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.'
ideal film would be ninety minutes of the life
of a man to whom nothing happens."
Zavattini, screenwriter and founding member of
Italy's economy experiences a boom like never
before. Among the newly emerged jet-setters, Rome
is an international capitol.
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.
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 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.)
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."
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
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
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
—Daniel Talbot of New Yorker Films, discussing
Fellini's City of Women
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
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.