Federico Fellini

by Tullio Kezich

Start Free Trial

Edward Murray (essay date 1976)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Artist on His Art," in Fellini: The Artist, revised edition, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. Inc., 1985, pp. 25-34.

[Murray is an American film critic, drama critic, and educator. In the following chapter from the enlarged edition of his critical study Fellini: The Artist, originally published in 1976, he discusses visual elements, the concept of neorealism, major themes, and notable stylistic influences in relation to Fellini's career and works.]

I have no vocation for theories. I detest the world of labels, the world that confuses the label with the thing labeled.

                                   —Federico Fellini

Fellini does not espouse a theory of film. Indeed, as the quotation above makes clear, he has little respect for what he conceives to be the emasculating operations of the intellect. "I am not a cerebral artist," Eileen Hughes quotes him as saying. Fellini views the technique used in a picture as a rational process (the how), but he regards the inspiration behind that process as irrational (the why). An artist cannot wholly explain what his art means; moreover, if he attempts to do so, he destroys what is vital in the work. Hence Fellini has an antipathy for criticism: "Why reevaluate something that has moved you, water it down, control it, kill it?"

Although Fellini rarely utters a remark which might be construed as a generalization on the subject of film art, and although he normally resists offering explanations on the score of why he did such and such in a particular movie, he has been extremely voluble on how he makes a film.

Because cinema is basically a pictorial medium, Fellini believes that a director must be curious about what he calls "the multiple aspects of reality." Working with Rossellini,… taught Fellini that pictures are more expressive than dialogue on the screen. "I believe I have the internal rhythm of the sequences in mind well before shooting begins," he informed Tullio Kezich; however, he added: "If I find that a scene assumes a significance because the camera has started rolling around a glass and goes on to the discovery of all the rest, I adjust my way of shooting to the discovery I have made." Fellini denies that he chooses deliberately to use certain individuals or places for visually symbolic purposes. "Things happen," he informed Gideon Bachmann. "If they happen well, they convey my meaning." The Italian director would agree with the American critic James Agee that "there is only one rule for movies," namely, "that the film interest the eyes, and do its job through the eyes"; and that symbols should "bloom from and exalt reality, not be imposed on and denature reality."

According to Fellini, a black and white film allows the viewer a more imaginative engagement with the characters and story than a color film because viewers tend to project onto the screen the colors they desire. Nonetheless, aside from the fact that most spectators prefer color, and that almost all films today are in color in order to meet audience expectations, the color picture can make a positive aesthetic contribution to screen art. To do so, however, color must be an integral feature of the picture; color must be born with the film in the film-maker's imagination; color should not be a redundant duplication of reality but a vehicle for artistic values. Naturally, a color film is harder to make than one in black and white. As Fellini put it to Pierre Kast: "cinema is movement, color immobility; to try to blend these two artistic expressions is a desperate ambition, like wanting to breathe under...

(This entire section contains 3433 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

water." Lighting is the secret to bringing out the distinctive qualities of a face or a landscape. Yet once the director calls for the camera to move, the light changes. Although the cameraman shot a green room, the screen later shows a rose room. Of the thirteen feature-length films Fellini has made, five—his last five—have been in color.

"Film is only images," Fellini claims. "You can put in whatever sound you want later and change and improve it." In most instances, the actors we see on the screen in a Fellini picture are not the sources of the voices we hear on the sound track. Fellini contends that it is rare to find an actor whose voice remains as true to the artist's conception as his face; consequently, he feels compelled to dub his pictures. In spite of the fact that Fellini believes (or pretends to believe) that the image is all in film, he works carefully on the dubbing, music, and other sounds, often running a scene one or even two hundred times in order to achieve precisely the effect he wants. The experienced film-maker, Fellini maintains, learns to alternate sound and silence in an expressive way. Undoubtedly, film is a combination of sight and sound and silence—though of the three elements, it is true, sight remains by far the most important.

"I cannot make a picture without knowing exactly who wears this shirt, that tie, a moustache," Fellini told Tom Burke. "I must know intimately everything I put in a shot." Yet Fellini is no partisan of the documentary approach. For to him, the imaginative world is in no way inferior to the phenomenological world; indeed, if a choice had to be made between imagination and actual events, he would even argue that his filmic transformations of the world "out there" possess more truth value than the empirical domain. Fellini is well aware that art and life are not identical; he also knows that there remains a subjective realm and an objective one. Selectivity on the part of an artist presupposes interpretation—with the obvious result that complete objectivity, even if it were desirable, is impossible.

Since Fellini performed as a scriptwriter for a number of neorealist directors before making pictures himself, his films reveal traces of the neorealist approach. Location shooting, the use of nonprofessionals in the cast, close attention to "this shirt" and "that tie"—all this is reminiscent of Rossellini's Open City and De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1949); however, the stark "objective" style—that fidelity to external appearances—which distinguishes the cinema of those directors is not the dominant feature of Fellini's work. Fellini's attempts to define neorealism historically have not been successful. For example, he informed Enzo Peri: "The really important contribution of neorealism is that it suggested a way to look at things—not with the narcissistic glasses of the author, but with equilibrium between reality and subjectivism." The foregoing statement would seem to be a more accurate description of Fellini's pictures than of neorealism. "For me," the director told Bachmann, "neorealism means looking at reality with an honest eye—but any kind of reality: not just social reality, but also spiritual reality, metaphysical reality, anything man has inside him." Again, Fellini's remarks on neorealism tell us more about l'universe fellinien than about neorealism.

Because of Fellini's respect for the mysterious, for the indeterminacy of being (in spite of his gloomy utterances about the harmful effects of past conditioning), and for the viewers intelligence, he never really ends his films or presents ready-made solutions. He feels that if he did provide a closed ending, he would be guilty of dishonesty, since he has reached no lasting solutions in his own life. Fellini prefers to let the viewer imagine how the story will ultimately conclude, what will happen to the characters at last; for unless the viewer is permitted to construct his own conclusion by actively participating in the film, he will be handed a trite or rosy denouement, and thus will be discouraged from seeking remedies for the problems in his own life. Although some of Fellini's characters change and some do not, the conclusions of the films are never wholly determined, the endings are never final, there are always question marks left in the viewer's mind at the last fade-out.

Jean-Paul Sartre has written: "A fictional technique always relates back to the novelist's metaphysics." The same can be said of a cinematic technique. "I do not want to have a fixed idea about life," Fellini told Lillian Ross. "The only thing I want to know is: Why am I here? What is my life?" The motion picture is both an art form and an industry. Although Fellini likes to leave his endings open, he realizes that many viewers want smooth answers to thorny questions. What Fellini offers the viewer is art; what the director with a solution gives the viewer is entertainment. Generally, Fellini prefers not to express the problem in such a crude manner, however, because "art" and "entertainment" are not necessarily antithetical terms. Rather, he divides films into those with an author and those produced merely for consumption: films in the first category express an individual personality and vision; films in the second category express nothing and consequently are popular because they leave the audience undisturbed.

In his article for Variety, [January 5, 1972], Fellini argues that the film-maker must have faith in the public, otherwise he will never develop but will only go on repeating himself, giving the audience what it wants instead of what he wants to give it. Fellini believes that his films, personal though they are, relate to other people's lives; but he also holds that "salvation" is a state of being to be endlessly sought after, not a narcotic in the form of a conventional happy ending. Naturally, Fellini wants his films to make money. Art, however, comes first with him, pecuniary concerns second. If the viewer rejects Fellini's "truth," so be it: the artist has done what he has had to do. After a picture is made, Fellini remarked to Charles Thomas Samuels, "it becomes a prostitute, lives a commercial life; what it does for the public is the public's business. Working for the public doesn't interest me. I think that my films are produced by a wholehearted sense of vocation."

To the pure formalist critic, as noted earlier, only the aesthetic object matters, not the conditions under which the film-maker struggled or his self-confessed intentions. Of course, one must avoid the error of the "intentional fallacy"; that is, of confusing the picture with what the director says about it. But one must also avoid the error of the "unintentional fallacy"; that is, of paying no heed to anything the film-maker says about his films. We learn much about Fellini's work not only from acquaintance with the facts of his life but also from his own statements on the themes of his pictures—or the what of his art as opposed to the how and the why.

In part, Fellini creates out his inner conflicts; for example, he is both Gelsomina and Zampanò (La Strada). That is, Fellini is torn between love for others and indifference, the resultant strain dictating the subject matter in many of his films. He told Ross that he was not a sociable person; yet he informed Bachmann that the longing to establish a deep relationship with others remained a spiritual problem of our age—adding that this very problem could be seen in all his pictures. Although Fellini enjoys surrounding himself with people (when he is shooting a movie his sets resemble a huge family picnic or even a carnival), there is still within him the shy, timid boy from Rimini who detested competition and who found his keenest pleasure in solitude, whether it involved going off alone to a circus or movie, or imitating the clowns and Indians later at home. So it is not surprising that Fellini added in his interview with Bachmann that the stories he puts on celluloid point to tensions in the relationships between people who ought to love one another. Thematically, Fellini is always "saying": Look, the relations between human beings must be improved. It is Fellini's contention that if he had solved this problem in his own life there would be no creative unrest in him, no motive for making pictures.

Related to the themes of love-versus-indifference, and communication-versus-alienation (themes that dominate modern thought, and hence are by no means in themselves peculiar to Fellini's creations), is another idea. The director explained to Pierre Kast that a recurrent motif in his pictures is the endeavor on the part of some characters to free themselves from conventional patterns of behavior; such characters attempt to oppose an authentic mode of existence against an inauthentic one. In the same conversation, Fellini remarked that the characters in each of his pictures are involved in a search for self-discovery, personal identity, and a more meaningful existence.

As Fellini sees it, the Church stands for an inauthentic way of life, since it tends to thwart man's expansive capacities. Fellini regards his art, at least on one level, as a reaction to his Roman Catholic education. He also realizes that on occasion he may overreact to his past, with a consequent warping of his artistic personality. Because of the various psychological tensions that burden every artist, Fellini holds that the critic should not try to pigeonhole him or to identify him completely with that which arouses his hostility. Art, for Fellini, seems to represent a search for wholeness. However, not all artists, Fellini believes, can be comprehended in similar terms. In order to function creatively, one artist requires ideology; a second, love; a third, hatred; and so on. For the real artist—that is, for the man of personal vision—ideas merely trigger his imagination. When a specific film is completed, the idea that inspired it is exhausted. The artist can then turn to another idea—even one entirely at variance with the first—provided it will trigger a second narrative.

For Fellini, ideas are obviously much less important than feelings. Although he generally does not have cheerful words to say on behalf of intellectuals, he remains too well disposed toward all manner of men and all forms of existence to qualify as an anti-intellectual, or indeed as an anti anything. Fellini the artist seriously attempts to love the totality of existence. Where we detect a hostility in his work toward, say, some institution, the negative feeling is simply one factor in the artist's complicated response to experience. As Fellini has often noted, to give one example, his attitude toward the Church is a rebellious one; more accurately it could be described as ambivalent; consequently, his perspective on Roman Catholicism provides a complex psychological soil conducive to filmic creation. Since life is also complex, the polarities that distinguish the Fellinian universe guarantee the director a sufficiently rich assortment of themes with which to capture the interest of the intelligent viewer, who invariably likes to be shown the different sides of every experience.

Because he is afraid of being influenced by other directors, Fellini rarely goes to the movies. Many critics believe that 8 1/2 was influenced by Last Year at Marienbad (1963), but Fellini has never seen that famous Resnais film. Nor has he viewed any pictures (incredible as it seems) by Eisenstein, Murnau, or Dreyer. Similarly, he has not read Joyce; so Ulysses could not have had—as has sometimes been claimed—a direct influence on 8 1/2. Of course, Fellini doesn't rule out the oblique influence of great film-makers, novelists, and other artists on his work. A writer like Joyce transforms culture. The stream-of-consciousness subject matter of Ulysses is in the air every modern artist breathes.

Fellini makes no secret of his love for the poetic realism of the French cinema during the thirties, freely admitting to a possible indirect influence on his own creations. John Ford was another early favorite of Fellini's, possibly because of the warmth and sentiment in the American director's work. As anyone who has seen La Strada might well imagine, Fellini is also a fervent admirer of Chaplin; he singles out City Lights (1931) as a masterpiece among the silents, and he considers Monsieur Verdoux (1947) to be the most beautiful film he has ever seen. In La Strada Giulietta Masina's performance has been justly praised as an example of screen acting at its finest. With immense sensitivity, she develops the character of Gelsomina largely in nonverbal terms through her changing facial expressions, the way she moves and gestures, smiles and stares, dances and plays the trumpet. A few critics, however, have registered disapproval over what they regard as a Fellini-Masina imitation of Chaplin's Tramp. In Essays on Elizabethan Drama, T. S. Eliot writes: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion." Can anything more intelligent be said on the subject of influence? Eliot's comments as applied to comparisons between the Tramp and Gelsomina—or between any Chaplin film and any Fellini film—refute, I believe, criticism of La Strada on the score of imitation. For in that film a brilliant director and an outstanding actress preserve certain qualities of another great artist, namely Chaplin, while at the same time creating a singular work of art and a highly individualized performance.

Fellini denies, however, that Rossellini taught him anything except the primacy of the visual on the screen. Still, the director of Open City and Paisan helped Fellini to discover his native land—the people, the landscape, the special cultural atmosphere—and also the cinema as a serious art form. Thanks to Rossellini, Fellini discovered that film was the ideal means of expression for him.

The contemporary directors who elicit the most praise from Fellini are Kurosawa and Bergman. He has boundless respect for Rashomon (1950) and The Seven Samurai (1954), both of which make him feel like a boy again. Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Magician (1958) are Fellini's favorites among Bergman's pictures. Completely lacking in jealousy, Fellini loudly proclaims his Swedish contemporary a great film artist. Back in 1968, Fellini and Bergman were supposed to collaborate on a movie about love; but the project never materialized … which, considering the different temperaments and stylistic approaches of the two men, was probably all to the good.

Fellini admires the tight structure of Hitchcock's thrillers, though the form of his own pictures is entirely different. He has lauded The Birds (1963) because of its neat, perfect construction; and he has expressed a desire to shoot a film some day in the Hitchcock manner—that is to say, one whose structure would progress causally rather than episodically. The prospect of Fellini making such a picture in the near future appears rather remote … as remote as the prospect of Hitchcock making a film in the Fellini manner. Le style est l'homme même.

It is interesting to note that Fellini praises Antonioni's eye for visual detail; at the same time, however, he calls the films of his distinguished contemporary bloodless: "The allure of his pictures is very exterior and very elegant. They have a strange result, like Vogue: sophisticated, but cold." Elsewhere Fellini has said that he misses the "humanity" in Antonioni's films.

Fellini's favorite writers are Dostoevsky and Kafka; outside of these the books he mentions most often are Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, The Thousand and One Nights, and Orlando Furioso. As can be seen, Fellini's taste does not tend in the direction of "realism." For the most part, the film-maker limits his reading to newspapers, science fiction, history, a little philosophy, and treatises on the occult (he is extremely fond of [the 19th-century philosopher of the occult] Eliphas Levi). His favorite painter is Botticelli; his favorite composer, Stravinsky.

Although Fellini is an extremely intelligent and sensitive man, he is neither well read, highly cultured, nor even particularly knowledgeable about the history of his chosen medium. Inevitably, there have been some influences on his work, both direct and indirect…. No matter. Fellini goes his own way, creating great films out of his own sources, as original an artist as one might realistically expect in a world such as ours, where so much art (and what passes for art) is almost too abundantly obtainable. Unlike Joyce, then, Fellini is not a learned man; however, like Joyce he remains a major figure: one of those exceptional individuals whose art, rather than merely reflecting culture, helps to shape it. If one is not quite the same after reading Ulysses, one is likewise not quite the same after watching La Strada. Ever after one will see the world, at least in part, through the Italian director's viewfinder. Fellini's best films exist at that rare level at which cinema becomes experience.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Federico Fellini with Giovanni Grazzini (interview date 1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: An interview in Federico Fellini: Comments on Film, edited by Giovanni Grazzini, translated by Joseph Henry, The Press at California State University, 1988, pp. 157-67, 180-93.

[Grazzini is an Italian film critic. In the following interview, originally published in Grazzini's Federico Fellini: Intervista sul Cinema (1983), Fellini discusses 8 1/2 and highlights some of the philosophies and collaborative methods that have influenced the development of his films.]

[Grazzini]: 8 1/2, which many consider your finest film, [is] widely imitated to the point of becoming a genre, like the western, the detective story, the historical film, science fiction, war films. In almost every country in the world there has been and probably will be again directors who will make or want to remake their own 8 1/2.

[Fellini]: I on the other hand didn't want to make it. The night before the shooting, desperate, confused, I wrote old Rizzoli, the producer, a letter which began: "Dear Angelino, I realize that what I am about to tell you will irreparably terminate our working relationship. Even our friendship will be jeopardized. I should have written this letter three months ago, but until last night I had hoped that …"

The troupe and many of the leading actors had already been hired; sets were being completed; in fact, from the office where I was writing I was listening to the carpenters' hammers. Why then did I want to back out, leave it all up in the air, get away? What had happened? Only this: I didn't remember any more what the film was that I wanted to make. The feeling, the essence, the flavor, the silhouette, the flash of light that had seduced and fascinated me had disappeared, dissolved. I couldn't find them any more.

During the last weeks, with growing anxiety I tried to retrace the course of development of that film whose title I couldn't even decide on. In my appointments book I had written, provisionally, 8 1/2 referring to the number of movies I had made. But how was the idea born? What was the first contact with, the first presentiment of, that film? A vague confused desire to create the portrait of a man on a certain day of his life. The portrait of a man, I told myself, with all his contradictory, nuanced, elusive totality of different realities. A portrait in which all the possibilities of his being happened—their levels, story after story, like in a building whose facade is crumbling, revealing its entire inside: stairways, corridors, rooms, lofts, cellars, and the furniture of every room, the doors, roofs, plumbing, the most intimate, most secret corners.

A life made up of tortuous, changing, fluid labyrinths of memory, of dreams, of feelings, of the everyday inextricably bound up with memories, imaginings, feelings, happenings that took place long ago and join with those occurring now; a mingling of nostalgia and presentiment in a serene yet mixed up time, where our character doesn't know who he is any more or who he was or where his life is going; a life that now seems only a long wakeful sleep, devoid of feeling.

I was speaking of this one evening with Flaiano, [a collaborator], while driving toward the sea at Ostia. Talking about it I tried to clarify for myself the intention of the film. Flaiano was quiet, didn't say a word, made no comment, seemed suspicious, defiant, jealous. I had the impression that he didn't think the theme belonged on film, that my narrative was a presumptuous, excessive, arrogant outpouring in a dimension that only literature could achieve. Tullio Pinelli, to whom I tried to communicate the sense of this fleeting fantasy a few days later, was also silent, perplexed, doubtful perhaps of the possibility of building a story on an impulse so whimsical and so difficult to translate into situations and events.

On the other hand Brunello Rondi, with his usual overflowing enthusiasm, went along with it. He is an invaluable audience; he likes everything, is excited by every project, is ready to go off and collaborate in all directions on anything. We began to write separately, the four of us. I would suggest theme, a conflict, a situation, and Pinelli, Flaiano and Brunello each would script his own version of the sequence.

However I had not yet decided what type of man we would try to portray, what his profession would be: a lawyer? an engineer? a journalist? One day I decided to put my dream hero in a spa. It then seemed to me that the intention of the film began to take on more solid possibilities. We wrote the harem sequence; the night in the baths with the hypnotist friend; the hero now had a wife and a mistress. But then the plot began to unravel altogether. It didn't have a central core from which to develop, nor a beginning, nor could I imagine how it might end. Every morning Pinelli asked me what our hero's profession was. I still didn't know, and it still didn't seem important to me, though I began to get a little nervous.

One day I decided it was useless to go on with the script. I felt that if I wanted to get on with the film I had to begin to look the characters in the eye, to select the actors, to determine the settings, to decide on an infinity of things; then go in search of my film among the people: in clothing shops, at Fiuggi or Montecatini, in theaters; then organize the troupe, talk to the decorator, to the projectionist; to pretend, in sum, that the film was ready and that we would begin shooting within a month. I decided on Mastroianni, chose Sandra Milo, had Anouk Aimeé come in from Paris, and in a forest near Rome began to construct the thermal palace, and in the Scalera production studios the grandmother's farm and the hotel rooms. The vast production mechanism was set in motion: dates, contracts, production plans, estimates, advances. But I, shut in my office, couldn't manage to find my film again: it wasn't there any more; it had gone away. I admitted that maybe it had never existed.

And here we are back to the tale of the letter I was writing to Rizzoli, an edifying tale straight from the heart. I was in the middle of that letter when I heard the booming voice of Menicuccio, the chief machinist, calling me from the courtyard to come to the theater for a moment because Gasparino (another machinist) was celebrating his birthday and offering glasses of champagne. He would be pleased if "the doctor" were there too.

And there I am in the theater. Carpenters, mechanics and painters were all waiting for me, all of them with glasses in their hands, in the huge kitchen under construction; it duplicated the one in my grandmother's country house, but enlarged by my memory of it. Gasparino, a bricklayer's cap on his head and a hammer strapped to his thigh, opened the bottle: "This will be a great film, doctor. Your health! Long live 8 1/2!" The glasses were emptied, everybody applauded, and I felt overwhelmed by shame. I felt myself the least of men, the captain who abandons his crew. I didn't go back up to the office where my half-written copout letter was waiting for me, but instead sat down, blank and emptied, on a little bench in the garden in the middle of a great coming and going of workers, technicians, actors belonging to other working troupes. I told myself I was in a no exit situation. I was a director who wanted to make a film he no longer remembers. And lo and behold, at that very moment everything fell into place. I got straight to the heart of the film. I would narrate everything that had been happening to me. I would make a film telling the story of a director who no longer knows what film he wanted to make.

Yes, but in the "story of a director who no longer knows what film he wanted to make," other elements also enter in with a new clarity, such as dreams and the very language of dreams. How did these elements which essentially characterize the film come about?

The reading of several books by Jung, the discovery of his vision of life, took on for me the nature of a joyous revelation, an enthusiastic, unexpected, extraordinary confirmation of something that I myself seem to have foreseen to some small extent. I owe this providential, stimulating, fascinating discovery to a German psychotherapist named Bernhard. I don't know whether Jungian thought has influenced my films from 8 1/2 on. I only know that reading several of his books has undoubtedly helped and encouraged my contact with more profound and stimulating areas of the imagination. I have always thought I had one major shortcoming that of not having general ideas about anything. The ability to organize my likes, tastes, desires in terms of genre or category has always been beyond me. But reading Jung I feel freed and liberated from the sense of guilt and the inferiority complex that the shortcoming I touched upon always gave me.

Do you think that psychoanalysis, helping man to know himself better, has always made him happier?

I don't know how to answer that question because I don't know how to define happiness. I think that psychoanalysis should be studied in the schools, is a science that should be taught even before the others. Because it seems to me that among life's many adventures, the one most worth the hassle of taking on is that voyage which plunges you into your interior dimensions so as to explore the unknown part of your self. And notwithstanding all the risks it offers, what other adventure could be as fascinating, marvelous, and heroic?

