January 29, 1920– Federico Fellini is one of the few directors with his name as part of the title of his films (apologies to Lee Daniels). Fellini Satyricon, Fellini Roma, Fellini’s Casanova. In the history of cinema, has there been a series of films that are so intimately identified with the man who directed them?
My own fandom came from a sordid little incident in the early 1970s, when I caught Fellini Satyricon (1969), an epic of decadence and the wanderings of a gay youth in ancient Rome’s disintegrating society, at a revival house in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston while tripping on LSD. It fried my poor little teenage brain. But, seeing that film sent me on a trip of my own, a journey that led me to love Italian filmmakers, especially this master.
Fellini is a fine example of an artist capable of transforming himself into a work of art, a man who turn his own personality into a film. I grew to adore his films and also Fellini himself, and his world circuses and comic strips and cardinals and carnivals.
Fellini even appeared as an actor in some of his films: I Clowns (1970) and Roma (1972) come to mind. But, mostly he used an alter-ego, most famously Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita (1959), 8 1/2 (1963), La Citta Delle Donne (1980), and Ginger & Fred (1986).
Fellini was born in Rimini, on Italy’s northern Adriatic coast, into a middle-class family. As a child he was fascinated by circuses and music halls which were part of the summer fare of his resort city. As one of the most autobiographical of filmmakers, almost every aspect of his childhood became the passions and preoccupation of his films’ themes. The lovely Amarcord (1974) is an especially loving look at of his boyhood daydreams in and around Rimini.
When he was 18 years old, he moved to Florence to work as a cartoonist for a comic book publisher, an experience that he would use as inspiration for the delightful comedy Lo Sceicco Bianco (1952). He was soon to leave for bigger things in Rome, where during WW2, he found work with a music-hall comedian, Aldo Fabrizi, serving as a costume and scenery designer, personal secretary and actor. This experience provided the background material for Fellini’s very first feature, Luci Del Varieta (1950). He also opened a small shop where he produced little drawings, portraits and caricatures for American GIs.
In 1943, he met Giulietta Masina, one of his greatest influences. They married and she served as his muse, playing Gelsomina in La Strada (1954) a Fellini cartoon brought heartbreakingly to life. Masina worked for her husband regularly throughout his career, playing a prostitute in Le Notti Di Cabiria (1956), a bored housewife in the gorgeous Giulietta Degli Spiriti (1965), and as an older but still spry Ginger in Ginger & Fred (1986).
His other muse was with composer Nino Rota, who would write the score of every single Fellini film from the moment they met in 1952 until his passing in 1979. Rota’s death was a personal and professional tragedy for the Fellini. Rota’s witty music, with its delicious rhythms and swooning melodic lines is as Fellini-esque as the director himself.
Fellini’s most famous film, the one that defines his work for Americans, is probably La Dolce Vita (1960), a lengthy, ambitious satire of contemporary Roman High Society, condemned by both by the Vatican and the Italian government, it became a world-wide success, a film fan phenomenon. Its title even entered the English language. Fellini’s work avoided linear narrative; his screenplays are rambling and episodic. But 8 1/2 (1963) did away with storytelling coherence completely, with fact and fantasy blending into delightful tale of a film director who is trying to pull together the pieces of his life and make sense of them.
Fellini’s later work has always divided film fans. Fellini said that to limit one’s admiration to his early films was simply an example of “arrested development”. He was one of the 20th century’s great inventors of forms, and had more ideas than he knew what to do with. Fellini films are filled with masks, masquerades, carnivals, startling faces, chaotic situations, rococo and baroque images, the outlandish prisms through which he viewed his life.
He was nominated for 14 Oscars and 4 Fellini films won Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Picture. He received an honorary Oscar in recognition of his lifetime achievements as a director and screenwriter in 1993.
Fellini’s influence is far reaching. You can see his inspiration in the films of Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen especially, but also in the movies of David Lynch, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Bob Fosse and Wes Anderson. My own sex-toy drawer in the bedside table has been labeled “Felliniesque”.
Fellini’s final credits rolled in 1994, a day after his 50th wedding anniversary. His memorial at Cinecittà Studios outside of Rome was attended by more than 80,000 people, fans and colleagues.