the creative task which he has accepted as impossible. At the end of the film, the clown becomes apotheosized in a world beyond reality. (p. 227)
William J. Free, "Fellini's 'I Clowns' and the Grotesque," in Journal of Modern Literature (© Temple University 1973), Vol. 3, No. 2, April, 1973, pp. 214-27.
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In another age Fellini would have been a Botticelli or a Bosch rather than a Leonardo. His vision is comic and surreal rather than realist. (p. 71)
Fellini is a thoroughly filmic artist. He is often put down as being a romantic. But, as with objective and subjective, the description is irrelevant. (p. 73)
Fellini's inability to stick to a predetermined course, his constant improvisation, his delight in coincidence is no more irrational than their opposites. It is irrational only if rationality is equated with the rules of logic the rationalists invented. Fellini's mind is one of the most alert and perceptive of the twentieth century—that he will often start a film or a scene with a sketch rather than with words is simply his way of conceptualizing and planning his work. He thinks visually. Does that make him irrational? Only if rationality is limited to the vocabulary of those who insist that meaning must be put into words, surely one of the most irrational claims ever to bedevil the human scene. (pp. 73-4)
La Strada is a mysterious film, mysterious in the religious sense. In viewing the film one is in "seeingfeelhearing." One knows, but has difficulty making the knowing rationalization. Taken in isolation, incidents and scenes may be outrageously sentimental, incongruous, even contrived. The artist makes them right and proper.
La Strada is love and indifference and gentleness and violence. It is not about persons who are violent or gentle, but is about the incarnation, the real appearance, of the destroyer … and of holy innocence…. (pp. 76-7)
[Gelsomina's] ingenuousness, spontaneity, affinity with nature is a delicately subtle communion and difficult to communicate. But whenever it seems that we are going to be pushed into the kind of difficult emotional feeling we have when in the presence of the mentally handicapped, we find that instead of being embarrassed we can relate to the complete guilelessness of Gelsomina. She is not only authentically a whole person, she is more alive, more really a person, than we can ever be without holding under cover our inner selves. (p. 78)
Both Juliet and Giorgio [in Juliet of the Spirits] are victimized by their false, unsustainable attachments and expectations, although the focus is on the woman. Fellini does not moralize. He is too strong as an artist to give us a documentary on marriage; he provides us with illuminations. And they come through the eye, not by being told to us in words.
Like Gelsomina in La Strada, Juliet is a natural person, surrounded by extravagant situations, persons, and events. (p. 82)
Giorgio is guilt-filled, knowing he has been false to his wife. But where does the real falseness lie? In his relations with another woman? Or in his expectations of a marriage which are themselves false? Can a marriage "succeed" if the precognitions are illusory? And are cognitions themselves destructive? Is marriage more a matter of living than of definitions? What mean the ties of marriage (recalling that this is pre-Vatican II Italy, where marriage bonds are legally and religiously indissoluble)?
The focus, however, is on the woman. And she has to come to her own reality, really be her natural self, rather than a woman distorted by living according to false expectations. (pp. 82-3)
Juliet's liberation is not simple, not linear. The exorcism of dividing spirits will not come through unrestrained escape, nor anarchy. She has to free herself of false status and conventions….
She had to break such false ties to being—but can she be free of time? The clock keeps ticking, the cheeks sag, the heels click down a corridor like the seconds on a clock.
She cannot escape time, those clicks keep going. But she will be a free person, in possession of herself. Part of the falseness she has been trying to live with is regarding time as the enemy. Rather time is, and Juliet is, and to be is to join the procession of free creatures. (p. 84)
Fellini does not use color symbolically. That is, certain colors do not stand for certain objects, situations, persons, etc. As we shall note, such is usually the case with Fellini's imagery. It is seldom symbolic in such a mechanical sense. Color is, however, apt to his imagery. In fact, color becomes imagery.
An aspect of the revolutionary character of modern art has been this change in the way in which the painter uses color. Traditionally it had been used as attempted verism. (pp. 85-6)
The color in Juliet is sensational. By that I do not mean that Fellini sought to produce some kind of public excitement. Rather, the color is used as art, to heighten perceptivity. Seeing the film, one feels more keenly, more exquisitely, than he could otherwise. The film is a full sense apprehension. It is sensate. (p. 87)
Fellini has said that to do Satyricon was to do away with the Renaissance inventions of antiquity, or the nineteenth century's, or our own. They were all invented Romes, unhistorical histories. He wanted the Rome without Christ; the Rome where tickets were sold to the amphitheaters to watch people die, the Rome without any of the touches of compassion and love which are what Christ is.
Color is both an affliction and a tension. Different hues drain each other off, saturate with brightness, diminish and gain strength. (p. 88)
Photographers identify film speed, etc., and their relation to the light available in terms of "temperature." The color reactions provoke sensations of "warm" and "cold." Such "temperature readings" are apt for both Juliet and Satyricon. Withdrawal, centering, aggression, expanding, contracting—all help us to see the alienation and integration in these movies. Dominant in Satyricon is alienation; in Juliet, integration.
To insist that in Satyricon Fellini's mixture of hues is dynamic, full of tension, while the use of more primary colors strengthens the quality of wholeness in Juliet, is not to point to instances of color symbolism. What must not be done is to interpret the colors allegorically. (p. 89)
In Juliet of the Spirits the Venus shell and Eve and the serpent flash by, venerable images of the goddess of love and of erotic temptation. Religious images abound in most Fellini films. Such figures are there because in their presence the recognition of the scene is established. That is, when he deals with erotic love he also plays with Venus images. Such usage, however, should not be transferred to the multitude of Fellini images….
This is the main trouble with symbolic theory. Symbols have meaning because of the preconceptions to which they are attached….
This, however, is not Fellini's world. He demands an involvement in life, not an abstraction from it. (p. 93)
It is necessary to see 8 1/2 (as well as La Dolce Vita, Juliet, Satyricon) several times to get real enjoyment from it. The overlaps and focus are varied and shift in clusters rather than line continuities. We are used to the continuities of narrative film, which makes it difficult to deal with the different rhythm of 8 1/2. It is something like music which changes beat in the middle of the piece, abandons key signatures, and then adopts them again. (p. 94)
Fellini always surprises us. Images jostle each other and us, and we realize that in dealing with them different possibilities and levels are possible. Some will be discarded. Some are exciting entries. But in any case we are asked to go along the journey, and our joining the pilgrims makes of the journey something else than it could otherwise have been. (p. 97)
Fellini's films often deal with the church by odd mixtures of satire, irony, and love. Probably there is no other way for a modern Italian artist to do it. His patronage, unlike Michangelo's, has nothing to do with the church except tangentially—that is, it might try to censor the film. Yet wherever he has gone he has been fronted with its images and persons. And these images are in themselves so powerful, so varied, so wonderfully visual that they have inevitably had an impact on his own sense of reality. (p. 102)
Satyricon is the most religiously potent of them all. Fellini attempts an amazing tour de force, namely an answer to the question, What is a world like without Christ? Fellini invents another world, elusive as colors through stained glass, bloody as an abattoir, sterile as a moonscape, ambiguous as the Delphic oracle, decipherable as a medieval palimpsest.
Satyricon has a story to tell, but the narrative line is fragmentary, disconnected. In literary terms it is a bit like the picaresque, but it is filmic rather than literary. It is dream-like strange in color and incident, and yet it mysteriously hangs together….
Fellini felt he needed to destroy our myths of antiquity, the "clean" ancient world of serene temples and classic statuary. Could such an image possibly be compatible with people paying their way into Madison Square Garden to eat nuts and joke with one another as they watched people die? (p. 105)
Roger Ortmayer, "Fellini's Film Journey," in Three European Directors: François Truffaut by James M. Wall, Fellini's Film Journey by Roger Ortmayer, Luis Buñuel and the Death of God by Peter P. Schillaci, edited by James M. Wall (copyright © 1973 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; used by permission), Eerdmans, 1973, pp. 71-105.
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Compared with [Fellini's] other recent films, Amarcord is simple and classic to the point of self-denial. It resolves itself into a succession of scenes from provincial life, strung loosely round the experiences of Bobo, the representative of Fellini in the film, during the summer of 1935, aged about 15-16. In a sense, the film consists of nothing but set-pieces, but hardly anything is played up to the pitch of frenzy which usually seizes a Fellini film somewhere along the way. This seems to be very much Fellini playing it cool, toning down the extravagances, trying, heaven help us, to make a tasteful film. (p. 244)
But who really wants a tasteful, restrained Fellini? Inevitably, the bits of the film one remembers are those which come closest to the old reprobate Fellini we love or loathe according to taste. (pp. 244-45)
Even these sequences, though, are disappointingly played down. It is as though there is something slightly faded and tired about the whole film, some indefinable lack of vitality which leaves it all looking a bit dusty and distant….
Strangest of all, and the only sustained passage where the film comes up with the old Fellini magic, is the sequence in which most of the town's population goes out at night in small boats to wait—but for what? The Rex, a super-liner which eventually moves majestically past like Leviathan, risen at last from the deep, or a mysterious creature from another planet. Its apparition has the effect of a sort of religious experience, with tears in the crowded congregation and all: the feeling is very close to that of the climactic appearance of the Pope in Roma's fashion parade. For just a few moments, Fellini catches us by attacking where he is strongest, at gut-level. We don't know exactly why we are moved, awed or whatever, but we are. Sad that in the rest of Amarcord we know all too clearly why we are not. (p. 245)
John Russell Taylor, "Film Reviews: 'Amarcord'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1974 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 43, No. 4, Autumn, 1974, pp. 244-45.