Yours seems to me a rigidly Jungian view. Don't you think you're denying Freud's role its proper setting?

I am not entirely able to give you a scientific or critical response to two thinkers of such stature and complexity who have brought to life fundamental aspects of the human soul which now penetrate our culture. We are participants in and recipients of their thought, beyond measure.

I have read less Freud and can only express guarded, uncertain impressions. Perhaps Freud is a more gifted writer than Jung on a literary level. But his strictness, while it enlists my admiration, makes me uneasy. He is a teacher who overwhelms me with his competence and certainty. Jung is a traveling companion, an older brother, a sage, a seer-scientist who, it seems to me, is less proud of himself and his marvelous discoveries. Freud wants to explain to us what we are; Jung accompanies us to the door of the unknowable and lets us see and understand by ourselves.

Jung's scientific humility in confronting the mystery of life seems more likeable to me. His thoughts and ideas don't pretend to be doctrine, only suggest a new point of view, a different attitude which can enrich and evolve our personality. They guide us toward a more aware, more open way of life and reconcile us with the remote, frustrated, mortified, sick parts of our selves. Jung is undoubtedly more congenial, more friendly, more nourishing for someone who believes he needs to find himself in the dimension of creative imagination. Freud with his theories makes us think; Jung on the other hand allows us to imagine, to dream and to move forward into the dark labyrinth of our being, to perceive its vigilant, protective presence.

From the little I have read one thing more than the others has impressed me: the different views Freud and Jung have of the phenomenon of symbolism. The problem has interested me, since as a movie director I am led to use symbolic images in my work. For Jung a symbol expresses an intuition better than any other expression of it. For Freud a symbol substitutes for something else which should be done away with and therefore is better forgotten than expressed. For Jung, then, a symbol is a way of expressing the inexpressible, albeit ambiguously. For Freud it is a way of hiding what is forbidden to express.

It seems to me that this area clearly shows the different approaches to being of the two great thinkers. It is a matter, I repeat, of two different ways of delineating the human soul. That of Jung seems more fascinating to me….

Let us now take stock. Are you pleased with the way you've used your imagination these years? Do you think it has quickened our pace of life, made things clearer, made existence more bearable?

I have the mortifying suspicion that whenever I signed a contract to make a film I never once thought that I was bound to quicken our pace of life, make things clearer, make existence more bearable. Is that bad? I make films because I don't know how to do anything else. At least that's how it seems to me.

This interview will appear some thirty years after your first directorial effort. Make a kind of balance sheet: regrets, remorse, hopes?

I have no regrets. Those that I do have do not call for confession here. I have made the films I wanted to make and in the way I knew they should be made. I would rather not put my name to them from here on out, because I'm certain that without that ridiculous and paralyzing sense of responsibility-by-name I would make them better, with greater freedom, greater ease, as a pleasant carefree game. I would have liked to have been born twenty years earlier and made films with the pioneers, with Za-la-Mort, Za-la-Vie and Polidor, in that traveling-players atmosphere with the setting sun as a curtain. To participate in the birth of the movies would have been much more gratifying to my temperament than to arrive when specific film rules were imposed: structuralism, semiology. Inevitable things which keep you posted on artistic and cultural conditions but deprive you of that uproarious and disquieting atmosphere, that somewhat savage joy that linked the cinema to the circus and made it feel like a symbolic essence of life's intrigues. I regret having lost too much time between films and having let some continue and others disappear, but I disown nothing. It seems to me that given my bent—laziness, haphazardness, ignorance and a tendency to flounce around—things have gone very well. How could I have hoped for so much?

My personal life has also been fortunate. I have been quite protected, and perhaps I have helped to make it go well by allowing myself to be led: when situations drive me, invite me, beckon to me, I have never offered any resistance. If the general tendency of my life has been the need to tell stories through images, it seems to me that my private life has been organized in such a way that my work has become its most important part. My wife, friends, affections or absence thereof … I can state that there have been no distractions, no responsibilities, no pricks of conscience that have taken time away from my work.

If on the other hand my life had gone otherwise and yet I still went on making films, then the ledger sheet might be more embarrassing. But the certainty is that I would never have changed the way I work. I have made visual images profound; I have freed myself from schemes set up by others. But the universe in which I live has remained the same. With the passing of years I have lived at various levels, but no one more profound or ampler than the others. As a child I saw enchanted things under the circus tent. Now I own the works. I shape it and I move it. I arrived a guest in the hotel. Now I am its owner. I can be the porter and the bellboy but also the maharajah who takes the suite on the first floor. Hopes? I don't have many illusions and so have no need to project into the future. And if there are empty spaces to fill up, I can do what has to be done. I am not particularly dedicated to my friends, to others, even to my wife. Yet I would still have more than enough to choose from.

There are those who say that now you live off your legend and do little to renew your inventive capacity. Truthfully, with the advancing years do you perceive a decline in inspiration?

I don't know what my legend is, and as for my decline in inspiration it seems to me that my bad luck, or good luck, is that I don't perceive it. I don't perceive a diminished desire to do things—if that's what you mean—or even a slower rate of ideas or stimuli. These seem to me to go on at the same rate as before when I was chronologically younger. What I perceive the lack of more and more, as I have already said, is a programmer, someone who will schedule my work. Someone who will say, "Good, I understand: although you're over sixty you still enjoy making little theatricals. I'll see to it and relieve you of the crap. What would you like to make? The Three Musketeers? Good, make The Three Musketeers. The Mysterious Island? All of Poe? The novels of Chandler? Are you going to do Mastorna, yes or no?" Look, I don't want to become rich. All I need is a monthly stipend and someone to organize my work. If I could find him I wouldn't have the slightest feeling of being depleted. If I were allowed to make such personal films, a sort of delightful masturbation all my own, I'd jump for joy to have to bring out a film on The Count of Monte Christo or some other popular nineteenth century novel.

Moving from one thing to another, do you think the Italian style of comedy is the kind best suited to our cinema?

Italian style comedy has depicted a particular moment in our society. Now after some time we have come to see in it a critical perception that it probably didn't have. It stimulates our curiosity or entertains us, the way turning the pages of an old photograph album would, where we discover things to laugh at. We are used to laughing at ridiculous fashions, find them funny or awkward or pathetic. But the old photograph never suspected it was evoking all of that; it confined itself to showing us just as we were.

It seems to me that Italian style comedy falls more under the category of coincidence. Its presentations were wholly satisfying in themselves, with its winks of an eye in search of sympathy. So that the whole critical apparatus which finds indignation and protest in it is fatally flawed. In Italian style comedy you feel that everyone is delighted: producer, script writer, director, actors, and naturally the public also. The people in the audience are mirrored in the film, the film in the audience; thus a game of identification goes on infinitely in reflections more and more blurred and intentions less and less recognizable. It seems to me that floating above all that is a somewhat disreputable joy, like the strident laughter of freed slaves, like obscene freedom of speech that offends officials merely to sanction its own triumph and reward its own self-indulgence. I don't like to seem ungenerous in speaking of films which, for the most part, I haven't seen and which should never be grouped together in a random genre, but instead should be considered individually. I realize that denouncing them doesn't mean much to those who watch stories that constantly build solidarity and self satisfaction, plus a fundamental misunderstanding, which is to consider ourselves better than the representation of the worst part of ourselves. It is certainly true that to evoke all of this they had to use excellent comic actors with real insights into our national characteristics, vices, defects, virtues, tics, physical traits—authentic comic talents, enthusiastic mimes relaxed and at home in this domain. But who can say whether they would not have found their niche along other roads, in other contexts?

There are those who say nastily that the Italian style of comedy mirrors certain aspects of our reality, and that you on the other hand distort it

I don't think I distort reality at all. Essentially I portray it. To portray it I use one category, expression, to eliminate, choose, select, and regroup in order to achieve an equilibrium which is the story, the narrative. I require the public to participate in it, in my point of view, in my feeling. In that sense expression can be mistaken for distortion. Perhaps it is, being a filtered reality reorganized for representation. Reality is also warped by poetry, by painting—even the most naturalistic painting—by music. It is art as order, as harmony restructured from indifference and chaos, which leads to that inner understanding we define as aesthetic feeling. Therefore I never know what they mean about "my need to distort reality." It is a commonplace which I find pinned to my back and which often causes people to ask me with dazed admiration, but also with an air of seeming reproach: "But where do you find all those types?" A question without answer, since I don't look for and don't find those types. I simply see them. It seems to me sufficient to look at one's self in the mirror to perceive we are surrounded by comic, frightening, deformed, ugly, bewildered faces. Our faces, the faces of life.

You have always had many collaborators around you, often famous important ones. Is any one of them more valuable, more special than any of the others?

Indeed, I have had collaborators not only valuable for their talent, imagination and intelligence but also for the feeling of friendship I have when we work together; it takes on the joy and excitement of a visit to the country, a voyage, an excursion. I want to acknowledge some of them: Piero Gherardi, the set designer of La Dolce Vita and Juliet of the Spirits, aristocratic hobo, an intellectual guest in the house of Trimalchio (the vulgar wealthy boor of Satyricon), as wise and detached as a bonze and as greedy, gluttonous and immature as a newborn babe. I remember certain nights when we slept together in an automobile lost in a bandits' ravine. We were looking for a setting for the Country of Toys—I never admitted it, but Pinocchio was also among my uncompleted projects.

Another very close and congenial collaborator was Danilo Donati, a richly ingenious inventor of costumes and props. From the visual point of view I consider Satyricon and Casanova among my most attractive films.

For a filmmaker the most important collaborators include not only set designers, cameramen and script writers but also a slick, canny, vigorous, unscrupulous production director. He can become the mainspring of the film.

Tullio Pinelli, with whom I have written so many sequences, I respect as an inventor of plots, a dramatic craftsman with regard to scenes and characters someone who has the calling and temperament of a true novelist. Including Ennio Flaiano, the equilibrium among us three seemed perfect to me. Pinelli concerned himself with narrative structure, that was his peg; and Flaiano did everything he could to demolish it, to break it into bits: at times he was more disastrous than a wild boar in a field of fava beans. But just because of these absolutely opposite tendencies, those parts of the walls that remained standing among the debris could be counted on to carry the structure of the narrative. Flaiano and I shared the same sense of humor about everything: a tendency to play it cool, kidding around, buffoonery, plus a touch of neurotic melancholy that makes me feel very close to him.

My encounters with Bernardino Zapponi have been stimulating. We have worked well together and share the same experiences and the same adventures: Marc'Aurelio, vaudeville curtain raisers; the same loves and enthusiasms: Poe, Dickens, Lovecraft, the occult, the spectral, mythological adventures, science fiction, and a bureaucratic feel for work that lies somewhere between its being unreal and fear of getting fired.

With Tonino Guerra I wrote Amarcord and The Ship Sails On. We share the same Italian dialect, an infancy spent among the same hills, snow, sea, and the San Marino mountain. The regions where we were born are nine kilometers apart. As a child I went by bicycle with other friends to his Sant'Arcangelo, and it seemed to us that they were speaking another language. In Rimini we looked upon Sant'Arcangelo as a colonial possession where the missionaries had not yet arrived: "Boss, the bearers want to turn back!" Titta would say, referring to the crude and inhospitable condition of Sant'Arcangelo.

But the most valuable collaborator of all, I can say without a second thought, was composer Nino Rota. Between us there was complete and total understanding, beginning with The White Sheik, the first film we made together. Our understanding had no need of adjustments on either part. I had decided to become a director and Nino was already at hand as if set in place so that I might continue to do so. He had a geometric imagination and a musical vision worthy of the heavenly spheres, so that he didn't even have to see what my films looked like. When I would ask him what themes he had in mind for this or that sequence, it was immediately clear that no preview was necessary. His was an inner world where reality could scarcely penetrate. He lived music with the freedom and ease of someone in a dimension that is effortlessly his own.

He was a being possessed of a rare quality, a precious quality belonging to the realm of intuition. It was this gift that kept him so innocent and lovable and happy. But don't misunderstand me. When the occasion arose, or even when it didn't, he could say profound and perceptive things, could make impressively penetrating judgments about ideas and men. Like children, like simple souls, like certain sensitives, like certain innocent and guileless people he could suddenly utter brilliant remarks …

During work on my films I have the habit of using certain records as background noise: music can condition a scene, give it a rhythm, help suggest a solution, a character's attitude. There are themes that I have brought with me shamefully across the years, La Titina, The March of the Gladiators, tunes tied to specific emotions, to gut topics. Then obviously what happens when I have finished shooting the film is that I've grown fond of that improvised soundtrack and don't want to change it. Nino would agree with me right away, say that the themes I used during the shooting were absolutely beautiful (even though they were the most sugary and banal tunes); that they were just the right stuff and that he could never have been able to do better. And while he was saying that his fingers would caress the piano keyboard. "What was that?" I would ask a little later, "What were you playing?" "When?" Nino would ask in a distracted manner. "Now—I would insist—while I was talking you were playing something." "Ah, yes?—Nino would say—I don't know, I don't remember any more." And he would smile as though wanting to calm me down; I needn't have regrets or qualms; the records I used were more beautiful. And in the meantime he would continue to caress the keyboard as if by accident.

That is the way the captivating themes for my new films were born, making me forget my suggestions about the old tunes used during the shooting. I would stand there near the piano and talk to him about the film, explaining what I wanted to imply with this or that image, with this or that sequence. But he paid no attention to me, seemed to be thinking of something else while acquiescing or while nodding vigorous agreement. In reality he was establishing contact with his inner self, with the musical themes already within him. And when that contact was established he paid no attention to me any more, didn't listen to me any more. He put his hands on the piano and was transported like a medium, like a true artist. Finally I would say: "It is absolutely beautiful!" But he would answer: "I no longer remember." There might be catastrophies with tape recorders, with sound systems; those would have to be fixed without his knowing it. Otherwise his contact with the heavenly spheres would be broken …

It was a real joy to work with him. His creativity made me feel so close to it that it inspired a kind of giddiness, giving me the feeling that I myself was creating the music.

Nino would arrive at the end of the shooting, when the stress of retakes, montage, dubbing was at its peak. But as soon as he arrived the stress disappeared and everything turned into holiday. The film would enter a happy, serene fantasy world, an atmosphere which took on the quality of a new life. And it was always a surprise to me that after he had contributed so much feeling, so much emotion, so much life to the film that he would turn and point to the principal actor and ask: "Who is he?" "He's the leading man." I would answer. "What does he do—adding in a reproachful tone—you never told me anything about him!" Ours was a friendship nourished by sound.

I prefer not to hear music outside of my work. It conditions me, makes me nervous; I become possessed by it. I protect myself by rejecting it, by running away like a thief from temptation. Perhaps that too is Catholic conditioning: the fact that music makes me melancholy, burdens me with remorse, and with a stern voice tortures me by reminding me of a dimension of harmony, of peace, of completeness from which I am excluded, exiled. Music is cruel. It fills me with nostalgia and regret, and when it is ended I don't know where it has gone. I know only that the place is unattainable, and that makes me sad.

I can't even listen to someone tapping his fingers on the table without suddenly being disturbed and sucked in to the point where I breathe differently, in keeping with the rhythm. Nino, on the other hand, smack in the middle of a band noisily playing one of his themes, manages to write the notes of another theme which only he was listening to. A feat of magic that bowls me over!

∗Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Luci del varietà [Variety Lights] [with Ennio Flaiano, Alberto Lattuada, and Tullio Pinelli] (film) 1950Lo sceicco bianco [The White Sheik] [with Flaiano and Pinelli] (film) 1952 ‡"Un'agenzia matrimoniale" [A Matrimonial Agency] [with Pinelli] (film) 1953I vitelloni [The Young and the Passionate] [with Flaiano and Pinelli] (film) 1953La strada [with Flaiano and Pinelli] (film) 1954Il bidone [with Flaiano and Pinelli] (film) 1956Le notti di Cabiria [The Nights of Cabiria] [with Flaiano and Pinelli] (film) 1957La dolce vita [with Flaiano, Pinelli, and Pier Paolo Pasolini] (film) 1960 §"Le tentazioni del dottor Antonio" [The Temptations of Doctor Antonio] [with Flaiano, Pinelli, Brunello Rondi, and Goffredo Parise] (film) 1962Otto e mezzo [8 1/2] [with Flaiano, Pinelli, and Rondi] (film) 1963Giulietta degli spiriti [Juliet of the Spirits] [with Flaiano, Pinelli, and Rondi] (film) 1965 ¦"Toby Dammit" [with Bernardino Zapponi and Clement Biddle Wood] (film) 1968Block-notes di un regista [Fellini: A Director's Notebook] (film) 1969Satyricon [Fellini Satyricon] [with Zapponi and Rondi] (film) 1969I clowns [The Clowns] [with Zapponi] (film) 1970Roma [Fellini Roma] [with Zapponi] (film) 1972Amarcord [with Tonino Guerra] (film) 1976Il Casanova di Federico Fellini [Casanova] [with Zapponi] (film) 1976Prova d'orchestra [Orchestra Rehearsal] [with Rondi] (film) 1979La città delle donne [City of Women] [with Zapponi and Rondi] (film) 1980E la nave va [And the Ship Sails On] [with Guerra] (film) 1984Ginger e Fred [Ginger and Fred] [with Guerra and Pinelli] (film) 1986Federico Fellini's intervista [with Gianfranco Angelucci] (film) 1987La voce della luna [Voices of the Moon] (film) 1990

∗All of the films listed here were directed by Fellini (with the one noted exception). He also collaborated significantly on the screenplays and/or direction of a number of films by Roberto Rossellini and Alberto Lattuada. The Rossellini films include Roma, città aperta (1945; Rome, Open City), Paisà (1946; Paisan), "Il miracolo" (1948; The Miracle), Francesco, giullare di dio (1949; Flowers of St. Francis), and Europa '51 (1952). The Lattuada films include Il delitto di Giovanni Episcopo (1947; The Crime of Giovanni Episcopo, also released as Flesh Will Surrender), Senza pietà (1948; Without Pity), and Il mulino del Po (1948; The Mill on the Po).

†Lattuada assisted in the direction of this film.

‡Episode IV of L'amore in città, produced by Cesare Zavattini.

§Part II of the four-part film Boccaccio '70.

¦Episode III of Tre passi nel delirio, loosely based on the Edgar Allen Poe short story "Never Bet the Devil Your Head."

Pauline Kael (review date 21 April 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Lost Souls," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXII, No. 9, April 21, 1986, pp. 97-100, 103-04.

[Kael is a widely-read and respected film critic, consultant, and educator. In the following excerpt, she discusses the plot, style and themes of Ginger and Fred, asserting that the film lacks energy and artistic inspiration.]

I would dearly love to see Federico Fellini work on material that doesn't come out of his world-weary loins. If he worked with a script that had a story and characters and some propulsion, and if its contours made it impossible for him to get a bellyful of decadence and soullessness or to display grotesques, hermaphrodites, or even transvestites, he might be renewed and show fresh aspects of his poetic imagination. He might once again show some joy in moviemaking.

His latest film, Ginger and Fred, has one big thing going for it: that yummy, alluring title. Those two names have a happy aura all over the world; they're probably part of every moviegoer's (and many a TV watcher's) pantheon. But the movie isn't about those tapping, twirling icons. It's about two mediocre dancers, Amelia (Giulietta Masina) and Pippo (Marcello Mastroianni); in the nineteen-forties, they entertained Italian vaudeville audiences by copying the ballroom numbers from the Astaire-Rogers movies, and were billed as Ginger and Fred. Lovers, they quarrelled and broke up in the mid-fifties; presumably they could flourish only as imitations, because their stage careers ended, and they haven't seen each other since. Now they are being brought to Rome and reunited for a nostalgic appearance on a Christmas TV Special. Essentially, the situation is that of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, except for the crucial detail that those two men were once famous performers. These two were small-timers, curiosities. And the point is driven home by the assortment of other guests who have been rounded up for the three-hour show: celebrity look-alikes (Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, Kafka, Proust, Kojak); a troupe of midgets who tango; an orchestra of centenarians; a housewife who (for pay) went through the torment of giving up TV for a month; a celebrated imprisoned Mafioso, with a police escort; a levitating monk; an ancient, decrepit war hero; a cow with eighteen teats. In other words, the movie is another Fellini circus and freak show. But this time it's TV that's to blame—TV, which has taken over the society and is debasing and trivializing everything.

Arriving in Rome after an absence of many years, Amelia is in a city that looks like a combination of New York and Vegas. She becomes part of the flow of traffic in the railway station, which is dominated by huge, garish posters celebrating TV and such products as cat food and a dish of sausages and lentils; on the way to the hotel where the swarms of guests for the show are to be put up, she sees enormous billboards advertising TV programs. Wherever she turns in the hotel lobby and in her room, TV sets are spewing inanities. The functionaries for the Special who shepherd her around are impersonally efficient, like humanoids, and at the climax she's in the mazelike passageways and studios of Tele-City itself. It's a city within a city, like the Vatican, but this one is in the business of destroying men's souls and keeping its victims diverted so that they're not aware of their spiritual squalor.

The whole movie has been given the cosmetized look of TV; visually, it's muted—it's blah—and then it's over-bright in Tele-City. The lighting is unimaginative, yet in some ways that's a relief: would anyone want more of the engorged surreal imagery of Fellini's Satyricon, or his Roma or Casanova or City of Women? The undistinguished cinematography here doesn't make you feel as if you were hung over from drinking sticky liqueurs. But Fellini has picked the wrong metaphor when he indicts TV for exhibiting people as freaks; he himself is too culpable on this score—freakdom has been his specialty. Besides, what's likable about Fellini's work is the feeling you get that he can laugh at his own vanity and conceits—that he sees himself as a bit of a freak. (It's something he has in common with Paul Mazursky.) Fellini's spoofs of TV programs and commercials go on throughout the movie; he "flashes" them as if they were obscene images, and he means them to be obscene. They're images of piggy abundance—big-breasted women, pasta with a thick sauce, olive oil being poured—and they're richer-looking than ordinary life. Oral and infantile, they have the glow of something lusted after. Fellini also uses Dante for a TV puppet show. This may have a point: it exposes the surface quality of TV entertainment and its tacky subversion of high culture. But Fellini himself has invoked Dante's Hell for surface effect a few too many times.

The film has a secondary theme, shadowing the attack on television: it's simply that Fellini hates getting old. At sixty-six, he's saying that he's not as graceful as he was—he's tired, he's winded, he stumbles. If you put this together with the primary theme, what you get is the complaint that he's not on top of things anymore; TV is. It's as if Fellini were condemning TV for being a green slime that's absorbing everything, and denouncing it, too, for passing him by.

