Tag Archives: Federico Fellini

272. CITY OF WOMEN (1980)

La città delle donne

Recommended

“It’s the viewpoint of a man who has always looked at woman as a total mystery.… Through the ages, from the beginning of time, I’m certain man has covered woman’s face with masks. They are, however, his masks, not hers.”–Federico Fellini defending City of Women

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Ettore Manni, Bernice Stegers, Donatella Damiani

PLOT: Waking on a train across from a seductive woman, Snàporaz pursues her into the carriage’s wash-room. Abruptly, the train stops and the woman de-embarks, heading across a field with Snàporaz in close pursuit. During his long journey he explores an hotel teeming with Feminists, hitches a ride with a crew of drugged-out teenage motorists, and meets a doctor whose “manly” villa contravenes local law.

Still from City of Women (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • A massive re-work of the story was required when the second male lead (Ettore Manni, who played “Dr. Katzone”) died from a fatal, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the groin.
  • Before returning to his reliable proxy Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini offered the role to Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman declined, as he was concerned about the post-dubbing process being detrimental to his performance.
  • Though it received largely positive reviews on its general release, it fared poorly at Cannes. , in Rome at the time working on Nostalghia, dismissed City of Women in his diary, saying “…it’s true, his film is worthless.”
  • Production designer Dante Ferretti was kept on his toes while making of the film, as Fellini would constantly request that new, elaborate sets be whipped up in a small amount of time. Farretti invariably obliged the director’s requests, and his success allowed him sole billing as “Production Designer,” a title usually nabbed by Fellini himself in the movie’s credits.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: After the brief introduction of the train ride turning into a romp across a field, virtually everything that follows in Fellini’s City of Women starts globbing on to the memory. From a long list of choices (addled Feminists fomenting in an hotel, drugged-out [?] minors driving the middle-aged protagonist to a haunting techno-pop tune, and an aged Lothario blowing out 10,000 candles among them), perhaps the best choice is the joy-filled sequence in the museum of women at Katzone’s villa. Snàporaz darts back and forth with an innocently lecherous glee as he flicks on the photographs’ illumination and hears a snippet from that woman’s sexual history. The visual and sonic overload goes up to eleven when Snàporaz’s ex-wife appears at the end of the corridor and turns on all of the displays. Women, women everywhere—in sound and vision.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hall of sexual conquests; memory lane slide; ideal woman escape balloon

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Traipsing along for two and one-half hours, City of Women somehow combines the sugary charm of a light-weight musical with the non-stop adventure of an epic film. Beginning with a tone bordering on the mundane (the tediousness of travel), Fellini quickly pushes things from believable, to somewhat believable (the feminist convention), then onwards and upwards to a literal and metaphorical peak of disbelief as our hero escapes an arena full of spectators by clinging to a hot-air balloon. Between the jostling in the train car and the flight into the unknown, it would be faster to answer the question, what isn’t weird about it?


Original Italian trailer for City of Women

COMMENTS: Obsession can be a dangerous thing, but it can also be Continue reading 272. CITY OF WOMEN (1980)

1968 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, AND SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

In 1968 released one of the most relentlessly frightening movies ever made in Night of the Living Dead, but it took a couple of years for the midnight movie crowd to make it into an epic cult phenomenon. Seen today, it holds up effectively, even with our sensibilities jaded from countless hack imitations. Its grainy black, white, and gray palette serves its otherworldliness well during a late night viewing on big screen, which I how I first encountered it. Even Romero could never quite match it, although he continued to try for forty years.

