The documentary filmmaker Gideon Bachmann, who made an ambivalent study of Fellini titled Ciao, Federico!, likes to recall the premiere of 8½ in New York, when he, Fellini and his entourage entered the Paris Theatre on 58th Street. Ingmar Bergman, on a rare visit to the States, had apparently been sending letters to Fellini for some years, without reply. Now Fellini turned to Bachmann and asked him who was this young man retreating before him down the aisle. Such was Fellini’s superstar status in the summer of 1963.
More than any other “foreign” director, Federico Fellini beguiled and delighted the American public. He was awarded five Oscars, more than his peers Bergman and Kurosawa, and his masterpieces, such as La Strada and 8½, continue to enjoy excellent sales on DVD. Fellini may be viewed as a laughing seer, a portly lecher, a lapsed Catholic. He could succumb–without a trace of embarrassment–to the frivolous and the bombastic. His later films often spiraled away into an indecipherable landscape of half-baked dialogue, outlandish characters and cheesy sets. Impious though it sounds, Fellini was fortunate to die when he did, in 1993. He had not made a major film for two decades, and critics damned each new one with the faintest of praise. In the years since his passing, however, his reputation has soared. Retrospectives multiply. Exhibits of his drawings, sketches and photographs travel from city to city. At last count, he had around 3 million references on Google.
Fellini seems to embody all that was rich and experimental about the 1950s and ’60s in Europe. The warmth of his spirit, like Truffaut’s, appeals to a new generation that’s now more diffident toward the clinical, cynical brilliance of a Godard.
The private life of a great director does not always shed light on his artistic accomplishments. One need know nothing of Wajda, Buñuel or Kaurismäki offscreen to come to intimate terms with their work. Fellini, however, like Bergman, Visconti and Welles, wore his life on his sleeve, as it were. Each new film seemed to exorcise a particular demon or scrutinize a personal foible.
He has been graced with a profusion of books–some thirty in English, French and Italian at last count–but Tullio Kezich’s biography surpasses them all. Trenchant in its critical analysis, absorbing and sympathetic in its account of his private life, Kezich’s Fellini is a revelation. It effaces virtually everything written to date about the Italian maestro. Told in the present tense with relish and urgency, it reads like a chronicle, a biographical paean worthy of Boswell. Kezich first met the young maestro at the Venice Film Festival in 1952, and remained his friend and confidant for forty years. But the book is not merely a biography. Kezich, the much respected critic for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera in Milan, brings an analytical eye to bear on each film. He writes particularly well about Fellini’s relationships with his screenwriters and his contemporary filmmakers in Italy, and his richly textured portrait of Fellini’s youth in Rimini and Rome illuminates so much of I Vitelloni, Roma and Amarcord.
By the time World War II broke out, Fellini was on the cusp of his 20s. He churned out newspaper articles by the hundreds, and soon began contributing to radio shows. By 1942 he was contributing to screenplays, aided and abetted by friends like actor-entertainer Aldo Fabrizi and Cesare Zavattini, the “father” of Italian neorealism. The following year he married Giulietta Masina, whose “elfin aura” would enchant him until his death half a century later.