In story terms, most of Ginger and Fred is simply the preparation for Amelia and Pippo to get together and do their number. After they broke up, Amelia married and raised a family; now widowed, she runs a small business in her home town, near Genoa, and has become a neatly dressed, contented grandmother. Masina still scrunches up her features when she shrugs, pulling her mouth down in a way that's familiar even if you haven't seen her for decades. She's still saucer-eyed and trim-figured, and when she clowns she still has that slightly pie-faced, Harry Langdon look; she has aged without really changing much. Yet when Amelia finds Pippo he looks at her—flabbergasted—and winces comically. He shakes his head in mock horror, as if she had become a fright and were barely recognizable. We're told that they were lovers for fifteen years and that he suffered when she left him, but there are no emotional depths in their encounter; it isn't even funny—it's just inert. The story of their romantic partnership seems no more than a pretext for Fellini to have a few whacks at TV.

Though Masina gives the only big performance in the film (most of the people we see are not professional actors, and don't need to be), and she plays the role with a pleasing modesty, the character is ultimately unsatisfying. Fellini and his writing cohorts (Tonino Guerra and Tullio Pinelli) present Amelia as a practical woman who accommodates herself to circumstances—a woman with some inner strength but no passion, no strong emotions of any kind. And though they seem to be trying to be fair to this unadventurous, proper little bourgeois their hearts aren't in it, and the film treats her with an element of condescension. (It's not unlike the way the mousy Juliet and her fantasies were treated in the 1965 Juliet of the Spirits.) Mastroianni's role is much sketchier. What's clear is that Pippo is Fellini as a bum. This drunken, heavyset wreck of a man, sweaty and slightly disoriented, is Fellini's view of himself as a sensualist who yields to temptations and has wound up like many a man who cons himself: selling encyclopedias. We're never brought close to Pippo; we don't feel we know him. Yet since he's not going anywhere but down, his silly dirty jokes, the half-formed leftish ideas he spouts, and his hopes of hustling a job as a TV host all seem messily human. Amelia's self-control makes her seem like a prosaic, well-behaved child—a neat little doll. Pippo is at least falling apart, and in a play or a movie the characters who are in chaos are almost guaranteed to be more magnetic than the chaste, tidy Amelias. But Fellini may be too honest—or too indifferent—to pull the strings that would bring Pippo to some kind of endearing life. Pippo isn't even guilt-ridden or a great scalawag; he isn't much of anything. (He just plays at rebellion—the way Fellini just plays at satirizing TV, without getting involved.) I don't think Mastroianni has ever had less presence or less resonance; he has never worked with Masina before, and it may be that in trying to adapt to her matter-of-factness he wiped himself out.

The only suspense is: Will the two old imitation Americans make it through their act without disgracing themselves or without one of them keeling over dead? And Fellini squeezes a little tired drama into this: Pippo shows off at rehearsal by lifting Amelia so many times that he's near collapse, and then orders brandies for himself while he's backstage waiting to go on. We do develop a faint rooting interest in the two; we want them to get by with their terrible dancing and be applauded—if only to spare ourselves the mortification of hearing them laughed at. We don't want them to be destroyed by TV. And so the film is able to milk us. It makes us admire the trouper's spirit in Amelia's firmly controlled dancing posture and in Pippo's ability to lurch through the steps when he's sloshed and dazed. (That's the only positive aspect of the entire picture.)

Ginger and Fred isn't painful to watch, and Nicola Piovani's score has a lovely finesse—he brings stray undertones of melancholy to the gaiety of the songs from the Astaire-Rogers pictures. But the movie is imprecise in a way that produces discomfort. Fellini's parodies of TV lack the slap-happy knowingness that younger directors, who grew up with TV, have brought to movies such as the American comedy-revue The Groove Tube and the dadaist farce from Spain What Have I Done to Deserve This! Fellini has no zest to energize his skits. He's venting his disgust with the changes in the society, and he does it in a way that makes you feel he's out of it. There may be a sick joke about television that's waiting to be filmed: a satire that gets into the possibility that those who watch TV the most are the members of the underclass, who remain in the economic pits because they don't learn any skills while sitting at home. (It has been suggested that one of the reasons that recent Asian immigrants to this country have been moving up so fast is that initially they couldn't understand American TV—or were willing to forswear it—and so didn't waste their lives zonked out with the box.) But Fellini looks at TV with the offended eyes of a poet and aesthete, and he finds it vulgar—perhaps the easiest and least productive approach, especially when it's taken (as it usually is) by those who aren't themselves TV watchers.

Fellini has got TV and its effects on the culture mixed together with the ugliness of old age and decay. He has always counted the old among his grotesques, and now, seeing himself as one of them, he doesn't like what he sees. Mastroianni exhibits a bald spot like the Maestro's, with skimpy, longish gray hair around the sides and back, and he wears outfits like those the Maestro is often photographed in. He's a crumbling tower of a man—but without the Maestro's fabled rascal's charm. Ginger and Fred is a wobbling, insecure movie. Maybe it seems to be pulling in different directions because Fellini knows that he, like his sodden surrogate, Pippo, would be an m.c. in Hell before he'd consider the quiet life up north with Amelia. You don't expect Fellini, of all people, to be pious about the craziness of junk culture. And you don't expect him to be so upset about aging. (It isn't as if he hadn't lived.) As Ovid said, time devours everything. So why be cranky about it? While time is devouring everything we have some good moments.

John Simon (review date 9 May 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Clean Shaven," in National Review, New York, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 8, May 9, 1986, pp. 54-6.

[Simon is a Yugoslavian-born critic and educator. In the following negative assessment of Ginger and Fred, he asserts that the quality of Fellini's films declined following 8 1/2.]

There is a splendid story by the Italian humorist Massimo Bontempelli, La barba di Federigo, about a man with a gorgeous beard no woman (or anyone else) could resist. But the devil in disguise asked him with seeming innocence whether he slept with his beard inside or outside the covers. Trying to figure out the answer drove poor Federigo nuts, to the point where he couldn't sleep either way and, in despair, shaved off his precious beard. "He no longer had a reason for living," Bontempelli concludes, "but he didn't die for all that, as one can live exceedingly well without having the slightest reason." This might almost be the story of Federico Fellini.

When he made his early, wonderful movies, Fellini was a natural talent—perhaps the most natural of all. Despite a distinctly autobiographical flavor, the films managed to be sufficiently different; indeed, in the greatest of them, I Vitelloni, Moraldo, Fellini's alter ego, is neither the most important nor the most interesting character. The last Fellini film to show intermittent strength was 8 1/2—even as it also admitted creative bankruptcy; after that came the vertiginous decline. Psychotherapy, which could have made him self-conscious, may be part of the explanation, but there is also success and egomania, and detachment from the world: withdrawal behind a living wall of amateur adulators and professional sycophants; indifference to what other artists, cinematic or otherwise, were doing; self-indulgent, obsessive involvement with a menagerie of international freaks and loonies; and supreme laxity as well as megalomania in the shooting of almost totally improvised, almost idiotically idiosyncratic movies.

I don't know whether it was in psychiatric or other disguise that the devil asked Fellini, "How do you do it, maestro? Do you spread your genius all over your films or do you keep it neatly tucked in?" But self-conscious as well as supremely self-regarding he became, watching himself for the provenance and quiddity of the Fellini magic. One of the old collaborators, Tullio Pinelli, was still there, but Ennio Flaiano died, and I'm not sure what became of Brunello Rondi. A new collaborator on scripts, Bernardino Zapponi, proved a disaster and was, I assume, dropped; by 1973, Fellini had latched on to Antonioni's chief scenarist, Tonino Guerra, for all the good that was to do him. The films became ever more horrible, and now, in this endless parade of artistic and moral collapse, along comes Ginger & Fred.

It is a case of arrested artistic development in tandem with ever growing delusions of grandeur. Take only the music. Even if the marvelous Nino Rota scores were getting a bit thin toward the end, the drop after Rota died was catastrophic: Fellini chose not to replace but to embalm him. "Write me a Rota score," he presumably commands one of the rotating pseudo-Rotas—in this case Nicola Piovani—and the wretch coughs up some ghastly, watered-down imitation. In the same way, many of the scenes in the new film look like snippets from other Fellini movies (I noticed especially Variety Lights, The Clowns, and Roma), overproduced and underfelt. And as always when Fellini piles up huge sets and casts, more is less.

The story of a once-popular bush-league dance team, Ginger & Fred (in real life, Amelia and Pippo), who through thirty years of fascism and war entertained the provinces with their imitation of Rogers and Astaire, and who after years of separation are reunited for an appearance on a mammoth TV program, has undeniable potential. For it to work, though, the emphasis has to be on the personal element, as it would have been in early Fellini. Here, however, the story, which doesn't make sense in itself, gets submerged in all that late Fellinian gigantism, exaggeration, and self-importance, in which crass exhibitionism and unrestrained manias crush the life out of human values. The film is ostensibly an attack on the commercialism and soulless vulgarity of television, but is really a flagrant example of the cauldron of pitch calling the kettle black.

That Fellini hates the dehumanizing materialism of television is all very well, but for a large-scale frontal attack on this subject it is a bit late in the game—especially if the attack is not accurate, not rich in fresh details, and not properly integrated with what purports to be the story line. A major TV variety show, Ed ecco per voi (ineptly Englished as We Proudly Present), is offering a holiday special for which enough participants have been booked to make it an all-day affair. We get several kidnap victims and their lawyers, an old admiral who once performed a heroic rescue, a much-decorated civilian, a transvestite who caters to prison inmates, a defrocked priest and the woman for whom he lost his frock, a troupe of dancing dwarfs, a dapper and arrogant murderer with a retinue of guards, and numerous others. There are several look-alikes, including doubles of Proust and Kafka, as if there were a program in the world dealing in such esoterica. But Fellini must have his little joke at intellectuals, though its exact nature or relevance defies analysis.

In the immense shuffle, everything gets lost. What is the point of the old admiral, who has a fair portion of screen time but serves no discernible purpose? Though the transvestite seems to establish some genuine contact with Amelia and Pippo, nothing comes of this. None of the "acts" on the show is sufficiently developed to earn our interest: The clairvoyant and her son with their psychic tape recordings are as good for a giggle as the inventor of edible underwear, and nothing more. And Fred and Ginger, poor things, are themselves good only for a nervous titter, whether her moth-eaten old Ginger Rogers wig no longer looks right, or whether he cannot cadge another drink to screw up his courage.

Even amid hyperboles, some accuracy cannot be dispensed with. It is inconceivable that Pippo and Amelia, after thirty years of dancing and love-making, would completely lose track of each other, and that neither of them would make a serious effort to see a bit more of the other after the TV reunion. In any case, her embourgeoisement and his continued bohemian lifestyle deserve closer attention—and contrasting—than we get. But always now effect supersedes feeling. Thus when Amelia is alone in her impersonal hotel room, the revolving searchlight from the broadcast tower keeps invading her room at short intervals. This creates a prettily harrowing effect, but why doesn't she just pull down the blinds? So that Fellini can have his alienating effect, regardless of verisimilitude.

In the film's only location sequence, Amelia watches some of her fellow TV guests on the eve of the broadcast cavort across a misty, lamp-lit, desolate square to an all-night café, even as a gang of motorcyclists zooms viciously hither and yon. The forlorn, self-isolated woman, the dancing revelers, the mechanized brutes—it sounds so atmospheric and suggestive. But in the good, old Fellini movies, from which the components of this scene are lifted, something would have happened in such an episode, there would have been meaning as well as mood. Or take the scene where the head of the TV network visits the makeup room to survey the participants and ends up dancing with Ginger, whom he claims to remember with affection. The man speaks with a travesty of an upper-class Roman accent, and is presented as a total phony. An ounce of healthy vulgarity in the man, or a touch of self-irony, might have lent some acrid, aching truth to this moment. As Fellini now is, it exudes only perfunctory contempt. Indeed, all the TV personnel as well as sundry journalists are represented as either idiots or swine.

And even the climax [of Ginger and Fred] is muffed. As Pippo and Amelia begin to perform, and we wonder whether they can make or even fake it, there is a power failure. The fulsome, tinsely MC (Franco Fabrizi, and good) asks for complete stillness until electricity is restored; on the pitch-black studio stage, amid Stygian silence, Amelia and Pippo have their moment of truth. But it isn't. No huge, modern studio would be without its own generators, and no audience, least of all in Italy, would observe pristine silence under such conditions. Against such flagrant untruth, even in a nonrealistic film, you cannot play out a compelling epiphany.

The very post-synching is wretched. Fellini makes the actors mouth anything, and their subsequently dubbed-in dialogue distractingly bears no relation to lip movement. Dante Ferretti's production design is neither menacing nor mirthful enough. Even the subtitles are dreadful: Paso doble is translated as pas de deux, and the instruction to the participants backstage to be silent come in chiesa (as in church), one of the film's better ironies, is not translated at all. Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina give simple, faithful performances, but they cannot prevail against the surrounding farrago. Poor Federigo, without his gorgeous beard! Poor Federico, without what was once Fellini!

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Stubbs, John C., with Markey, Constance D., and Lenzini, Marc. Federico Fellini: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978, 346 p.

Bibliography of writings on Fellini through 1978.


Alpert, Hollis. Fellini: A Life. New York: Atheneum, 1986, 337 p.

Discusses Fellini's life and films.

Kezich, Tullio. Fellini. Milan: Camunia, 1987, 567 p.

Considered an authoritative biography of Fellini which debunks several myths surrounding Fellini's life.


Betti, Liliana. Fellini. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979, 249 p.

Memoir by Fellini's friend and assistant, also discusses Fellini's approach to filmmaking.

Bondanella, Peter. The Cinema of Federico Fellini. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992, 367 p.

Presents critical analyses of various aspects of Fellini's career, including his influences, the neorealistic and political aspects of his works, and the role of dreams, women, and "metacinema" in his films.

――――――, ed. Federico Fellini: Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, 314 p.

Wide-ranging anthology of critical perspectives on Fellini's works.

Burke, Frank. Federico Fellini: "Variety Lights" to "La Dolce Vita." Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984, 145 p.

Analyzes several of Fellini's early films, viewing them as "narrative processes vitally concerned with the quality of human experience."

――――――. "Federico Fellini: From Representation to Signification." Romance Languages Annual (1989): 34-40.

Examines semiological issues of representation, referentiality, and signification as reflected by and treated in several of Fellini's films.

Haberman, Clyde. "Fellini Builds Reggiolo, the Town of His Dreams." The New York Times (18 June 1989): 15, 24.

Relates a meeting with Fellini on the set of Voices of the Moon in which Fellini discussed his approach to designing and shooting the film.

Insdorf, Annette. "Fellini's Filmic Look at TV in 'Ginger and Fred.'" Los Angeles Times (4 April 1986): sec. VI, pp. 1, 15.

Discusses Ginger and Fred in relation to Fellini's views on the influence of television in modern society.

Kauffmann, Stanley. "Better Late." The New Republic 197, No. 9 (31 August 1987): 26-7.

Lauds the publication of the screenplay of 8 1/2.

Lavery, David. "'Major Man': Fellini as an Autobiographer." Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 6, No. 2 (Winter 1987): 14-28.

Critical examination of the autobiographical aspects of Fellini's oeuvre.

O'Toole, Lawrence. "Saving the Last Dance." Maclean's 99, No. 15 (14 April 1986): 65.

Brief positive review of Ginger and Fred.

Schneider, Karen S. "Addio, Maestro." People Weekly 40, No. 20 (15 November 1993): 107-08.

Reminiscences of Fellini occasioned by the director's death. Schneider describes her impression of Fellini based on an interview she held with him late in his career.

Siskel, Gene. "'Ginger & Fred': Too Much Fellini, Too Little Grace." Chicago Tribune, No. 101 (11 April 1986): sec. 7, p. A22.

Negative review of Ginger and Fred, lamenting the film's focus on television rather than the reunion of its main characters.

Thomas, Kevin. "'Ginger, Fred': Dancing to a Fellini Beat." Los Angeles Times (11 April 1986): sec. VI, pp. 1, 26.

Positive assessment of Ginger and Fred, commenting that Fellini's "view of the human comedy remains wise and compassionate—even as it grows ever more pessimistic."

Judith Williamson (review date 14 November 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Out of Step," in New Statesman, Vol. 112, No. 2903, November 14, 1986, pp. 23-4.

[In the review below, Williamson offers a positive assessment of Ginger and Fred, praising Fellini's ambivalent treatment of the role of television in the modern world.]

Where does authenticity lie in a world infinitely replicated by video, computer, and representations which are as much about other representations as about a real world? This is the question which preoccupies theorists of post-modernism (whose answer, incidentally, is 'nowhere'); and in a sense it preoccupies everyone in a world increasingly experienced through electronic media at a time of breakdown in social and political consensus. If our identity no longer fits snugly into place in an ordered world, how indeed can we have an authentic sense of ourselves? While theorists have diagnosed a loss of depth, of sincerity, of affect in this 'postmodern' world, movies have taken it to the logical conclusion of videodrome addiction, computer warfare, and—significantly—have turned 'replicant' into an everyday word.

Ginger and Fred confronts the problem of sincerity in a world of spectacle—but neither by theorising nor by projecting it into the future: Fellini the showman, who so often looks backward (or inward) for his circus material, has no need in this project to search beyond the surface of modern life itself. Fellini has always produced a good spectacle; yet here, in perhaps his most finely controlled film, he lets go the role of ringmaster which instead is dispersed through the anonymous forms of advertising and TV. His film as it were consumes the repetitions of sausages, slogans, sex on hoardings; the enormous promotional pig's trotter bedecked with fairy lights hanging in the station: the fragments of food and bodies which endlessly re-form the same patterns across the chaotic and decaying landscape of the city.

This kaleidoscopic diffusion of subjectivity finds a straightforward analogy in the deregulation of Italian TV, the backdrop for Ginger and Fred's story. Ginger and Fred are, in fact, Amelia (Guilietta Masina) and Pippo (Marcello Mastroianni), elderly tap-dancers whose Rogers/Astaire act broke up after its popularity in the Forties and Fifties and who are brought together again to appear on a special TV show. De-regulated television is a multichannelled stream of aerobics and sf, recipes and romance, interspersed with endless salamis, roasts, sauce-tasting competitions; and the variety show itself is a bizarre collection of lookalikes ('Woody Allen over here please', 'Kafka and Clark Gable come to the lobby'), weirdos (a woman in love with an extra-terrestrial, a dog that's been whimpering since the pope died) and celebrities (a famous admiral, a transvestite in a highly publicised court case). This may sound like a typical whacky Fellini scenario—but it is much more. Not only is TV de-regulated, so are emotions and values in society at large: which is why this film brings so clearly to mind the idea of the 'postmodern condition'. Meaning itself is dispersed and spread—in a sort of parody of democracy—with equal lack of emphasis across every facet of contemporary life, from the street to the screen; and this equality extends to the surface of the film itself, which will cut from a 'narrative' shot (e.g. Amelia in her hotel room) to a group of tiny people dancing round a giant plate of pasta, with no frame, no lines, nothing to mark the TV commercial as different from any other reality.

But instead of just revelling in his meat-market of imagery, Fellini explores it both through and against the sensibility of his central characters—who are both, in a sense, past their 'time' or at least the time when their values meshed with the society around them. Tenderly but without nostalgia, in the affect-less present where edible panties come in eleven fruit flavours plus tuna-and-onion, Fellini traces the complex and contradictory emotions of their reunion—Amelia, a respectable bourgeois grandmother with a small business, and Pippo, drifter and drinker, whose unrest conceals wasted warmth and intelligence. Both Masina and Mastroianni are superb, moving one to the most utterly un-postmodern feelings—which is part of the film's extraordinary finesse. For, however real their emotions, 'Ginger' and 'Fred' don't represent a simple reality posed against the artificiality of TV; rather they themselves stand for a different kind of showmanship.

Their act is an imitation, and yet contains the truth of their relationship: in it, they perform the emotions which they cannot repeat when, in an echo of their stage setting, they part at the station. Their most intimate exchange comes when a power cut suddenly stops the whole show—bringing home the fragility of that surface whose lack of depth contrasts with the profound emotions aroused by the occasion in Amelia and Pippo. As they sit in the dark, there is a moment of openness, caught in the folds of the TV glitz and glamour—both separate from it and, in a way, produced by it, a high pitch of intensity which cannot be matched in the light of day.

It is because Fellini is such a master of spectacular cinema that the ambivalence he brings to this image-world is so poignant. There is something reminiscent of Yeats—another great wielder of imagery—moving from 'it was the dream itself enchanted me' to the 'foul rag and bone shop of the heart' in 'The Circus Animals' Desertion'. Even the film's music suggests ambivalence, partly composed of the Astaire/Rogers dance music, elegant and familiar, but partly composed of the looped theme music of the TV show itself: Ginger and Fred is at once being the show, bringing us the show, and at the same time showing us how much it can't show. Fellini is as flamboyant as ever, but unusually gentle and serious too: it seems relevant that the dance at the centre of the film is the 'hesitation'.

For in many ways his world, where trendy young producers in leather jackets show no interest in or respect for the people they direct, is a bleak one; yet it has its share of softness and joy. There is a beautiful scene where, after Amelia has been disillusioned to find that her new friend is a transvestite, she watches 'her' and her friends dancing on the waste ground in front of a night club, a neon no-man's land without judgment or gender—and she almost joins in, watching a little wistfully from the shadows. And here is Fellini the ringmaster, watching the surface circus of modern media. The 'flying priest' on the TV show says, 'Everything in life is a miracle, it is up to us to find it in all that we survey.' However trite it sounds, [Ginger and Fred] does just that; surveying the modern world with a simultaneous sense of richness and loss.

Frank Pierson (essay date June 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Fellini's Magical 8 1/2," in American Film, Vol. XIV, No. 8, June, 1989, pp. 16-17.

[Pierson is an American screenwriter, director, producer, and educator. In the following essay, he discusses the thematic strengths of 8 1/2, focusing on Fellini's depiction of the character Daumier.]

Actors, and most directors, want to experiment, improvise, fly on gossamer wings of inspiration into all kinds of irrelevancies and distractions. The story is, to them, a series of situations to embroider and exploit. The screenwriter's job is to throw cold water on all this and try to keep everyone focused and on track. The screenwriter becomes something between a conscience and a critic—an irritating, nagging presence, defending the director against the director's own wonderful, but irrelevant, ideas.

In forcing the director to firmly address story problems, instead of just having fun, the writer often comes to be perceived as the story problem. Then a new writer is hired, one who will shut up and do as he or she's told.

Fellini's first treatment of the screenplay, 8 1/2, was not a story at all but a short letter to Brunello Rondi, one of the credited writers of the movie. Fellini describes a confused film director facing a picture he wants to make, for which he has only the intimation of a feeling, and a few characters, in mind. The letter lists a few of these and goes on to generalizations about themes, moods and tone. It is to be a comedy, making fun of the predicament of a very serious, but terribly flawed, man.

The character of the screenwriter, Daumier, in 8 1/2 is played by a prominent writer, Jean Rougeul. With a hawkish, disapproving face, he carries himself with authority. Like his namesake, the 19th-century caricaturist, Daumier hates and derides pretentiousness, sentimentality, stupidity and betrayal of intelligence by seductions of mystery and sex. He is a tough guy.

Daumier is also ugly, as Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), the director of the movie-within-the-movie, is not. Daumier is a man whom women have always ignored in favor of the Guidos of the world. Thus, he is always ready to remind Guido of the way in which Guido's sensuous appetites undermine his sense of who he might become, and what his true powers might be.