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8 1/2 demonstrated how a film could be about a temperament: the events it dealt with were interior events, and its most important episodes happened outside time, in fantasy, dream and vision. In 8 1/2, Fellini renounced the political or social emphasis of neo-realism, and the new relation between the artist and the outer world that resulted has since become fundamental to much Italian cinema. Guido, groping blindly from within toward his millennial vision, is the blueprint for a new kind of film director, whose ideology originates not in any analysis of society, but in the artist's own constitution.
Everyone would perhaps agree that each one of us has a fundamental and recurrent 'pattern', to which his experience largely conforms. I take 8 1/2 to be the description of one such pattern, the mapping-out or 'anatomising' of a particular constitution. In every way, Guido's pattern defines the film; both its structure, since in the course of the film Guido works through one complete cycle of experience; and its subject, because Guido's predicament is shown to be caused by a conflict between his pattern and his conscious self.
8 1/2 is about an inner process which takes place in Guido on several levels, his reaching for artistic potency, for intellectual consistency and for spiritual purity. But Fellini shows Guido's development as occurring, not through his conscious will or intellect, but rather as springing directly from some interior bodily rhythm, to which Guido remains almost passive….
The riddling title, Fellini 8 1/2, goes far to clarify the film's problem; it points, beyond the opus number, to a fusion of the film's conflicting polarities, not only Life and Art, but physical and abstract, person and pattern—that is to the 'solution', the state of integration momentarily achieved at the end of the film.
Film is the ideal vehicle for the kind of experience Fellini wants to convey here—the sense that every event is subordinate to a prevailing inner rhythm…. [Watching] 8 1/2, one is peculiarly aware of film as a 'total art', harnessing enormous and diverse powers so as to bring the spectator into the fullest possible relation with the director's most personal experience. (p. 172)
Of all Fellini's films, 8 1/2 is the one in which the cathartic intention—the use of the 'white magic' of cinema to 'liberate the spectator'—is most explicit. (pp. 172-73)
Correspondingly, the language in 8 1/2 has an urgency unique in Fellini's work. In La Strada or La Dolce Vita the script, in Giulietta and his subsequent films the sets and costumes, have the central role, which here belongs to the exclusively cinematic means of sequential juxtaposition and rhythm…. The syntax of the film becomes the embodiment of Fellini's doctrine: that our experience is cyclic, that pleasure comes out of pain, true out of false, comedy out of tragedy.
The cyclic structure of Guido's experience is announced at the outset of 8 1/2, in the Crisis, Liberation and Fall, archetypally enacted in Guido's dream….
This pattern, of crisis, liberation and fall, is the key to Guido's behaviour. Just as the necessity of waiting on liberation forces on him his indecisive and conditional manner of action, so the mysteriousness and unreasonableness of his experience enforces his ambiguous ideological stance. He is caught in a machine, yet his moments of liberation seem evidence of a deus ex machina….
[The] pattern of 8 1/2 is that of melancholy; the ambiguous commerce between archetypal and real is typical of that state; and Fellini has himself described the mood of 8 1/2 as 'melancholy, almost funereal, but also resolutely comic.'… There is a 'double potentiality in melancholy, for Good or for Evil.'
Now it seems to me that this double potentiality provides the structure of 8 1/2: we are made to see Guido first as a sick man, then as a visionary artist. Guido's crisis, his inability to begin his film, results from his own interpretation of his experience as being fundamentally diseased, false: doubting its validity, he cannot express or reflect it in his art…. Fellini's theme can be summed up, that liberation consists in our acceptance of the interdependence of contrary states within our experience; only his failure to accept distinguishes the impotent from the creative individual.
First, as a sick man. Fellini makes us not only observe Guido's descent, but also participate in it. The pattern of crisis endlessly repeated soon becomes as alienating for the spectator as it is for Guido. And that initial ambiguity of dimension, of our entering in the middle of the traffic jam of Guido's dream, which we assumed to be reality, persists. (p. 173)
The white episodes continue to well up, like coherent messages from the unconscious, and with their slower rhythm and narrative unity, each offers a momentary respite against a present world where consciousness is staccato and fragmented. Each presents Guido with some variant of a visionary reality. (pp. 173-74)
Guido's film is an allegory of his own predicament. His wish to commit his will to the Church, or to his marriage, or to ideal love, is a wish to escape to so many 'new planets', to be liberated once and for all from the wheel of his temperament. This wish is what has defined him, and the making of the film itself is the last remaining hope of its fulfilment; so that his abandonment of it at the press conference really does constitute his personal extinction, the 'suicide' shown us.
Then, as visionary artist. For it is only here, when Guido, in losing each of his alternatives, has been stripped of his ego, that the real protagonist of the film, not the personality of Guido but the fatality of his temperament, is able to assert itself. These final minutes entirely alter our view of what has gone before. Unfurling out of Guido's extinction, the emergence of the vision unifies the film's interior oscillation into a single cathartic motion of crisis transformed to liberation. It is as though the movement of the whole film were to trace out this transformation as a kind of graphological curve; to define the rhythm by which sickness becomes vision….
The vision is an affirmation of the temperament, as a creative centre beyond the personality….
Once the vision has reaffirmed Guido's integrity, we see that his sliding from dimension to dimension may have been not evasion or confusion, but the necessary completion of a journey towards a view of life that must include several distinct worlds, a 'multiverse'….
At the beginning of 8 1/2, Guido has his seed, his idea of a film; but it is only when he has accepted its extinction that the flowering, the vision which is the true film he has to make, is able to appear. And in this affirmation Fellini's monumental fresco imagery at last finds a content fitting to its epic scale….
8 1/2 is pivotal in Fellini's work. What had remained implicit in the earlier films, a core of the personality, a certain rhythm of experience, here becomes explicit….
It is a reversal common to much Italian cinema, the transition from neo-realism to what might be called 'neo-symbolism'. The critic in 8 1/2 is the voice of neo-realism, who regards the subjectivity of Guido's script as evidence that 'Cinema is fifty years behind the other arts.' (p. 174)
What we have to accept meanwhile is the lack of any glimmer, in a work like Satyricon, of wholesome reality. It exists solely, as Fellini says, to 'realise his fantasy'; the inner world is presented not, as in 8 1/2, as part of a process, but as though it were sufficient in itself….
Yet while 8 1/2 defines the moment of perfect balance in Italian cinema, the subsequent descent into self, into archetypal realms, has resulted in a kind of profundity. The obvious parallel is with Mannerism; it arouses the same ambiguous responses, and it may, like Mannerism, become more fascinating to future generations, less starved of an art of above ground, and less nostalgic for the achievements of the High Renaissance of cinema that the years of 8 1/2 now seem to represent. (p. 175)
Timothy Hyman, "'8 1/2' as an Anatomy of Melancholy," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1974 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 43, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 172-75.
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[The] worst thing about "Amarcord" and its immediate predecessors is that the chief joke is human ugliness. Whether it is obese women displaying their behinds on bicycles, a ridiculous-looking uncle (another one) making himself more obviously repugnant by sporting a hairnet, a female Goliath using her naked bosom as a weapon, a family dinner scene in which almost all the faces, even those of the youngsters, are profoundly unprepossessing,… the joke is always on humanity, and almost always on the easiest, cheapest, and, finally, most witless level.
There is no denying that witty satire thrives on savaging mankind, but where in "Amarcord" is there witty satire? Alternatively, where is compassion? Even the figure of the whore, whom Fellini used to depict with almost excessive, often sentimental, sympathy, has become a ghoulish, nymphomaniacal madwoman, wallowing in a crude parody of autoeroticism…. [The] best Fellini can look forward to is equaling the dismal record of Ken Russell.
And to think that this once great artist is still only 54; an age at which one hasn't even earned the right to the excuse of senility. (pp. 17, 19)
John Simon, "The Tragic Deterioration of Fellini's Genius," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 24, 1974, pp. 17, 19.
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Amarcord is a haunting, funny, beautiful work that makes most other recent movies, with the exception of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, look as drab as winter fields without snow….
[The film] is his memory of a year in the life of Rimini, or a town much like it, and for Fellini memory has a lot in common with dream. It needn't be what literally happened but what he wanted to believe, or perhaps what time has forced him to believe. (p. 264)
Amarcord has the circus's pace, drive, good spirits, fascination with costume and masquerade (sometimes grotesque), and abundance of events. The characters tumble onto the screen one after another, as if there weren't going to be enough time to get through all the acts….
One of Fellini's greatest gifts is his ability to communicate a sense of wonder, which has the effect of making us all feel much younger than we have any right to. Fellini's is a very special, personal kind of cinema, and in Amarcord he is in the top of his form. (p. 265)
Vincent Canby, "Funny, Marvelous Fellini 'Amarcord'," in The New York Times (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 20, 1974 (and reprinted in The National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy, edited by Stuart Byron and Elisabeth Weis, Grossman Publishers, 1977, pp. 264-65).
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In essence, the whole of Fellini can be found in [the first] sequence from La Strada [which ends with Gelsomina following the circus band after leaving Zampano]. His thematic centre is here. To begin with, reinforced by the title itself, there is the sense of life as a journey, as a constant tearing away from things known and a plunging into the unfamiliar. Unlike Bergman, however, whose allegoric wanderings are generally from place to place … in Fellini, there is seldom any sense of direction or eventual goal. The form of his films tends to be circular, the characters usually ending where they began.
This restlessness of movement can work in different ways. Occasionally, as with the nuns in La Strada, there is the feeling that we must give up things dear to us before we get too fond of them; but more frequently there is the feeling that only by moving on, by probing and searching, can we ever come to know the purpose of life. Fellini's fondness for processions is obviously related to this. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if the celebration of movement such as we witness in processions may by itself provide the purpose, as if in terrestrial terms there may be, in fact, no goal.