The argument can be made that Romero’s best post-Night of the Living Dead films were outside the zombie genre (The Crazies, Martin, NightRiders, and Creepshow). Still, no one does zombies like Romero (as proved with his 1990 NotLD remake), and the movie closest to the impact of the original was its immediate sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), which was a shock satire on Western consumerism, brutalizing in its late 70s comic book colors and deliberate plays on banality. Some claim Dawn is Romero’s masterpiece, although it lacks the original’s reinventing-the-wheel, rough-edged freshness. In 2004, Dawn was remade by who completely missed Romero’s acerbic wit. The underrated Day of the Dead (1985) was the third in Romero’s original zombie trilogy, but did not attain the cult status of its predecessors. Its financial disappointment seemed to render it a finale to Romero’s zombie oeuvre. However, Romero, who has always been a sporadic filmmaker, returned with The Land of the Dead in 2005, which was followed by Diary of the Dead (2007) and what looks to be his last film, Survival of the Dead (2009). Each of Romero’s zombie sequels has its equal share of fans and critics, but at the very least, he has tried to say something new with each entry.

Still from Night of the Living Dead (1968)None have attained the compact rawness of that 1968 yardstick, however. Duane Jones became a cult icon as the doomed protagonist Ben. Previously an English professor, Jones was the first African-American to have a starring role in a horror feature (the script does not specify Ben’s ethnicity). Judith O’Dea, as Barbara, is the eternal victim ( in Savini’s remake, the character is recast as a feminist femme fatale). Together, they hole up in a farmhouse and fight off the marching dead, but are inevitably at the mercy of hayseeds with guns. The shot-on-the-cheap crudeness and novice acting actually add to the mundane horror. It was riveting enough to create an entirely new genre, but predictably, its unique qualities have eluded pale imitations.

Elsewhere in 1968, AIP’s Wild in the Streets (directed by ) Continue reading 1968 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, AND SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

263. ROMA (1972)

AKA Fellini’s Roma

“Rome was a poem pressed into service as a city.”–Anatole Broyard

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Gonzales Falcon

PLOT: Roma is a series of vignettes, some relatively realistic and some fantastic, about the city of Rome. The closest thing to a plot are the scenes involving Fellini himself, who dreams about the city as a young man, comes there as a teen, and then is seen making a movie about the city as an adult. Other segments involve a bawdy street meal, a vaudeville show during World War II, modern hippies drifting through Rome, a pair of brothels, and the infamous ecclesiastical fashion show.

Still from Roma (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Fellini came to Rome from Rimini as an 18-year old to go to law school, although he quickly abandoned that pretense to pursue an artistic career path. Although it seems clear that Fellini means for the young provincial boy who dreams of Rome and the young man who steps off the train and into a Roman pensione to be his stand-ins, the director never makes this explicit. United Artists asked for voiceover narration to make this identification clear in the version that played in the U.S.
  • The film was shortened by nine minutes (to a running time of two hours) for its international release, and some changes were made for different markets. Slightly different cuts have circulated for years, and there is no restored print of the original Italian version, although the extra footage survives in workprints. Among the deleted scenes was one where appeared as himself.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The star image here could not be something other than an offering from the ecclesiastical fashion show. Candidates include the bishops’ uniforms with blinking stained glass patterns and a shrouded skeletal “memento mori” carriage that carries up the end of the procession. We’ll select the grand finale, the appearance of a glowing, flying Pope cast as a pagan sun god, with electronic sunbeams streaming behind his beatifically beaming countenance.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Horse on the highway; fading frescoes; light-up miter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The speedy editing of the U.S. release trailer misleadingly emphasizes the decadent aspects of Fellini’s Roma, making it look like a trippy sequel to Satyricon for the pot-smoking college midnight movie crowd. In truth, while Roma is experimental and disorientingly non-linear, it’s greatly restrained compared to its psychedelic predecessor. Most of the sequences are only subtly strange, pitched in the almost-realistic register of Fellini’s next film, Amarcord. Or at least, that’s the case up until the fashion show, when Fellini ignites the film with a surreal, blasphemous brand. This grand vaudeville sequence, which lasts over 15 minutes, catapults the film from a borderline curiosity from an innovative master to an acknowledged staple of the weird canon.