Two ugly men are as aware as Guido of magic and mystery: Daumier, the screenwriter who insists upon reality, structure, form, sacrifice and truth; and Maurice, the moth-eaten magician with false teeth, whose feats of mind reading he himself is amazed at—when they work. As with Guido, his art is a mystery to him.

Daumier remains earthbound by logic, and he will never know the joy Guido experiences through his magic. As the closing scene of 8 1/2 begins, with the scaffolding of the spaceship set and the beach in the background, the magic seems to have deserted Guido, forcing him to abandon the movie.

Fellini has gone out of his way to explain that 8 1/2 should not be interpreted to mean that only mystery and emotion are the keys to truth and happiness. Emotion without conscience leads to the hedonistic, useless world he held up to scorn in La Dolce Vita (1960). "The sleep of reason produces monsters," Goya wrote. That is, in a sentence, what Daumier the screen-writer is saying to Guido the director.

As the final scene progresses, Fellini weaves a wonderful counterpoint between picture and dialogue that is, to me, one of the high points of cinematic craft. Stylishly but invisibly, he moves the audience to a new perception.

As Guido walks away from the abandoned set—his dream which is already being demolished—his body is shrunk in despondency. The camera cuts to Daumier, erect and proud, disdainful and correct, waiting by the car in the parking lot. Daumier begins a monologue, as the center and point of view of the scene.

Guido is passive, listening. Fellini makes him almost invisible to us, while Daumier fills the screen and, talking, talking, gets into the car. Now, Guido is only half-seen—outside the car, walking around, finally getting in, too bereft of will to start the engine. All the time Daumier is speaking of the weakness of his vision, the uselessness of the picture, the silliness of his conception. Daumier says that the only right thing he has done is what he is doing now—abandoning the film. But with each cut and camera move, Daumier becomes less and less visible. Conversely, Guido, sinking deeper into himself, gathers inner strength and becomes the focus of the scene.

Daumier is filmed now through the windshield of the car, so that reflections half-conceal him. He is a talking shadow, while Guido fills our field of vision with his pain and concentration.

Something is happening inside Guido, in reaction to the writer's denunciation of his character and art. We begin to anticipate Guido's reaction. Our curiosity becomes so acute that we, like Guido, are no longer listening to Daumier at all. As the writer grumbles on, unaware of the apparitions gathering around them, he finally becomes invisible to the audience as well as Guido.

The resolution to the film arrives with Maurice, Guido's magical alter ego, who dances up beside the car and begins to summon all of Guido's creatures from the past. Guido has a rush of feeling, as his magic powers as an artist start to return. "What is this sudden joy that makes me tremble," he asks, "gives me strength, life?"

Critics complained that Fellini disarmed criticism of 8 1/2 by putting the worst that could be said about it into the film itself. After Daumier's constant carping at Guido, what is there left to say? But they miss the point. An artist is not complete without the magic and mystery of art tempered by the craft and cunning of science—heart and mind together. The writer (in this case) is the cunning craftsman and moral conscience; the director (in this case) is the source of poetic inspiration, generosity and feeling. It is not a license to fly, free of all rules, nor of rigid adherence only to that which can be rationally explained. Art is a resolution of conflict. And it produces new, unexpected results—in this case, the most beautiful and satisfying ending of any film I know, with the possible exception of the ending of Les Enfants du Paradis.

It is also deeply satisfying to hear a screenwriter given full voice to lambaste the director; for screenwriters of the world to stand with fists upraised.

Frank Burke (essay date Fall 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Fellini: Changing the Subject," in Film Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, Fall, 1989, pp. 36-48.

[In the following essay, Burke discusses how Fellini's major works reflect key issues in literary and film theory, namely the notions of authorship and identity.]

The career of Federico Fellini offers remarkable parallels to the recent history of individualism and the subject, especially in the domain of film theory. Particularly evident is the concurrence of Fellini's reputation and the fate of auteurism: 1954 was the year of La Strada and of Truffaut's promulgation of a politique des auteurs; 1959 saw the shooting of La Dolce Vita and the emergence of the French New Wave; 1962–63 brought 8 1/2 and Andrew Sarris's influential "Notes on the Auteur Theory."

Without question, Fellini's reputation benefited by an auteurist moment which valorized the film director as artist, gave strong impetus to the European art film movement, and, in so doing, aligned itself with the tradition of high modernism in the arts—privileging the uniqueness of artistic self-expression as an oppositional force in the face of industrialized society.

To some extent, that reputation was sustained through the sixties by proliferating auteurism (Sarris's book American Film Directors appeared in 1968), high modernism, and perhaps most important, the romantic individualism of the decade, which dovetailed with the media image of Fellini as a maverick and genius.

However, despite Fellini's continued visibility, his critical reputation peaked with 8 1/2, especially among academic theorists. From the mid-sixties on, that reputation has suffered virtually uninterrupted decline. Robert Phillip Kolker is representative when he writes in the early eighties [in his The Altering Eye: Contemporary International Cinema, 1983] that "8 1/2 … marks the end of [Fellini's] creative period…. In his following works, Fellini moved into the artifice of spectacle, the fantasies of memory, which became more insular and repetitive as he proceeded." More telling than critique is neglect. In the 600-plus pages of Movies and Methods I, Fellini receives one paragraph of discussion. His name does not appear once in Movies and Methods II nor (as far as I can tell) in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. These three anthologies delineate with great accuracy the critical and theoretical terrain of film studies for the past two decades.

Just as Fellini's international recognition corresponded with the rise of auteurism and the European art film movement, his decline has paralleled theirs. The sixties was marked by the structuralist and poststructuralist decentering of the subject, the politicization of film theory and practice following May 1968, and an assault on the high art/mass culture hierarchy of modernism. By the early seventies, as the result of auteur-structuralism and post-auteurism the auteur was killed off as creative artist and resurrected as merely one system of codes among many or as the radically dispersed effect of ideological gaps and contradictions. Dead along the way was the European art cinema of the "great directors."

This is hardly to say that Fellini has been ignored only because the auteurism of the fifties and sixties has dissolved. Some directors, such as Hitchcock and Ford, have been reappropriated by post-auteurism because of the psychoanalytic and ideological richness of their work. Others, such as Ozu and Oshima, have been privileged because of their non-Western signifying practices. And, ironically, Godard has acquired greater auteur status than ever because his politics have been so consistent with those of anti- and post-auteurism. Fellini's decline has occurred largely because, in a post-modernist, post-romantic, and post-auteur climate, he is seen as the embodiment of the purely reactionary. As Kolker puts it:

Fellini slipped back to a melodramatic mode … an autobiographical expression … with history relegated to a backdrop and nostalgia elevated above analysis. He returns to a romanticism that insists that the productions of the artist's life and imagination must be of interest simply because they are the productions of the artist…. [T]he neo-realist urge to reveal and question has disappeared beneath an irrelevant … subjectivity.

For Nöel Carroll [in Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory, 1988]: "Fellini's reflexivity only subserves the propagation of his world view…. Indeed, one suspects that Fellini's intrusiveness in [The Clowns and Roma] … enables him to get away with his shameless exploitation of shopworn, universalist (clown as man; city as life) imagery."

These critiques are surprisingly subject-centered—attacking Fellini for, among other things, autobiography, nostalgia, subjectivity, world view, and insidious motive. Focusing on the reviled auteur, they say little about the films themselves. In conjunction with the widespread neglect of Fellini's work, they reflect a failure to acknowledge that, just as Fellini's early films formed part of the discourse of a prestructuralist era, his more recent films are part of poststructuralist discourse. In fact, from 8 1/2 on, Fellini's films have lent themselves to sustained critiques of romantic individualism and to a thorough-going revaluation of subjectivity. His "autobiographical" films, moreover, have posited Fellini himself as subject only to dissolve him into other texts, subject positions, and intersecting discourses. Nowhere is Fellini the auteur more dead than in his own work.

Fellini's earliest films focus principally on the exploits of well defined main characters—whether comic (Checco in Variety Lights [1950], Ivan and Wanda in The White Sheik [1952]), tragic (Zampanò in La Strada [1954], Augusto in Il Bidone [1955]), or somewhere in between (Moraldo in I Vitelloni [1953], Marcello in La Dolce Vita [1959]). Fellini's emphasis on character is consistent with his oft-expressed concern with individuality—especially in contrast to what he sees as the collectivity of conventional existence.

Self-acceptance can occur only when you've grasped one fundamental fact of life: that the only thing which exists is yourself, your true individual self in depth, which wants to grow spontaneously, but which is fettered by inoperative lies, myths and fantasies proposing an unattainable morality or sanctity or perfection….

Individuality attains its fullest expression in the early films with The Nights of Cabiria (1956). Cabiria's film-long struggle for "self-acceptance" culminates with an extreme close-up which individuates her from all else in her world and appears to offer striking testimony to Fellini's conviction that "every human being has [her] own irrevocable truth, which is authentic and precious and unique…."

While Fellini's early films are decidedly individualist in emphasis, his comments about individualism are most intense not during the early period but during the making of 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits (1965). This creates an interesting paradox because it is precisely with 8 1/2 that I feel we can detect a radical change in the nature of characterization in Fellini's films—a process I might term "postindividualization." This process characterizes all Fellini's work from 8 1/2 through Roma (1972) but can best be examined in light of the death of the author/subject in more recent Fellini films: Amarcord (1974) through Intervista (1987).

In contrast to nearly all Fellini's preceding films, Amarcord has only an intermittent main character, Titta, who does not serve as a center of consciousness. He is absent from several episodes, some of them quite lengthy. He narrates only one—and that for only a moment. And he is supplemented, by several narrators who vary radically in articulateness, storytelling motivation, and credibility. There is, in short, no unified voice, and despite the fact that "amarcord" means "I remember," there is no I who remembers.

Fellini's Casanova (1976) may seem to offer such an "I": Casanova is both protagonist and presumed author of his tale. However, his function as narrator is intermittent to the point of virtual irrelevance, he is portrayed as a posturer and sycophant rather than a creative artist, and the world he inhabits is one of blatant simulation rather than originality.

Both Amarcord and Fellini's Casanova, though in different ways, fulfil Linda Hutcheon's description of point of view in postmodern fiction [as described in her 1988 A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction]: "Narrators in fiction become either disconcertingly multiple and hard to locate … or resolutely provisional and limited—often undermining their own seeming omniscience."

The Orchestra Rehearsal (1979) lacks even Casanova's simulation of individuality, as the orchestra becomes a dominant metaphor for collectivity. Not only is there no main character, all the characters end up defined entirely in terms of their musical instruments and, even more restrictively, in terms of a piece of music composed by an absent ("dead") author. The conductor, who assumes the role of author-ity by film's end, is no less constructed and determined in his actions than anyone else. He is there because every orchestra needs its leader.

City of Women (1980), like Fellini's Casanova, initially seems to offer authorizing human agency: Snaporaz as main character, and even more important Marcello as dreamer of the dream. However, in a crucial reversal, Marcello is established not as source of the dream but as its product. We begin in medium somnium, and Marcello only exists as a waking individual (briefly) at the very end. (In fact there is an implicit distinction drawn between "Snaporaz," the character in the dream, and "Marcello"—the "real" character—to whom Snaporaz, in effect, gives birth.) Moreover, the dream, like the orchestra, is a determining device, fixing Snaporaz/Marcello within the mechanism of the unconscious, fuelled by culturally generated projections and distortions of "Women." The culminating symbol of the feminine within the dream—an absurd Madonna/Soubrette balloon, complete with a womblike basket into which Snaporaz crawls—is a grotesque conflation of cultural symbology which violently undermines any notion of integral imagination on the part of its fabricator. (The film's title further underscores the fact that the women represented in the dream are not the unique creation of a free imagination. They are "always already citified"—manmade, socially constructed.)

And the Ship Sails On (1984) recalls The Orchestra Rehearsal in its use of a musical community—this time operatic—to construct individuals in roles. (The ship's hierarchy also serves as a determining social structure.) As in The Orchestra Rehearsal, characters are determined by dead author-ity—in this case Edmea Tetua, whose death they are mourning with varying degrees of fervor. Moreover, the authority and identity of Tetua (her ashes) exist only to be scattered (the goal of the opera troupe's sea voyage). Authority is further undermined within the film's narrative structure by the arbitrary, sporadic, and quite absurd role of the film's narrator/journalist, Orlando. He himself is "scattered" or fragmented, becoming most important as narrator when he loses all capacity to report. (His narrative voice dominates the last few minutes of the film but only in the form of pure speculation, as he is forced to compensate with mere hypotheses for his absence from all the final crucial events aboard the ship.) The split within Orlando highlights the interplay between fiction and history throughout And the Ship Sails On, as the film blatantly fictionalizes the sinking of the Lusitania and the outbreak of World War I. This interplay undercuts the authority of artist (Fellini) as well as historian (journalist/narrator), for the fictionality of the film cannot escape the discourse of history, and the historically "real" cannot escape the discourse of fiction. Put another way, the film's fictionality reflects the journalist's "pure speculation" at the end: both are conditioned by actual events, without deriving any authority from them. In addition, there is no position outside the ceaseless play and mutual determination of fact and fiction from which a text, artist, or commentator can be author-ized.

Ginger and Fred (1986)—both the title and the film—promise then withhold individuality. While the title offers us two personal names which imply differentiated figures, those figures are named after other figures who themselves adopted stage names. Moreover, Ginger and Fred have been virtually reinvented by television to come to Rome and imitate their past imitations of Astaire and Rogers. The world of Ginger and Fred is one of endless replication, of copies without originals, in which "lookalikes" become the stars of the day. Within this context, even Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina become "lookalikes"—allusions to their prior roles in Fellini films. The remark which a woman presumably addresses to Fellini at the beginning of City of Women would, with the addition of Giulietta's name, well apply here: "Marcello yet again? Please maestro."

"Fellini yet again?" could be the epigraph for Intervista, as Fellini functions not as a "real person" or even an "auteur" so much as a reproduction. He appears as the recycled product of his own films of forty years, of "memories" which exist only as cinematic representations, of the history of cinema, of the music of Nino Rota, of Cinécittà. Living in a world of reproduction, Fellini can be replaced as director. Mastroianni, dressed as Mandrake the Magician, "creates" the Trevi fountain scene in La Dolce Vita, making it appear on a makeshift screen in Anita Ekberg's house. As this sequence suggests, Fellini's relationship to his recreated memories and (other) staged fantasies is hardly simple or consistent. Not only is he not always positioned as their author, but often (as with Marcello and his dream in City of Women) he appears generated out of them. Despite the seeming centrality of Fellini, his subjectivity is, for the most part, a series of momentary configurations forming and dissolving across a grid of cinematic quotations from Fellini's and Cinécittà's cinematic history.

Turning to 8 1/2 we initially seem to have a story of individuation along the lines of The Nights of Cabiria. The film begins with Guido's literal and figurative awakening and with his acquisition of identity: his body and face gradually emerge from beneath bedclothes and robe, and he moves to the bathroom to discover himself in the mirror. Much of the remainder of the film traces the expansion of Guido's identity, awareness, control, and inventiveness as he moves from dreams (unconscious hence uncontrolled by Guido as conscious subject) to memories (conscious but merely recollective) to visions (conscious and creative). He also becomes more responsible, more accountable to himself and to others. The final scene, in which his lifetime companions join him in the circus arena, can be seen as a moment of integration.

However, 8 1/2 centers Guido only in order to disperse him. The more aware Guido becomes, the more he must face his own confusion and instability. Moreover, though he appears to develop the capacity to create his own reality—as in the harem sequence and the screen tests—his visions turn against him, revealing that his desire to control reality is a fundamental limitation. He is, in fact, stripped of his authorship. By the end of the harem sequence, he is positioned as spectator not creator, and he is severely troubled by the image and voice of Luisa which comprise the spectacle. At the screen tests he is confronted by his direc-torial follies, reduced again to a spectator, and helpless to make any decisions about his film.

Not only does Guido acquire a certain measure of authority only to lose it, he undergoes a multiplication of identities that radically de-centers him. At the screen tests there are at least four Guidos: the director who created the test footage, the director-actor whom we see on screen, and the spectator who himself is divided in two: the "ideal" Guido who whispers "I love you" to Luisa, and the "real" Guido who "lies with every breath" (the words of an actress playing Luisa onscreen, which appropriately describe Guido-as-unfaithful-husband).

The de-authorization and splitting of Guido leads to a crucial loss of subjectivity in the press conference vision that follows upon the screen tests. He has just renounced his film to Claudia Cardinale when the vision suddenly erupts. It is not, however, attributed to Guido. In fact, the point-of-view coding (close-up of Guido, memory or fantasy, return to Guido) which has characterized earlier imaginative sequences is pointedly sabotaged. The vision is preceded with a close-up not of Guido but of Cardinale (first in darkness, then suddenly illuminated by the headlights of a car). This not only eliminates Guido as source, it eliminates subjective origin altogether by offering the impossible: Claudia as author. The film then cuts to a relatively long shot of Guido (with Claudia), turning and shielding himself with his hat. Guido is presented only as the target, not as the creator, of this eruption. And, of course, the lengthy vision does not conclude with any (re)establishing close-up of Guido.

Guido does not just passively suffer loss of author-ity and subject-hood. In renouncing his film, he begins contributing actively to the process. He effectively kills off his film's "hero" who has become a surrogate self. (His hero in effect fails him, creating a complex mirroring effect: Fellini has trouble making a film about a character who has trouble making a film about a character who cannot sustain the role of hero.) Then, at the press conference, Guido kills himself off more directly (though still symbolically): climbing under a table, putting a gun to his head, and pulling the trigger. Then, in the final vision/sequence, he dies by immersion or absorption. In so doing, he recapitulates the loss of subjectivity that is so crucial to the film as a whole. Though Guido is placed at the origin of the final vision through a medium close-up, he quickly moves from subject to object as he enters the circus ring and becomes a character ("the director"). He then surrenders his role as director, joining Luisa and the circle of lifetime companions in a dance of death as well as reunion. Finally, he disappears—as does the child-in-white (another surrogate Guido) who briefly replaces him in the circus arena. By the end of this vision—which is also the end of the film—there is no Guido for the camera to return to. In fact, there is no subjective source of anything.

This reading is strongly at odds with prevailing critical opinion of subjectivity in 8 1/2. In Reflexivity in Film and Literature Robert Stam maintains: "The most striking feature of 8 1/2 … is the absolute centrality of Guido…. There is virtually no sequence … which Guido does not dominate." And, in Point of View in the Cinema, Edward Branigan insists that "Fellini's 8 1/2 … despite a startling, even virtuoso mixture of fantasy and reality, remains committed to the assumptions of traditional subjective narration" because it "finds its center in a single character or, more exactly, the consciousness of a character." While Stam's discussion of 8 1/2 is brief, Branigan's is carefully argued and merits a response.

Branigan bases much of his reading on scenes early in the film when Guido is, indeed, developing consciousness and point of view. He chooses as his quintessential example of 8 1/2's "activity of narration" a moment that occurs less than half way through the film. In over-determining the early scenes, Branigan fails to account for narrative progression—especially Guido's loss of authority towards the film's end. For this reason, he merely dismisses the increasing fragmentation and multiplication of identities: "It is important … not to overstate the plurality achieved in 8 1/2." Moreover, he fails to note the rupture of point-of-view coding in the press conference sequence—a fact which is quite surprising given his scrupulous attention to such coding when Guido fantasizes the hanging of Daumier a few minutes earlier in the film.

Branigan also fails to attend to the construction and dissolution of subjectivity in the final sequence. In fact, he abandons his close reading of cinematic technique altogether. Instead, he posits an elaborate "semantic square" to argue that 8 1/2 ends in a "positive transcendence" which "presents Art as the ultimate mediation between reality and fantasy" and a "resolution on a 'higher' plane of reality." Art "is offered as that term which is not limited by time, history or social condition. Through Art the text asserts its immortality." Through this transcendence "the confusion of reality is reconciled with the private meaning of Guido's fantasies…. Thus the film becomes, crucially, a working out of the precise status of the author with respect to reality, imagination, text, subject (consciousness), and the other terms."

Branigan's discussion is not only mystifying (especially in terms of his earlier treatment of the film), it entails a telling contradiction. Given his own insistence that Art becomes the encompassing term under which all else is subsumed, Branigan cannot logically claim that the film is equally "a working out of the precise status of the author…." Capital A Art and an individual artist are two quite different things, with the latter clearly subordinate to the former. What Branigan appears to be doing is seeking a term (Art) which enables him to resurrect the artist (Guido) despite the artist's obvious demise. Branigan's strategy actually confirms the fact that, by the end, Guido (the subject/author) is gone—and something (or perhaps nothing) else has taken his place.

Finally, in failing to trace the crucial shifts that occur in the final sequences of the film, Branigan remains tied to the assumption of a stable ground for Guido's subjectivity:

the text never stops making sense with respect to a 'reality.' We know, for instance, that Guido is having trouble with his wife, that he has a mistress, that he is attempting to make a film, and so forth. The origin of the unreal is always located in Guido and referenced to a privileged, non-subjective level of narration which is, exactly, reality for the text….

This assumption refuses to acknowledge, among other things, that Guido's mistress never appears as a "real" person once the harem sequence begins (45 minutes before the film concludes), the real Luisa never reappears after telling Guido to go to hell at the screen tests, and the film is abandoned. Also ignored is the fact that the press conference and the concluding sequence function precisely to strip away both the "privileged … reality" Branigan insists upon and any equally privileged subjectivity which both grounds and is grounded by such reality. In short, though Branigan does an excellent job detailing the individuating and grounding aspects of 8 1/2 he is unable to account for its post-individuating aspects.

In terms of jettisoning the individual, Fellini's next film, Juliet of the Spirits, is both an advance and a retreat. On the one hand, Juliet is fragmented into far more pieces than Guido. As the film's title suggests, she is a product of the many (all her spirits) rather than the one. Her subjectivity is, in short, fundamentally decentered. However, as in The Nights of Cabiria, the thrust of the film is to integrate the many into the one. (This is reflected in Fellini's claim that Juliet is forced "to find herself, to seek her free identity as an individual. And this gives her the insight to realize that all the fears—the phantoms that lived around her—were monsters of her own creation, bred of misshapen education and misread religion.")

It is a relatively simple task to deconstruct this attempted reintegration. First of all, Juliet's "oneness" could never exist without her multiplicity—a fact suggested even at film's end when her spirits assert their ever presence. Second, she has become one or "self-identical" through a series of negations—rejecting (among other things) Bhisma, Suzy, Jose, the Godson, the image of her mother, and in fact her tormenting spirits. Based on a series of denials, her identity of self-presence is thus constructed out of absences, non-identities. Third, Juliet exists only because she is seen, and in effect made visible, by her principal "spirits": the camera eye, and, by extension, us-the-audience. (We and the camera waft in through the trees, spirit-like, at the beginning of the film, and she looks us directly in the eye, acknowledging our presence as "spirits," at the end.) Finally, the Juliet who walks off into the forest at the end is "contaminated" by cultural significations. She is, among other things, a princess in a fairy tale and a virgin/child. Her "individuality" is hardly indivisible. It is multiply intersected by socially produced and determined meanings.

