Federico Fellini 1920–1993
Italian filmmaker, screenwriter, actor, and cartoonist.
The following entry presents an overview of Fellini's life and career from 1976 through 1994. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.
Considered one of the most influential and original filmmakers of his generation, Fellini was acclaimed for his use of surreal, often grotesque imagery and for developing a fragmentary, nonlinear narrative style. Expanding on the techniques and methods of such neorealist directors as Roberto Rossellini and Alberto Lattuada, Fellini developed an unorthodox approach to filmmaking, often using nonprofessional actors and allowing his screenplays to evolve and change during the filming process. Peter B. Flint commented: "His style evolved from neo-realism to fanciful neo-realism to surrealism, in which he discarded narrative story lines for free-flowing, freewheeling memoirs."
Fellini was born in Rimini, Italy. He attended Catholic boarding schools during his youth, where he exhibited a flair for drawing. While in his teens, he left Rimini for Florence, where he worked as a proofreader and cartoonist before enrolling in law school at the University of Rome. He did not attend classes, however, and instead worked as a cartoonist and short story writer for the satirical publication Marc' Aurelio. In the late 1930s he travelled throughout Italy with a vaudeville troupe, an experience he later described as a formative part of his artistic development. He then returned to Rome where, after World War II, he and several friends opened an arcade called the Funny Face Shop. It was at this time that he met Rossellini, who initiated Fellini's development as a director. Fellini worked on Rossellini's 1945 film Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City), and made his directorial debut in 1950 with Luci del varietà (Variety Lights). Throughout his career, Fellini forged highly successful collaborative relationships, most notably with writers Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli; composer Nino Rota; and actors Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina, his wife. Fellini's numerous European and American film awards include four Oscars and a 1993 Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Fellini's early films reveal the influence of Italian neorealism—which typically emphasized social themes and employed documentary-like filming methods—and his collaborations with Rossellini and Lattuada. Notable among his early works is La strada (1954), a "poetic tragedy" dealing with the suffering and social disruption of postwar Italy that foreshadows his career-long fascination with the Italian people and landscape. In subsequent films Fellini continued to broaden the scope of neorealism to include autobiographical and subjective elements, often finding his visual metaphors in the flamboyant and decadent images of circuses, carnivals, parades, and, later, television. La dolce vita (1960), a controversial portrait of modern Rome's hedonistic cafe society, is in many ways the apotheosis of Fellini's fascination with these aspects of life, and the film established Fellini as a popular international figure. Otto e mezzo (1963; 8 1/2), a semi-autobiographical work depicting a director who cannot determine the subject of the film he is making, is considered Fellini's masterpiece as well as a landmark film that expanded the possibilities for personal expression in the cinema; the title signifies that Fellini considered this his "eighth and a half" film. With such later works as Ginger e Fred (1986; Ginger and Fred) and Federico Fellini's intervista (1987), Fellini adopted an introspective and nostalgic tone, frequently lamenting the commercialism and fragmentation that pervades modern twentieth-century society.
Some critics have observed that Fellini's reputation peaked during the mid-1960s with 8 1/2, which, for many, marked the artistic culmination of a series of progressively original and controversial works. Subsequent films, particularly those following Amarcord (1976), were frequently dismissed by reviewers as redundant, simplistic, or excessively flamboyant. Richard A. Blake observed: "With each new film, the images became more grotesque, the action more surreal and the story lines more insignificant. As critics became impatient with this development, ever more frequently the new films bore the brand 'self-indulgent.'" Some commentators have recently explained the rise and fall of Fellini's critical reputation by pointing to the popularity of several movements during the 1960s—including auteurism, high modernism, and romantic individualism—which viewed film as a medium best understood as the purely individual expression of a director's vision. Frank Burke commented: "Just as Fellini's international recognition corresponded with the rise of auteurism and the European art film movement, his decline has paralleled theirs." Despite the lack of critical consensus regarding the proper interpretation of his films, Fellini is widely considered a pioneering artist whose charismatic and distinctly personal style influenced an entire generation of filmmakers.