American release trailer for Roma

COMMENTS: Rome is the eternal city, once the seat of Europe’s Continue reading 263. ROMA (1972)

256. AMARCORD (1973)

“The natural was not an opportunity for Fellini, material to be recorded or rearranged, but rather a constraint, like rationality, defined order, and logic were—a limit on his creativity—and that is why the natural, the narrativized, and the realistic began to disappear from Fellini’s work, at first imperceptibly, before 1960, and then markedly afterward.”–Sam Rohdie, “Amarcord: Federico of the Spirits”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Zanin, Magali Noël, Armando Brancia, Pupella Maggio, Luigi Rossi, Josiane Tanzilli, Maria Antonietta Beluzzi

PLOT: Amarcord documents a year in the lives of residents of an Italian coastal town (based on Fellini’s own hometown, Rimini) in the 1930s under Mussolini’s Fascist party. Titta, an adolescent boy, is the character with the most screen time, and he spends it mostly with his friends engaging in mischief and lusting after unobtainable older women. The most unobtainable of these is Gradisca, the dreamy, red-maned village beauty and the second most important character, whose eventual marriage marks the end of a chapter in the town’s history.

Still from Amarcord (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • Won the 1975 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; the film was also nominated (in 1976) for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director.
  • Depending on what source you believe, “amarcord” is either a Fellini neologism, or an unusual slang word from the Romagnolo dialect of Italian meaning “I remember.” Per Damian Pettigrew, it possibly derives from “amare” (“love”) + “ricordo” (“memory”) (=”fond memory”), perhaps with a touch of “amaro” (=”bitter”, for “bittersweet memory”). Or, it might be just a slurred pronunciation of the Italian phrase “io mi ricordo” (“I remember”).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most mainstream movie fans remember the peacock in the blizzard, or the massive S.S. Rex passing by in the night (over, as it turns out, a sea made of cellophane). The weird-minded are more thrilled by the sight of the imaginary wedding ministered by the giant Facscist talking head made from red and white blossoms, with the girls holding up hula hoops on one side of the aisle while the boys raise their rifles on the other.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flowery Mussolini wedding; bean vendor in a harem; dwarf nun

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Amarcord finds Federico Fellini fondly remembering, or deliberately misremembering, his own youth in a series of sketches that alternate between burlesque comedy, light absurdism, and total fantasy. Mainstream movie lovers sometimes see Amarcord as too flamboyant, while Fellini’s more surrealist-oriented fans often miss the delirium of Satyricon, seeing this one as too nostalgic and accessible. Amarcord admittedly isn’t Fellini’s weirdest, but as one of the most beloved works by one of the weird genre’s key directors, it’s worth your time. It skates onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies on the sliding-scale rule: the better the movie, the less weird it has to be to be honored.


Original U.S. release trailer for Amarcord

COMMENTS: It sounds like an outtake from “Arabian Nights” by Continue reading 256. AMARCORD (1973)

READER RECOMMENDATION: “TOBY DAMMIT” (1968)

Reader recommendation from Steven Ryder

Note: ‘Toby Dammit’ is a segment filmed as part of Spirits of the Dead, an anthology based on ’s short stories. The other entries were “William Wilson,” directed by , and “Metzengerstein” by .

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Milena Vukotic, Antonia Pietrosi

PLOT: During a trip to Rome to film a Catholic Spaghetti Western, Toby Dammit, an alcoholic, drug-addled Shakespearean actor, falls deeper and deeper into uncertainty, pursued by a devilish young phantom.

Still from Toby Dammit (1968)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Any number of Fellini’s films could be given the “weird” seal of approval due to his preoccupation with dream imagery and Jungian psychoanalysis, but few are as quite deeply rooted in the surreal as “Toby Dammit.” Oktay Ege Kozak described “Dammit” as “8 ½ in Hell,” and seeing as how Fellini’s magnum opus does make the List, it would come as no real surprise to see this shorter, more blatant genre offering creep its way on as well.

