Federico Fellini – The Trailblazing Italian
“Fellini is remarkably gifted… as a film writer, as a creator of plots and characters, if any creator expresses himself in film, first, last and always, it is Fellini. He has never been content to stand still and repeat himself. Technically and emotionally each of his films has gone on from the one before to conquer new ground”, wrote the well-known filmologist John Russel Taylor in a brilliant essay on the famous Italian writer-director, film maker ‘par excellence’.
Federico Fellini was in the limelight of the world of lens and lights ever since he burst on the international film arena in the early years of the fantastic Fifties. He displayed a rare combination of technical brilliance, high sense of visual imagery, a feeling for places and people, an ability to peer and peek behind the facial masks the men and women of the pill-swallowing and Punch-and-Judy show world of our times wear.
He was totally committed to cinema without reservations within margins that are frighteningly small even as regards himself as an individual. He is an explorer, experimenter, the avid and curious traveller without even the proverbial tooth-brush, a rare kind of modern film-director with lenses in his eye-sockets, drenched with ironic skepticism and an abundant capacity for self-criticism.
Federico Fellini was born on 20 Jan 1920 in a typical Italian provincial small town, Bimini. His parents, of respectable middle class, were shocked when as a mere lad of twelve he ran away from his home to join a circus. His sensitive mind, restless spirit and well-developed sense of imagination stirred him deeply to the very core of his being. The urge inside had to find an outlet, no matter what his parents or neighborhood thought, and it did find soon more than a single outlet.
He made puppets giving full vent to his glowing imagination. He did sketches in watecolors and graphite, selling them successfully to magazines of no mean repute. His journalistic contacts and thirst for self-expression led him on to try journalism successfully. As a teenager, he also worked on the stage, designing costumes. During the World War, he wrote radio sketches which proved to be a good training ground for his future film career.
As a young man Fellini saw movies like anybody else. Chaplin’s ‘City Lights’ moved him deeply to tears while the rum and crazy antics of the Marx Brothers provoked him to belly-aching laughter.
Starting as a gagman, he graduated to adapter and full-fledged script writer. During this innings, he did screenplays for famous Italian film creators like Roberto Rosselini and Pietro Germi.
Out of these film-gurus, Rosselini influenced him most and with whom he collaborated on the path breaking Rome, Open City (’45). In the late ‘40’s the school of Italian Neo-realism began to gather strength. Film as a medium was coming out of the tyranny of the proscenium arch and moved around as a free bird flapping its wings, an attempt to show things as they were became the key-stone of all films. As Cesare Zavattini, the Italian filmologist put it, “the reality buried underneath myths slowly re-flowered. Here was a tree, a horse, a man eating, sleeping and crying.”
In the words of Orson Welles, “He understood that in a film, the camera and screen should disappear and the film, become life itself. Here lies the essence of Fellini’s approach to films.”
From a mere script-writer it was not very far to become a filmmaker. ‘Variety Lights’ (’50) was his filmic idea, all Fellini, showing the beginnings of a highly individualistic style. As it often happens in the lives of great men, the first attempt proved to be a great fiasco!
Michelangelo Antonioni, was to have directed Fellini’s screenplay of ‘White Sheikh’ (’52) but he did not like it and refused to touch it even with the proverbial pair of silver tongs! Directing the movie became a Hobson’s choice for Fellini who took the challenge boldly. Thus it began the dashing directorial career of Fellini. This was in the year 1952.
The film tells the story of a couple on honeymoon and covers a period of twenty-four hours, a fable built around a mistaken marriage between an ingenuous little wife and a pretentious boor. The bride runs away from her honeymoon in Rome and encounters her favourite dream, the white sheikh, who stars in a maiden auntish photo romance that follows, in which she gambols and sports around with her imaginary lover on the white sands of a glistening beach. The sea, like in almost every Fellini film looms large, as a symbol of the elemental earth, undisturbed permanence of life, and a comforting mystery. Ultimately the bride returns to her husband, her dreams remaining elusive, a mere figment of her febrile imagination born out of built-in romanticism. This film did not set the Tiber on fire but revealed Fellini as a man to watch.
The next film that Fellini made was ‘I Vitelloni’ (’53), a scintillating study of drifters and wastrels not always bad but certainly aimless, restless and bored. The film was vitally autobiographical for Fellini who drew liberally on old times, old places and old faces. Perhaps every frame did not reflect a page from Fellini’s own story but the feeling that runs right through the film certainly came from inside Fellini.
Commercially ‘I Vitelloni’ was a bad egg and when it was ready to roll out, there were no takers. Once again the film deals with marriage as a human institution, either a safe, secure haven or a bitchy battleground of warring emotions on different wavelengths. It is also a brilliant study of a provincial Italian town – not unlike Rimini. Night, dark, womb-like, sheltering man in its protective vault, is yet another Fellini favourite, like the sea. It brings to all the Fellini characters comfort and security, a time to let loose all screaming and pet aversion: and perversions from inside – sex, drink, anything to lose oneself until the dawn and morning-after forces on the characters the vision and harsh realities of humdrum human life.