Of course, Fellini would reject such intellectual speculations. For Fellini is an intuitive in his response to life, a great muddleheaded irrationalist with very strong feelings and no clear thought. He lives life from the senses, yet his intelligence has informed him that the senses can deceive. Hence the intellectual indecisions, the apparently inexhaustible interviews with all their self-contradictions. Yet hence too all the passionate affirmations of his films up until their acme in 8 1/2. It is as if Fellini recognizes that 'truth' must lie somewhere, though locked up in subjectivity, but he is unable to seize it with the merely rational surface of his mind. Hence all the turbulence, all the restless energy, the endless travelling along streets and long corridors. (pp. 186-87)
But in this sequence from La Strada, there are also some examples of the twin experiences that, as Fellini understood it at this stage of his career, this directionless journey through life must entail—experiences of the freshness and unexpectedness of innocence which are immediately followed by the experience of something dreadful that in a world freed from the devil is now without a name. On the one hand, we have the presence of Gelsomina herself and of the somewhat querulous Il Matto who appears from on high; but more characteristically we have the fleeting image of [the] little boy in the cloak passing along the corridor that charms us so gratuitously. For it is also a part of Fellini's irrationality that childhood innocence should so often play such a formally gratuitous role in his films, that children should simply appear and then disappear—providing us with a momentary pleasure and perhaps renewing our faith in the wonder of existence but remaining essentially apart from the troubled business of life in Fellini's adult world. (p. 188)
In all of Fellini's films, there are these disturbing images, moments of disillusion that serve to challenge simple faith. There is the sinister homosexual who so disappoints Leopoldo in I Vitelloni, as there had been the more-than-disappointing flesh-and-blood reality of the White Sheik before. But in I Vitelloni more powerfully and more like Osvaldo is the woman in the cinema who so easily tempts Fausto and who is again encountered one day on the beach. Within the subterranean depths of Fellini's imagination, she serves as a link between Osvaldo and La Saraghina and simply appears at odd moments as a threat to the flesh. Also in I Vitelloni there is the married man in the dark glasses who tempts Olga away. He too is first encountered on the beach. But most ominous of all is the shot of his dark car just before they drive away: it is almost hidden by the early-morning shadows in the street while the light glares out above it threateningly, like a scar. (pp. 189-90)
Excluding for the moment La Saraghina, who is a more complex incarnation of this kind of nameless threat, simultaneously described as evil yet felt to be beautiful, and excluding for the moment the whole of Satyricon, which, on one level, seems a surrender to this frightening aspect of life, in La Dolce Vita we have a summary of this sort of effect in that strange blob of a fish that pollutes the stretch of beach at the end of the film and forms the imaginative counterpole to the young Paola waving to Marcello across the protective inlet of the sea. It is as if something deep in Fellini recognizes that in childhood and childlike responses to existence, there is beauty and affirmation of a frequently troubling kind, troubling because unconscious of the terrible threats and temptations that can lurk in the unknowable depths of adult life; and in the way that so frequently these polar elements seem more an accompaniment to the main theme than a formally intrinsic part of his film, it is as if at this stage of his development, Fellini cannot consciously work out the exact relationship between these two extremes or even find a settled place for them within the narrative structure of his films. Constantly he creates situations for which he can find no earthly solution, and his characters encounter difficulties beyond their means to control. For the end of La Dolce Vita, it is as if the gods themselves must be evoked to bring about the closing affirmation. Failing to communicate anything helpful to Marcello, the little Umbrian angel looks straight at the camera, and at us. What do we make of it all? What do we feel about innocence by the end? (p. 190)
One of the difficulties that Fellini's films pose for more rational minds—indeed, we could even say, one of the limitations of Fellini's particular kind of cinematic art—is that he has too often been too careless about the surface credibility of his films, confusing and alienating all but the most sympathetic of his viewers as the conventions of his films have seemed so strange. Yet at their best, in the early days, they are strange only to the expectations of literary narrative and of psychological realism. Fellini's conventions are not at all strange to the language of painting, which, beneath the narrative surface of his films, is the language that he used most frequently to employ.
There is in all real films—in all films that have the lasting interest that characterizes a work of art—what I have found it convenient to call a subliminal level, a level largely of images plus the complex associations of scarcely perceived sounds. Although we are often not really conscious of these vital ingredients, especially on a first viewing, we can nevertheless be immensely moved by their power to affect us. Indeed, it is generally these elements that give a film its atmosphere or mood.
If there are in Fellini certain constantly recurring themes or motifs, there are also certain constantly recurring images and effects that, when responded to, can make an extraordinary impression upon us and which are cumulative in their power. For these images to be discussed at all, criticism has to lean away from the comfortably confident tone of literary-cum-film analysis and draw upon the tentativeness of art appreciation. For the central fact about art criticism is the elusiveness of the total power of the image when talked about in words and of the greater subjectivity of the way paintings speak to us, moving towards music, which is the most subjectively elusive of all. (pp. 191-92)
[If] we contemplate the effect of the foreground shadow in … The Rose Tower [by the contemporary Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico], and remember that the entire proposal scene between Oscar and Cabiria is similarly played in shadow with the landscape and buildings luminous behind, we might feel that by the very light itself, both de Chirico and Fellini, working independently in their quite different ways, have employed these foreground shadows to lend a worried aspect to the scene and yet to suggest that there is something worthwhile in the distance, something worth achieving beyond.
In fact, de Chirico, perhaps because as an Italian he too has been particularly sensitive to Italian space and Italian light, can be used again and again to illuminate by analogy the images in Fellini. (pp. 192-93)
In Fellini, the town square is never felt to be the social centre of a community. De Chirico too seemed to be sensitive to the empty feeling of such places at unused times of day—indeed, to the very irrelevance of such vast structures to the little intimacies of human life. And so in de Chirico, we find a number of such paintings that depict huge buildings and exaggerated shadows, where the tiny figures serve both to emphasize the hugeness of the structures (as do the miniature trains that we frequently see puffing away on the horizon) and to give a feeling that the little human things don't really belong in such a space. Sometimes this feeling is further emphasized by the presence of some stray object in the foreground, some object made bizarre by being torn from the context of its function….
So in I Vitelloni, in the much-admired beach sequence—admired for its sensitive observation of these five men imprisoned in their own apathy and defeated by the feeling that there is nothing they can do—Fellini emphasizes their own feeling of irrelevance and functionlessness by the many apparently useless structures that we see sticking up out of the sand. Skeletons of summer changing-huts and odd inexplicable bits of wire frequently dominate the scene and create the feeling of something strange with an almost surrealist intensity. Everywhere throughout the film as throughout every Fellini film there is the recurring presence of the bizarre. (p. 193)
In fact, this recognition of the bizarre is at the centre of Fellini's world, the physical parallel of his response to the irrational, the source both of his humour and of his sense of dread. For if humour is uppermost in most films by Fellini, beneath the comic observation of the discrepancies of human life there is always this feeling of something beyond our control, something not fully known to our rational selves—like that grotesque fish at the end of La Dolce Vita, like Osvaldo in that guarded-over room, like the frightening labyrinthine journeys in Satyricon, or the grotesque distortions of The Clowns. (p. 194)
So far in this account of Fellini, I have been concerned only with the thematic consistency of his work and with the peculiar force of his imagery. Taken all together, his films create a world that is uniquely and personally his own. Even the films that follow 8 1/2, though less intimate, still manage to enact Fellini's vision of the universe. All this, although true, tends to ignore the great differences between his individual films, differences of surface characteristics but also finally of quality as well. For much as I respond with pleasure to nearly everything that he has produced, I recognize that if Fellini is a man of immense inventiveness, he is also a director of uncertain control over the many elements that his mind, with apparently so little effort, can with such energy invent. Also, if Fellini is a man who has created for us an immensely personal view of life on the screen, I recognize that it is just that—an immensely personal view of life which is frequently egotistic, self-indulgent, sentimental, and wilfully irrational, courting mystery at every corner and asking from us as much compassion for all these difficulties as he has bestowed upon them himself. (pp. 195-96)
If it is true that there is nothing in Fellini's films that we can properly call thought, there is nevertheless evidence of an intelligence of a totally different kind. Everywhere in his films there is the presence of a mind that responds to life itself on a subliminal level, that is acutely conscious of the natural metaphors to be found in the trappings of day-to-day life and which struggles to find a structure both flexible and persuasive enough to contain them within his films. (p. 196)
Throughout this account of certain aspects of Fellini,… I am trying to do basically one thing: I am anxious to explain the form of [the] director's films in terms of the view of life that has necessitated it…. However, before looking at 8 1/2, the film that I consider to be Fellini's most complete achievement, I'd like to glance at some of his less successful works and at the view of life that all his films embody; for with Fellini,… any breakdown in the form of his films is inextricably tied to inadequacies within the view of life at the base of them.
In many ways, Fellini's view of life is that of a child—a simple creature of nature, a kind of self-regarding mystic. When we think of art in more social terms, Fellini's self-obsessions can be worrying. Yet surely society is still robust enough to be enriched by the products of its artistic egotists—Federico Fellini, Hector Berlioz, Benvenuto Cellini, a distinguished genealogy of men who have created in extravagantly personal ways. These men, with their insistence on the inner life of man, have made their own contribution to our increased self-understanding. At their best, they have pursued their self-bound concerns with such energy and completeness that their explorations of their purely private problems have managed to illuminate the problems of us all. (pp. 198-99)
[While] I can find little to admire in his sketch for Boccaccio 70, I can see in much of the poster-raising sequence, hilarious in its way and absurd in its chaos, a kind of rehearsal for the press conference in 8 1/2, where both the hilarity and the chaos have a tougher context to contain them. But it is the essential tastelessness of the central conception of the Boccaccio episode that has always made me doubt that particular piece of film and wonder what it might presage.
