Federico Fellini was a celebrated auteur but don't let that put you off. As James Oliver explains, he was a lot better than that musty description allows.
Let's be honest: “art house” film can sometimes seem a bit daunting. It has, after all, a reputation for gloom and high seriousness: the sort of thing that clever people in black polo necks like to talk about while drinking expensive coffee.
Well, it would be a shame if that was to put you off the work of Federico Fellini. It's true he is amongst the greatest of directors—an “auteur”, even—but he’s one of the most accessible (and likeable) of the front-rank filmmakers.
He made films to lose yourself in, grand indulgences that celebrate life's joys, while never denying that there is sometimes pain. A consummate craftsman, he’s responsible for some of the most famous images of the 20th century (that woman taking a dip in the fountain at night? That was one of his). And don't take my word for it: Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson are just three directors whose work would be very different if they hadn't learned from the maestro.
Beside the seaside
Fellini was a provincial lad, born in 1920 in Rimini, a coastal resort in northern Italy (as you no doubt already knew).
Papa Fellini was a salesman but young Federico had other ideas; he hightailed it to Rome as soon as he was old enough, officially to study law but hoping to become a cartoonist.
Nevertheless, the lure of the old home town remained strong—strong enough to inspire two of his very best films. I Vitelloni (1953), his second (solo) film as director was a semi-autobiographical account of aimless young men in a seaside town much like the one he knew so well.
Better yet was Amarcord (1973), a nostalgic saucy postcard of a movie about his memories of growing up; Fellini at his most carefree and loveable.
Roma and Rossellini
Fellini with Roberto Rossellini
Fellini pitched up in Rome at a bad time: September 1939. Mussolini was still in charge and a war had just been declared. Drat.
After dropping out of his studies, he found work at a newspaper, eventually working on the show-business section. This brought him into contact with film professionals and, in between trying to avoid getting drafted, he began to work on screenplays.
Here he met Roberto Rossellini, who invited Fellini to help him write a film that would—without exaggeration—change cinema. This was Rome, Open City (1945), the founding text of what would become known as “Neo-realism”, rejecting Hollywood glamour for stories drawn from real life (in this case, the Nazi occupation of Rome.)
Further work for Rossellini followed—most notably, Paisa (1946) (another war movie, this time six vignettes of Italians encountering Americans) and by 1950, he was one of the most successful screenwriters in Italy.
Bored of working for other people, he decided it was time to start directing his own movies. His first effort, Variety Lights (1950) (co-directed with the more experienced Alberto Lattuada) flopped. So did his next, The White Sheik (1952). But then came I Vitelloni (see above)—a box office success. His future was assured.
La Strada (1954)
Having emerged from Neo-realism, everyone assumed Fellini would continue in that vein, but there was always more than just a drop of the showman in Fellini—as a little boy, he lived for the circus and he hadn't changed so much as an adult.
His breakthrough film developed this more fully; on one level, La Strada (1954) could be called vaguely Neo-realist: a simple young woman is sold to a brutish travelling strongman played by Anthony Quinn, to help him in his act. The ending is tragic but along the way, the director indulged in spectacle and comedy. For his troubles, he won his first Oscar (for best foreign language film).
The simple young woman, by the way, was played by his most important collaborator, Giulietta Masina aka, Mrs. Fellini (they'd married in 1943). This wasn't nepotism, though—she was a distinguished actress even before their nuptials, and those films of his in which she appeared are quite unimaginable without her.
Hollywood on the Tiber
La Dolce Vita (1960)
By the late 1950s, Rome had shaken off the effects of The War; even if the rest of the country was still re-developing, the eternal city radiated glamour, helped in no small measure by the number of American movies shooting locally. “Hollywood on the Tiber”, they called it then.
What has this got to do with our boy Federico? Well, in 1960 he made a film about this phenomenon. It was called La Dolce Vita and, like Rome Open City, would change cinema. It's impossible to describe without using words like “cavalcade” or “carnivalesque”—any lingering doubts that Fellini was still a Neo-realist at heart were dispelled by the swirling parade of beauty and decadence he orchestrated. The woman-in-the-fountain mentioned above? She can be found here.
It was not just a huge hit—the biggest of its director's career—it also put the wind up the Vatican: they gave Fellini a proper ticking off for this dissolute masterpiece. Its debauchery looks rather more tame these days but it still endures. It's a movie about the allure of celebrity culture but also the vapidity of same, a theme that remains all-too topical.
Being Federico Fellini
How do you follow a movie that changed culture and arguably set the pace for the decade that followed? Fellini certainly didn't know—he had a bad case of director's block.
That would change one day at the studio, where he was shooting aimlessly, hoping an idea might emerge. A stage-hand pointed out that the film—if he ever made it—would be his eighth-and-a-half, the fractions being the shorter works he had made. And just like that, the light bulb went off...
Once again starring Marcello Mastroianni (who had played the lead in La Dolce Vita and was, by now, the director's alter ego), Fellini made a film about a celebrated director struggling to follow his biggest hit, distracted by his memories, his daydreams, his womanising and by guilt over his womanising. It would be called 8½ (1963) and any resemblance between any persons living or dead... was probably quite deliberate, actually.
8½ encouraged Fellini to make further memoirs (or, at least, quasi-memoirs: don't expect anything too straightforward). In addition to the previously mentioned Amarcord, there was the wonderful Roma (1972), about his early years in his adopted city and how it had changed since. Another masterpiece, it might be his most underrated film. (It's either that or Il Bidone (1955), his downbeat movie about petty criminals.)
After 8½, Fellini's films became ever more lavish. He took to colour with Juliet of the Spirits (1965), about a bored housewife—Masina—and her flights of fancy, while Satyricon (1969) was essentially an Ancient World version of La Dolce Vita (only more excessive).
But as they became more lavish, so they became more divisive. While loyal fans applauded his cinematic extravagance, his critics moaned he was laying it on a bit thick. The later films—those after Amarcord—come in for quite a lot of stick and, to be fair, they sometimes deserve it (The Voice of the Moon (1989), his last film, is proper rotten).
However, there are parts of Casanova (1976), City of Women (1980) and Intervista (1987) that rank amongst the best things he ever did. Had anyone else made them, they would be cheered from the rafters.
It's just a shame that he didn't go out on a high; after The Voice of the Moon (which, to repeat, is not good), loyal disciple Martin Scorsese was helping him get another film into production but it was not to be: he died in 1993, on Halloween. Masina, to whom he had been married for 50 years, died only five months later.
It says much about Fellini, and about how much the Italian public loved him, that his body was laid in state like actual royalty, so people could file past and pay their respects, which they duly did in their droves.
But then, he was a major artist, and one who had an incalculable influence on cinema, opening it up new vistas of personal filmmaking, and celebrating imagination and fantasy. La Dolce Vita and 8½ at least are regulars on those best-films-of-all-time lists and there are others that deserve to be.
Forget all that, though: it makes his work sound more demanding than it is. You should watch his films not because of what critics say but because the best of it remains enjoyable and moving, touching and funny. A great director? Oh, he was much more than that.
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