However, while the subject can be deconstructed, we must do the work—in effect against the will of the film. For that reason, Juliet of the Spirits functions more as an anomaly at this point in Fellini's career—and as a throw-back to earlier films.

Fellini's next film, "Toby Dammit" (1968) takes an issue, death, that was principally subtextual and metaphoric in 8 1/2 and makes it the (missing) center of its story. (Fellini had suffered a serious illness prior to the making of the film and had also been involved in an unsuccessful project—"The Voyage of G. Mastorna"—which focused on death.) In fact "Toby Dammit" is a film par excellence of the "dead subject" and dead author. Toby's past-tense voice-over at the beginning, plus his "death" at the end, make clear that he speaks from beyond the grave. That makes his signature at the beginning, written against the sky, the signature of a ghost or missing person. Identity becomes merely the citing/site-ing/sighting of its absence.

More concretely, the film makes clear that Toby must renounce identity and subjectivity, since both are entirely constituted by society. As an actor (the film's most pervasive metaphor), Toby is "identified" only in roles created by other people—and only by speaking other people's words.

Toby's existence solely as a culturally inscribed actor is implicit in the fact that he originates in fiction—a short story by Edgar Allan Poe ("Never Bet the Devil Your Head"). It is reinforced by his resemblance—sartorial and facial—to Poe himself. (Fellini deliberately had Terence Stamp made up to look like Poe.) It is exemplified in his impersonation of Macbeth—not only reciting Macbeth's lines but losing his head. It is present even in the fact that his name is not personal but metaphoric, naming not an individual but a set of culturally coded meanings. Finally, it pervades Toby's very psychology: socially constructed oppositions (dark vs. light, salvation vs. damnation, head vs. body, private vs. professional) in which the most "personal" of Toby's weapons—the Devil—is, though tailored to Toby's bizarre tastes, a consummate cultural cliche.

Toby's paradoxical fate—to be by not being—informs his end and that of the film. Driving his Ferrari, Toby makes an impossible leap across an abyss—but we hear and see no crash. There is no corpse. Instead, there are metonymic substitutes for his death: a bloody rope (quite dissociated from the scene of the supposed accident), a waxen replica of his head. Toby, in short, dies and does not die, a fact underscored by his beyond-the-grave narration. Indeed Toby remains, but now only as the film that bears his name. He is gone as subject and as author. With this final displacement, identity is again undermined as anything individual, indivisible, and unique. It is dispersed throughout a text that is consummately reproducible—via new prints, new screenings, re-viewings, etc. Moreover, as a text within a photographic medium, it is properly reproducible only through its negative. Medium, character, and story all come together to assert identity and selfhood only under erasure.

The erasure of character/actor/subject recurs in Fellini-Satyricon (1969), partly as a result of Fellini's continued emphasis on gaps and absences: "I reread Petronius and was fascinated by an element I had not noticed before: the missing parts; that is, the blanks between one episode and the next…. that business of fragments really fascinated me" [Giovanni Grazzini, Federico Fellini: Comments on Film, 1988]. The effacement of the subject recurs also as the result of Fellini's repudiation of character and acting in Fellini: A Director's Notebook (1968), a short film made between "Toby Dammit" and Fellini-Satyricon. The motivating force of Director's Notebook is the evasiveness, the nonmaterialization, of a hero or main character. The film begins with Fellini discussing his abandonment of a project, "The Voyage of G. Mastorna," because Mastorna "has not arrived yet." This in turn leads to an examination of the inadequacy of Marcello Mastroianni, and to some extent Giulietta Masina, as stimuli to Fellini, because of their history as well-defined actor/characters within Fellini's films. Acting itself is clearly critiqued in the appearance of Caterina Baratto and her dreadful attempts to portray a bloodthirsty Roman matron. The problem of character/acting then leads Fellini to a new strategy, a new kind of film-making, important not only for Director's Notebook but for all his films through Amarcord: he seeks out unprofessional actors with intriguing and appropriate faces in place of the familiar personae and skills of trained actors. He chooses, in short, a cinema of image or surface over one of character and depth. This leads directly to Fellini-Satyricon, not only with its cast of unknowns, but with its use of the fresco as its principal visual "unit."

(Fellini's search for unique and fresh faces is, of course, at odds with the self-reflexive use and re-use of Mastroianni, Masina, Ekberg, and himself in his most recent films. The former suggests a lingering romantic/modernist quest for novelty and originality as the wellsprings of inspiration—hence a lingering faith in the integrity of artistic creation. The latter reflects a postmodernist acknowledgement of repetition, reproduction, citation—the "always already"—as the inescapable condition of de/creation. Thus Fellini's rejection of actor/character/predefined subject contributes to the erasure of unified subjectivity while at the same time remaining invested in it.)

Fellini's new conception of casting and (de)characterization is immediately reflected in Satyricon's Encolpio. In my experience, most people who have seen Fellini-Satyricon for the first time have remained unaware that the film has a protagonist of any sort. Encolpio is hardly a central character in the way that Guido, Juliet, and Toby were. Like the cracked frescoes and broken statues that litter Satyricon's landscape, Encolpio is a fragment, relating to other events and characters, as well as the audience, only at the jagged edge of (dis)connection. The narrative itself is a series of fragments (dis)jointed at their rough edges—narrative, in short, in absentia: "the potsherds, crumbs, and dust of a vanished world" (Fellini, Satyricon). Encolpio's capacity to narrate (and even articulate) comes and goes, reflecting the fracturing of individual intelligence. He even disappears at times, remaining absent from crucial events such as the suicide of the patricians.

Encolpio, like Toby, is a fictional reproduction (originating in Petronius as Toby originated in Poe). In reproducing him, Fellini jettisons his conventional underpinnings of character: depth or "growth" psychology, Christian symbolism, humanist ethics and values, and the teleology of motive and goal. Far more than Toby, Encolpio is pure fictional cipher, adrift in a flow of arbitrary narrative which itself is adrift in the arbitrary flow of historical, political, and social change.

At film's end, though Encolpio seems momentarily to emerge as a unifying voice, he is confirmed and preserved in a state of fragmentation. He begins to narrate his itinerary upon setting sail, only to have his words broken off in mid-sentence. His image turns into a cracked fresco which itself is separated by cracks from other figures on the same fresco. Then, as the camera draws back, the fresco is revealed to be only one fragment among several. The solid wall which opened the film has been fissured and, with it, unity and wholeness on every level—from the narrative to the historical to the individual.

The Clowns (1970) seems initially to reinstate character and subjectivity with a vengeance by situating Fellini himself as first-person narrator and protagonist. Yet, like 8 1/2 and "Toby Dammit" (and unlike Director's Notebook, to which it is partially indebted) The Clowns ends up being far more about the death of the author/subject than about his(her) predominance. In killing Fellini off as auteur, The Clowns radically repositions Fellini in relation to his work—putting him at least in quotation marks and at most under erasure.

The Clowns reinstitutes a kind of autobiographical problematic that marks much of Fellini's earlier work. Though films such as I Vitelloni, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 and Amarcord are superficially autobiographical, they open broad gaps between Fellini and his past. I Vitelloni is set in a town reminiscent of Fellini's own Rimini and features one character, Moraldo, who gets out at the end. However, the differences between the world of the film and Fellini's past are far greater than the similarities. The vitelloni are products of a specific economic and cultural moment (postwar provincial Italy of the 1950s) which has little in common with Fellini's youth. More important; Moraldo, as his name suggests, represents the morality or mores of the provinces—something with which Fellini himself would hardly identify. And his alienated escape at the end has little in common with Fellini's move from the provinces to Rome. Marcello of La Dolce Vita is, like Fellini, a provincial who made it to the city—hence Moraldo's presumed fictional heir. He is, however, a jaded yellow journalist who is even further distanced from Fellini than was Moraldo. He mirrors the latter both in paralyzed detachment and ultimate disillusionment, and his story represents an exhaustive study in character fragmentation. In short, he proves highly unsuitable for any kind of Fellinian working through of genuinely autobiographical issues.

8 1/2 and Amarcord seem initially to be much more promising in terms of autobiography, the former because of its protagonist, the latter because of its historical setting. However, the effacement of the Fellini surrogate in the first and the pointed absence of one in the second eliminate the grounding upon which genuine autobiography depends.

Such grounding is not lacking in two strongly autobiographical Fellini scripts that have recently been published: "Moraldo in the City" and "Journey with Anita." However, the fact that Fellini never realized these projects seems to confirm an unwillingness or incapacity on his part to use autobiography in anything other than distanciating and deconstructive ways. This conjoining of autobiography and (self)-deconstruction is precisely the kind of autobiographical problematic that informs The Clowns.

The opening segment introduces character and subjectivity as far more the product than the producer of experience. Fellini as a child enters a circus arena and is, in effect, refashioned—turned into a clown. (The film's title clearly includes Fellini, along with everyone else in the movie.) More specifically, Fellini-the-child's initial fear of clowns, especially the rowdy "Augustes," turns him into a "White Clown" (the authoritarian figure in the White Clown-Auguste relationship), who seeks to contemplate, understand, hence control his circus experience. It is Fellini-the-White Clown who, as an adult, seeks to document the clown.

The subject is not only constructed (rather than pristine, autonomous) in The Clowns, it is culturally coded—since what refashions the young Fellini is an art form with a long tradition and a well-defined logic or ideational apparatus (i.e., the White Clown-Auguste dialectic). This emphasis on the precoded confirms a shift in Fellini's films from "original" stories to the reproduction of other stories, other art (Poe/Shakespeare in "Toby Dammit," Petronius in Fellini-Satyricon, now the art of the clown). Fellini's increasing acknowledgement of reproduction (vs. creation) becomes, in turn, the basis (as I have already suggested) for his deconstruction of subjectivity and authority in his most recent work.

The problem of author / subject in The Clowns is defined principally in terms of Fellini's attempts to make a documentary—i.e., to appropriate (as unified and autonomous subject) the clowns (as object and "other"). However, Fellini is no more successful in imposing his directorial will than was Guido. The documentary fails, and a different kind of filmic process takes its place. Even more so than with Guido, creative experience happens to and around Fellini rather than originating within him. And just as Fellini-the-child was constructed by the clown/circus discourse (rather than vice versa), Fellini the adult becomes constructed within fictional/narrative discourse rather than standing outside it.

Like 8 1/2, The Clowns concludes with a series of authorial deaths and effacements. First of all, Fellini must abandon his role as documentary filmmaker—his principal role in the film. Then, as he directs a different kind of film (an extravagant "resurrection" of the clown Fischietto), he gets a bucket over his head. Moreover, the resurrection attempt is mechanical and labored—and is followed by a hollow sense of anticlimax. Most important, Fellini, like Guido, ultimately disappears. In the final moments, an old clown (Fumigalli) assumes Fellini's narrative authority, resurrects the clown much more successfully, and brings The Clowns to a close.

Storytelling in The Clowns thus ends up occurring through erasure and substitution, making narrative fortuitous and fragmentary. At the same time, the grand controlling author is eliminated—not just in the surrogate guise of a Guido—but in the person of Fellini, the "grand romantic artist," himself.

Though The Clowns ultimately does in the author-as-subject, Fellini's presence as director is dominant until the very last moments. Also, through voiceover, Fellini-as-adult is made clearly continuous with Fellini-as-child in terms not only of identity but motivation. (Fellini-the-adult's desire to document clowns is clearly rooted in Fellini-the-child's experiences.) In this sense, characterization in The Clowns is more stable than in "Toby Dammit" or Satyricon. Roma, on the other hand, consistently undermines continuity and stability. In its original conception, Roma had virtually no voice-over: the screenplay includes only one brief instance of Fellini addressing the viewer, and a theatrical print I saw in Rome (spring 1983) was true to the screenplay. (Some narration appears to have been added to prints shown on Italian television circa 1983.) Furthermore, neither the screenplay nor the Italian-language versions I have seen make any positive identification as Fellini of either the child at the beginning or the young adult in Rome of the 1930s. No narrative voice or character ever designates the child or the young adult as Fellini. (The screenplay is insistent on referring to the young adult only as "il ragazzo"—the boy or young man—even when it would be much simpler for purposes of both simple reference and clarity to refer to him as young Fellini.)

Even in the English-language version, which contains voice-over material requested by United Artists, Roma cannot help but undermine the consistency of Fellini's presence. The narrative voice is not Fellini's. There is still no designation of the child or young adult as Fellini. (The closest we get is the narrator's statement, following the young adult's first day in Rome: "Thirty years or more have passed since that fabulous evening"—which still keeps the connection oblique.) Both child and young adult are missing from many scenes which, in a conventional flashback-narrative, would have been justified narratively only by their presence or point of view. (Roma again differs sharply from The Clowns.) And the young adult is played by a Spanish-American actor (Peter Gonzalez) whose origins, native tongue, look, and American mannerisms enhance the distance between Fellini as an adult and any possible earlier manifestation. (Incidentally, the circumstances of this figure's arrival in Rome are markedly different from Fellini's own.)

In short, though we may be inclined to assume a link between contemporary and younger. Fellinis, the film itself refuses to forge one. Fellini refuses to materialize as a coherent and continuous persona, and as a result, "he" is at best an inference, scattered among a number of subject positions.

In addition, even the Fellini of the 1970s is barely in evidence. There is no establishing scene to define his documentary motives and purpose, as there was in The Clowns. After Fellini is shown directing the film crew's entry into Rome (a sequence which, tellingly, ends in chaos), he is absent for most of the film's remaining sequences. Even when he reappears at the Festa di Noantri, he is barely noticeable among the crowds, and Gore Vidal's interview is initiated not by Fellini but by one of his crew. The only time he becomes insistent in this final scene (with Anna Magnani), he is dismissed ("Go to sleep…. I don't trust you…. Good night.")

As in The Clowns, documentary film-making, as a centering, author-ized, project fails; even the documentary camera is stolen. And, again, Fellini is effaced at the end. Once Magnani dismisses him, a gang of motorcyclists rides into the frame, Fellini vanishes, and the cyclists bring the film to a close.

Even more than in The Clowns, Fellini exists as someone constructed entirely within cultural coding. For one thing, there is no Fellini figure who initially stands outside the "arena" of cultural conditioning (the child in The Clowns watched the erection of the circus tent from his window the night before he entered it). From the outset, Fellini is entirely positioned within and produced by the multiple discourses that are "Roma." This is true even if we infer a link between present-day Fellini and the child of the opening sequences, who first appears in uniform, amidst a crowd of students, getting a history lecture on Caesar. It is even truer if we refuse to infer this link—and see Fellini produced well into the narrative by discourse itself.

Unlike "the clowns," "Roma" does not constitute a highly specific personal experience such as Fellini's childhood encounter with the circus. Rome encompasses history, culture, ethnicity, religion, art, movies, government, geography, and so on ad infinitum. Consequently, individuality and subjectivity are situated at the intersection of an enormous aggregate of discourses.

Equally important, Rome is anything but a centering phenomenon, capable of fixing identity. It is ever-shifting, unencompassable, indefinable. It comes to represent not a place or even site of discourses, but always what is not there. (This is true from the opening image of the rock, signifying "elsewhere," through the closing images of the cyclists, whose exodus again makes Rome "elsewhere.") Ultimately Rome is the force of change or difference, making history or meaning possible but also riddling it with instability. It is the surge of the present in the subway sequence that obliterates the underground frescoes—but at the same time, creates a tabula rasa on which anything can be painted. Rome is also the inexplicable materialization of the cyclists: impersonal, empowered, irresistible—configuring and dispersing, centering and decentering—origin and destination unknown. Ultimately Rome "names" that which is unnameable, all that escapes identification, hence identity.

Roma's deconstruction of the subject/author culminates a process initiated in 8 1/2. It also points to the films that will follow (Amarcord to Intervista). It takes up a notion implied in "Toby Dammit" and Fellini-Satyricon—the self as mere reproduction—and paradoxically "personalizes" it by applying it to Fellini himself. (By applying it to himself rather than merely fictional figures, Fellini of course makes the issue all the more compelling.) Whereas The Clowns initially offers the possibility of a narrative "I" in charge of (re)creation and discourse, Roma—by completely absenting that "I"—turns Fellini into pure product. Not only is he reproduced by the multiple discourses that are "Roma," he is entirely a product of cinema. He is always and only the discourse(s) of his film. Unable to stand outside and create the text, he, like Toby, is dispersed through and by it. In an age and medium of mechanical reproduction, Fellini, the "original," ends up generated by the copy.

The dismantling of the subject, and Fellini himself as subject, does not automatically absolve Fellini's work from the charges of self-indulgence so often levied against it. To a large extent, his films must center the subject in order to decenter it. Moreover, their self-reflexivity can be seen as an attempt at recuperation of selfhood in the face of its acknowledged demise. Nonetheless, the issue of subjectivity in his work is far more complex than has generally been recognized. Focusing much less on Fellini himself than his severest critics would claim, Fellini's films not only reflect but help constitute the vibrant contemporary theorization of the subject under erasure.

Ben Lawton (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Fellini and the Literary Tradition," in Perspectives on Federico Fellini, edited by Peter Bondanella and Cristina Degli-Esposti, G. K. Hall & Co., 1993, pp. 191-202.

[In the following essay, originally published in Italian Journal in 1990, Lawton discusses the unifying motifs of Fellini's oeuvre.]

In no country more than in Italy, does "high culture" play so prominent a role in "popular culture." In fact, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish the two. This certainly is the case where Italian cinema is concerned. And while literate viewers are, for the most part, conscious to some extent of the presence of the Italian literary and artistic heritages in the films of Bertolucci, Pasolini, Visconti, and Zeffirelli, among others, their presence in the works of Federico Fellini has, for the most part, been slighted.

Critics speak regularly of a "Fellinian universe," but the expression is rarely explained or defined. What characterizes his films to such an extent that his touch can be recognized immediately? What do such apparently different films as La strada, Fellini—Satyricon, The City of Women, and Ginger and Fred have in common? All of Fellini's films reflect a common structure: a mysterious original sin (inevitably some manifestation of materialism), a downward spiraling series of misadventures, a desperate search for some sort of external help, and an ambiguous open-ended conclusion. All draw attention to themselves as film in one way or another. Fellini's personages inevitably are caricatures, types, manifestations of some facet of the human condition, and are not characters in any traditional sense. Fellini challenges the myths connected with the traditional vision of the family, church, marriage, "jet set," and aristocracy, changing the target of his barbs from one film to the next. He has a number of favorite themes: his own provincial background, women, God, Rome, the circus, the theater, and the cinema. The power of his images is so great that several of his favorite images have themselves become mythical, often in contradiction to his own desires: the pre-Christian innocence of the first stirrings of childhood lust, the mystery of the sea, the wise fool, supernaturally endowed women, and certainly not least, himself. Fellini's films, however, have more in common than the similarities mentioned above. The Fellinian universe is predicated on three fundamental concerns: the rejection of the allegory of love, the perception of film qua film and thus as art, and Pirandellian life/form dualism. Implicit throughout is also a questioning of all narratives, that is, of all authority.

It is a given that the unifying premise underlying Fellini's films is the Italian experience, as he lived it and as it was passed to him, both by the purveyors of high culture and of popular culture. Generalizing, one can observe that whenever Fellini cites those Italian authors who have been canonized by the academic establishment, he is critical and ironic. Conversely, he seems to feel that in the popular sayings and traditions there is still some mysterious, authentic poetic power. A few examples should suffice for the present. In Fellini's first independently-directed film, The White Sheik, the pathetic and obnoxious Ivan Cavalli begins to recite a sonnet clearly inspired by Dante's "Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare," which he has composed in honor of his new bride, Wanda: "Essa è graziosa, dolce e piccolina." Not surprisingly, his uncle, he of the Vatican connections, pompously declares it to be an ode. Equally predictably, Fellini deflates the whole nonsense by having a waiter arrive with something which everyone really understands and cares about: "Ecco le fettuccine calde, calde." In opposition to this we may recall the instance in La strada in which Gelsomina repeats a mysterious incantation, flapping her cape in front of the fire. As Zampanò scoffs at her he reveals his uneasiness in the presence of an ineffable mystery. Typically, he attacks what he does not understand: he rapes the ethereal Gelsomina.

The rejection of the official culture and the search for popular roots and expressions is not particularly new in the history of Italian literature. In fact, one might argue that the major Italian literary figures, from Dante on, achieved their fame in large measure as a result of their battles against the literary and social status quo. Thus, in this sense, Fellini is comfortably situated in the general flow of the Italian literary tradition of not infrequently revolutionary self-renewal. But, like his predecessors, Fellini does not simply reject all that which came before him. While poking fun at the mindless repetition of the classics, he focuses his work on those concerns which have always been of fundamental importance to the major Italian writers through the centuries. Prime among these, of course, is the attempt to make some sense of the human condition. Mankind throughout history has attempted to rationalize the noncausality of events in anthropocentric terms. (NB: Mankind, man, and the various masculine pronouns in this instance do not refer to humanity in general. Here the expressions do refer to the male gender, for it is men, by and large, who have spoken and written for humanity, creating its myths and allegories.) The Judeo-Christian tradition, in particular, has consistently refused to accept a random universe. In different ways, dependent to a large degree on the socio-economic structure of our world, we have attempted to reconstruct an explanation of the human condition. The very text underlying our world vision, the Bible, and in particular the book of Genesis, reflects this attitude. Rather than accept Leopardi's vision of nature as an indifferent matrigna of mankind, we have chosen to see ourselves as the victims of a deliberate punishment for sins we have not personally committed, nor really understand, but for which we are held accountable. This, not only because we would rather be punished than ignored, but perhaps more importantly, because the fallen condition implies the possibility of a return to a state of grace. Occidental man can, therefore, be characterized as being involved in an attempt to return to an edenic condition.

This striving has taken different artistic manifestations over the years. In the Middle Ages, given the vertical order of feudal society, it is best represented by the ideal of courtly love in which the object desired is and must be unobtainable. With Dante, in The Divine Comedy, this allegory for the human condition becomes explicit. The object of courtly love, woman, becomes a means to that towards which mankind is striving: a return to the sight of God. Through the mirroring process in Paradiso, the souls reflect and magnify God's love. This ubiquitous communication is the antithesis of the alienation of the souls in Inferno, and represents perfect happiness. This condition, as Dante observed, however, is something which can only be glimpsed in life. Permanent, perfect bliss will only come with death. In the more anthropocentric Renaissance the perception of the impermanence of all things in life resulted in a paradox. Underlying the glorification of humanity and life, there is the desperate fear which comes from the acknowledgement that we are alone. The search for an edenic condition was taken up again with a vengeance in the preeminently bourgeois nineteenth century, which was characterized by a more horizontal world vision. Sir Walter Scott's novels, for example, often culminate and terminate in the marriage with the woman desired. The romantic conclusion, "and they lived happily ever after," suggests an equation of marriage and death on at least two levels. First, no permanent condition of bliss can exist in life. Second, the story has ended and thus the protagonists quite literally exist no more. Still, this romantic version of the allegory somehow became a model for the social institution of marriage, thus creating impossible expectations. Manzoni, prefiguring the writers and filmmakers of this century, realized that the attainment of the object desired in life presents no permanent solutions. Thus, in I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) we find that, after one aspiration has been satisfied, new problems arise. Among others, Lucia, the object desired, reveals herself to be a subject with ideas of her own.