COMMENTS: Spirits of the Dead, the anthology that includes “Toby Dammit,” isn’t particularly fascinating, and it is painfully obvious that Roger Vadim and Louis Malle, the directors of the other two segments, either care little about or did not know how to approach the subject matter. These are directors later made made campy science fiction flicks or serious wartime dramas, and neither of these genres reflect Edgar Allen Poe’s Gothic roots as well as Fellini’s style does. Now, if producer Alberto Grimaldi had managed to get on board, as he originally intended, then we may have been looking at a late-sixties masterpiece of horror cinema, but instead we get two forgettable entries and one incredibly weird, incredibly original Poe adaptation from one of the giants of Italian film, fresh off the critical hits 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits. Fellini confessed to never actually read the story he was supposed to be filming, which may have assisted him in bringing his own enduring cinematic style to the table. Aside from the title and the decapitation finale, nothing else remains from Poe’s original tale.

The film opens with disheveled Shakespearean actor Toby, played with a distinct charisma and style by Terence Stamp, drunk on a plane, preparing to meet the producer of his next film in Rome. There is no mistake that Fellini wanted Toby, already a frazzled mess of a man, to be driven further and further into madness, and it wouldn’t be glib to speculate that the red mist his plane descends into is a symbol for the Hell that is to follow—even if the jaunty, instantly recognizable score from frequent Fellini collaborator Nino Rota says otherwise. We follow Toby on his first trip to Rome and Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: “TOBY DAMMIT” (1968)

FELLINI SATYRICON (1969): THE CRITERION COLLECTION ON BLU-RAY

“The quintessential Fellini film. There are orgies, murders, abductions, rituals, all presented coolly, without editorial comment—as might a Warren Commission Report from Mars.”—Vincent Canby

Although Fellini Satyricon (1969) has already made the List, its re-release as a Criterion Collection Blu-ray warrants additional coverage. The previous MGM DVD Edition was threadbare, and although it thankfully kept the film in circulation, you can now donate your copy to a  virgin (although making Satyricon your first would be unwise).

Actually, my MGM DVD has proven quite handy over the last decade, being one of my most coveted films for the bourgeoisie to walk out on. More than once it has been useful in ridding myself of unwanted guests, or those who have overstayed their welcome. Rather than repeatedly looking at the Seiko on my wrist, all I had to do was slap Satyricon into the player and within a half hour I would, without fail, find myself alone enjoying the company of my dear, beloved, beautiful late Siamese cat, Betty.

The last time I pulled it out was possibly the most beneficial to me: a family member, for some reason, decided to drop by; which would have been fine, except that he brought with him his hopelessly constipated Bible-beating fundamentalist girlfriend, who proceeded to “enlighten” and “warn” me about the upcoming rapture, lest I be “left behind.” I neither argued nor even looked at my watch. I merely smiled, popped in Satyricon and—bam—in a record time of seventeen minutes, sister So-and-So was outta my door. I gave Betty her trout and lay back, thanking both St. Federico and MGM. Although Betty broke my heart by suddenly, and without warning, flying off this mortal coil, she can now join Federico and my wife and I (in spirit), looking down from trout heaven at a crystal clear Criterion Satyricon. I am willing to bet that, with this release, I can beat my seventeen-minute record the next time an uptight cinematic illiterate or artless boob darkens my door.

Of course, the film was loosely based on Petronius’ ancient satire, and all that history is covered here. As with Roma (1972) Fellini includes his name as part of the title, not out of ego, but to inform the view that this is Fellini’s personal interpretation of the satire, not Petronius. Conventional wisdom says that with Satyricon Fellini entered a whole new plane of eccentric (some would say excessive) personal filmmaking, daring to produce a work which does not strive to be populist. Fellini counted this, with 1976’s tragically unavailable Casanova, as his most perfectly realized film.

Director of Photography Giuseppe Rotunno supervised Criterion’s digital restoration, which renders the viewing experience an entirely new film. The difference is almost akin to seeing a painting in the flesh as opposed to looking at in an art history reference book. From the rich pigments of the clothing to the caked face paint of the extras, the vivid background colors, reddened skies, bluish serpentine caverns, and even the subtitles (a new and improved English translation), this is a radical improvement over MGM’s release. As a product of the late 60s, Satyricon is mesmerizingly psychedelic. The fabric of Fellini’s hellish milieu never looked so sumptuous and inviting. Additionally, its absurd dialogue, spoken in multifarious languages, and the Nino Rota score are at their most cacophonous.

