HOW STRANGE TO BE NAMED FEDERICO
“Either a film has something to say to you or it hasn’t. If you are moved by it, you don’t need it explained to you. If not, no explanation can make you moved by it.” — Federico Fellini (1920-1993)
On the 100-year anniversary of Fellini’s birth in Rimini, 1920, it is timely to commemorate his life and influential career through a brief retrospective that looks at the man who became an icon and some of the films he created so masterfully.
The highly influential Italian filmmaker “with a bold and brilliant visual style” (Farr 2014) joins a league of Italian cineastes who have left an impact on their audiences throughout time, their contemporary societies, and the world at large embracing topics and thematics that are both locally important; striking a chord with Italian cinema goers, and universally relevant. The films by Italian filmmaker heavyweights Fellini, Roberto Rossellini (Fellini’s mentor who made his adept a collaborator on the script for “Roma città aperta”. A year later Fellini would become Assistant Director for Rossellini’s 1946 film “Paisà”), Vittorio De Sica, the Taviani brothers, and Piero Paolo Pasolini (a controversial filmmaker who after a tumultuous life met with a very violent death) can be revisited and reinterpreted by audiences in and outside Italy time and time again. Partly timeless in character these visual narratives, the characters and the filmic plots are both steeped in Italian traditions and at the same time speak to the world outside Italy. The fates met by the characters at different moments in time could equally be faced by individuals and people across the world and some of Fellini’s protagonists become stereotypes with universal traits.
Promoted by the gigantic and highly successful and prosperous Cinecittà media apparatus, the largest film studio in Europe and originally built in 1937 to revive the Italian film industry and with Benito Mussolini himself inaugurating the studio, directors like Rossellini and Fellini celebrated Rome then and now in visual narratives that have gone to cinema history and that explore the Italian psyche while drawing a link between the individual and their environment. In some of these movies celebrating, in part, Italian grandeur, Rome becomes a character in its own right but while Rosellini’s “Roma città aperta” (“Rome, Open City”) develops in line with neorealist criteria, Fellini’s “Roma” (1971) is a more scattered or fragmented portrayal and representation of the Italian capital; one where many of the city’s main locations and monuments turned tourist attractions are revisited as replicas of the real place. As argued by Peter Bondanella in his important study on “Italian Cinema from Neorealism to the Present”,
‘For Fellini, the cinema exists solely for the purpose of individual self-expression; fantasy, rather than reality, is its proper domain, because only fantasy falls under the director’s complete and absolute artistic control. ‘Cinema entails expression, not the communication of information, and therefore its essence is imagery and light. To guarantee control, Fellini prefers to work within the massive studio complex of Cinecittà where he manufactures his own version of the outside world.’
Guided by a vivid imagination, Fellini chose to break with the preceding cinematic neorealism, exploring, instead, the deep crevasses of his own mind and creating narratives that move between reality and a dreamlike state, where characters step in and out of scenes that take us from past to present and back again and that interconnect the many different periods and eras of Italy’s – and Rome’s history. On a number of occasions Fellini creates a snapshot of Rome with its many sights and locations and introduces us to the diverse groups and characters that inhabit this bewilderingly intoxicating, chaotic city often highlighting the parodic or burlesque aspects of human nature.
Yet Fellini refrains from calling his films autobiographical, stressing that ‘it is not memory that dominates my films’ but that he has invented everything. Rather, his films take us on a grand tour of Italy and Rome where the dialogue between past and present includes an ongoing conversation or juxtaposition between ancient history, Christianity, modernity and the present – as visually demonstrated in the opening scene of “La Dolce Vita” (1960) where the three epochs or eras are all represented within the same frame.
Considered one of the finest films in Fellini’s oeuvre, “La Dolce Vita” perfectly aligns the aforementioned three elements: Ancient Rome, Christianity and more a-religious, sensual modernity and takes us on a visual guided tour through some of the most celebrated locations in the Italian capital. The film features the critically acclaimed nocturnal bathing scene in the Fontana di Trevi where Swedish muse, from thereon also embraced by Italians, Anita Ekberg makes a busty entrance as temptress Sylvia striding into the water in a confidently sensual manner. Even if she oozes sensuality, the seconds prior to entering the fountain she maintains a sense of innocence through a tiny kitten positioned on her head and in her hands. She soon visually seduces Roman gossip columnist Marcello Rubini (played by his namesake Marcello Mastroianni, one of Fellini’s lead actors) who would later himself fall prey to the media in an ironic turn of events that sees him exposed by sensationalistic tabloid magazines. Curiously, this film is said to have given rise to the term paparazzi, coined after Rubini’s photographer friend Paparazzo (Walter Santesso).
“La Dolce Vita” is accompanied by other Fellini masterpieces: “I Vitelloni” (1953), “La Strada” (1954), “Nights of Cabiria” (“Le notti di Cabiria”, 1957), “8” (“Otto e mezzo”, 1962), “Juliet of the Spirits” (“Giulietta degli spiriti”, 1965), “Fellini: A Director’s Notebook” (“Block-notes di un regista”, 1968), “Fellini Satyricon” (1969), the phantasmagorical film “The Clowns” (“I Clowns”, 1970), aforementioned “Roma” (1971), and “Amarcord” (1974). Importantly, Fellini would cast his wife, actress Giulietta Masina in several movies, starting with “La Strada” and later also in “Nights of Cabiria”, “Juliet of the Spirits”, and “Amarcord”. It is said that the recurring evocative soundtrack by Nino Rota in some of Fellini’s movies would have such an impact on the actress that she asked for his music to be played at her funeral five months after her husband’s death in October, 1993. In one of Fellini’s more recent classics, “Ginger and Fred” (1986), Marcello Mastroianni would join forces with Giulietta Masina, joining up in a visual tribute to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
Federico Fellini, winner of five Academy Awards throughout his prolific career (including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for “Nights of Cabiria”, in 1958), has earned a special place in cinematic history through films that reflect his own unique style ‘a highly idiosyncratic and surrealist world of images and dream fantasies’ (Bondanella 2004), as evidenced in, e.g., the voyeuristic, surreal and highly controversial “La Città delle Donne” (“City of Women”, 1980). The film has been viewed as an ode to feminism and a stereotyped, shallow portrayal of women all at once.
A filmmaker who stirs, seduces and impresses audiences worldwide Fellini created movies shot in a highly auteurist vein. He defied cinematic traditions and combined references to different beliefs, people, places and eras in a refreshing and ground-breaking manner. His films have stood the test of time and count as some of the most masterful and aesthetically expressive made in our contemporary times. 2014 saw a respectful and enlightening tribute to Fellini by fellow filmmaker Ettore Scola, “Scola racconta Fellini (Che strano chiamarsi Federico)” that serves to further understand a filmmaker who started off at a young age, was provided the right guidance then shot off to directorial fame having discovered his own particular and idiosyncratic style. With films that embrace different narrative styles Fellini opens our eyes to a new way of thinking and presents us to a world that steps away from the norm – paving the way for a whole range of exciting possibilities.