Federico Fellini is as important a filmmaker as any in history. His films are the carnivals of our lives, dreams and fantasies of the internal struggles we face. Fellini’s career started in neorealism cinema, after World War II, capturing the grim, realistic life of struggling Italians. Fellini found his greatest success in the surrealism of the 1950s onward, the inner workings of the human psyche and manifestations of the subconscious. Fellini filmed the internal world of his actor’s exterior lives. The imagery of Fellini is circus-like, episodes that blur reality and fantasy, that either represent his character’s inner conflict or project a future course, pulling them to make fantasy a reality.
Fellini started out as an assistant to Roberto Rossellini. Vittorio De Sica was the most famous Italian director of the times, the gold standard that younger directors aimed. His contemporaries were Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni and Sergio Leone.
Fellini’s often targeted the hypocrisy of the church and the government, both seemed to fight for the soul of the man. Fellini often came back to the youthful pleasures of life, especially with grown men who hang onto the it well after it starts to screw up their adult lives, women who also struggle between being a whore or a woman of respect and trying to shed themselves of men who betray them, or climbing to a successful place in life to realize it is often hollow.
Fellini’s films were often about his own youth, as well as his painful adult struggles. A Fellini lead character did not have an easy time of life, they were racked with guilt, indecision and confusing bouts of sanity/fantasy.
I signed up for a Fellini film course at my local university. After the first session, where we looked at scenes from I Vitelloni and several sections of a Martin Scorsese documentary on Fellini, I felt like I had to dig deeper, so I gathered some films. Seven Fellini films screened over seven days. Take the ride with me.
I Vitelloni (1953)
After the failure of The White Sheik (1952), this was a rebound for Fellini. Probably autobiographical, it concerns five young men in their small Italian town. The men are adrift in what to make of themselves, even though one of them is now married. They still chase skirts and fight growing up. These are men approaching age 30.
Fausto, the married one, continues to pursuing women even though he is now married with young child. He is reckless in his womanizing. He even pursued the wife of his boss and is fired. He and his wife’s brother even steal a statue, but get caught. His wife eventually has enough and leaves with the baby. Now frantic because he can’t find her, searching the town, he finds her at his father’s house. He father beats some sense into him and he rejoins his wife, hopefully a bit more grown up.
The film ends with his wife’s brother leaving town. Perhaps the only one of the five to grow up.
Fellini did base the story on some of his memories. This film was praised for being a great example of neorealism, showing the struggles of the younger and older generations.
Martin Scorsese said it influenced his film Mean Streets.
Fellini received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay. His direction was sharp, the scenes were well-composed and his camera did more than just stay stationary. You can see his editing style developing, it brought excitement to his storytelling. There was fun in his film, a lightness and a bit of mischievousness. A lot of Fellini showed up on the screen.
La Strada (1954)
La Strada means the road, in this case working the road as a street performer. Fellini cast his wife, Giulietta Masina, as a young woman who is sold into servitude as a replacement for her sister, who recently died. Fellini has said that the idea came from his memories, as did many of his films.
Many of Fellini’s films involve some sort of circus or dream sequences of performers, as an offshoot of inner fantasies or subconscious desires. The street performer in the film is a strongman, who Gelsomina (Masina) works for. Later on, they join a circus.
Anthony Quinn plays Zampanò, the strong man, and Richard Basehart is Il Matto, the Fool, his a high-wire and trapeze performer, who Zampano hates, and later kills.
In the beginning, Gelsomina tries to like Zampano, she even tries to love him, but he is a brute and hits her. Gelsomina is a simple, but very happy person. She becomes part of his act and displays a Charlie Chaplin type quality with her eyes and optimistic manner. She wants to please. She tries to leave Zampano but he finds her and she almost surrenders to him. The Fool crosses paths with them and he angers Zampano, he kills him when his anger gets out of control. Gelsomina withdraws from him emotionally, to the point where he wants to send her home. Instead, he abandons her on the side of the road.