Starting with the audio commentary track, the extras are aptly idiosyncratic. Not recorded directly for the Blu-ray release, it is instead an expansively informative “Behind the Scenes Diary,” recorded in 1971 by Eileen Lanouette Hughes. She covers Fellini’s original vision for the film, how that vision evolved during production, provides behind the scenes descriptions, the history of the film’s funding, explains Fellini’s processes and casting decisions, and compares Petronious’ satire to Fellini’s finished adaptation.

“Ciao Federico,” is an hour-long documentary produced by Gideon Bachmann in 1970. Showing the behind the scenes interaction between director and cast, it reveals Fellini as something of a taskmaster, albeit one who quickly apologizes for belittling his actors. Among the visitors to the set, we see  and his doomed wife, Sharon Tate.

The director discusses everything from the latent morality of the film (aka godless violence) to Gene Shalit’s waxed mustache in a series of interviews. An interview with DP Rotunno reveals the director’s aversion to creating a realistic ancient Roman world; he desired instead a mythical, artificial look.

Classical scholars, film consultants Joanna Paul and Luca Canali expand on Hughes’ commentary in the “Fellini and Petronious” supplement. On set photographer Mary Ellen Mark amusingly recounts anecdotes of working with Fellini (and the director’s sycophants).

Fellini Satyricon Poster“Felliniana” is a hi-res slideshow from Dan Young’s epic Satyricon memorabilia, including a collection of provocative posters.

An extensive essay booklet by film scholar Michael Wood accompanies the original theatrical trailer, closing this release. It is enough for several nights’ worth of cozy, entertaining, academic foreplay before consummating with the film itself. A wholeheartedly recommended, essential release.

FELLINI’S ROMA (1972)

“The name in the title doesn’t seem conceited or affected, as it might from another director (Peckinpah’s Albuquerque?) This is Fellini’s Rome and nobody else’s, just as all of his films since La Dolce Vita have been autobiographical musings and confessions from the most personal, and the, best director of his time.”–Roger Ebert.

Despite taking the prize at Cannes, Roma (1972) has often fallen under the radar among ‘s oeuvre and it has been dismissed, by some, as the director at the apex of his “self-indulgence”—code for “non-linearity.”

One might see Roma as a private scrapbook containing overstuffed images cut out with dull scissors. Too much glue is used and it oozes out from behind pictures, making the pages stick together and tear. Naturally, it has far more personality than anything done by a professional scrapbooker, despite not being a complete success. Fellini’s Roma is so personally visual that the dialogue is intrusive.

Fellini inserts himself into the film, played as a young man out of time in 1939 by Peter Gonzales, adorned in white. The director prophetically steps in himself to personify his later self in 1972, but acts opposite no one, merely ushering us into his gaudy compositions, purposefully taking us nowhere.

The narrative as tainted whisper follows Fellini through fantasy page after fantasy page of his Roman imagery and we quickly realize this is a metropolis seen through a celestial lens. Expectedly, the director’s interpretation of “celestial” involves high camp, calmly fusing the erotic with the pious as if it is the most pragmatic marriage since ravioli and cheese. In typical Fellini fashion, Magdalena, the erroneously-labeled garish whore, symbolizes Rome herself.

Still from Fellini's Roma (1972)Through a series of evocative vignettes Fellini, overwhelmed with wistful sights (courtesy Director of Photography Giuseppe Rotunno) including a majestic traffic jam encircling the coliseums in an infernal rain storm, visits a brusque vaudeville show and frequents both underground and chic bordellos. Designer Danilo Donati and set director Andrea Fantacci alchemically fashion a voguish parochial pageant with skating padres and nuns adorned like Christmas trees.

