Federico Fellini Fellini, Federico (Vol. 85) - Essay

Tullio Kezich


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

∗Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Edward Murray (essay date 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 3433 words.)

Federico Fellini with Giovanni Grazzini (interview date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 5150 words.)

Pauline Kael (review date 21 April 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 2117 words.)

John Simon (review date 9 May 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1537 words.)

Judith Williamson (review date 14 November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1130 words.)

Frank Pierson (essay date June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1076 words.)

Frank Burke (essay date Fall 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7221 words.)

Ben Lawton (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6077 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 7 December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1241 words.)

Vincent Canby (review date 29 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1002 words.)

Richard A. Blake (essay date 4 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1775 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann (essay date 31 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3046 words.)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2698 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 502 words.)