In broad terms, all of Fellini's films reflect an attempt to give artistic form to a more contemporary perception of alienation, existential anxiety, and the impossibility of love and communication: in other words, the failure of the allegory of love. The union of man and woman no longer implies perfect, eternal bliss, nor is it the culmination of the narrative. On the contrary, as a rule, the relationship either precedes the narrative, or they are synchronous, and the narrative becomes a record of the progressive destruction of all romantic fantasies and illusions. These themes, already identifiable in Variety Lights and The White Sheik, are foregrounded to the point of becoming allegorized in La Strada, in which we can see the rejection of the notion that the material (Zampanò) and the spiritual (Gelsomina) can somehow be fused. The absolute impossibility of communication, caused by the brutishness of Zampanò, results inevitably in the destruction of Gelsomina. The ironic, thrill-seeking cynicism of modern man (the Fool) fares no better. Fellini seems to be arguing that, although there may be no solution to our problems, amused intellectual detachment is no answer. It is of no real help, and it too ultimately will be victimized by the material element: Zampanò kills the Fool.

La Dolce Vita continues and expands these themes. Set in the decadent Rome of the late 1950's, it is a total indictment of the materialism which, like a cancer, devours the soul. By the last scenes of the movie Marcello has degenerated from his original ambition to become a writer (and thus a creative being), to journalist (who, by his own admission, merely reports the kind of news about which "inquiring minds want to know"), to public relations man for third-rate actors (who is willing to sell his ability to write, and thus his soul, to the highest bidder). His search for some sort of miraculous external assistance to give meaning to his life fails entirely. Neither his father, nor his mistress (Emma), nor the wonder woman (Anita Ekberg as Silvia), nor the intellectual (Steiner) can help. All are as completely alone as he is; all are equally incapable, ultimately, of relating to any other person.

In the two films which follow, 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini continues to explore the impossibility of communication between individuals, and in particular between married couples, and the complete desperation to which anyone who requires external assistance is driven. The two films might well be described as two sides of the same coin: the search for love, communication, and happiness is depicted in man and woman respectively. In both we can observe a structure which is similar even in relatively minute details. In both we have flashbacks which reveal the noxious influences of church and family; in both we observe the desperate, futile search for external solutions; in both, the film comments on itself by drawing our attention to the fact that we are witnessing a film.

Both films are allegories, not of love, but of alienation. In 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits however, while alienation is inescapable, it does not necessarily result in terminal desperation. After the failure of all external solutions and in particular of all possible permutations of the traditional male-female relationships, Juliet has internalized those "materialistic" male characteristics she needs to survive, yet does not lose her female, "spiritual" qualities. The conclusion of Juliet of the Spirits is triumphant because she has discovered that she does not need her husband or anyone else to give her validity as a human being. The union of material and spiritual has occurred within her. A similar process occurs in 8 1/2 where Guido is condemned to creative impotence until he can reintegrate within himself both the masculine and feminine characteristics, until he can accept all of himself.

Having revealed the failure of the allegory of love in man and woman, Fellini would seem to have disposed of it once and for all. Instead, he returned to it once again in Fellini—Satyricon. It was not enough to eliminate the allegory of love, which by definition was only a symptom of the underlying error; the director wanted to identify, expose, and exorcise the mistake, the very notion that humanity needs a transcendental validation. Fellini has said that we are living in a moment of crisis analogous to that experienced during the days of the Emperor Nero. That crisis, he suggests, was resolved with the advent of Christianity, while the solution to the present upheaval, he admits, still remains to be found. Fellini—Satyricon thus becomes a post-Christian view of a pre-Christian world, in which the sacraments of the Catholic church are deliberately subverted. In fairly rapid succession we observe the marriage between Encolpius and Lichas (both of whom are men); the theft of the hermaphrodite—a divine oracle—which results in its death; the loss of Encolpius's virility; the search for a rebirth of his flesh through penance, suffered in the "garden of delights," where he is whipped to no avail; and his salvation through baptism by immersion in Oenothea's fiery loins. Ascyltus, who has never wavered from his complete materialism, is lulled in the end by a boatman for a bag of gold. Encolpius, instead, has transcended the cult of Mammon. He rejects the disgusting anthropomorphic last supper offered by Eumolpus for those who wish to inherit his wealth, and sets sail in search of further adventures.

Fellini, like Encolpius, also moved on in search of new adventures. The old transcendental world vision, with its belief in an external god, was dead, as was the allegory which stood for it. The new quest must be turned inward, for it is inside each person that the answer will be found, if anywhere. This different perception of the human condition, however, required a new form, new expressive devices. If humankind is alienated and cannot know others or communicate with them, how can an artist express him/herself in the third person singular? How can s/he speak of the past as if it were an objective event? In the films which follow Fellini—Satyricon, Fellini abandons the narrative structures predicated, however loosely, on the traditional novel, and inevitably, a large measure of his audience. Following the lead of a number of writers (Joyce, Svevo, Montale), in Clowns and Fellini—Roma the director begins to speak more openly in the first person singular, and his famous autobiographic inclinations become more explicit. The second major concern of Fellini's work becomes increasingly obvious in these later films.

Fellini, in other words, is also concerned that we perceive his films as film, and therefore as art, and not merely as documentaries of his psyche. For this reason he had begun to draw the spectator's attention to the medium even with his first independently directed film, The White Sheik. This concern became even more apparent in 8 1/2, which has been defined as the only film which deserves entirely to be called a "mirror construction." In Fellini—Roma this mirroring reaches its climax, with Fellini as Fellini filming Fellini making a film about Fellini's past (as a child in Rimini and as a young man in Rome). In the present, Fellini is filming Fellini filming Fellini, etc. Once again we have the parade of Fellini's concerns, but without the pretext of fiction in any conventional sense. The original sin here, as elsewhere, is materialism, both in the past and in the present. Its price is the impossibility of human contact. It is, however, the visit to a subway construction site which fully manifests the intent of Fellini—Roma. When the workers discover a crypt and open it, the frescoes, which had survived for some two thousand years, begin to disintegrate. Thus the function of the film—to complete the unveiling and demystification of Rome, begun in Variety Lights, continued and intensified in The White Sheik and La Dolce Vita—would appear to be achieved.

Bankrolled by the persons who would appear to think that big breasts, weirdness and Fellini are synonymous, Casanova was meant to be an exploitation film. What else could come of the filmic rendition of the autobiography of the notorious Italian lover and adventurer (Angelucci 1977)? The money-men, however, had not realized that the Latin lover has been the object of Fellini's scorn, from Checco in Variety Lights to virtually everyone in Amarcord. Speaking of the latter, Fellini is quite explicit. [In Peter Bondanella's 1978 Federico Fellini: Essays in Criticism] he defines the attitude of his protagonists as a "matter of being fascist both psychologically and emotionally, and therefore of being ignorant, violent, exhibitionistic, and puerile … the acceptance of the same old monstrous out-of-date myths … the dream of the American cinema, or the orientalizing dream concerning women … an arrested development at a child-like stage … [whose] fault … lies with the Catholic Church". Thus his Casanova is a soul-less machine for whom sex is a performance, an athletic event, a tool, but never love.

This movie, as well as Orchestra Rehearsal (Prova d'orchestra), inevitably baffled those critics who have failed to identify a major conceptual thread which weaves its way through Fellini's work, namely the Pirandellian life/form dualism. In very simple terms Pirandello, the Nobel prize-winning dramatist and author argued that we are caught between life (passion, instinct, fantasy, all of which are mobile, chaotic, in perpetual and joyous becoming) and form (reason, common morality, social conventions, and all that is deterministic, immobilizing, and morally rigid). Life wants to acquire consistency, but to do so it must become form. When this occurs, it is destroyed. Pirandello went on to suggest that we all hide behind masks, and therefore can't know others and, quite frequently, we don't even know ourselves, except, perhaps, for brief instants when communication is made possible thanks to love.

Even from Fellini's earliest film, Variety Lights, he has always been obsessed by this dualism. In Variety Lights he shows us mysterious, talented night people, the Brazilian singer, Buffalo Bill Jr., the Cowboy; and Johnny the Trumpet player, who, when put on a stage—that is, when given a form—become absolute failures. They simply cannot perform. The magic which was theirs in the empty midnight squares of Rome has vanished. Casanova is the epitome of this process. He has chosen a role for himself: that of courtier and adventurer, and has given it such perfect form that it is entirely lifeless. Interestingly, as Casanova dances with the wooden ballerina, as the film ends, he too becomes wooden, but he also becomes younger and graceful once again, suggesting that something which is completely lifeless, the very essence of form, can somehow acquire an aesthetic quality, movement, and even life.

Orchestra Rehearsal is perhaps the most programmatic exposition and discussion of Pirandello's life/form dualism. Fellini's critics argue that the chaos of the orchestra is a metaphor for Italy, and the order and harmony which triumphs in the end is nothing less than a call for law and order, a call for a new Mussolini, a new fascist Duce. By extension, they contend, Fellini is a fascist. Granted, the film is a metaphor for Italy. Fellini, notwithstanding his comments to the contrary, has always been "political" in his films. Not programmatically or didactically, perhaps, but his work is certainly referential, always commenting upon the world in which he lives. This being the case, is he calling for a new Duce? Of course not. Once again we are confronted with the life/form dualism. To become a performance and to have consistency, the vital and chaotic orchestra rehearsal must have a form. However, form implies lifelessness and, ultimately, entropy, so that as the film draws to a close the screen fades to black. It is difficult for a filmmaker who has said that the "cinema is light" to be more explicit. The absence of light is the absence of cinema; quite literally it is the absence of life. Thus, if we do have a political metaphor, it is certainly not a call for a new duce. If anything, it would seem to be the opposite. At the same time, Fellini is also suggesting that terrorist extremism is dangerous both because it is immediately destructive and, more importantly, because it may well lead people to opt for a duce, and thus, once again, for the blackness of Fascism.

With The City of Women Fellini turned his focus once again on the relations between men and women or, perhaps more precisely, to the seeming virtual impossibility of establishing any such relations. In many ways this film is very reminiscent of 8 1/2. But here the fiction that the problem is one of creative impotence has been eliminated. Here Fellini deals more directly with the fundamental problem of masculinity. Already with Amarcord and with Casanova Fellini had returned to a problem which might have been assumed to have been resolved: the conflict between the sexes. With Fellini—Satyricon the solution had seemed to have been found in the bisexual protagonists. In reality, what the film showed was that the problem is not one of a conflict between the sexes, but of masculinity itself, regardless of the gender with which it attempts to establish a relationship. Man's fears concerning his sexuality drive him to virtual suicidal frenzy (see Fellini—Satyricon), to performing, or fantasizing about—which, as we shall see, are essentially the same thing—the most ludicrous enterprises (see Amarcord—the car race, the duce-blessed wedding, picking up the tobacconist, etc.). It also leads man to attempt constantly to prove himself sexually; to attempt to ascertain his masculinity through the sheer number of his sexual conquests (Casanova), to a point which is absolutely dehumanizing not merely to women—who in fact are not really involved at all except as figments of his fantasy—but to himself. And while painting and statues have served in the past to convey and impose the male perception of women, cinema would appear to be the perfect vehicle for conveying these male projections. Thus City of Women, a film which from the incipit announces itself as film, presents one man's oneiric, semi-unconscious and thus semi-involuntary projections. But, given that this is a reflexive film, then what we are shown is not what women are, or even what Fellini believes them to be, as some have argued, but Fellini's admission that the women on his screen, and in fact on any screen are the projections of men's sexual fantasies. The major parallel/analogy between this conclusion and that of 8 1/2 is that in the former the protagonist accepts his past experiences to unblock his artistic creativity; here the protagonist, who can only be the director himself, since it is his projection which we see on the screen, accepts his unconscious fantasies for what they are, and deliberately returns to the tunnel of sleep fully intending to enjoy the stimuli furnished by his reality (in this case the mystery woman seen in the opening shots, Donatella Damiani, and a young woman who has been with her throughout the film).

Donatella Damiani would appear to be the perfect personification and caricature of Fellini's idea of the ultimate woman: she is at once both virgin and whore. Her voice changes constantly, from tones of childlike innocence, to heavily dialectally inflected sounds, full of the wisdom of the gutter; she has a delicate, angelic face, slender legs, buttocks and waist, and BREASTS. Breasts that are so large that they transcend the possibility of desire. So large that the impact on the viewer is not unlike that of the tobacconist's breasts in Amarcord on Titta: they are suffocating, offputting, aesthetically unpleasant, almost ludicrous. And rather than feel lust, one feels sorry for the person so burdened. Fellini seems to be saying, this is what we men want? Fine, I will give us all we want and more. So much more that one can't help but ask oneself if the breasts are in fact real. The even greater projection of Donatella Damiani as the hot air balloon which transports Fellini, raising him on the wings of desire, so to speak, might lead us to surmise that the original Donatella Damiani was somehow fabricated (perhaps by Mario Rambaldi) as are so many of Fellini's most striking images. The further fact that Fellini then has Donatella Damiani, as feminist terrorist, shoot down her own inflated image, suggests that women have a legitimate right to attack this reification of themselves. But, and here we come to the fundamental filmic paradox, Donatella Damiani reappears in the scene which follows, in the train, as Fellini awakens from his dream. Fellini looks at the mystery woman he had met as the film opened, and at Donatella Damiani, and then with a smile he goes back into the tunnel of sleep and fantasy. We are thus confronted with an endless, almost Escher-like image: while women have the right to object forcefully and even violently to their exploitation by men, presumably even in their dreams, men have the right to dream; of course women have the right to shoot down these dreams, which men will promptly embark upon once again.

As the film ends, the opening titles are repeated, suggesting that this is a circular process, that the end of this film is either the beginning of the one we have just seen, or at the very least of a very similar one and that we are thus embarked in an ongoing process of anakuklosis. In other words, Fellini now freely admits that as man he can no more understand women than the Venetians of Casanova could raise the giant woman's head from the lagoon. If there is a light at the end of this tunnel, and in the film there is, I would suggest that it is to be found in Fellini's acknowledgement that, notwithstanding the fundamental and congenital differences between men and women, in some sort of way coexistence is possible, perhaps only and precisely as a result of the awareness of this difference. In addition to St. Augustine's City of God and City of Man (cfr. 8 1/2), now we also have Fellini's The City of Women. With E la nave va Fellini might be said to be repeating himself once more, to be returning once again to one of his major concerns. The issue here is once again power and its abuses, not as it manifests itself in the relations between the sexes, but through the subservience of the news media to various established power structures. The film has two diegeses: on one level we see and hear, eventually, the history of the development of film, from the earliest silent, black and white documentaries to a narrative film shot on the sophisticated sound stages of Cinecittà; on the other we witness the story of the fools traveling on the Gloria N., a luxury liner, at the outset of World War I. The history is depicted by the manner in which the narrative is represented: as the latter opens, we see black and white silent images of the port of Naples in 1914, passers by, and a reporter whose words directed at the camera are expressed through subtitles. Gradually as sound and color are introduced we learn through a sort of ante-videocam roving film reporter that the ship's passengers, la crème de la crème of pre-WWI European society, are on their way to the Aegean island of Erimo to scatter the ashes of Edmea Tetua, allegedly the greatest soprano of all time. Among the participants in this alleged tribute to art are many of the greatest musicians of the era. It soon becomes obvious, however, that their presence on board is a tribute to their vanity, their over-inflated egos, and their jealousy of their rivals. On the ship is also an enormous, lovesick rhinoceros who, significantly, is far more docile than the human cargo.

The narrator—a person who would be charming—is somewhat reminiscent of the narrator of Amarcord. Unlike that avvocato, however, this reporter is a man of singular ignorance who does not merely report the news, he twists, distorts, expands, misinterprets and invents it. He is patently incompetent, but this deters him not in the least. In short, he is both the historical ancestor and the cinematic descendant of Marcello, Paparazzo, and the other Mammon-worshipping reporters of La Dolce Vita. He is also the forebear of television, the medium which, as we shall see in Ginger and Fred, is dedicated to the complete reification of humanity.

Here, as in La Dolce Vita, the reporter is shown to be subservient to all the powers that be, from the major-domo, to the obese and obtuse Prussian Grand Duke Harzock, to random singers, directors, composers, and musicians. But he is not the only subject of Fellini's scorn. The beautiful people on this ship of fools are more concerned with the body odor of the Serbian refugees than with their plight; they and the Austro-Hungarian warship postpone what will become WWI for the time it will take to bury the great soprano, Edmea. Art, presumably, triumphs over the savagery of war. But only briefly.

Once the burial is over everyone goes back to business as usual: the Austro-Hungarians round up the refugees with the assistance of the personnel of the luxury liner. Then, for reasons which remain unexplained, they proceed to shell the liner and eventually sink it. Somehow, for reasons which, according to the reporter, are not clear—even though we see what happens quite distinctly—the warship also sinks. But not everyone is lost: as we might have predicted, the reporter is saved. As the film ends we see him in a large lifeboat accompanied by the gigantic rhinoceros. He tells us rather matter of factly that some passengers were saved by a passing seaplane, others by a boat. Then he brightens noticeably and adds: "Did you know that rhinoceroses produce excellent milk?" This final line is an apt synthesis of Fellini's perception and indictment of the news media. WWI, a conflict which ravaged an entire generation of the world's youth, has just begun; a warship and a luxury liner have both sunk. Apparently only a handful of persons from the latter may have been saved. We know nothing of the fate of the Serbian refugees who were being transferred from the liner to the warship when the conflagration occurred. At this moment, in the midst of these tragedies, all the reporter can think of is rhinoceros milk. The final iris-in of the camera focuses our gaze on two small figures bobbing on a plastic ocean: the reporter and the rhinoceros. I think Fellini would argue that the former is by far the more dangerous.

From the ad for rhinoceros milk, the mind cannot help leaping to that other far more famous ad for milk in The Temptations of Dr. Antonio, to the giant billboard with Anita Ekberg and to what became in Italy a famous jingle: "Bevete più latte, il latte fa bene." While at the most obvious level that film has been seen primarily as an indictment of a certain type of religiously-inspired phobia of sex and women, it is also, rather obviously, an identification if not indictment of the deceptive practices of advertising. But, if in Dr. Antonio Fellini argues for freedom of expression over censorship, by the time of Ginger and Fred he has come to see that advertising destroys both the physical environment as well as the mind/soul through its constant and concerted distortion of all signs—including a likeness of Dante and the opening verses of his Divine Comedy—to ends which can only have utilitarian significance. The poster of Dante is not merely a source of transitory amusement. With his most recently released film in the United States, Fellini returns to his cultural roots and to his most fundamental concerns in a world in which the eye of God has been replaced by the television monitor: the allegory of love and life/form dualism. The Rome he depicts in Ginger and Fred no longer has the organic vitality and vibrancy it had—whatever its other defects—in the flash-backs of Fellini—Roma, in Variety Lights, or in The White Sheik; it doesn't even have the vaguely amused, detached and sophisticated anomie of the Rome he condemns in Fellini—Roma. Here the worst manifestations of the postmodern flattening of events and souls, which he found among the elite decadents of La Dolce Vita, has become the norm among all the social classes. The city resembles nothing so much as the post-apocalyptic Los Angeles of Blade Runner: dingy plastic garbage and mud suffocate streets crowded with pathetic bag-people; the privileged are whisked to and fro in vehicles, their senses sealed from the outer world by the ubiquitous tv monitors; the only signs of life, light and color are generated by the various advertising media: billboards, neon lights, and still more tv monitors endlessly blathering promotional messages interspersed by the occasional soccer match or game show.

As the film opens Ginger (stage name of the allegedly hap-pily married grandmother, Amelia Bonetti) is returning to Rome for the first time in many years to meet Fred (stage name of Albert Light which, in turn, had been the stage name of Pippo Botticella). They have been invited to recreate for a Christmas television special the imitation of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire for which they had become famous many years before. It is clear that, secretly at least, she hopes to recapture the dreams of her youth in the Eternal City. The intertextual echoes of The White Sheik reverberate loudly; notwithstanding a Doppler effect of sorts generated by time, these echoes are recognizable. In that film, the newly married Wanda and Ivan Cavalli are coming on their honeymoon to Rome to find their respective dreams of love and professional success. And while that film indicts both Ivan's expedient materialism and Wanda's naive faith in the dream of love, people in general appear to have genuine feelings. They have feelings which are not predicated only upon artificial contrivances: they care about other people, for better or worse; they lust actively albeit often immorally; they fear for themselves and others; they appear to believe in the importance of their work, no matter how ludicrous it may appear to be.

By the time of Ginger and Fred, the societal and spiritual decay foreshadowed by the crumbling statue in the final shot of The White Sheik has been achieved. Thanks to television, everything has become spectacle, but it is a spectacle performed almost without exception by lifeless zombies in a tyrannical inferno in which vanity, following Dante's laws of contrappasso, has become its own punishment. Form (television) has extinguished virtually every last spark of life. The allegory of love, in both its transcendental and immanent acceptions, has been suffocated by fear and a surfeit of materialist fruition of every kind. Amelia Bonetti, like Wanda before her, has married for security and not for love. Her attempt to recapture the magic of her professional and personal relationship with Pippo Botticella is as futile as Wanda's attempts to find her white sheik in Fernando Rivoli. There is, however, one fundamental difference. While the particular dì di festa towards which Ivan and Wanda had looked with joyous expectation has passed, they continue, albeit somewhat more hesitantly, to dream of the future. This is clearly not the case for Fred and Ginger. They have long since passed the mezzo del cammin of their life. And while for an instant they do catch a glimpse of their bliss as they dance in the TV variety show, their possa (physical strength) and their fantasia (imagination/creativity) (Dante, Paradiso XXXIII, 142), are suddenly gone, as they were for Dante after he had gazed upon and within the vivo lume (living light) (Dante, Paradiso XXXIII, 110).

Fellini's creativity, however, unlike that of his protagonists, is not flagging. On the contrary, following Dante's example, his disio and velle would appear to be moved by "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle" (Dante, Paradiso, XXXIII, 143-45). He continues to work with greater energy than ever, creating a narrative universe which is truly his own. Dipping into the magma of Italian tradition and culture while forging ahead, always on the cutting edge of intellectual pursuit, he transcends the bounds of critical analysis by creating mythical overarching responses to the paradoxical questions posed by the Western perception of reality.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 7 December 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Making the Best of It," in The New Republic, Vol. 207, No. 24, December 7, 1992, pp. 30, 32.

[Kauffmann is an American dramatist, editor, and theater and film critic. In the following review of Intervista, he applauds Fellini's nostalgic and poignant examination of his life as a movie maker.]