In the image of the little puritan who has such grotesque fantasies, there is possibly something funny (though not to my taste) but there is also a contradiction between Fellini's most undeniable gift and his intentions in this film. Whether we like him or not, at his best Fellini has certainly succeeded in creating for us images that convey the innermost recesses of his own teeming mind. But what about the mind of another person essentially different from himself: could he explore that with the same kind of intimacy? I should never have thought so; and yet this is what he was offering to do in this film. He would appear to be trying to convey to us how another person thinks and feels, which is perhaps what makes the film so unsubtle in the effects that it achieves, so lacking in compassion, finally so lacking in taste. (pp. 199-200)
[The Clowns] contains elements of self-parody of a most inescapable kind. There is one moment during which all the clowns are running round and round the circus ring in a frenzy of purposeless movement as if in deliberate mockery of the finest moments in La Strada, Le Notti di Cabiria, and 8 1/2. 'Mr. Fellini, what is the message of this sequence?' asks an onlooker (in words to that effect). Whereupon a pail is suddenly thrown over his inquiring head, as immediately afterwards over Fellini's. Obviously, Fellini is mocking both himself and his interpreters. We shouldn't even try to understand!
When an artist is driven to mock his own achievement, it may imply an artistic crisis. At the same time, such self-mockery may be merely a playful response to the role thrust upon Fellini of superstar; or, more seriously, it may be an attempt to exorcize once and for all his own clichés (as Bergman did in The Face), as if to prepare himself for new things to come. Moving backwards to Satyricon, perhaps that film could be seen as an exorcism of this kind—as an attempt at last to probe the fears that have haunted his earlier work but which have never been confronted head on. (pp. 202-03)
[In Satyricon] the fears seem largely sexual. Sexual love has always been somewhat oddly handled by Fellini, as if it were something that he himself didn't understand fully. 'You cannot tell a proper love story!' one of the 'nieces' associated with the production team giggled outrageously to the Guido/Fellini figure in 8 1/2, leaping up and down in the bed; and in all his films Fellini has been attracted to the androgynous figure of the clown. (p. 203)
It is as if Fellini, in all his films, equates innocence of the body with purity of soul. He gives to all his children, his simpletons and clowns a sensitivity that seems lacking in his adult world…. In Satyricon however, with the exception of the children in the patrician's scene …, there are no children in this film at all. As a result of this, given Fellini's private store of metaphor, there is little sense of hope. There is also little sense of any alternatives, little sense of a life that is not whole-heartedly opportunistic and grotesque. 'Friendship lasts as long as it is useful,' says Ascyltus in his opening soliloquy; 'at least that's what I think'. And there is little in the film to give us the sense of characters behaving in any other way, especially as regards their sexual lives. With the exception of the patrician and his family, they are studs and whores all.
What does Fellini intend by this? The acceptance of so many of the homosexual elements obviously derives from Petronius himself; but one can never explain too much in films as personal as Fellini's by reference to his sources. Why did he pick this and not that? This remains the critical question. Similarly, he surely doesn't intend the film to be a realistic treatment of the mores of an ancient society, painstaking though much of his research into the authenticity of surface details in the film actually has been. Nor is it simply an allegory of our own times, as La Dolce Vita was erroneously assumed to be. The film is a mixture of all these things, and certainly not so obviously a personal statement by Fellini as his other films have been. Yet the perfunctory nature of the narrative and the paper-thinness of the characters, alongside the urgency with which some of the scenes are actually handled, would seem to be our clue for decoding the film, for locating Fellini's own centre of interest. Again and again he returns to scenes of banquets or arenas, and again and again these scenes become the settings for some kind of sexual humiliation. (pp. 203-04)
There is a slightly sinister Gioconda smile that Fellini's characters have assumed over the years. It was there in Gelsomina in La Strada, apparently harmless then, part of her slightly simpleton nature. Indeed, Fellini's simpletons have often assumed that smile, as have his homosexuals; but it wasn't until Giulietta that, both in the figure of the maid and more especially in the vision of Giulietta's young school friend who killed herself for love, this enigmatic smile began to seem menacing. (pp. 204-05)
In the Satyricon, this Gioconda smile is most evident on the face of the pathic Giton, but curiously, bafflingly, it is also painted on to the faces of the patrician's children as they prepare to take their leave. It also appears on the lean and sensual sphinx-like face of Tryphaena, both when Encolpius first spies her at Trimalchio's banquet, and most forcefully and most sinisterly when she sees her husband's head cut off and flung into the sea—a very strange moment in the film indeed and a most inexplicable and unexplained response. Yet it is a striking moment in the film, an image that stays with us, as does the preceding sequence when the crew on Lichas's ship hoist a dead whale (or something like it) up out of the sea—all in striking silhouette as if in early morning, after the male marriage between Encolpius and the brutal Lichas. Like that big blob of fish that is thrown up on the beach towards the end of La Dolce Vita, the whale, as inexplicable in terms of plot as Tryphaena's smile, gives us a strong sense of something revolting at the bottom of all this debauchery. It is as if Fellini feels, deep inside himself, that something disastrous will follow the surrender to physical love. So too, after Encolpius's and Giton's night of love together—another remarkably tender moment in the film—the entire building crumbles and stones its inhabitants to death.
In this surrealist world where, through the images, the tensions of sex seem related to pain and disorder, it seems right that the font of wisdom should lie in the hermaphrodite—a strange albino creature, with a small boy's penis and a young woman's breasts. Yet when the two protagonists steal their treasure away from the old man that guards him, the hermaphrodite cannot survive the full sunlight of the world outside. In yet another compelling sequence in the film, the screen itself is bleached to white and the hermaphrodite withers and dies. So compact a resolution to the sexual problem cannot exist in the outside world, this episode might seem to imply. We seem cursed and doomed to suffer the humiliations of desire…. (p. 205)
The most human (and hence most moral) moment occurs to one side of the central story—the gentle freeing of his slaves and the parting from his children of a noble patrician who then slits his wrists as he is having a farewell supper with his wife, a moment that I understand is based on the end of Petronius's own life. This scene stands out in the film for its quietness and for its single appeal to our old-fashioned natural human sympathies. In Satyricon, it is as if the little surrealist moments that troubled and deepened the surface narrative of Fellini's earlier films have assumed the centre of the stage while the more human elements have been pushed to one side.
While Satyricon is the film by Fellini that troubles me most, personally, I have been struck by the complete insensitivity with which the film has been received. If in his work since 8 1/2 Fellini seems to be stumbling, even his stumbles seem full of interest and possess an undeniable authority. Besides, who knows where they may lead?
However, to tie together the various perceptions that seem to characterize Fellini's world, we have to backtrack and take a considered look at 8 1/2—the film that, in my view, most succeeds in resolving the dilemmas and balancing the paradoxes of Fellini's most personal, most fantastic universe. 8 1/2 is the summation of Fellini's work to that date, and, for me personally, is one of the greatest films of all time. (p. 206)
[If 8 1/2] is incomparably the finest film that Fellini has ever created, it is largely because, along with Fellini's characteristic sensitivity to sounds and images, the film contains within it a subtle dialectic. (p. 207)
All the old ingredients are there in this film: the acutely accurate observation of surface behaviour which characterized I Vitelloni plus the response to both the semi-mystical and the bizarre that was so evident in La Strada. We still have the same sense of life as a quest, as endless movement with uncertain direction, as we still have the twin polarities in this film, principally of Claudia and La Saraghina, here seeming to imply a split between the subtler imaginations of the spirit and the coarser attractions of the flesh. But in this film things aren't quite that simple. Both figures in their different ways are presented as somewhat motherly and it is only the church that keeps insisting that La Saraghina is evil. Innocence and evil are no longer separate categories locked away on opposite sides in the wings of the film. But along with these familiar themes and effects, the film puts forward a structure of argument and self-criticism that recasts all these elements in a decidedly clearer light.
This structure can conveniently be examined by looking closely at the final reels. Guido is reaching the point of no return during the auditions while he watches with extreme discomfort the various imperfect approximations to the creatures who have meant so much to him in his private life. Daumier, his intellectual friend, scriptwriter, and adviser, is being particularly tiresome and unhelpful; so, in his imagination, Guido simply has him hanged. Luisa is growing increasingly impatient at the way that she, as his wife, is being made use of in this projected film and she stalks out of the theatre-studio. Then Claudia arrives.
We have seen her as part of Guido's fantasies several times before in the film—sometimes as nurse or mother, bringing him his elixir at the spa or turning down his bed, sometimes as the incarnation of his ideal mistress figure, freed from the physical vulgarities of his actual mistress, Carla. As his ideal mistress, Claudia has her black hair loose about her shoulders while she lies in bed stroking herself, smiling lovingly and talking about her desire to look after him and to create order—really less like a mistress than an ideal wife. But this is the first time in the film, twenty minutes before the end, that she actually appears on the level of present time as the possible star of this impossible film. They go off for a drive together, she at the wheel although she explains that she doesn't know the way.
Guido muses about his incapacities as a man and artist, about his inability to stick to any one thing, to select anything, to reject, to choose. And even here the structure is nicely balanced if we look closely. 'Could you choose one thing and be faithful to it?' he asks in some despair as the light in the darkened car narrows around him revealing only his eyes. While she simply smiles, as if reassuringly, and with a Fellini-like evasiveness replies: 'I don't know the road.'
