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Variety Lights


Nights of Cabiria


8 1/2


Juliet of the Spirits




And the Ship Sails On



Remembering Fellini

1945. Italian cinema, like so much else in that defeated country, is in ruins. For a while, the Allies control the studios. Then a group of artists—Federico Fellini, Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti—emerges from the ashes and begins producing a new sort of film. It emphasizes simple people in simple, realistic plots and settings. Although it produces only a relatively small percentage of Italy's films, the movement strikes critics, who label it 'neorealism.'

"The ideal film would be ninety minutes of the life of a man to whom nothing happens."
Cesare Zavattini, screenwriter and founding member of Italian neorealism

1950s. Italy's economy experiences a boom like never before. Among the newly emerged jet-setters, Rome is an international capitol.

1960. Fellini directs La Dolce Vita, a film that distinguishes him from the neorealists and provokes the ire of his fellow Italians, who see it as a moralistic assault on their new-found wealth. Fist fights break out; the film is condemned by the Catholic church for its amorality. Others are simply repulsed by Fellini's acerbic take on Italy's 'sweet life.' But everyone attends the film, and Fellini's career skyrockets.

"A vast panorama of the Roman countryside. To one side are the ruins of the San Felice aqueduct, towering arches that come striding across the land. Two thousand years ago these arches brought water to the city, but now there are many gaps where whole sections of the aqueduct have fallen in. Directly in front is a soccer field, the goal posts dwarfed by the height of the aqueduct. In the distance the sound of motors is heard. A speck in the sky grows rapidly larger. It is a helicopter, and beneath it is a hanging figure. A second helicopter follows closely behind. As the copters pass over the field the figure suspended below can be clearly seen. A larger statue of Christ the Laborer swings from a cable. The shadow of the copter and this incongruous figure flashes across the walls of the aqueduct...."
— the opening scene in the screenplay for La Dolce Vita

1963. Fellini directs 8 1/2, a film about a troubled director's inability to complete a film. It is immediately judged a masterpiece.

Perhaps better than any other major director before him, Federico Fellini uses 8 1/2 to explore what it means to be an artist. It's a necessarily self-referential act. At some point, once autobiographical experiences are exhausted, the artist turns his attention to the process of dredging up manufactured experience. This is the defining mechanism for most of Fellini's films after 8 1/2: first they look inward at memory, and then they turn back to watch the self look inward.

Ultimately, there is even a third step: filming the director filming the self look inward. It's a late stage, of course, undertaken first in 1968 and pursued until his second-to-last film, Intervista, in which Fellini will film a magazine crew interviewing him. (In fact, Fellini will appear as himself in four films—A Director's Notebook, The Clowns, Fellini Roma and Intervista.)

"I am not a censor, a priest or a politician. I dislike analyzing. I am not an orator, a philosopher or a theorist. I am merely a storyteller and the cinema is my work. I have invented myself entirely: a childhood, a personality, longings, dreams and memories, all in order to enable me to tell them."

Mid-1960s—1970s. Fellini's reputation begins to slip somewhat. His new works seem to be spectacles as much as stories, and critics begin to wonder whether he might finally have slipped forever into that thin crack between the camera and its subject. It is, needless to say, a place from which one pays little attention to the audience.

Indeed, in such works as Fellini Roma and Fellini Satyricon (the first titles into which he slips his name), Fellini seems to be so fixated on the sets and costumes that he forgets to advance his plot in a timely fashion. Fellini had always flirted with episodic structures and had often been accused of meandering through his films like a Sunday shopper killing time. But now he lingers not over nuances of character or plot; more often than not, it is color that makes him stop and ponder.

Of course, that is not to say that the new works don't intrigue. They do. But among critics, Fellini finds himself increasingly marginalized. Indeed, his films of the next decade will gain him little or no notice at all—critically or financially.

"The picture had no financial justification. Here [in the United States], it played in less than fifty theaters, and of those, six provided 75 percent of the earnings. I don't know what Gaumont or Fellini could have expected with that kind of personal film."
—Daniel Talbot of New Yorker Films, discussing Fellini's City of Women

1995. Had he not died on Halloween Day, 1993, Fellini would have been turned seventy-five January 20th. To mark the anniversary, several well-known directors pay their respects with appropriate statements of respect and even worship. Several critics, once scathing or indifferent, pile praises onto Fellini's later work.

In one of the more touching statements, Akira Kurosawa, himself now old and frail, calls Fellini "an elder brother." It is an intriguing image: Fellini as an elder brother. There is certainly about his work a sense of confidence and brash exploration that becomes an elder sibling. But where is the paternalistic advice? Where is the sense of protectiveness?

Ingmar Bergman is possibly the cinema's greatest elder brother because he is forever dwelling on the vagaries of morality and our proper relation to God (if such a thing exists). Fellini, I think, is more like an eccentric uncle. Fun to be around on vacation, but not a terribly good role model. Unless you happen to be a film director.

Then he's the best.

—Review by Woody Arbunkle



The Feature-Length Films of Federico Fellini

Variety Lights (1950)

The White Sheik (1952)

I Vitelloni (1953)

La Strada (1954)

Il Bidone (1955)

The Nights of Cabiria (1957)

La Dolce Vita (1960)

8 1/2 (1963)

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

A Director's Notebook (1968)

Fellini's Satyricon (1969)

The Clowns (1970)

Fellini's Roma (1972)

Amarcord (1973)

Fellini's Casanova (1976)

Orchestra Rehearsal (1979)

City of Women (1980)

And the Ship Sails On (1984)

Ginger and Fred (1986)

Intervista (1987)

The Voice of the Moon (1989)



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