Federico Fellini can be called the most naked genius in the history of film. In 1963 he made 8 1/2 a quasiconfessional comedy-drama about the modern artist's torment: he or she is bursting with talent and can find nothing to expend it on. Out of this crisis Fellini made a masterpiece; since then, that same crisis has been often more evident than acknowledged in his work. Then in 1987 he faced it again, without pretense, and made a film although he had no film to make. He simply poured forth his virtuosity for 108 minutes, like a master pianist-composer improvising.

At last, after five years, that improvisation (so to speak) reaches the United States. Intervista is the context of 8 1/2 without its center. The title means "Interview." In it Fellini discloses—though obliquely, gorgeously, wittily—that he is desperate. (In 1969 he made a T.V. film called Fellini: A Director's Notebook; I haven't seen it, but according to accounts it's a much more conventional interview, not an implicit confession.)

In Intervista the framework is a visit to Cinecitta, the large film studio complex outside Rome, by some Japanese T.V. people who have come to interview Fellini as he prepares a picture based on Kafka's Amerika. Peter Bondanella tells us in his book on the director that Fellini had at one time contemplated making such a film, "but by the time he made Intervista, this project had already been discarded." Nevertheless, out of this already-shelved project and the Japanese interviewing, Fellini concocted a script that at least allowed him to film.

For the sake of the T.V. people, Fellini re-creates the beginning of his career—his first visit to Cinecittà in 1940, by tram, a young journalist sent to interview a reigning film beauty. His recreation of this episode, like the entire film, is not presented "straight"; it is intercut with the present, with Fellini's comments, with diversions, and enrichments. For instance, for the tram trip, Fellini presses into service the producer of Intervista, who puts on a Fascist uniform and becomes one of the passengers. The tram takes the young Fellini on excursions that were quite impossible, ending with shots of American Indians and elephants, which announce that they are nearing Cinecittà.

Bondanella quotes Fellini on Intervista:

This pleasant chat among friends represents the ultimate result of my way of making cinema: where there is no longer a story or a script, and not even a feeling, unless it is the feeling, precisely, of being inside a kind of creativity that refuses every preconceived order.

That's putting a bold face on it. His creativity hasn't refused orders: it seems to be seeking orders and, not finding any, pours forth anyway. Out of some of the most banal "backstage" studio clichés, Fellini makes enchantment, wistfulness, fun. The familiar mixture of tap dancers, harem girls, assorted uniforms of various centuries, the mélange of different sets are used here for something more than satire. Fellini never mocks any of it, though he sees the joke. He very obviously loves it all, for at least two reasons. This is where his gifts flourish (as a painter loves the smell of paint); and this fast-moving, irrational mélange embodies profundities.

"What is reality?" "What is 'now'?" These trite though trenchant questions Fellini doesn't need to ask: he knows the answers about as well as is possible. What moves us at Cinecittà, why it is so powerfully mysterious to see a tower of arc lights beam into life against the dark, why the immense space of an empty studio seems to echo even when it is silent, is because here occurs an argument with mortality. The mere fact that film can fix the moment implies that time is rushing by even while the moment is being fixed. Film, with all its fakeries, understands death. This is why nostalgia flourishes so easily in the film world, why the reminders of past Fellini films, which he includes here, seem like antiquity though they are only a few decades gone.

Fellini capitalizes specifically on that truth in a long sequence with Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg. Mastroianni suddenly makes an appearance outside Fellini's office window, elevated by a crane, in heavy makeup and a magician's outfit that he is wearing for a T.V. commercial he is making on the lot. Fellini, who calls him Marcellino, whisks him and others off in several cars to pay a long-postponed visit to Ekberg in her guarded villa outside Rome. The once-incredible Ekberg, now huge as well as tall, welcomes them all, including the Japanese T.V. people. While she is serving roasted chestnuts and wine, Mastroianni, as magician, conjures up a screen and projects a couple of segments from La Dolce Vita with himself and Ekberg—in 1959—including the Fontana di Trevi scene.

Intercut with these glimpses of two of the most beautiful faces ever filmed, we glimpse those faces today, watching their faces then. When the film segments are finished, Mastroianni says to her softly, "Anita, I have so many questions to ask you." We prepare to revel in rue. He continues softly: "Like—do you have any schnapps?" She laughs and goes for the drink, and the joke makes the moment even more rueful. All through the film, Fellini undercuts sentiment with humor, knowing in his wizardly way that this makes the poignancy more poignant.

Ekberg's presence raises the subject of Fellini's view of women, here and elsewhere. It was never as empathic a view as Antonioni's, whose moral protagonists are often women. Even when Fellini uses a female protagonist, as in La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, Juliet of the Spirits, she is a woman who accepts her life as determined by men. Fellini's women are figures, often secondary ones, in a man's world. This may in time date him; but it cannot affect his magic as a portrayer of that world.

Intervista affords one more example of a paradox in Fellini. He has never, to my knowledge, directed in the theater, yet many of his films, including this one, contain theatrical elements—in lighting or view or the idea of entrances and exits. Bergman, who has spent much more time in the theater than in film, has fewer theater elements in his films. Fellini, distant from the theater yet clearly fascinated by its unique properties, has blended them into his ultra-cinematic style. Possibly this theater fascination is connected with his histrionic self. He has appeared in several of his pictures, and in Intervista he is the center, amiable yet enjoying his performance.

He is not the only "self" in the film. We also get glimpses of the marvelous cinematographer, Tonino delli Colli, and the no less marvelous designer, Danilo Donati. This is part of Fellini's impulse to make his film be about itself.

A last note of first importance: as always in Fellini, the music matters. The score by Nicola Piovani acknowledges its debt to the late Nino Rota's scores for previous films; and it touches Intervista throughout with music-hall brio or with the peculiar grip of sentimental tunes—Fellini's cunning awareness that most of our most serious moments these days are bound up with pop tunes.

Vincent Canby (review date 29 October 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Warm Memories and Hot Nightmares Are Etched in Fellini's Singular Vision," in The New York Times, October 29, 1993, pp. B1, B7.

[Canby is a novelist, playwright, and the chief film critic for the New York Times. In the following excerpt from a review of a Fellini retrospective held just before the filmmaker's death, Canby provides an overview of the major films of Fellini's career.]

Now that the Fellini career is approaching its end, one can follow its splendid arc with a certitude not possible before. It begins with the early, bracingly comic, sometimes somber neo-realist black-and-white comedies, and includes the breakthrough with his two black-and-white masterpieces, La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), after which he forever abandoned conventional narrative.

There followed his simultaneous discoveries of color with Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and of the power that the Cinecittà studio facilities gave him. Working within the studio, he could not only manufacture fantastic settings and the weather of his choice, but also remodel the looks of his actors. In the studio Fellini created worlds that never existed, stylized in a way that calls attention to, and celebrates, the artifice of film making in a manner that no director dared before or since.

It was also in the studio in the post-8 1/2 years that he created his cinema of grotesquerie (Fellini Satyricon in 1969 and Casanova in 1976) and of flamboyant remembrance (The Clowns, 1970; Fellini Roma, 1972). On at least one occasion he successfully mixed the nostalgic with the grotesque to come up with the magnificent Amarcord (1973). This is the enchanting memoir of his youth in Rimini, where peacocks appear out of the white blur of a snowstorm and, on a warm dark night, the Rex sails by on her maiden voyage, looking not real but like a boy's dream of a great ocean liner.

In this period, too, Fellini often went overboard in his fondness for bizarre characters: albinos, dwarfs, hunchbacks, the grossly overweight and the painfully skinny. Some call them freaks, though, I suspect, Fellini would not. Today these images seem far less arbitrary and cruel than cartoon-like, as is his depiction of sex. The female sex objects in a Fellini film tend to be as grossly overendowed as the women pictured on postcards sold in joke stores.

They make sex seem ludicrous and removed from love, which is represented by the understated chic of the model-slim Anouk Aimée in 8 1/2. There's always something prudish about sex in Fellini's films, almost anti-erotic, possibly because sex so often has its roots in adolescent fantasies that have nothing to do with love. The characters played by Marcello Mastroianni in both 8 1/2 and City of Women (1980), though self-aware, cannot reconcile their lust with their obsessive search for the ideal (chaste) woman. As a result, the Mastroianni characters are figures of high comedy, rather than tragedy.

The one time that Fellini tried to make such a character tragic, in Casanova, the result was a stillborn, chilly movie, even if it's one of the most exquisitely beautiful ever made. Fellini is a poet of the cinema, but also a great humorist and wit. He can't be solemn for very long without losing his élan; 8 1/2, though a serious consideration of one man's nervous breakdown, is comedy of the revivifying kind, largely because of the ways in which Mr. Mastroianni's Guido so earnestly deceives himself.

La Dolce Vita is a panoramic view of Roman high-life and decadence at a time when the Cold War was real and the threat of the Bomb still haunted a post-World War II generation. That the film remains so wonderfully entertaining today has nothing to do with its once-fashionable take on alienation. Rather, it's the result of the near-tabloid vivacity with which these lost lives are brought to dramatic life….

Fellini had already mapped out his own distinctive cinema landscape by the time he completed The White Sheik (1951), his second film though his first credit as a solo director, and I Vitelloni (1953).

The White Sheik, lambasted by the Italian critics when it opened, is as hilarious as any Italian farce ever made, the mad story of a small-town couple who come to Rome on their honeymoon and are separated, briefly, by the innocent bride's passion for another, quite fictitious man. Even better is I Vitelloni, Fellini's memory of the layabout pals he left in Rimini when he went to seek his fortune in Rome.

In these early films, as in so many that come after, characters are forever taking off down open roads, their hearts high in spite of everything common sense tells them. At night they find themselves in a deserted square, often in a small town, sometimes in Rome, frequently on the point of despair when, possibly, a friendly fire eater, a hooker or a cat wanders by.

After watching these films, one can only feel that Fellini has been deprived by growing up in a land without the Miss America contest. He would be especially pleased, I think, with its talent competitions whose contestants may juggle, tap dance and play xylophones. There are beauty contests in Variety Lights for Queen of the Beach, in I Vitelloni for Miss Siren and in Voices of the Moon for Miss Flour of 1989. The winners are all forlorn.

Fellini also has a curious passion for processions and parades, sometimes religious, often festive, occasionally impromptu. They appear out of nowhere to give new direction to someone who, like the prostitute played by Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria (1956), is at the point of yet another suicide attempt….

After receiving Oscars for 8 1/2 and Amarcord, Fellini this year received an Oscar for his career achievement. Though he hasn't pleased the critics much during this last decade, he made two of his most singular works: the elegant and funny meditation on art and artists, And the Ship Sails On (1983), which features, among other things, a homesick rhinoceros, and Intervista (1987), with Fellini himself on the screen to celebrate his magical years at Cinecittà.

Great films, both.

This is a sad time, but what a grand career.

Richard A. Blake (essay date 4 December 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Arrivederci, Fellini," in America, Vol. 169, No. 18, December 4, 1993, pp. 10-11.

[A Roman Catholic priest, Blake is also an American film reviewer, editor, critic, and educator. In the following essay, he argues that Fellini's Catholic heritage was an important source of artistic inspiration.]

News of Federico Fellini's death on Oct. 31 [1993] at the age of 73 came as less of a surprise than the discovery, a few weeks earlier, that he was still alive. The Maestro had regained the attention of his public during his final illness, beginning with a stroke in August and reaching a climax with heart failure in mid-October. With an irony that only he could appreciate to the full, just as he was preparing to leave this life, a retrospective of his works opened at the Film Forum in Manhattan. He lives on as memory, history, monument.

Clearly, something had happened to Fellini the artist long before his final seasons among us. His latest film, Voices of the Moon, was released in Italy in 1990, and three years have now passed without a screening in the United States. Thirty years ago, in the age of La Dolce Vita (1961) and 8 1/2 (1963), English-speaking critics and audiences would have demanded subtitled, dubbed and sanitized screenings of the latest Fellini before the emulsion dried on the work print. Here was no Alfred Hitchcock, who continued making interesting films into his 70's. Fellini's string of magnificent achievements reached its end when he was in his mid-40's.

Film scholars and biographers will now begin the long, delicate work of trying to discover what happened to the later Fellini. Prosperous and established, perhaps he had grown comfortable, losing both his creative energy and the urge to prove himself, or perhaps, too, he felt he had already said everything he wanted to say, and better than almost any other film maker who comes to mind. Surely he felt the death in 1979 of Nino Rota, his long-time musical collaborator, who provided the ebullient musical scores that are so much a part of the experience of a Fellini movie. Possibly he simply lost touch with his public; certainly his public lost interest in him.

These reflections are particularly poignant for those of us who began to study films seriously in the 1960's. With Ingmar Bergman—whose name veterans of that era invariably link to Fellini's, as though fellini/bergman were one word—he offered legitimacy to the claim that movies could be art. Both directors came out of the experience of war asking serious questions of life, and both turned to theology for answers—for a time. For the religious communities, their films seemed to recast the religious questions of the day in a current vernacular. Moving bravely beyond the negative tone often associated with the Legion of Decency, church people like myself saw in the new films from Europe a magnificent new catechetical instrument that was accessible to the masses and challenging to elites.

Initially, our appreciation of Fellini in exclusively religious terms was in fact too narrowly focused, but it was valid. In the opening of La Dolce Vita, for example, the outstretched arms of a statue of Jesus, borne by helicopter over the city of Rome with all its decadence and emptiness, offered a perfect visual representation of Christ's universal salvific plan. The innocent young girl waving to the hero on the beach in the closing scene repeated the notion that humankind is ever renewed, ever redeemable. Only later did some critics suggest that Christ was in fact leaving Rome, and the voice of innocence had failed to transmit its message to the debauched and exhausted hero. Was Fellini, in fact, offering a vision of despair at the collapse of Christian civilization?

The issue cannot be resolved with certitude, because for an artist like Fellini, the world offers few definitive answers. The films immediately preceding La Dolce Vita do indeed present parables of redemption. In La Strada (1956), Giulietta Masina, his wife of 50 years, plays Gelsomina, a waif who discovers through a conversation with a Christ-figure clown, the Fool (Richard Basehart), a reason to continue living amid her brutal surroundings. Similarly, in Nights of Cabiria (1957), Ms. Masina, this time as Cabiria, an abused prostitute, finds that life holds beauty as well as cruelty. Discovering this pattern in his thinking, however, still does not solve the riddle of La Dolce Vita. Is he simply restating the theme of redemption, or has he explored it, found it wanting and abandoned it?

Earlier and later works offer few clues. Coming out of the neorealist tradition of post-war Italy, Fellini began his career in film as an assistant director for Roberto Rossellini, on Open City (1945). Fellini's own early works retain that grainy, documentary look of his mentor, but Fellini, who once worked as a cartoonist, peopled this somber universe with clowns and comic poseurs. In The White Sheik (1952) and I Vitelloni (1953), his earthy realism was tempered with a genuine affection for his creations. No wonder he could find something redeemable even in the brutal Zampano (Anthony Quinn) in La Strada.

In his later years, Fellini retreated (or advanced) from the teeming streets of Rome and began to explore his own private universe. In 8 1/2 he enters the interior realm of his own mind and tries to document the artistic process by showing how a director, suffocating under the artifice of the studio, recycles his own life into his film. As a gesture of brilliant and self-conscious irony, the film comes to life through his mastery of studio technique posing as the wild, unedited dreams and aspirations of the director's imagination.

So captivated did Fellini become with the world of the imagination that after 8 1/2 he seemed to abandon "realism" more completely with each successive film. In Juliet of the Spirits (1965), he tried to recreate the world of a wealthy, no-longer-young married woman trying to understand her life and her husband. Now working in color, mostly pastels, the images became baroque, an example of set and costume design gone mad. With all its visual excess, watching the film is like hiking through a strawberry sundae barefoot.

With each new film, the images became more grotesque, the action more surreal and the story lines more insignificant. As critics grew impatient with this development, ever more frequently the new films bore the brand "self-indulgent." This may be unfair. At his most outrageous, Fellini was always fascinating to watch; but, at least for my taste, his work offered more delights to the visual palate in small portions, like petits fours for the eyes. The wonderful ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma (1972), for example, is a brilliant anti-clerical satire; but the film, taken as a whole, is like caviar eaten with a rablespoon: too rich, too much. Every Fellini fan has favorite scenes from Satyricon (1969) or Clowns (1970) or Amarcord (1974); but by this time, few could find delight in sitting through the entire work.

Like his critics, Fellini late in his career was showing signs of exhaustion after a prolonged period of excess. In City of Women (1979), Ginger and Fred (1986) and Intervista (1992), the characters try to cover their age and fatigue with memories, and the result is nostalgia. Looking back can be fatal to an artist, since the vocation demands plunging forward, taking risks and running new rapids. In many ways, Fellini simply developed creative rheumatism and ceased to be interesting.

That cruel statement implies no diminishment of Fellini, one of the sublime artists of the century. At the peak of his creative parabola shimmer several genuine masterpieces. His decline, if we may call it that, says as much about his audiences as it does about him. Special effects, created in the laboratory, have dulled our ability to see Fellini's masterly presentation of the grotesque and the lovely. Audiences accustomed to the trivialized corruptions of trivial people each night in made-for-television movies no longer find his portrait of decadence disturbing. Sadly, even Nino Rota's wonderful scores must seem dull to generations wired from childhood into the skull-splitting, mind-rotting electronic mishmash of rock, rap and reggae.

Theologically, the audiences have changed, too. In a world where the notion of sin has become dulled, the drama of redemption loses its poignancy. In such circumstances, Gelsomina, Cabiria and Zampano no longer wrestle in the arena of grace; they merely keep going, since the human struggle for survival or salvation—even for many believers—functions quite independently of the divine. "Being a good person" can become the sole criterion of human worth. Thus, too, it makes no difference if Christ hovers over Rome or prepares to depart from it. Again, even believing Christians today are more inclined to see the workings of grace as arising from within the human person rather than entering from without. Rome will find (or not find) its own "salvation" through its own human devices, whether Christ has departed or was never there in the first place.

As one raised a Catholic, Fellini retained a sharply critical view of the church, and his satire bites close to the bone. Even as the 1950's rolled into the 1960's, the church of Fellini's childhood was beginning its death rattle. Pompous cardinals, befuddled priests and sadistic nuns decorated with yards of starched linen were less in evidence, if only because they were becoming more adept at covering their traces. Even so, Fellini could not escape the images and thought patterns of his childhood. Despite a disaffection from the church, he remained undeniably a Catholic artist.

Fellini surely kept pace with much of his audience by abandoning his theological and religious concerns after La Dolce Vita, but—here is the point of all this—his work became impoverished by his change of focus, and this may be the key to his apparent decline. Like many a "Catholic" artist, Fellini found his most productive source for reflection in his religious heritage, and once that ceased to interest him and his audiences, his work lost much of its vitality. The exuberant but fading Italian religious traditions of ornamentation, spectacle and histrionics provide endless visual material for a film maker, just as the English religious style lends itself to literature, thus giving T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene verbal material by the shelf load. Similarly, their redemptive struggles too may strike today's readers as a bit "quaint."

The world would be much poorer without the films of Federico Fellini. Now that his films can be studied as artistic artifacts in their proper cultural contexts and are no longer subjected to the tyranny of ticket sales and the fashions of the day, we may once again recapture the magic of his imagination and the riches of his thought. Ciao, Maestro, e grazie.

Stanley Kauffmann (essay date 31 January 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Fellini, Farewell," in The New Republic, Vol. 210, No. 5, January 31, 1994, pp. 28-30.

[In the following tribute, Kauffmann discusses the contrast between Fellini's early and late films, their critical reception, and Fellini's unique approach to filmmaking. He also reviews Voices of the Moon and relates some of his personal memories of the filmmaker]

Federico Fellini died in Rome on October 31, 1993. Three days later, Alan Cowell wrote in The New York Times, with appropriate tremolo:

In the studio where he made his movies and his name, Fellini lay in cinematographic state today, the lights soft, the music no more than a whisper, the tenderness of the thousands who filed by his burnished coffin mingling with the ghosts of his creations.

His funeral service was held in a Roman basilica, and, reported the Times, the huge crowd flowed into the piazza outside. Millions watched the ceremony in a live T.V. broadcast. When the coffin was brought in, "applause filled the basilica."

The coffin was then taken back to his hometown of Rimini. Variety reported that, through narrow streets packed with thousands, the coffin was carried from the main piazza to a memorial service, which was held in the theater where Fellini saw his first films and which was featured in Amarcord (1973). "Those marching in the procession applauded without interruption as other people threw roses from balconies." An Italian journalist told me that the Rimini theater is to be converted into a Fellini museum, full of memorabilia, where his films will always be available.

To say that all these events are like scenes in a Fellini film is obvious but incomplete. What they really show is how well Fellini understood his countrymen.

Loved though he was universally, the rest of the world little knew how immensely he was adored at home. When he was given a lifetime achievement award at the Oscar ceremonies in March 1993, after having won four Oscars in previous years, the Italian newspaper L'Unità, the Communist organ, ran a 160-page special supplement about him. This for a director whose works are virtually free of political comment.

Last year the Italian government made a move of recognition. A complete Fellini retrospective was organized by the Direzione Generale dello Spettacolo (with subvention from a coffee company), which was shown in Rome, Milan and Turin. It was playing at the Film Forum in New York when he died, and it has now moved to Tokyo.

Included in the list was his last film, made in 1990 and never released here, Voices of the Moon. (The Italian title translates in the singular: The Voice of the Moon.) Fellini said: "The initial idea came to me after reading Ermanno Cavazzoni's novel, Il Poema dei Lunatici, which is about mad people in Italy." He didn't adapt the novel: it simply stimulated him, particularly since, some thirty years earlier, he had spent five or six weeks with the director of a mental hospital in Tuscany, who lived on the premises.

Voices is not in any sense a clinical study. It's a poetical rhapsody, much more indebted to Leopardi (who is quoted) than to Freud. The central character, played by Roberto Benigni, is a man in a small town, lately a patient in a mental hospital, who wanders gently through that town, often at night by the light of the moon, and who thinks he hears voices from a well. But principal among his adventures are his encounters with the noise and mess of modern life—the intrusions of the media, a tawdry beauty contest—and his madness chiefly manifests itself in his quest for purity and order. (In 8 1/2 the vision in white, played by Claudia Cardinale, tells the protagonist that she has come into his life to bring purity and order.)

He never quite understands the voices from the well. At the end the moon speaks to him, with the voice of a woman in his town whom he has worshiped from afar. She bids him to stop trying to understand those voices, to be grateful that at least he can hear them. In the middle of her remarks, she begs to be excused—a break for a commercial, she says.

Benigni is known here through two films with Jim Jarmusch and the last Pink Panther picture. He is joined in this film, much of the time, by Paolo Villagio, who plays an ex-mayor of the town, gone bonkers with paranoia. Driven loony by the pressures of the world, he now suspects that the most innocent people and objects are conspiring against him.

Villagio is not known here, but both he and Benigni are, said Fellini,

two enormously popular and much-loved stars [in Italy] who have built up an intense relationship of complicity with their audiences. I broke up that complicity completely, smashed their images, destroyed the characters that had made them famous. They deserve my eternal gratitude for accepting that sacrifice. Without them … the film would never have seen the light of day.