They turn off into what looks like a deserted village square, the most de Chirico-like image in this film yet actually one of the few natural sets, close by some springs. (We never see the water although we hear it on the soundtrack.) There, in sudden silence, we now see the imagined Claudia as nurse-and-mother in an upstairs window, luminous in her white frock, at first holding a lamp in her hand and then descending the stairs to lay a table in this deserted village square. Then natural sound again as Claudia asks: 'What happens next?' Fellini/Anselmi is talking about the role of the woman-goddess in his film who must be both child and woman (as Sylvia was seen to be by Marcello in La Dolce Vita). They get out of the car, she expressing displeasure at the cold bareness of the place, he replying that he likes it enormously. Then he tries to explain that there will in fact be no role for her in the film because 'no woman can save a man' and because 'I don't want to film another lie'. Meanwhile she keeps intercutting her own interpretation of his difficulty. Three times she says 'because you don't know how to love … because you don't know how to love … because you don't know how to love.' But at his further announcement that there will also be no film, two cars tear into the square announcing a new idea to launch the film, and the swirling chaos of the press conference begins.
Partly here, but even more in the following episode, Fellini depicts the helpless quandary to which all his contradictory impulses seem to have led him. Everyone makes demands upon him and asks for explanations which he cannot give, while a harsh American face looms up into the screen taking obvious delight in the apparent fact that 'He has nothing to say.' Fleeting images of both Claudia and Luisa in her bridal gown appear, distracting him momentarily from the troubles around him; but when someone slips a revolver in his pocket, he climbs under the table and in a fashion that recalls the young Guido running away from the prospect of a bath, he crawls along the ground and shoots himself. 'What an incurable romantic!' he exclaims before the end. Then a glimpse of his mother standing by the sea; then the shot; and then silence except for the wind.
Here the epilogue to the film begins, the recapitulation of its argument, which is in essence a recapitulation of the complete works of Fellini. The huge rocket-launching apparatus is being dismantled, that useless structure which is the culmination of all the structures that we have seen throughout his films. It is apparently of no use. Daumier is talking incessantly about the wisdom of abandoning the picture: '… the world abounds in superfluity … it's better to destroy than to create what's inessential …' Throughout the film, it is as if Daumier stands for Fellini's more rational self, the self that has taken cognizance of all the critical attacks that have been made on his self-indulgent and irrational universe but which … Fellini feels to be destructive. At the same time, he recognizes that this rational analytical voice is not the only one in his life. At the very moment that Daumier is discoursing on the futility of unnecessary creation, the ring-master appears—that androgynous clown-like figure who has played such an important part in all of Fellini's work and seems to stand for something like creation for its own sake, for pure activity without thought or purpose. 'Aspetti,' he smiles; 'wait a minute! We're ready to begin … All my best wishes …' It is as if Fellini cannot free himself from the conviction that in spite of all the reasonable criticisms that can justifiably be brought against him as against life itself, there is something deep within him that remains more affirmative and that exists beyond thought, that must go on creating simply for the sake of creation, as clowns or aerialists must continue to perform their intricate though meaningless routines.
Then another vision: first Claudia, then La Saraghina, then his parents appear before him—all dressed in white and all floating along noiselessly by the side of the sea accompanied only by the wind. And then most importantly, Luisa appears, her eyes slightly lowered as if in embarrassment or shame. If the critical voice of Daumier represents part of the toughness of the structure of this film, then the resentful, mistrustful, yet possibly forgiving presence of Luisa represents the other part that tugs against Fellini's natural tendency to make things a little too easy for himself. Guido is here experiencing a vision of love for all the creatures he has ever known and is trying to communicate the beauty and simplicity of this feeling to Luisa, even while recognizing his own unworthiness: 'Luisa, I do not know, I seek, I have not found … Only with this in mind can I look at you without shame … Accept me as I am.' And Luisa, while seeming to recognize the possible self-deception and self-dramatization of these remarks, nevertheless out of female kindness strives to accept him all the same: 'I don't know if that's true, but I can try.' So once again in Fellini, though in a far subtler form, we have salvation by grace. Man, although unworthy, can still be saved.
From this confession and acceptance, this exchange of imperfect terrestrial love, the characteristic Fellini miracle follows, the miracle of self-renewal that enables life to go on. Like the three circus musicians that appear at the comparable moment in La Strada, here a similar little troop come into view. With the characteristic horizontal stripes again very much in evidence, they march into the circus ring to receive instructions from Guido, the megaphone of authority having been thrust into his hands by the always smiling, always helpful magician/ringmaster, this embodiment of the impulse towards life without demanding why. Then, from the top of this vast structure, itself miraculously reassembled, down the equally vast staircase—like the White Sheik from the sky—all the people we have seen in this film parade into the ring and join hands and dance in a circle about its rim. (pp. 207-11)
So we have this final image of the circus ring with the little band still playing at its centre, the circus that has meant so much to Fellini all his life and has played such a large part in his films. And so too we have the mystic circle of eternity, ancient symbol of the Christian church incorporated by Dante. And so too we have the final consummate image of movement without direction, dancing round and round for ever in an infinity of shared acceptance. (p. 211)
Peter Harcourt, "The Secret Life of Federico Fellini" (originally published in a different form in Film Quarterly, Spring, 1966), in his Six European Directors: Essays on the Meaning of Film Style (copyright © Peter Harcourt, 1974; reprinted by permission of Penguin Books Ltd), Penguin Books Ltd, 1974, pp. 183-211.
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Fellini's avowed purpose in Amarcord is very straightforward: "I simply wanted to create a portrait of a little Northern Italian town for a couple of hours. A town with its fantasy, its cynicism, its superstitions, its confusions, its fetes, and the passing of seasons." The film, however, is much more complex than a simple reverie or unvarnished history. No one remembers quite like Fellini, as we all know, so the film is really a quite personal and idiosyncratic vision of social history.
Fellini's loving portrait of his little town lacks a unifying plot; Amarcord is an impressionist mood piece that generally outlines the seasons of the year and the stages in life. There are births and deaths, weddings and orgies, holidays and holydays, parades and movies, motorcycles and peacocks. Yet beneath the frivolity and sentimentality, under the gentle satire and savage grotesques, lies a rich perception of the appeal of fascism…. To visit Fellini's home town in the thirties, to know the families there, to share Titta's relationship with his teachers, his mother, the town prostitutes, his schoolmates, and his church may finally be the only way to understand fascism. The very emotional, and seemingly harmless, attachments and taboos Fellini so lovingly delineates grew into a mass movement, a fanatical movement where inflamed emotion replaced reason. (p. 25)
Intellectually it's sometimes hard to tie social forces like fascism, militarism, sexual repression, and religion together; cinematically, Fellini draws the connection with ease. Youths who hear of saints crying when they masturbate can easily fantasize about fascist figureheads lauding them and their virgin brides. The glories and ceremonies of the ancient Church of Rome can quickly shade into the glorious rebirth of the Roman Empire under fascism. The majesty of sacramental liturgy can also be paralleled by the exhibitionism of military ceremony. Religion, nationalism, and repression thus go hand in hand in forming an authoritarian personality. (pp. 25, 27)
Light and dark, the best and worst, are strangely mixed in life and in Fellini's films. Fellini's touch is a gentle one, however, and to view too much of Amarcord as a structural vision of the roots of fascism would be to belie the other obvious charms of the movie: the peacock in the snow, the madman in a tree, the overendowed tobacconist, and Fu Manchu on his motorcycle. The thirties were not, Fellini intimates, a black era populated only by dark forces, for even his most earnest fascists do little more than use castor oil for their third degree. Instead of ominous symphonies, Fellini offers us what he calls "little music," a pleasant interlude "to be heard without needing to serve the chorus of eroticism and violence." (p. 27)
Lester J. Keyser, "Three Faces of Evil: Fascism in Recent Movies," in Journal of Popular Film (copyright © 1975 by Sam L. Grogg, Jr., Michael T. Marsden, and John G. Nachbar), Vol. IV, No. 1, 1975, pp. 21-31.∗
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Amarcord may be the director's warmest, most subdued film (who goes to Fellini for warmth and good nature?), but it is also his safest. I miss the grand flourishes, the master showmanship, the epic heightening, that I've come to expect from Fellini. Amarcord lacks the vigor and drive, the joyous high spirits and sense of release that have been for me the chief pleasures of Fellini's work….
Amarcord is a trimming away, a paring down, rather than a return to the style of his earliest films…. Fellini has always shown impatience with strict realism. Rather than objectively recording the surfaces of Italian life, he always worked from personal predilections that hardened into obsessions. (p. 50)
Amarcord, like all of Fellini's work, far from being a "return" or a "departure," is a blend of the real and the fanciful—it's a distinctly stylized version of Italian life. This time, though, Fellini has avoided a circus atmosphere; the film isn't the collection of breathtaking tableaux that is, for me, the essential Fellini. He has deliberately simplified his canvas, but he hasn't substituted anything in place of the intoxications of his previous work….
Fellini doesn't impose himself on the material to the degree he has in his most recent films, but he hasn't found anyone else to guide us through the film's fragmented panorama. The point of view is shifting, confused. (p. 51)
Fellini keeps us away from all his characters. His main family, who are the anchor and focus for the anecdotes, are simply stage Italians, comic opera buffoons who conform to facile preconceptions about what Italians are like: they're hot-tempered, warm-hearted, they gesture extravagantly. We're encouraged to laugh at their squabbles, and then, when the mother dies unexpectedly, we're to be moved by their vulnerability. The pathos is unearned.
The townspeople consist of the usual Fellini dramatis personae, only the types this time are less vivid and exact. (pp. 51-2)
As a treatment of adolescence, the film is ordinary. Sexual initiation is mined for conventional comedy. As a chronicle of a town, the film is surprisingly flavorless….
The composition is deliberately unstructured, nonpictorial, but it's also unimpressive—there's nothing to hold on to. The finale completely lacks the sense of communion or the joyous resolution or the formal beauty which have marked every one of the director's previous endings. Easy, likable, filled with flashes of charm, Amarcord is Fellini's thinnest performance. (p. 52)
Foster Hirsch, "Reviews: 'Amarcord'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1975 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXIX, No. 1, Fall, 1975, pp. 50-2.
