Life Is Sweet
The White Sheik (1952) marked Fellini's solo debut behind the camera, and also the birth of his amazingly fruitful collaboration with composer Nino Rota. Kezich describes the relationship as "a phenomenon of empathy, irrationality, and magic.... From the beginning, Rota understands Fellini's twofold aesthetic of cheer and melancholy." The White Sheik withered at the box office, cursed by reviews that ranged from tepid to hostile, while impressing the occasional critic with its anarchic wit.
Fellini's first real success came a year later with I Vitelloni (Italian slang for overgrown kids). Kezich emphasizes that the film, which follows the exploits of five aimless, mischievous men resisting the responsibilities of adulthood, was not autobiographical in the sense that Amarcord (1973) would be: "Fellini was never a vitellone; he left home long before he hit the vitellone age." Nor did the director set the film in his native Rimini, preferring to invent a seaside town that evoked the Adriatic coast in winter. When I Vitelloni opened in the United States in November 1956, Newsweek hailed it as "Marty--Italian Style." It would exert a considerable influence on future filmmakers, from Lina Wertmüller (The Lizards), to Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets), George Lucas (American Graffiti), Barry Levinson (Diner) and even Joel Schumacher (St. Elmo's Fire).
So began Fellini's heyday--and payday. With La Strada, Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita, he became Italy's most controversial and best-loved director. The screenplay for La Strada--the film won the Silver Lion at Venice in 1954, outshining Visconti's Senso--had been in gestation for three years, stemming from a vague, abstract idea that Tullio Pinelli and Fellini had concerning vagabonds, and the small circuses that toured Italy in that period. Giulietta Masina, cast as Gelsomina, saw her character as "a sort of Cinderella, an ill-fated victim, a perfectly sweet creature." Fellini, however, conceived her as "a strange brand of fighter." He obliged Masina to cut her hair and bleach it yellow. Then he added shaving cream and talcum powder to make it shaggy. A chance meeting with Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart gave Fellini his Zampanò and his Matto, the two contrasting males who change the life of poor Gelsomina.
La Strada swept Fellini to international fame, winning innumerable awards and eventually, in the early spring of 1957, the inaugural Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Another Fellini-Masina collaboration, Nights of Cabiria (1957), brought Fellini his second Oscar in successive years. Kezich notes that although Fellini was fascinated by women, frequently unfaithful and, just like his vitelloni, possessed of a bawdy sense of humor, he was, in his devotion to Masina, "entirely monogamous.... Having Giulietta at his side was a necessary constant to his existence."
The current improvement in Fellini's critical stature is exemplified by La Dolce Vita (1960). Back in the early 1960s, it was fashionable to dismiss Fellini's lumbering fresco of a corrupt and indolent Italian bourgeoisie as somewhat lurid and shallow (Kezich reports that the applause at its Rome premiere lasted all of twenty seconds). In an observation characteristic of the film's critics at the time, Pauline Kael sneered that La Dolce Vita was
like poking your head into a sack of fertilizer and then becoming indignant that you're covered with excrement. The aim, the scale, the pretensions, the message are too big for the subject matter: tabloid sensationalism and upper-class apathy and corruption. Fellini is shocked and horrified--like the indignant housewives who can't get enough details of Elizabeth Taylor's newest outrage, and think she should be banned from the screen. I don't think he's simply exploiting the incidents and crimes and orgies of modern Rome in the manner of a Hollywood biblical spectacle, but La Dolce Vita is a sort of Ben-Hur for the more, but not very much more, sophisticated.
Antonioni's slow-moving, enigmatic L'Avventura (1960), Visconti's Marxist epic Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and Francesco Rosi's vérité-style Salvatore Giuliano (1962) appealed much more to the intellectual sensibility of the period. Yet now, with La Dolce Vita gloriously restored for DVD, the pendulum has swung back to Fellini. The film seems richer and, as Kezich declares, its "poetry comes out of its respect for its characters, even the most notorious and undeserving ones. It comes from the measure of positivism that is part of the negative solutions that Marcello [the journalist] considers. It comes from the awareness that the paths to serenity are many."