Years pass and Zampano has rejoined the circus. In a town where the circus stops, Zampano hears a song that Gelsomina used to sing. He asks the woman about where she heard it and it turns out it was Gelsomina who taught it to her. He asks about Gelsomina’s whereabouts and finds out that she died. Zampano gets drunk, in a fight, and collapses on the beach in tears. Everything he touches has died.
It is a sad film, everyone is struggling, it is after the war and people scrape by, like selling their kids. People do find small pieces of happiness in the traveling shows and the circus, which helps separate them from the harsh realities of life. Even Gelsomina, who did not have a very good life, found little bits of happiness until Zampano took it away from her.
The film won a slew of awards including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and Fellini was nominated for his screenplay.
La Doce Vita (1960)
Fellini’s most dynamic film. The most iconic images. The opening helicopter scene with the Jesus statue underneath, carrying it over Rome. Then the frantic gathering of the paparazzi. Later, the American actress (Anita Ekberg) arrives and will eventually step into the fountain, where she will be joined by Marcello Mastroianni. Ekberg in the fountain, there is not a lovelier image in film.
Mastroianni is Marcello, is a journalist, though really a gossip writer, who is part of the paparazzi, in an existence that he wants to shed. His work, his girlfriend, his moral constraints, all bore him. His girlfriend Emma wants the safe life of marriage and children, like Marcello’s friend Steiner, he has the perfect, sensible life. Marcello is unfaithful to her. They are constantly fighting, Emma overdoses, and Marcello gets her to the hospital. Marcello is drifting between his boring life of writing about the beautiful, exciting people, and living as one of them. He dabbles in the life of Sylvia, the actress, climbing into the fountain with her, and the wealthy at their parties and acting out their fantasies.
“The sweet life” is the life Marcello wants, to be a serious writer, with a woman who does not cling to him, and to belong at the ritzy parties he attends as a guest. Steiner seems to have what he wants, but Steiner shocks everyone by killing himself and his children. It is Marcello that must wade through the jackals of the paparazzi to inform Steiner’s wife.
Rome as depicted in the film was undergoing a huge cultural and economic transition. In 1960, Rome would host the Olympic Games and there was a lot of construction going on, as seen in the film. Vast apartment buildings were going up in the shadow of the Coliseum and other ancient architecture. These were hip, modern times and the film draws the juxtaposition Rome’s past and the fast society and new morality swept in by the 1960s.
Mastroianni and Anouk Aimée were among the actors Fellini often collaborated, appearing in 81⁄2 and La Doce Vita together. When Fellini first met with Mastroianni, he has made 30 previous films but none he considered serious film roles. Lina Wertmuller, an assistant director on the these films, called Fellini and Mastroianni to be rascals, little boys trapped in grown men. Many critics called Mastroianni, Fellini’s on-screen persona.
8 1⁄2 (1963)
A film about a creatively and emotionally stifled film director, starring Marcello Mastroianni, as a Fellini-esque character, Guido Anselmi. This film is often listed as Fellini’s greatest film. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The film is full of surrealism, fantasy and dream sequences, much like other Fellini fare.
Visually, the film is striking in its composition, the seamless episodes joined together in a very loose narrative, going in and out of reality, to underline Guido’s descent into chaos.
Fellini assembles a great cast including Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée and Sandra Milo. Fellini seems to work quite wonderfully with women. Mastroianni was a frequent collaborator and he is remarkable aloof and a victim of his own creative and emotional over-reach. Guido has built his life and career on a house of cards, sooner or later, it will collapse on him, and it does here.
Guido is searching for inspiration, as the women in his life begin to want more than he can deliver. The film he is suppose to be shooting is delayed while he figures out what he is supposed to do. Not even in his his subconscious can he find the answer.
I must admit, I was a bit disappointed in the film. Yes, it is a great film, but it is almost as empty in the center as Guido is. Perhaps if I see it a couple of more times, the center will fill in for me.
Juliet of the Spirits (1965)
Fellini cast his wife, Giulietta Masina, as Giulietta, the bored and dependent wife, who is unhappy with her life and her cheating husband.
It’s in color, Fellini’s first, and there is a lot of music, always a strong suit of Fellini. After several bigger films, this is a film about a family. That doesn’t mean fewer people or less conflict.