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What we see [in Amarcord] is not a year from the lives of several citizens of Rimini during the Fascist period, but Fellini's poetically stylized remembrance of things past. Like Proust, Fellini organizes his experiences subjectively, as in a dream, where "insignificant" details loom overwhelmingly, and "important" facts are either ignored, or casually noted then cast aside as emotionally irrelevant…. In keeping with the impure nature of the film, Fellini the documentarist fuses with Fellini the lyrical poet….
Like many of the director's later films, Amarcord is unified by a dense substructure of leitmotifs. Perhaps the most obvious of these are seasonal. The film opens and closes with the coming of spring. Each season is typified by a characteristic sky element, which is related to the themes of aspiration and transience….
Related to this seasonal structure is a sense of progression in the episodes in terms of the age of the protagonists. Roughly speaking, the film moves from youth to maturity to death to rebirth. (p. 156)
Most of the characters feel trapped by their mundane lives in this provincial town (hence, the "bitter" implications of the title). Despite their almost universal earthiness, they aspire to a more spiritual state. They yearn for escape and grasp at any symbol, however flimsy, of release from their prosaic existence. In addition to the sky elements, an important leitmotif of escape deals with vehicles. Throughout the movie, a mysterious motorcyclist whips in and out of the town square, an image of excitement, glamor, and liberation….
Perhaps the most moving episode dealing with this motif is the arrival of the "Rex," a mammoth luxury ship which briefly passes through the ocean waters a few miles beyond the town's beaches. Like many of the sequences in the movie, this one begins comically and ends in poignance; it commences as a public spectacle and concludes on a note of private anguish. The opening takes place in the daytime, which Fellini characteristically associates with comedy and earthy vulgarity, and ends late at night, which is generally associated with solitude, spirituality, and aspiration. (p. 157)
Like many of Fellini's films, Amarcord is dialectic, and contrasts boisterous public events with poignant private dreams. A prominent motif in the film deals with community rituals, where the loneliness and isolation of individuals are temporarily assuaged: the opening bonfire to banish winter and welcome the spring, the Fascist rally, the meeting of the "Rex," the funeral service and procession, Gradisca's wedding. The private dreams in the film are generally associated with romantic fantasies, usually in some sexual form. But like most of the characters' aspirations, these fantasies are essentially masturbatory….
[Reality], with its cruel impurities, reduces these romantic fantasies to mockeries. It inflicts humiliating compromises on the dreamers. (p. 158)
Just as Fellini seems incapable of offering us a picture of spirituality uncorrupted by vulgarity, so is he temperamentally incapable of showing us a portrait of evil "uncorrupted" by humanity. The episodes dealing with the Fascists are a good example of Fellini's "impure" vision. The Fascists are not the terrifying and inexorable figures portrayed in De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but clowns and buffoonish bullies. They too aspire to some "higher state," with their banners proclaiming the mystical fusion of "God, Country, and Family," and their ludicrous Cult of the Athlete. We may shudder at their hollow clichés about the "Glorious Empire," their simpleminded rhetoric about being "immortal," yet at the same time, we smile a little at their ragged pageants, their strutting, their childish theatricality. Even the sinister scene at Fascist Headquarters is "corrupted" by a certain clownish humanity. (p. 159)
The tone shifts in the film are audacious, a perfect demonstration, in fact, of Fellini's dialectical sensibility at work. The concluding scene of the Fascist sequence is a good case in point. At Party Headquarters, Aurelio is forced to drink two glasses of castor oil, the traditional form of humiliation employed by the bullies of the Party…. The scene shifts to [Miranda's and Aurelio's] kitchen, where Miranda is gently washing Aurelio in a large tub of water. His naked back to the camera, he hangs his head in shame while the haggard and sweat-soaked Miranda quietly gives vent to her fears. We can almost feel the steam and smell the excrement, yet the tone of the scene is one of exquisite tenderness. It is, in fact, the purest example of love in the film…. What an extraordinary poet this Fellini is: a fuser of images, one who's outrageous enough to portray a Fascist chieftain as a whining, mock-martyred Jewish Mother, and to offer his most moving love scene amidst the smell and smear of shit!
Fellini's use of multiple narration is another example of his ability to fuse apparently contradictory elements. Of course multiple narration is hardly new in the cinema—one thinks immediately of Citizen Kane and Rashomon. But Fellini's use of the technique is characteristically impure. It's not used as a schematic device whereby the filmmaker is able to reveal information that would otherwise be awkward to convey, as in the films of Welles and Kurosawa. In Amarcord a limited point of view is not so rigorously maintained…. Fellini relates events from various isolated points of view, but the form of the narration isn't dictated by any rigorous sense of inevitability. There's an element of arbitrariness, of randomness even, in Fellini's use of multiple narration.
In keeping with the mosaic structure of the movie, Fellini demonstrates rather than states the theme of the film: that despite the isolation and individual differences of the narrators, despite their solitary ruminations, they are all bound by a common romantic yearning. Superficially, the narrators in the film barely know each other socially, let alone spiritually, yet like isolated pieces of glass in a mosaic, they are part of a larger unity, a unity that is not apparent except to Fellini from a distance. Just as we can perceive the overall design of a mosaic by stepping back, so Fellini steps back in time and sees a similar coherence in what was once merely an undifferentiated jumble of isolated events, feelings, characters, and images.
Most narrators are used as endistancing devices: we are at one remove from a given event. The storyteller is a kind of filter, often a distorting filter, which prevents us from observing an event directly or objectively. In Amarcord, Fellini uses a kind of multiple filtration, a characteristically impure technique which totally obliterates the "objectivity" of an event, yet paradoxically fuses the fragments into a higher imaginative unity. (pp. 159-61)
[Movie] allusions abound in Amarcord. The theatre owner is called "Ronald Coleman" because of his presumed resemblance to that "elegant" actor. We see film posters announcing coming attractions, which include not only the romantic Norma Shearer, but also the clowns, Laurel and Hardy. Gradisca is teased about her great love for Gary Cooper, and is jokingly called "Greta Garbo" by one of the boys. These movie allusions represent another example of the escape motif in the film: the townspeople love the cinema, which provides them with romantic fantasies that permit them to escape their everyday existence…. Fellini believes that life often imitates art. But the differences between the two are too complex to be glibly separated: like life itself, Amarcord is an amalgam of both life and art. (p. 161)
Like all dialectics, Fellini's is ultimately concerned with a synthesis, with a fusion of opposites. In their everyday lives, Titta, Pinwheel, Gradisca, the lawyer, and the others lived isolated existences, yet they shared a common yearning, a unity that Fellini was able to perceive only with the endistancement of time. Perhaps this is the ultimate triumph of Amarcord: that it recognizes and dramatizes the bitter isolation of its characters, while cherishing their spiritual unity. Fellini manages to portray himself through his characters, and, in retrospect, he is able to see his characters in himself. And it's no small measure of his genius that he also succeeds in permitting us to see ourselves in him/them, and him/them in ourselves. (p. 162)
Louis D. Giannetti, "'Amarcord': The Impure Art of Federico Fellini," in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1976, University of Utah), Vol. XXX, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 153-62.
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Time and again I have written that after 8 1/2, a deeply flawed but suggestive satire and, in a scene or two, even affecting film, Federico Fellini was a burnt-out case. There were signs of decline even before that, but few major film-makers have, after two or three great films and as many estimable ones, gone on to a series of abominations comparable to what Fellini has spewed out since 8 1/2. This, for me, includes even his one subsequent success, Amarcord, which I found a gross, witless, ham-fisted rehash of earlier Fellini movies, especially the incomparable I Vittelloni. Whoever puts these two films side by side without perceiving the later work as a lumpish travesty of the earlier is, in my view, tasteless, mindless, or blind.
Now Fellini has become almost too obliging: As if to prove me right so palpably that even the tasteless, mindless, and blind can get it, he has dropped Casanova like a ten-pound weight on our toes…. Particularly offensive and depressing is that Fellini has taken a fascinating protagonist and very rich story only to make them as hollow and aimless as he himself must have become. If this artistic fiasco were not accompanied by boundless arrogance in Fellini's behavior and recorded utterances, one could feel profoundly sorry for the man; as it is, one can only feel revulsion. (p. 57)
What in God's name does this tell us about Casanova? Or even about Fellini, except what we already know: that he is obsessed with dwarfs and giantesses, who appear, singly or together, in almost every one of his later films. And then what?…
[What] about this antisex business? Yes, the couples are always shown copulating with most of their clothes on; they are shot as if they were in separate rooms while making love to each other; and some or all of them seem to be on a kind of trampoline during the act. This makes for the sort of bouncing that, along with bestial panting, grotesquely distended and rolling eyes, and hideously contorted mouths, might well put an impressionable soul watching it off sex altogether. But why? Is Fellini in the pay of some ultrapuritanical hellfire sect? Has he gone mad with repressed sexuality or overindulged lust? Or has he become impotent and determined to spoil what he can no longer enjoy for everyone else as well? Whatever the purpose—assuming there is one—the result is more unstructured, repetitious, witless, and ugly than most moviegoers can endure, except perhaps as some extreme form of penance. You do not go to Casanova when you see this film; you go to Canossa….
Fellini continues, with a few exceptions, to seek out some of the most freakish and nauseating actors and amateurs and to stuff his films with them. For this sort of thing, his genius remains unabated, which may come in handy when he flunks out of movies: It should get him a job running a circus and freak show. (p. 59)
John Simon, "'Casanova': Dead Film in a Dead Language," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1977 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 10, No. 8, February 21, 1977, pp. 57-9.