Fellini, unlike , is able to express anti-clerical sentiments without provoking religious institutions, perhaps because of his ability to transform what on the surface would seem banal into something majestic. Additionally, Fellini, despite the primordial excesses, locates the maternity of Rome. She casts a  spell on her sons.

Composer Nino Rota’s score is among his most majestic, romantically ranging from folk music through 1940s big band sounds and, finally, ecstatically echoing the loud, tainted 70s with apocalyptic air raid sirens. In addition to the sounds, we are inundated with visions of groped, fleshy backsides and the smells of food gorging.

Princesses and popes of the past give way to bohemian ideology (a young Elvira—AKA Cassandra Peterson—is one of the beatniks) with Fellini and film crew vapidly chasing down Gore Vidal for an interview. The cameos, in the second half of the film, are jarringly out of place. Aptly, there are no standout performances, except for Fellini himself. The contrast between Rome of past and present is alternately phantasmagoric and obscure.

As we come to the final mercurial pages of Fellini’s Roma sketch-like scrapbook, we find the pulse of his requiem valentine to his sooty mother city seen through the rear-view mirrors of departing, spectral choppers.

FELLINI’S LA STRADA (1954)

Most film historians and critics credit La Strada (1954) as the first Felliniesque film. A major success which won the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Film, La Strada moved into the top tier of world film directors.

Like most romantic spiritual mythology, the appeal and accessibility of La Strada is found in its simplistic symbolism. Yet, the simplicity is also deceptive. My painting professor from art school once advised us that “obsession is often a good thing.” Here, we see the Fellini we have since come to know emerge with his obsessive themes of circuses and seasides in compositions populated by what would become archetypical figures. Fellini’s wife Giuletta Masina is cast as the eternally naïve gamin Gelsomina. Masina clearly patterned her character after . Fellini had used Masina, albeit briefly, in their first collaboration, The White Sheik (1952), and would extend that characterization in what is possibly their best work together, The Nights Of Cabiria (1957). Cast opposite Masina is her counterpart, Anthony Quinn, as the strongman Zampano. Quinn could be likened to Arthur Thalasso’s Zandow from Langdon’s The Strong Man (1927), or Eric Campbell’s “Goliath” from a number of ’s films. or even Pablo Picasso’s Minotaur. Rounding out the surrealistic trilogy is Richard Basehart’s high wire act as The Fool.

Zampano needs to replace his previous assistant Rosa and purchases the young, slow-witted Gelsomina from her mother. Zampano is cruel and brutish to his charge, but like Langdon’s waif, an inexplicable higher force seems to protecting her. Her pantomime act endears her to the circus crowd and she becomes the main draw.

Still from La Strada (1954)Although the relationship between Zampano and Gelsomina is abusive, somehow it works, according to the divine plan, until the serpent enters Eden. Being Fellini, the symbolism is not as Biblically simpleminded as that, and we are introduced to The Fool through pagan entertainment fused with the symbolism of religious fiesta. He appears elevated, adorned in cherub wings, but angels fall in myths, and on the ground the Fool  proves to be no angel. Although his concern for Gelsomina initially seems to be genuine, he is apt to manipulate her. The Fool’s relationship with Zampano is more clearly combative. He mercilessly taunts the strongman and Fellini injects a hint of a previous, cruel ménage a trois with Rosa (a substitute for Lilith, the apocryphal first wife of Adam).

Long-suffering, Gelsomina’s virtue is a channel to the enigmatic infinite. She mourns Zampano’s treatment of others instead of her own sufferings under his hand (sexual abuse is hinted at, but wisely avoided). Gelsomina’s status as a model of feminine submissiveness is revealingly emphasized in a convent vignette.

We are privy to Zampano’s lack of self-awareness and empathy that stems from his own past abuse. It is not his continuance of the cycle, but abandonment of Gelsomina, which finally severs her allegiance to him. The gripping, catastrophic finale echoed Tyrone Power’s shattered geek in Nightmare Alley (1947).

