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.
Roberto Rossellini, eager to sign Fabrizi to star in Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City; 1945), sought out Fellini as a means of reaching the actor. Their collaboration on the script with Sergio Amidei sealed Fellini’s commitment to movies. The two great auteurs could not have been more different: Rossellini, cavalier with money and women, consumed by an austere yearning for scientific knowledge; and Fellini, despite his libidinous reputation, deep down a loyal husband and a meticulous craftsman. Fellini honed his writing skills on films such as Paisan, L’Amore (with Fellini himself playing a bum who sleeps with Anna Magnani) and The Flowers of St. Francis.
Yet Fellini never seemed quite at home in the domain of neorealism. While Rossellini believed with absolute moral certainty in his documentary approach to cinema, Fellini veered toward a land of dreams and congenial eroticism. In 1950 he at last cut his teeth as a director, working alongside his mentor Alberto Lattuada on Variety Lights. Fellini seemed more comfortable describing the world of small-time vaudeville. Like Bergman, with whom he would finally become friends in the late 1960s, he adored the smell of the greasepaint, if not the roar of the crowd.
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.”
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, 8½ (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 8½ 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.
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 8½ 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.