This alteration of image can't be seen by non-Italian viewers, even with Benigni, but the experience and dexterity of the two men are patent. Benigni's soft floating and Villagio's dark, overdone ire give a course, a base, to these pathetic meanderings in the moonlight.

Unique though it is in theme, Voices is nonetheless typical of Fellini—in its heterodoxy. He said, "I was totally in the dark while making the film…. I spent each evening writing the next day's scenes on a scrap of paper." If that sounds like ex post facto bravado, which it may be, it suggests the opposite of firm structure: it's investigation—of milieu, mood, character. Think of the other films he made in this (ostensibly) freehand manner: Amarcord, The Clowns (1970), Roma (1972), Intervista (1988). True, some of his clearly structured films, La Dolce Vita (1959) and 8 1/2 (1963), share that freehand style to a degree as Fellini fulfills their designs: but here the style is almost the raison d'être. The odd aspect of these style-centered films is that, in full career perspective, they seem inventions mothered by necessity.

That necessity grows out of the binary nature of Fellini's career. As with many artists, his work falls into periods—in his case, two. From 1950, when he co-directed Variety Lights with Alberto Lattuada, through The Nights of Cabiria in 1957, his films were in the neo-realist mode pioneered by Rossellini and Visconti and De Sica. We can catch glimpses of the subsequent Fellini in La Strada (1954) and Cabiria; but Fellini was intent on neo-realism. His masterpiece of the period, I Vitelloni (1953), is unswervingly neo-realist.

These earlier films are the ones that have by far the closest relation in Fellini to the Second World War—in style, not in subject. Neo-realism was a stylistic response to the war, and his early films are his response to that response. A biographical fact, as well as an aesthetic atmosphere, may be involved. Fellini was not caught up in the war. Born in 1920, he was of age for military service, but, with some ingenuity, he found medical reasons to avoid the draft—whether because he was anti-fascist or non-fascist, as has been conjectured, or simply out of self-preservation. We can't say or judge. But we can hazard that his first group of films, largely concerned with people struggling to survive, was a kind of indirect acknowledgement of the sufferings brought on by the war; and may have been seen by him as a sort of expiation.

Yet it was only when he left neo-realism and turned to quite different social strata, with La Dolce Vita, that we see the emergence of the Fellini whom the world knows best, the baroque, theatrical, gallant stylist. Maturity and self-confidence had much to do with the change, of course, but so did his upward social mobility. Success had come to him; and with success had come that perk so important to serious artists who succeed—the chance to see that success is hollow.

A salient aspect of his second-period films is that, unlike his earlier pictures, many of them have no programmatic narrative or drama. The two outstanding exceptions are La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2; and even with the second of these, Fellini himself has testified to his troubles in finding a program. He said, in an interview in Le Monde in 1990, that he had written a letter of resignation to the producer because he was blank, when he was summoned to a launch party for the picture. "They all raised their cups and drank to my health. 'Dottore, this film is going to be a great one. Cheers!' I almost died of shame." He went back to his office, tore up his letter of resignation, "then filmed the story of a director who can't remember what film he's supposed to be making."

The result was the masterpiece of the second period and, most certainly, one of the best films in world history. But 8 1/2 is the last Fellini film of notable cogency. Most of the rest, scintillating and endearing and invaluable as they often are, are either (seeming) improvisations or adaptations—Satyricon (1969) and Casanova (1976). These two, though they teem with Fellini images, rank low on the Fellini scale. Some of the others, ad hoc though they may appear, are major achievements—Amarcord, The Clowns, Intervista.

Why did Fellini make these free-form films? Here is a speculation. He had cut loose from the people among whom he grew up, had moved from the imperatives of sheer survival to the luxury of melancholy and despair. After his first two films in this contemplative vein he had great difficulty—like Guido in 8 1/2—in synthesizing narrative out of his new social and spiritual environment. Yet he was brimming with talents that he had to use. A post-Guido Guido, he more or less gave up on constructing conventional narratives or dramas and turned to the exploration of his talents in themselves, employing them on memory, not on new experience. His new experience was not as fertile for him as was the past. The past is the real site of Amarcord and The Clowns, of Intervista and And the Ship Sails On (1983). A yearning for the lost orderliness of the past is the dominant key of Voices of the Moon.

Out of these necessities and pressures came the new Fellini form, best described (as others have noted) by a literary term—the personal essay. Samuel Johnson said that doubtless the Lord could have invented a better fruit than the strawberry but doubtless also he never did. We might say, somewhat lower down the scale, that doubtless Fellini could have commissioned scripts of greater cogency but doubtless also he never did. He preferred to make films out of his talents themselves and his remembrance.

In discussions of Fellini, his views on women are recurrently examined. (Two weeks after his death Le Monde ran a cartoon set in Heaven. On a cloud in the lower left sits Fellini in a director's chair, megaphone in hand, a motion picture camera next to him. In the air float starry-eyed, big-busted angels in low-cut gowns. In the upper left corner on another cloud, St. Peter is complaining to God: "Since he's been up here, it's been a madhouse.")

It's worth noting that at least some feminist critics are far from antagonistic. A new anthology of recent criticism, Perspectives on Federico Fellini is helpful on this point. Co-edited by a prime Fellini expert, Peter Bondanella, with Cristina Degli-Esposti, it contains much of interest, including a section on "Fellini, Feminism and the Image of Women in His Cinema."

Two of the four pieces in this section are on Juliet of the Spirits (1965). Teresa de Lauretis, after some thick terminological slogging, seems to find some aesthetic and thematic utility in the film. In a much more enlightening essay, Marguerite Waller dissects several sequences in the film to show how carefully Fellini avoids those Hollywood patterns of composition and editing that treat women as voyeurs' prey. Waller contends that, in the very method of his film, he fights for woman's selfhood, allowing us to see "that Hollywood's highly restricted, patriarchal rhetoric is not the natural extension of the human psyche it is sometimes claimed to be."

Gaetona Marrone's article on City of Women (1980) is more descriptive than analytical, yet is certainly not adversarial. But the surprise in the group is by the rampant feminist Germaine Greer. She had known Fellini somewhat, and in 1988 she was asked by a London magazine to interview him. Greer understands as much about Fellini's female characters as anyone, but this interview has no touch of opposition to his male-gazing; titled "Fellinissimo," it is a carol of adulation. (He asks her why she likes him, and she says something about his teeth and his hands. "He tries another tack. 'What don't you like about me?' 'The fact that you must die,' I say.")

Greer scrupulously includes every compliment that Fellini paid her on her various charms, and we can see that, more than mere egotism on her part, it is the record of a kind of seduction. She knows that, besides his respect for her intelligence, he is pelting her with petals of attentiveness and courtesy. Add to this his attractiveness as a man and his stature as an artist and add further that, after her return home, he telephoned to thank her for interviewing him, and we can see that he has, so to speak, been making a film with her: directing scenes. And she has collaborated.

I don't imply that a feminist as such is, or ought to be, impervious to male attention, but it's almost as if he had persuaded her to discard her militancy during their time together, to allow him to be his Italian-male self, in the most traditionally voluptuous diction. Finally it's not his triumph, it's hers, because she wrote the piece. But she makes it clear that, by his very being, he persuaded her to write it as it is.

What he did fundamentally with her was to perform. This is by no means to say that he was faking: it was part of the truth of his nature to perform. We all do it to some degree, as current psychologists and philosophers constantly remind us, but not all of us rejoice in it as Fellini did. Thus it's not quite accurate to say that he put himself into some of his films (The Clowns, Intervista, Roma): it's more apt to say that he couldn't keep himself out of them. That's why his death gave so many of us an added pang. We were not only losing the artist, we were losing the man.

I spent one day with him, August 11, 1964, on the Roman location where he was shooting a scene of Juliet of the Spirits. I arrived early in the morning to find him in the middle of a large room, while members of the crew bustled around him. He was sitting on a box with a portable type-writer on another box and was busily rewriting the scenes they were to shoot that day.

The morning whirled by, as a short scene with Giulietta Masina and Valentina Cortese was shot and re-shot. (It was cut from the finished film.) Then a lot of us, including the two actresses, went to lunch with him—at the Rizzoli studios, because he liked the polpettine (meatballs) there. He and I talked a great deal during lunch (his English was adequate, my Italian inadequate), mostly about how difficult it was, in these days of deeper psychological understanding, to create credible villains in drama and film. After lunch we all snoozed in various places until the sun moved to the place where Fellini needed it.

But, in all that sparkling Fellini-centered day, something contradictory stood out. He insisted that I meet some of his collaborators. He introduced me to his editor, the other Mastroianni, Ruggero, who disliked any mention of his resemblance to his actor-brother. He told me how closely he worked with Fellini during the shooting of a film, even during its planning. Fellini brought along to lunch his masterly cinematographer, Gianni di Venanzo, but di Venanzo was shy, despite Fellini's asking "Gianino" to speak up.

At the end of the long, marvelous day, as Fellini and I shook hands, he asked, "Why you don't go to see the genius who helps me make my films whatever it is they are?" I asked who that was. "Piero Gherardi." Gherardi, the set and costume designer for Juliet, had also done the same flamboyant work for The Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. (I did try to see him, but he was out of Rome, and by the time I got back a few years later, he had died.) I said I thought he had meant the composer Nino Rota. Fellini threw up his hands and looked heavenward in gratitude.

All this emphasized what is true of every good director but has never been more true of any than of him. One of the signs of a director's talent is his ability to assemble colleagues who are both artists in their own right and seeming extensions of his temperament. It's impossible to think of several Fellini films without remembering Rota's music: it's as if Rota were Fellini in musical form. The clothes and hats and sets that Gherardi designed, the gradations of black and white that di Venanzo found, make us think, "Ah, Fellini!" Dante Ferretti's designs, crowding one after another, are the chief train of interest in City of Women. Tonino Delli Colli's lighting holds Voices of the Moon midway between reality and dream.

These men worked on other director's films, often beautifully, but never better than they did with Fellini. Their contributions to his work, far from lessening our estimate of his genius, only amplify it. He knew how to extend, so to speak, his faculties.

One of the reasons that this article is long is that I dread coming to the end of it. I don't want to, can't, won't "sum up" Fellini. I'll say just one thing. During his lifetime, many fine filmmakers blessed us with their art, but he was the only one who made us feel that each of his films, whatever its merits, was a present from a friend.

R. H. W. Dillard (essay date April 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Federico Fellini and the White Clowns," in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Vol. 18, No. 4, April, 1994, pp. 28-30.

[Dillard is an American educator, poet, novelist, and film critic. In the following essay, he emphasizes Fellini's lasting influence on a generation of filmmakers and comments on the importance of individual, rather than "politically codified," expression in his films.]

Near the beginning of Federico Fellini's Intervista (1988), a very large camera crane is about to rise, wreathed in smoke and artificial moonlight, high above the sound-stages of Cinecittà. One of the camera operators calls down to his director (Fellini being played by Fellini), "Aren't you coming up?" "No," Fellini immediately replies, "I can imagine it from here." The cameraman shrugs, turns to his colleague on the crane, and says, "What did I tell you?"

That brief exchange about sums it up: both the distinctive personal, imaginative, and visionary quality of Fellini's cinema and, at the same time, the response of his detractors, who for years have claimed that his work is composed of predictable and repetitive fantasies, without experiential, intellectual, or ideological content. But, in fact, the only truly predictable thing about Fellini's films over the years was the response of the critics, repeating in chorus "What did I tell you?" or perhaps a Reaganesque "There you go again."

Ideologues and social (as well as socialist) realists have always been uncomfortable with Fellini, so it came as no great surprise when on the day of Fellini's death National Public Radio's All Things Considered trotted out an insignificant critic named Stefan Scheiss (or something very like that) to denounce him, to declare that he was without artistic or social importance, to aver that his work had no influence on the history and development of film art, and generally to "dis" him. After all, Shorty Shrift (or whoever) was just joining a long line of attackers from the right and the left who have accused Fellini of not being politically correct. He was subject throughout his career to Church interference and censorship on the one hand and, on the other, to attacks in the press from Marxist intellectuals, which even led on occasion to actual brawls, such as the one that followed Franco Zeffirelli blowing a noisy whistle to disrupt the ceremonies awarding La Strada a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1954.

Fellini, however, discovered the best way of dealing with his pompous critics: he simply wrote them into his films, made them a part of that cinematic world they despised so much. Think of the sterile intellectuals in his films, the infanticidal Steiner in La Dolce Vita (1959) or the French intellectual Daumier in 8 1/2 (1963) who urges the director Guido Anselmi to achieve that purest of artistic expressions—silence. (Both of them, by the way, in look and behavior, are clearly allusions to Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Boris Karloff in Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat [1935], the intellectual architect who lives in a cold, bare, modernist mansion built on the ruins of the fortress he betrayed in the First World War and who murders his beautiful young wives and preserves them in glass cases to be perfect forever.) Or, in a lighter vein, think of the gloating reporter in 8 1/2 who gleefully says of Guido, "He's lost! He has nothing to say!" Or the woman who says offscreen during the credits of City of Women (1980), "With Marcello, again? Please, Maestro!" Or in The Clowns (1970), Fellini himself, over whose head a glue-filled bucket suddenly drops, just as he is about to tell an inquiring journalist what the "message" of his film is. So it doesn't really matter what Swinger Shift (or whatever) said on NPR; Fellini had already put him in the right place on the great screen of his imagining.

But what does matter is the great difference between the response of Fellini's detractors and that of his enormous and enthusiastic audience—perhaps most clearly stated recently by another visionary filmmaker, David Lynch. "He's just the greatest filmmaker in my book," Lynch said in the January 1994 issue of Interview. "He really understood cinema and all the magical things it can do."

Fellini has always had a large international audience. His films have won four Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film (more than any other director), and he was given an Oscar for his life's work just last year. His influence on other filmmakers is large and international, ranging from Akira Kurosawa to Juzo Itami to Lina Wertmüller to Ken Russell to Bill Forsyth to David Lynch. Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf (1968) and Face to Face (1976) were both strongly influenced by Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits (1965). 8 1/2 has essentially been remade (without credit) at least three times: by Paul Mazursky as Alex in Wonderland (1970), by Bob Fosse as All That Jazz (1979), and by Woody Allen as Stardust Memories (1980). And could Robert Altman ever have made The Player (1992) without Fellini's having shown the way?

What, then, is there about Fellini's films that causes the Stepin Shiftits among the intellectually and ideologically correct so much trouble? First, Fellini was an artist who depended upon individual and particular vision and expression rather than politically codified generalities and stereotypes. There is nothing by today's intellectual standards more offensive (to use a favorite word of the politically correct) than a belief in and commitment to the individual. We are informed by post-structuralists that the individual does not even exist, that it is the culture as a whole that speaks through the individual who is merely conduit for the culture's expression. (Substitute the word "state" for the word "culture" in their writings, and you'll quickly discover why they seem so hauntingly familiar.) We are also informed by deconstructionists that expression itself does not exist, that every decoding is a new encoding, and that the very idea of artistic expression is just another illusion. And so on and so on, each intellectual or ideological coterie imposing its position upon the others and, alas, upon us all.

As Fellini's films progressed from the relatively realistic forms of Variety Lights (1950) and his other early films to the radical forms of the films following 8 1/2—especially those imaginary documentaries like The Clowns, Roma (1972), and Intervista—his commitment to an exploration of his own way of seeing remained constant. Not since the later Dietrich films of Josef von Sternberg—The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935)—has a director transformed the interior of a soundstage into such a completely personal reality. Fellini was an artist determined to reveal his full vision as vividly and completely as possible, to discover the universal in the particular. "I don't want to demonstrate anything," he said, "I want to show it." He would agree with William James that the individual consciousness is "the workshop of being where we catch fact in the making," and certainly James's description of Wordsworth is applicable to Fellini: "that inner life of his carried the burden of a significance that has fed souls of others, and fills them to this day with inner joy."

Second, Fellini was a Christian—an unorthodox one, granted, in trouble with Catholic dogmatists off and on throughout his career, but a genuine Christian believer. He did not believe in the perfectibility of humankind by social, psychological, medical, political, or any other strictly human means. Rather, he believed that all humans are sinners, that all are capable of redemption, and that Providence moves in the world to provide the means of that redemption. His films are filled with angels in unlikely human forms: clowns and tightrope walkers, whores on the beach and lovely blonde young actresses who can play the saxophone, smiling young women who have come to the city to be typists and sexy, smiling feminist terrorists who shoot holes in the ballooning sexist fantasies of bumbling Don Juans. Even a life-size mechanical doll brings a glimmer of salvation to a thoroughly despicable Giacomo Casanova in Casanova (1976). "Good luck to Guido," the neurotic young intellectual played by Barbara Steele says in 8 1/2, and even the Mafioso in Ginger and Fred (1985) has his moment of grace when he wishes good luck to Pippo and Amelia in the darkened television studio. Ginger and Fred and Intervista both take place at Christmas with Christmas greetings managing to transcend the ugliness and loss of values in the world in which they are uttered.

His films are, therefore, comic, even at their darkest. "Remember that this is a comic film," read the note attached to the camera during the filming of 8 1/2, and Dante, the divine comedian, is a presence in so many of the films from La Dolce Vita on. Even those among his characters who seem to reject redemption—Marcello Rubini in La Dolce Vita and the title characters in "Toby Dammit" (1968) and Casanova—are treated by Fellini with a gentleness that can only be a product of his genumely forgiving and loving nature. His attitude toward his characters and their sinful natures is not, then, available or congenial to those who self-righteously proclaim their own virtue while eagerly condemning the failings of others.

Third, Fellini's films are politically and socially honest, rather than correct. His films have always been anti-fascist while at the same time admitting the deep Italian involvement in (or indifference to) fascism. Unlike Bernardo Bertolucci's films in which the fascists are psychotics, like Marcello in The Conformist (1971), or seem almost to have come from another planet, like Attila in 1900 (1977), Fellini's fascists are the people next door or even yourself. Titta, the semi-autobiographical central character in Amarcord (1973), wears his fascist youth uniform proudly if not very seriously, and Rubini, the actor hired to play the young Fellini in Intervista, snaps into the fascist salute as easily as everyone around him. Orchestra Rehearsal (1979) and And the Ship Sails On (1983) don't so much condemn any one side as they reveal the tragic absurdity of having to take sides. No wonder that politically committed critics disapprove so strongly of his films. Being without sin, they are always willing to cast the first stone, apparently not knowing, as Fellini does, that stones can hurt.

Socially, his films are just as honest. "Why do you always have prostitutes in your films?" a reporter asks Guido in 8 1/2. Fellini, perhaps in imitation of Christ and certainly to the consternation of ideologues of both the left and the right, did concern himself with the lives of prostitutes and others who live the low (as opposed to the sweet) life, and almost all of his films concern the near impossibility of honest and equal relationships between men and women. No director has (with the possible exception of Ingmar Bergman) shown more consistently the intensity of the anger and fear that men and women are capable of generating in each other. Juliet of the Spirits is perhaps the finest film concerned with a woman who is abandoned by her husband, only to find that the experience is actually a liberation. And City of Women is, to my knowledge, the only film to explore the confusion of lust and fear that defines contemporary male responses to liberated women. What separates these films from their ideological counterparts (in which women discover that they have no need for or interest in the company of men or men discover their primitive masculine identity by pounding drums around a fire far from women, like comic versions of Edgar Rice Burroughs' apes performing the Dum-Dum) is that Fellini really loved women. Dreaming of a time "when men and women feel so naturally emancipated that they can meet each other in a naturally relaxed state," he nevertheless knew that such a time is a long way off and that love, betrayal, and forgiveness must remain natural allies in all caring relationships between the sexes.

Fourth, Fellini the artist sprang from popular culture and used it in the creation of his art, while recognizing its essential barbarism and its real dangers. When asked to name films that he admired or that influenced him, he was more likely to mention the American films of his childhood—Frankenstein (1931) or King Kong (1933) or the comedies of Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers—than the highly regarded films of his European contemporaries. His films were regularly peopled by circus performers and vaudevillians, street performers and bit players. When the stars did show up, the poets and actors in Fellini Satyricon (1969), the celebrities and beautiful people in La Dolce Vita and "Toby Dammit," the opera singers in And the Ship Sails On, they were shown to be clowns, too—only sadder and more pathetic than the real clowns because they were blinded by self-regard and fame.

But he also recognized the pernicious leveling of values in the modern world caused by advertising and television. From La Dolce Vita on, he showed the omnipresence of tabloid journalism and television to be the first sign of the return of the barbarians to the gates of Rome. Giulietta's husband in Juliet of the Spirits bids good evening to the face on the television with far more feeling and warmth than he shows to any living person in the film—especially to Giulietta. At the end of Intervista, the film crew is attacked by Indians (more European barbarian than American), whose spears are television antennae. In Amarcord Gradisca wastes the actual possibilities of her youth while looking for a perfect and unattainable Gary Cooper, and, during the funeral procession for Titta's mother, the cortege passes large posters featuring Norma Shearer and Laurel and Hardy. Fellini knew that already in the 1930's the reality of the tangible moment was being infected by the intangible imagery of modern technology and that Mussolini and Hitler were very real and dangerous products of that infection. Even Dante was not immune; his head, with the top sheared off and filled with soup, appears on a large advertising poster in the tobacco shop where Titta's sexual dreams are fulfilled in overwhelming ways he is unable to deal with.

In Ginger and Fred, Fellini makes the point most fully. Not only does a puppet Dante in a television commercial find his way out of the dark wood using a compass (and thereby miss his trip to revelation as well), but the modern cult of celebrity with its absurd blurring of values and meaning is at the center of the comedy. "Why is a convicted Mafioso appearing on a television show with artists?" Amelia asks, to be answered by a Queen Elizabeth lookalike who is also scheduled to appear on the show. "He's a star, too." The Bobbitts would be on that show, also, if it were being broadcast today. Fellini, a child of popular culture, knew its limitations in a way that his intellectually snobbish detractors like Signor Squazzi Scitti on NPR do not, for they are sure that they, too, are stars!

Federico Fellini, for all those reasons, then, despite the astonishing beauty of his images and the depth of his feeling for humankind, must remain forever beyond the comprehension or appreciation of those who, bound by ideological or intellectual abstractions, have neither ears to hear nor eyes to see. And what they are missing is what all those people who claim that he never made a love story miss: the simple truth that all of Fellini's films were and are love stories, are acts of love. They must be understood with a lover's comprehension, and, if they are, they will feed your soul and fill you with inner joy.

By the way, for those of you who take offense at my vulgar and insensitive jokes at the expense of the noted critic Steven Shiftless, I advise you to read Fellini's brilliant essay "Why Clowns?" in Fellini on Fellini (1974), in which he explains that when a slovenly Auguste clown (the fool) is confronted with the purity and idealism and authoritarianism of an elegant White Clown, he has no choice but "to dirty his pants, get drunk, roll about on the floor, and put up endless resistance." I confess to being such a fool, and I assure you that Mr. Shaft is an archetypal White Clown. With all the wisdom of the fools, Stephen, here's a big honker for you from Federico!


Fellini, Federico (Vol. 16)