The Marxists, among others, saw Fellini’s break from neorealism here as a betrayal and, despite all the accolades gifted to La Strada, the film and its creator provoked a sea of controversy. Like Chaplin, Fellini celebrates the derelict. To the subscribers of ideological pragmatism in art, the ultimate blasphemy was Fellini’s portrayal of post-war Italy filtered through the dual lenses of naturalism and fantastic parable. The director’s legion of early admirers would brand him nothing less than a heretic after his later forays into opulent surrealism.

Nino Rota’s haunting score and Otello Martelli’s ethereal, nuanced cinematography add considerably to La Strada‘s seductive quality. Rota’s theme music proved to be a resounding popular success on European radio for decades following.

 helped finance the film’s restoration and introduces a Criterion Collection release that predictably is loaded with a wealth of extras. Among the supplements is an audio essay by film scholar Peter Bondanella, the documentary Federico Fellini’s Autobiography (which originally played on Italian television), and a second, charming documentary focusing on Masina and her off-screen, on-screen collaboration with Fellini.

CAPSULE: LA DOLCE VITA (1960)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Magali Noel, , Alain Cuny, Walter Santesso, Anita Ekberg

PLOT: Several episodes follow Marcello, a writer who has been seduced into gossip journalism and a world of endless parties and women, as he discovers the emptiness of his life.

Still from La Dolce Vita (1960)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: La Dolce Vita isn’t much of a “weird” movie on its own, but it’s a significant film in the weird canon because it marks the bridge between Felini’s early neorealist movies and the symbolist/Surrealist work that begins in earnest in 8 1/2 (1963).

COMMENTS: The very first image of La Dolce Vita is a statue of Jesus being flown by helicopter past crumbling Roman aqueducts. Fellini’s symbolism is shockingly direct, but clear: the old Classical world lies in ruins, and the Christian world that superseded it is now being replaced by a modern mechanical order. The helicopter flies past modern Roman skyscrapers and buzzes a rooftop where women in bikinis are sunbathing. The journalist Marcello, tailing the first helicopter in hopes of tracking down a good story, is distracted by the site of the excited women, who are waving at his own whirlybird; he tries to get their phone numbers, but can’t communicate over the hum of the rotors.

The icons of the old order that gave life meaning have been flown away, but what will replace them as society’s organizing principle? When people have overthrown their idols of old, Fellini suggests, they instead idolize idealized demigods: the beautiful, the debonair, the rich, the busty. Marcello (and his crony Paparazzo, whose character name came to signify a species of annoying celebrity photographer) are priests of the modern order, moving within the circles of the rich and famous and bringing tales of their exploits back to the masses hungry to live vicariously through them. Although he has talent and insight, Marcello himself is seduced by the shallow attractions of pretty people, embodied in the flighty Swedish bombshell portrayed by Anita Ekberg. Ekeberg’s nocturnal dip in Trevi fountain is the movie’s most treasured gift to cinephiles, but what’s sometimes forgotten is the magical realist moment when, as Marcello seems just about to kiss her and achieve his desire, the fountain stops flowing—Ekberg’s celebrity sex magic breaks it, or at least renders its ancient flow superfluous.

La Dolce Vita is not simply a critique of the pleasure-seeking upper classes in Rome at the dawn of the 1960s. The movie is an assault on modernity itself, on a world in which meaning has been flown away by helicopter, probably to make room for a new nightclub. It is not, as it might seem on the surface, simply that Marcello culpably fails to find fulfillment because he favors the shallow pleasures of the sweet life over serious artistic refection. The suggestion is rather that finding purpose in the depraved modern world is impossible. Fellini meticulously cuts off all avenues of escape from meaninglessness. With the spectacle of the two children who tow masses of eager reporters and pilgrims back and forth looking for the Virgin only they can see, modern religion is painted as a fraud and a sideshow that no longer feeds the spiritual hunger of the people. Marcello’s friend Steiner appears to be the apotheosis of modern man, a role model for the lost journalist. He lives apart from the madness of the crowds in the street, contemplating art and philosophy in his salon with his loving family and the circle of artists and intellectuals who attend dinner parties where they pass the evenings in witty conversation. But even Steiner is beaten down by the inescapable melancholy of modernity. He is only temporarily protecting himself from corruption by withdrawing from the tarnished world; he cannot find true fulfillment in it. “The most miserable life is better, believe me, than an existence protected by a society where everything’s organized and planned for and perfect,” he sighs with weary wisdom. Meanwhile, Marcello’s transvestite drinking buddy prophesies, “by 1965 there will be complete depravity. How squalid everything will be!”

