Life Is Sweet | The Nation


Life Is Sweet

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Soon afterward, Fellini began seeing a psychoanalyst named Dr. Ernst Bernhard, no fewer than three times a week for four years. Fellini always "liked to let his mind wander, to fantasize and float in a half-sleeping, half-waking state." He would dash off drawings and caricatures of dreams that had come to him during the night. In this new state of mind, he embarked on one of the cinema's greatest explorations of creativity, (1963). Marcello Mastroianni, whose portrayal of the journalist in La Dolce Vita had propelled him to stardom, now played Fellini's alter ego--the irresolute, jaded director who is at once at home and afraid in the turbulent circus that is commercial film-making. Guido is distracted by his chocolate-box mistress and by his astringent wife. He is unsettled by sporadic memories of his Catholic childhood. The two most impressive women in this climate of sexual fallibility--the monstrous Saraghina and the beneficent Claudia--represent the poles of his yearning, and also the familiar comic and hallucinatory extremes of Fellini's world. The greatness of Fellini in resides in his ability to sublimate his complexes and flights of imagination. His art can be seen as that of a funambulist, dependent for its thriving less on grace than on some intuitive panache and a mastery of illusion.

About the Author

Peter Cowie
Peter Cowie is the author of many books on film, most recently Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties...

From then on, each new work from Fellini became a media event, yet each proved a disappointment. There were always incidental pleasures, naturally: the performance of Giulietta Masina in Juliet of the Spirits (1965), the wistful, fairground music of Nino Rota or the luscious cinematography of Giuseppe Rotunno (who had taken over as Fellini's favorite cameraman after the death of Gianni Di Venanzo). There were mighty subjects for the tackling--Satyricon (1969), Casanova (1976)--but Fellini's only great achievements after would be his most intensely personal. Roma (1972) remains a neglected masterpiece, using the building of a subway system as a means of speculating on life and art. The loss of innocence, the recurrent motif in Fellini's cinema, is found beneath the streets of the ancient city, as blundering engineers drill into the unexpected rooms of an ancient villa and then watch incredulously as the frescoes dissolve before the onslaught of twentieth-century air. And in the ecclesiastical fashion show, as vulgar as Vegas, Fellini passes his most scathing comment on the established church of his youth. When the Pope emerges on high, preceded by skeletons and illuminated by a blaze of garish neon, the satire seems tinged (as always in Fellini) with a wide-eyed fascination, a worship of the bizarre and the grotesque.

His final tour de force was Amarcord (1973). Diffuse and meandering in form, Amarcord recaptured the atmosphere of Rimini during Fellini's childhood in the late 1920s. It is, comments Kezich, "remarkable in its portrayal, with just a hint of commiseration, of a rather backward community, living in the shadow of flags and still caught in Victorian emotions." The breathtaking authority of such images as the peacock spreading its plumage in the snow and the huge liner looming through the night like an ideal confirmed Fellini's unrivaled brilliance as a fantasist. This masterpiece of magic realism was altogether more romantic than I Vitelloni, and won Fellini his fourth Academy Award.

The closing years were littered with ephemera, occasionally bitter (Orchestra Rehearsal, 1979), and for the most part nostalgic (And the Ship Sails On, 1983; Ginger and Fred, 1986; Intervista, 1987). Perhaps only the failure of Lasse Hallström's Casanova (2005) helped one to recognize a certain mysterious elegance in Fellini's film about the great Venetian lover. Sadly, the maestro's last celluloid dreams came in the form of three commercials for Banca di Roma. Kezich, loyal to the end, writes that although these tidbits last just over six minutes, "Obviously length is no predictor of value; otherwise, how does one value Mozart's Viennese Sonatina, or a Picasso sketch, or a high note from Pavarotti that lasts only a few seconds?"

This engrossing biography mirrors its subject. It's affectionate, garrulous and often rambling, and in sudden flashes of brilliance it offers a penetrating view of Fellini's life and art. Dying, Fellini assumed the mantle of myth, and on November 2, 1993, an estimated 70,000 people filed into Studio 5 at Cinecittà to view his corpse--dressed, adds Kezich with ghoulish accuracy, in the tuxedo he wore for his Oscar acceptance.

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