In ‘I Vitelloni’ the images of the town square at night, lights sway in turbulent alleys, newspapers old and therefore abandoned like humans, swirl around the piazza, trampled and torn by unsteady feet, the waiting whores, painted, looking for money and thrills that would relieve the misery and boredom of life, crowds, restless, frustrated, pouring out of cinemas, their eyes heavy with longing, lust or drink. Fellini captures them all and the resulting film haunts the audience long.
The film was hailed as a moralistic tract and denounced as a study in bourgeoisie vulgarity and decadence. There is no shining hero or double-chinned villains. Every character is both. The film is comic, tragic, almost Chaplinesque, self-indulgent and melancholy – in simpler words, life itself. The film was Fellini’s first classic and it made everyone sit and stare at the Italian!
His next film that was happily a commercial success was ‘La Strada’ (’54), the story of a waif and her marriage. The film has been described as “the fantastic history of a sad honeymoon with a posthumous declaration of love”. The marriage in the film is no bed of foam. The husband does not appreciate his wife’s love, and even abandons her. A well-disposed acrobat, shows some kindness to the wife, an act that rouses the animal in the boorish husband driving him to kill the acrobat. Ultimately the woman dies and the husband faces the final truth that he really loves her. She was gone and he is left alone, weeping on the shore of a dark and desolate sea. ‘Amen! The film is a parable of human character – the legend of the Beauty and the Beast.
The next one was ‘Il Bidone’ (’55) the tale of a clever confidence trickster disguised as a priest: the source of inspiration for this film came from Fellini’s life, the early journalistic days in Rome. The film shows more clearly the hand of the artisan hard at work mastering his craft.
A ‘bidone’ is a type of crook thriving on invention, roguery and gift of the gab. The poor are robbed of their life savings by the crook in the garb of religion. Fraudulent clergy, perverted priests hiding their skull-duggery behind the cassock—favourite haunt of Fellini to explore and expose the vice of religion. The film is full of symbolism, and Fellini attacks religion as a sort of sham institution. Problems are raised but no final solution is offered.
After ‘The Nights of Cabiria’ (’57), Fellini made his greatest and most controversial movie that shocked and shook the world, ‘La Dolce Vita’ (’60).
In effect, it is a complete statement of his mature views on all the recurrent themes of his work – marriage, sex, degradation and religion. Mainly the film deals with the life of a writer and his problems, like writing, women, religion and final disenchantment. Fellini’s selective world of harsh reality is monstrous, misshapen, cruel and vulgar, shockingly grotesque, startlingly beautiful but that’s life.
Some called the film savage social criticism, a key-hole view of Roman high society but the beauty of the film cannot be denied. The bizarre locations, the haunting light and shade effects of the night sequences, the telling composition of the shots, the famous sequence of a huge statue of Christ carried high over Rome, suspended from a helicopter – the film is monumental indeed and it set Fellini on the top rung of fame. The world raved about Fellini and asked for more of his films.
While basking in the sunshine of fame, Fellini did an episode in ‘Boccaccio 70’ (’62). A puritan who is outraged by a sensual poster of a woman with fantastic mammarian development is haunted in his dreams by the woman! He enters a nightmarish world of horror and vice and ends up with the woman in the poster! A terrible satire on the puritan world of hypocrisy, Fellini style.
Fellini’s next was again a hit – 8 1/2 (’63). From its unconventional name to the splendid visual treatment, the film is all about a film director who is mentally not fit to make a film though he has both the desire and dollars to make one! He has many ideas but nothing boils down to a film. He moves between two worlds, of fantasy and reality, and tries to work out a solution to his problem.
It recalls many of Fellini’s favorite images – the sea, the city square at night, empty and haunting in the silence, the women, the thin exacting wife and plump comfortable mistress.
The film is a triumph of style – a new, fuller, wider-ranging Fellini style which leaves realism, in any sense that a neo-realist would recognize, very far behind.
After the triumph of 8 1/2, Fellini began working on what turned out to be another masterpiece, ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ (’65).
This film is in short the illustrated catalogue of Fellini’s world. Fantasy, colour, memory – Fellini has spared nothing in this film. Marvellously bizarre characters, wild scenes, stunning women, and weird audacious situations – Fellini made a whale of a movie that has been hailed as a masterpiece.
Married to actress Guilietta Masina, he had a solid marriage. Besides being a very successful actress, she was the heroine of most of his films. He did not believe in parties and avoided debates. He was totally absorbed by films and that is that! While shooting a film, he did not allow himself to be completely tyrannised by the film-script. He improvised on the floor as he went along. “To trap fleeting reality one must avoid any suspicion of cold technique,” he said.
Acclaimed as the most inventive and controversial film director in the modern world, Fellini has been called fabulous, fantastic, film genius, razzle-dazzle film-creator.
Above all he was a film-maker wedded to films and the marriage was a wonderful one. He died on 31 Oct, 1993.
Here’s a feature-length documentary on Fellini titled ‘I’m a born liar’ for your enjoyment.
And here’s Martin Scorsese talking about Fellini’s Films.