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Federico Fellini has been given a blank check by his American admirers ever since 8 1/2 in 1962. Now, finally, in 1977 Fellini's Casanova is being returned for lack of fun(ds)…. A joyless, sexless, often pointless caricature of Casanova is hardly the current notion of making whoopee, and a running time of two hours and 45 minutes makes this puritanical pill even harder to swallow….
[In] the desperate world of filmmaking every artist must double as a con man, and Fellini has made fewer compromises with his personal vision than most of his contemporaries have. That may be the problem: He has made so few compromises that he has virtually ceased to communicate. For more than a decade he has been encouraged to exploit his personality, and his facility with satire and pathos, until now both his personality and his undeniable talent seem to have been depleted. Even his sense of humor seems to have deserted him….
I am prepared to concede that I grossly underrated 8 1/2 when it first came out, and that I utterly failed to comprehend its impact on the American cultural scene. The movie itself was a commercial failure, but all sorts of people seem to have seen it and been moved by it…. More than even Bergman or Godard, the name of Fellini provoked cries of, "Maestro!" And I am sure that the adulation can be attributed more to 8 1/2 than to Vitelloni or La Strada—and not to 8 1/2 as a whole, but rather to its wow ending in which all the people in Fellini's past dance around in a compliant circle as the companions of his artistic imagination. There is something in this quintessentially Fellinian image that struck a reassuring note in the sensibilities of American urban intellectuals with their messy private lives and public egos. Here Fellini was preaching a lyrical forgiveness and redemption in the name of artistic expression, and, better still, he was being forgiven by all the people he had used for his own pleasure, simply for incorporating them in his remorseful film fantasies.
Somehow the Fellini legend reached a point at which it would have seemed degrading for the director to make mere movies. Few of his fans seemed to suspect that 8 1/2 reflected a creative crisis in Fellini's existence. Instead, 8 1/2 came to represent a Pirandellian plateau from which the director could descend only at his own peril….
Where, then, does Fellini's Casanova leave us? In years to come it may seem even more inexplicable than it does now. The continuity is so ragged and so gratuitous that the present film seems to have been hacked out of a much longer version with all the vital thematic connections severed…. There is no particular insight into—nor even much information about—either Casanova or the 18th century. There is no eroticism or sensuality, and no good conversation. One must see the film, though more for Fellini's sake than Casanova's…. Yet I can't help feeling that Fellini has been wrestling with his own demons for so long that he has lost sight of the real world with its changing tastes and obsessions. It is as if history ended for Fellini sometime in the early '60s, and his own mental odyssey began…. Fellini's very precisely visualized fear and loathing of femaleness in the universe through a symbolic rendering of vaginal labyrinths now seems too parochial a response to the turbulent shifting of relationships between men and women…. Fellini has no need to demonstrate the range of his talent. One can only regret that midway through his career he chose to film essays rather than make movies. To put it more bluntly, Fellini's Casanova could have used some of the crass showmanship of Nadia Gray's striptease in La Dolce Vita.
Andrew Sarris, "'Fellini's Casanova': A Failure in Communication," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), Vol. XXII, No. 9, February 28, 1977, p. 39.
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If we were to single out one quality that distinguishes Fellini's career-long imaginative evolution, it would be the drive for individuation, the search for ever more authentic ways of rendering growth in his world. Even his early movies—films of increasing alienation—reveal growing pressure for individuation within his imagination and his characters. (His characters individuate themselves from, rather than through, their world; hence their ultimate alienation.) And as Fellini's imagination refines its capacity to create unique and singular creatures, it also evolves beyond stories of individuation-through-alienation to stories of individuation-through-integration: the stories of unitive individuality which inform his movies from The Nights of Cabiria through Fellini's Roma. (p. 68)
[The] evolution from accommodation to breakout within Fellini's first three films seems to usher his imagination into a realm of near-total alienation which becomes visible in his next two feature films, La Strada … and Il Bidone or The Swindle …, which are both of them creatures of extreme dissociation and estrangement. (p. 70)
[While] Fellini's imagination becomes seemingly more alienated, and increasingly sophisticated in its capacity to envision alienation, as it moves from Variety Lights through Il Bidone, it becomes at the same time immensely more sophisticated in its capacity to envision individuals. The process of its evolution is, in effect, a process of individuation….
In rendering the attempted … reintegration of a main character and his world, Fellini's imagination begins to evolve a vision of individuation-through-integration which supplants the vision of alienated individuality that prevails in the earlier films. And in moving from Cabiria to 8 1/2 Fellini also profoundly alters his relationship to his art. He evolves beyond the relative detachment from his films that had characterized his work prior to 8 1/2, and develops the much more intimate interrelationship between his imagination and his movies that is evident in his films from 8 1/2 to the present. (p. 71)
The Nights of Cabiria is the least autobiographical of the three features following Bidone, centering as it does on a prostitute as the main character. Nevertheless, it does return Fellini's imagination to the familiar world of Rome, a world present only sporadically in Bidone. In Cabiria, Fellini images a process of breakout, alienation, and reintegration which carries his imagination through and beyond the estrangement that gave birth to the two preceding movies…. Cabiria ushers Fellini's imagination back from the hillside, or brink, of total estrangement where, in Il Bidone, Augusto surrenders his moral and physical existence, and reunites it with a world of human connection whose presence and energy are essential to imaginative vision and growth. The evidence that Cabiria has indeed effected a creative connection between Fellini's imagination and its world lies in the film's final shot, in which Cabiria looks vibrantly and acceptingly into the camera eye—binding lover and loved, creator and created, in rich and total harmony.
In La Dolce Vita … we have precisely the same kind of pattern as in Cabiria. (p. 72)
[Like Cabiria, Marcello] concludes his odyssey to disillusionment with reintegration of sorts; for as the movie ends, he is being led back into the community of revelers with whom he has just spent the night. It is clear, however, from his behavior during the night's festivities—dedicated to celebrating the annulment of a marriage—that Marcello's reintegration is not affirmative, as was Cabiria's….
Of vital importance, however, to the film and to the evolution of Fellini's imagination is the fact that La Dolce Vita does not conclude with the false reintegration of Marcello and his world…. Like the marriage of the camera eye and Cabiria, the wedding of the camera and Paola constitutes the marriage of Fellini's imagination with its own feminine powers, an act of total integration wherein the imagination encounters the visible manifestation of its own capacity for love, connection, and wholeness—its own capacity to transcend alienation.
What has happened in the course of La Dolce Vita is that Marcello, having annulled everything in his world (including himself), has annulled all the alienation and distance that pervade it. He has annulled the unauthentic process of reintegration he has undergone; he has annulled the failure or death of love in his world; and he has annulled mediation, the principal deterrent to love in that world. (As a reporter, he functions as the film's prime example of mediation.) In so doing, he clears the way for an entirely new world and mode of relationship, the world and relationship of love implicit in the final shots of the movie. So, while reintegration doesn't work for him, it clearly works for Fellini's imagination. (p. 73)
Having discovered in his three preceding films both reintegration and the annulment of distance as viable stories, Fellini employs both in 8 1/2….
In 8 1/2, Guido's greatest challenge in the course of his growth toward integration is to eliminate the distance that separates him from his world, and consequently from his art. The film's major motif is that of directing; Guido's function as a movie director is the focal point of his principal weakness—his inclination to direct his life from outside rather than to connect intimately and completely with the life process. (p. 74)
In the course of his moral and imaginative evolution, Guido in effect resolves the problems of the protagonists of each of Fellini's three prior films. The problem of feminine individuation encountered by Cabiria is resolved through Guido's growing integration of and marriage to the feminine powers within him (embodied by all the women in his life, including the dream woman or anima personified by Claudia Cardinale). This process of integration and marriage culminates with his total acceptance of the principal females in his life: Luisa, Carla, and, in the film's final scene, his mother. The problem of detachment represented by Marcello is resolved through Guido's gradual abandonment of his impulse to direct, an impulse which mediates his relationship to his world. The problem of censorious, critical distance as expressed by Dr. Antonio is resolved by Guido's mock hanging of the critic and script consultant Daumier, and by his assimilation of Daumier's critical impulses as the power of creative conscience. And the problem of connection encountered by the camera eye, the real protagonist of Fellini's earlier movies and the embodiment of Fellini's imagination, is resolved through Guido's attainment of creative vision in the film's closing moments. In engaging Fellini's camera-eye imagination in the perception and cocreation of the harmonic dance that concludes 8 1/2, Guido enables that imagination to marry the visible evidence of its own powers of love and creativity as it had done in uniting its vision to that of Cabiria, Paola, and Cupid at the ends of Fellini's three preceding films. (pp. 74-5)
Another major act in Fellini's career, begun in Dr. Antonio, is also completed in Juliet of the Spirits—the movement from black and white to color. This is not just a cinematographic movement, but a moral-aesthetic one as well, rooted in the fact that black and white movies offer a radically different vision of life and its possibilities than do color films….
A color movie … particularly one in which color is used as lavishly as it is in Juliet of the Spirits, offers a world that is pluralistic rather than dualistic. It assaults one with its infinite variety of concrete, individual entities, no one of which exists in a strictly polar relationship to another, no one of which asserts its priority over any other, and no one of which demands choice-and-rejection as a mode of relating to it. (p. 76)
In Juliet of the Spirits Fellini makes his first authentic color film. Not only does he make Juliet in color of his own moral/aesthetic volition …; he also completes in Juliet what Guido began to evolve at the end of 8 1/2: a "Love for Everybody" morality of color….