La Dolce Vita can be criticized for overindulgence: some of the scenes go on for too long after their significance has been grasped. But there is so much to treasure in the performances, imagery, cinematography, the Roman scenery, and Nino Rota’s elegant score that the draggy passages are easily overlooked in hindsight. La Dolce Vita has gravitas. It is one of the few movies that takes a place not only in film history, but as a part of the great conversation of Western civilization.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the stylish cinematography and Fellini’s bizarre, extravagant visuals are absolutely riveting. “–Time Out London (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by John Gordon. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

121. 8 1/2 (1963)

AKA Otto e Mezzo; Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2

CLAUDIA: Let’s leave this place. It makes me uneasy. It doesn’t seem real.

GUIDO: I really like it. Isn’t that odd?

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Sandra Milo, Claudia Cardinale, , Edra Gale

PLOT: Full of doubts and very near to suffering a breakdown from stress, a director is planning to make his next movie, never making much progress. The story is continuously interrupted by flashbacks to his boyhood and dream sequences, including one where he imagines all the women in his life living together in a harem. The production is complicated further by the arrival of his wife on the set, who is humiliated to find that his mistress is also there.

Still from 8 1/2 (1963)

BACKGROUND:

  • By Fellini’s count, this was the 8 1/2th film he directed (counting shorts and co-directing gigs as 1/2 of a movie each).
  • This was Fellini’s first feature after the incredible international success of La Dolce Vita (1960). In the movie, Fellini’s alter ego Guido has just come off of a great success, and everyone around him is expecting him to produce another masterpiece.
  • After making La Dolce Vita and before 8 1/2, Fellini became involved in Jungian psychoanalysis and started keeping a dream diary.
  • 8 1/2 won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1964. It played out of competition at Cannes, because the Italians split up their two 1963 prestige pictures, 8 1/2 and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, between Cannes and the Moscow Film Festival (a successful strategy, as Visconti took Cannes and Fellini Moscow). 8 1/2 has since far surpassed its companion and become a staple of “best movies of all time” lists. It ranked #9 on the 2002 version of Sight & Sound’s critic’s poll of the greatest movies ever made, and #3 on the director’s poll.
  • The “dance” ending was originally intended as a promotional trailer, but Fellini decided he liked the optimistic tone of this sequence better than the dark ending he had originally planned.
  • Unaccountably, this intellectual meditation on artistic doubt was adapted as a Broadway musical (!) called “Nine,” which was then made into a mediocre Hollywood musical.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It is with great reluctance that I select the image of Marcello Mastroianni flown like a kite above the beach as 8 1/2‘s representative image; not because it isn’t a fascinating and beautiful invention, but because I have to pass on so many other worthy candidates. In particular, I would have loved to pick a shot of Guido with a whip trying in vain to tame the women in the harem of his mind; but that ten minute sequence flows so beautifully and seamlessly from polygamous bliss to infantilism to feminist rebellion that it unfortunately can’t be summed up in a single still.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Watching 8 1/2 is like being dropped inside Federico Fellini’s brain


American trailer for 8 1/2

and wandering around inside its convoluted folds. As self-centered stream-of-consciousness filmmaking, this wonderfully masturbatory masterpiece has never been equaled. The film flows smoothly from anxiety-ridden nightmares to wish-fulfillment daydreams to some state we could safely call “reality” (although some new magic is always creeping up on even the most mundane moments of Guido’s confused existence).

COMMENTS: Expressing my disappointment with the middelbrow conventionality of 2009’s Continue reading 121. 8 1/2 (1963)