It’s the mid 1960s, a world of colors, middle aged success and high living. Juliet has a good life, all the trappings of happiness, except that she’s unfulfilled. You should be happy instead of having to think about whether you are happy.
Even though this isn’t neorealism, Fellini interjects dreams and fantasy to test Juliet’s resolve. Her husband wonders right under her nose. He calls out another woman’s name in his sleep. He denies knowing anyone by that name. She is at a point where she is given advice about making herself more attractive.
With her friends she attends some sessions on hypnosis and the Kama sutra. It is a challenge for her to open up to the ideas at first. The images and frankness repulse her.
Her dreams take her on some strange trips. She is introduced to sangria, the drink in one of her classes.
Giulietta finds herself thinking about another man. She believes her husband is involved with someone else. She hires a private detective.
Her next door neighbor is rather freaky in her sexual behavior and lifestyle.
This is the karma wheel’s reaction to a conventional and slightly repressed life.
The private detective confirms a girlfriend. Juliet visits her next door neighbor, but she runs away. She goes to the girlfriend’s home, but has to settle for talking to her on the phone, but never meets her. At home with her husband, he is getting ready to leave on a trip. He admits there is something going on and he needs some time to think. He never fully admits an affair and she never confronts him about it.
Giulieeta undergoes a series of haunting vision after he leaves. She can’t tell fantasy from reality but it starts to become clear to her, and the haunting fantasy people leave, saying she doesn’t need them anymore. She walks out of her house, smiling, walking toward her neighbors, free from the chains holding her back.
Winner of the Golden Globe and New York Film Circles awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
Fellini Satyricon (1969)
Loosely based on the reign of Nero, the film, as many Fellini films are, divided into episodes. Sandals and swords, totally decadent. That’s about all that I got out of this film.
I watched the film and numerous special features about making the film and Fellini talking about his work, but I still walk away shaking my head about this film.
Petronius in Nero’s court leads us through the recreational pursuits of the film. The film was based on Petronius’ books. It was an unusual society. Fellini converts the story for making statements with the late 1960s culture revolution of moral excesses.
This is not really a history lesson. The subject matter is a struggle for me. Skip this film.
Amarcord may have been Fellini’s last great film. It was bestowed the 1973 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Amarcord was Fellini’s ode to his home own. At first, I felt this film was a bit overrated. The film’s construction is typical Fellini episodic, and lacking in a coherent structure. I watched it again the next day and the holes in the structure filled in for me. The film covers about one year, from the end of winter, through the summer, and finishing at the end of winter.
Amarcord means “I remember,” which are Fellini’s remembrances. In the film’s special features, it is explained how Fellini developed the film around his own youth and hometown. Fellini kept a distance from his own hometown until late in his life, when he accepted their invitation to visit and ended up dying there.
The village in the film is filled with odd characters, young men who fawn over voluptuous women, men who do the same thing, the battle by the church and the fascist government over the soul of the villagers, and the women who run the men. This is pre-war Italy, where life is tough, but there is a generally good life in the village. Most of the villagers accept their fate, even if they don’t completely understand it. The church punishes them for their sexual thoughts, making sex dirty and that much more desirable. The fascists demand obedience, anyone who does not blindly celebrate its virtues is punished. In years ahead, Italians will see through the fallacies of II Duce, but not of the church.
The film nominally revolves around young Titta, entering puberty, who displays the sexual frustrations with his friends, who worship the voluptuous older women of the village. The film is full of Titta’s pranks and of episodes of his family, who grapple with both the church and the fascist government. Titta represents the typical Italian extended family, parents whose relationship has seen better days, rebellious kids, struggling to understand the disconnects between the old and new worlds.
Fellini’s memories are of the challenges of growing up, of making sense with the world, being told what’s right and to just accept it, institutions like school that ruled over kids like fascism ruled over adults.
In the film, Titta’s strong mother suddenly becomes ill and dies at the end of the film. Gradisca the beautiful and most voluptuous woman in the village, who Titta worships, finds her prince, gets married and leaves the village at the end of the film. Life has changed in large portions for Titta.