At the end of Juliet of the Spirits, having struggled successfully to attain integration and having made peace with her "spirits," Juliet breaks out. She leaves behind the boxlike house that has been both image and source of her imprisonment, and walks out into the world a liberated creature in a liberated universe. Fellini's imagination has achieved a breakout or breakthrough, as it did at the end of I Vitelloni. (p. 77)
With the evolution in [Fellini: A Director's Notebook] of a new, more open way of dealing with human images, Fellini enters a new phase of film-making which will last through Amarcord, in which none of his major figures will be stars, and most will be people with little or no acting experience, whose personal rather than professional powers have ignited his imagination. This shift constitutes a movement by Fellini from character to human image—from a theatrical, symbolic, and relatively static notion of players-in-their-roles to a much more dynamic phenomenon of vital, concrete images creating their own reality in a world of cinematic motion and change. (p. 79)
For two short and often overlooked movies, Toby Dammit and Director's Notebook did a great deal for Fellini, enabling him to (1) move beyond his post-Juliet crisis; (2) eliminate the actor and move to the center of his own work; (3) leave behind characterization for what might be called "image-generation" as a mode of creating human images; and (4) move beyond stories of personal, psychological individuation to stories about the refinement of his own movie-making. The fruit of all this is Fellini-Satyricon …, which capitalizes on the first three achievements of the two previous films and propels Fellini's imagination beyond the fourth….
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Fellini-Satyricon is the fact that it moves Fellini beyond the consideration of his own art to the consideration of art itself. Here Fellini addresses himself to individuation as not a personal or movie-making phenomenon but rather an as aesthetic one. Fellini-Satyricon is primarily a rendering of the way art generates art and life transforms itself into art. The generation of art from art is pointed to in the movie's title, which suggests the evolution of Fellini's film art from the literary art of Petronius. (p. 80)
Living in a world of boundless aesthetic energy, indicated by all the theatrical art, poetry, music, painting, and literary and mythic narrative that surround him, Encolpio himself is less a person than an aesthetic force. He certainly is not a human "character" in a traditional theatrical (dramatic) or humanist sense—a creature with person-ality or "essence" possessed of stable and definable qualities which give him depth, substance, and a consistent, predictable mode of behavior. (pp. 80-1)
Like Fellini-Satyricon, The Clowns … is a work of aesthetic individuation. Taking the art of the clown as its point of departure, it not only generates movie art, but also resurrects the seemingly dead art of the clown as the movie draws to a close. It employs the art of the clown (particularly the White Clown-Auguste relationship which is the film's central structuring device) to organize personal experience and to enhance the growth of Fellini himself. But more than that, its ultimate end is to provide aesthetic form to experience and growth, to turn life into art. (p. 81)
Having moved from stories of personal growth through stories about the growth of his own art to stories of the growth of art itself, Fellini then creates in Fellini's Roma … a movie which incorporates all these aspects of individuation and includes yet another, the historical. Roma is, first of all, a story of Fellini's growth…. Second, Roma is a film about the growth of Fellini's art, as is clear from his emphasis on his attempts to make a movie. Third, it is a film about the evolution of art itself, with its incorporation and use of sculpture, architecture, Roman painting, the theater, photographic slides, the music hall, and movies. Finally, it is a film which, within the context of these other growth processes, examines in all its richness the cultural, religious, and political history of Rome. (pp. 81-2)
By weaving all this into a single film of individuation, Fellini has made by far his most imaginatively sophisticated, complexly integrated work of art. (Its complexity, as might be expected, earned it total lack of comprehension at the hands of critics, who saw it as either a travelogue or a meaningless work of Fellinian self-indulgence.) By focusing on Rome as a vital microcosm of himself and his world, an image of his personal and cultural heritage and creative power, Fellini has been able to weave the individuation of Western civilization into his own personal growth toward wholeness. (p. 82)
[At the end of Fellini's Roma] Fellini emerges as both child and potent partner of the creative life forces, seemingly prepared to encounter the future and transform it into visions of creative change.
Unfortunately the future has, in a sense, not yet come for Fellini. After the incredible act of integration he performed in Roma, after "putting it all together" and then breaking out, he has entered yet another period of alienation. Instead of encountering a future pregnant with creative possibility, he has, with Amarcord … and Fellini's Casanova …, moved back into the past…. Amarcord, for all its charm and magic, is about people who never grow up; Casanova is about a figure whose dissociation from his own powers of love (his "feminine" powers) is so radical that those powers ultimately atrophy to a state of total mechanical (f)rigidity.
Because Amarcord and Casanova do not deal with Fellini's capacity to work toward individuation and integration, they seem to signal the end of his journey toward wholeness, a journey which began with 8 1/2, and culminated brilliantly in Roma…. It might be best, however, to view them more as detours on his journey than as signals of its end. (pp. 82-3)
Frank Burke, "Fellini's Drive for Individuation," in Southwest Review (© 1979 by Southern Methodist University Press), Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 68-85.
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[Can] one ever have too much of Federico Fellini's special brand of excess? The maestro, after one of his customary long silences, has come out with all cameras firing….
[For his film Provo d'orchestra] Fellini had the majestically simple idea of using a rehearsing orchestra as a symbol of social order and hierarchy. And of their fragility. No sooner does discipline break down in the orchestra—when its members stage a sudden, headstrong rebellion against their autocratic conductor—than Heaven itself seems to thunder in anger by pulling down the walls of the ancient Italian church in which they are rehearsing. Order is restored amid the dust and debris, but is it the same as before? The conductor seems to have gradually changed his brand of Italian autocracy for a more sinister Teutonic version, and as the screen darkens at the end of the film, a führerlike voice starts to bark forth in fluent German.
The natural heir to anarchy, the movie suggests, is despotism. Fellini's film describes the same teasing trajectory as many of those trompe l'oeil episodes from Roma: What begins as an apparently documentary slice of Roman life imperceptibly changes course and metamorphoses into a full-blown surrealist allegory. Provo d'orchestra plays with the audience's uncertainty and adds the Chinese-box, film-within-a-film complexity of a television crew filming the orchestra as well. Only gradually, like a slow-motion jack-in-the-box, does Fellini reveal the dramatic trick he is playing on us. The film's throwaway humor and eye-blink editing are a marvel…. (p. 66)
Harlan Kennedy, "Berlin: I. The Festival," in American Film (reprinted with permission from the May issue of American Film magazine; © 1979, The American Film Institute, J. F. Kennedy Center, Washington, DC 20566), Vol. IV, No. 7, May, 1979, pp. 64-6.∗
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394
Federico Fellini, whose habit it is to offend the sensibilities of his fellow Italians, is at it again in a film with the precisely accurate title, Orchestra Rehearsal, and an explanatory subtitle, "The Decline of the West in C# Major." Beginning with La Dolce Vita, Fellini has made a series of films dealing with moral and social decadence; here he turns allegorically to political chaos and violence. (p. 221)
The message is clear enough, if perhaps a little simplistic: shape up, do your jobs, show some responsibility toward the society of which you are a part—in short, discipline yourselves, for if you don't, someone will come along to discipline you. In the present Italian context, it seems cogent advice, nor would I deny that it has wider application. But somehow the bite does not seem very sharp.
One problem, I think, is that Fellini has chosen an unfortunate model for his parable. Orchestra musicians, by and large, are a rebellious breed. For the most part, they are gifted and many of them slaved for years to achieve virtuoso careers that narrowly escaped their grasps. They are highly individualistic, fiercely proud of their skills, and yet they are forced to submit to the will of a conductor whom they have not chosen and of whose ability they are often scornful….
So Orchestra Rehearsal might readily be understood, at least until the closing scene, as an instrumentalist's dream of sweet vengeance on the bête noir of his trade. And this interpretation would be encouraged by the fact that the cast, with the exception of the conductor …, is composed not of actors but of musicians. Being amateurs, they appear self-conscious, they are aware of the camera, they tend to preen and giggle, there seems to be more pretense than passion in their rages. This is how they might behave among themselves to demonstrate how a visiting celebrity could be given his comeuppance, if they cared to bell that cat. For all the cracking of walls and intrusion of wrecking ball, the atmosphere of the film is more that of a comic charade than of a solemn admonition, and the notion of an orchestra kicking over the traces is not sufficiently fantastic to make a strong metaphorical point. (p. 222)
Robert Hatch, "Films: 'Orchestra Rehearsal'," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 229, No. 7, September 15, 1979, pp. 221-22.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 317
For the first few minutes of Orchestra Rehearsal it is as if the early, good Fellini had miraculously risen from the ashes of his self-indulgent, self-parodying, overblown and vacuous later works. A decrepit music copyist sets the scene for a symphonic rehearsal in a trecento oratory where several buried popes and bishops seem somehow to make the acoustics perfect, and where a TV crew is about to film the rehearsal. The atmosphere is vintage Fellini: the old fellow, an amateur actor and typical Fellinian oddball, is comfortably crotchety and eccentrically sensible; the oratory looks austerely authentic….
The films's interest … dies quickly, because the point—the contrast between an orderly but dead past and rebellious contemporary confusion—is soon made unpleasantly obvious. As each arriving musician praises or patronizes his particular instrument to the invisible television interviewer (Fellini's voice), and does so in blatantly anthropomorphic terms; as, moreover, each player speaks with a different regional or snobbish accent, the suggestiveness of symbolism promptly yields to the predictability and constriction of allegory. To cap it all, the conductor is a dictatorial German, and the union delegate who causes considerable mischief, a Sardinian-like Berlinguer, the president of Italy's CP.
When the orchestra members hurl mud or excrement at the portraits of the great classical composers, clamor for the death of the conductor, and set up a giant metronome in his place, then proceed to smash everything, we are submerged in Fellini's bitterness about present-day Italy after the Moro slaying, and though we may share his disgust, we yearn for a form more dramatic than the parable…. The old order is gone, and every new system leads to one kind of tyranny or another, Fellini is saying. Agreed; I just wish he were not saying it quite so schematically.
John Simon, "Simplistic Complexities," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1979; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), Vol. XXXI, No. 43, October 26, 1979, p. 1377.
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