Tag Archives: Federico Fellini

CAPSULE: FELLINI’S CASANOVA (1976)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: The dashing Venetian nobleman Casanova wanders around 18th century Europe seducing every woman who catches his eye.

Still from Fellini's Casanova (1976)

COMMENTS: Federico Fellini agreed to direct Casanova before he had read the Venetian libertine’s memoirs, which had only been published in 1960 in their complete uncensored form. After he did, he discovered that he hated the protagonist.

Perhaps that distaste partially explain why Donald Sutherland seems so wrong for the role of the notorious Lothario. The film’s Hollywood backers initially wanted Robert Redford for the part; Fellini vetoed them. Fellini wanted ; the suits vetoed him. Sutherland was a compromise. But, in keeping with his loathing of the character, Fellini chose to outfit Sutherland with a grotesque fake chin and nose, powder his face, and shave his head and eyebrows and replace them with a ridiculously coiffed wig and stenciled brows so that he looked like a rejected contestant from Ru Paul’s 18th Century Dandy Drag Race. It’s hard to imagine even the most desperate Renaissance floozy being hard up enough to willingly lift her petticoats for this Casanova. Perhaps that’s why, in an odd decision that bothers me more than it probably should, everyone in the movie keeps their frilly long underwear on during the manic but completely unerotic sex scenes. Casanova also has a golden wind-up mechanical owl, who pistons up and down and accompanies his assignations with a series of blips and bloops scored by Nino Rota. The lovemaking scenes are supposed to be comic—I think—but they comes across as slightly creepy, like sex scenes choreographed by an alien who’d fast-forwarded through a couple of Eurotrash sex films the night before, but didn’t have human sexual mechanics completely down.

To be fair, Sutherland does look the part of the spent, past-his-prime Casanova eeking out a humiliating living as a librarian for Count Waldstein; and the end of the film is where Fellini, too, finally shows some compassion for the drained rake. But overall, Casanova is overlong, unsympathetic, miscast, and a failure of tone. That’s not to say it’s entirely without interest, however; this is Fellini, so there’s always the possibility that some carnival with a 7-foot woman attended by two dwarfs in powdered wigs is waiting around the next bend. The costuming and set design are superlative. Fellini recreates the capitals and castles of old Europe on Cinecittà‘s indoor sets, including the impressive opener in Venice, where a giant bust of Venus rises from a canal during Carnevale as fireworks splatter the sky. Even the stormy Adriatic Sea is recreated as a sea of rustling black plastic tarps. And you can look forward to such oddities as a dinner party of necromancers, and Casanova finally discovering the great love of his life: a lifelike automaton complete with realistic artificial genitalia.

Although there’s a reason Casanova has been neglected all these years (Fellini once called it his worst movie), it easily merits a guilty peek for curiosity-seekers. In some ways, the scarcely-controlled extravagance and emphasis on mise-en-scène above all else reminds me more of early than it does late Fellini.

Fellini filmed an episode with that was cut from the final edit of the film. (Her name still appears prominently in the credits, and I kept waiting for her to show up to see what Fellini was going to do with her, er, talents).

Despite winning an Oscar (for costuming), Fellini’s Casanova was always a neglected entry in the Maestro’s canon. It didn’t even earn a DVD release in the US. In 2019, Cinecittà restored Casanova in the course of their massive remastering of Fellini’s catalog. Criterion apparently passed on it for their Fellini box set, but in December 2020, Kino rescued the film from home video limbo, sending it straight to Blu-ray.  A thoroughly-researched audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton is the only special feature of this edition.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…much less about the self-proclaimed 18th-century philanderer, his life and his times, than it is the surreal, guilt-ridden confessions of a nice, middle-class Italian husband of the 20th century… I don’t know how else to interpret this strange, cold, obsessed film, which I find fascinating, because I find the man who made it fascinating, a talented mixture of contradictory impulses, and as depressing as an eternal hangover.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who argues “Any question of this film’s weirdness can be directed to the scene where Sutherland performs a bizarre sex-change ritual with two women that involves a candlewax head dress…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: GINGER AND FRED (1986)

Ginger e Fred

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Giulietta Masina,

PLOT: Retired Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers impersonators return for a guest spot on a television spectacular.

Still from Ginger and Fred (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: One ten-teated cow does not a weird movie make. In Ginger and Fred, Fellini’s once-aggressive surrealism mellows into bemused quirkiness. Fans will find plenty to appreciate in the colorful, chaotic oddity on display, but this is a conventional comedy, by the maestro’s standards.

COMMENTS: Ginger and Fred is not a “Felliniesque” movie per se. It’s more of a roadmap for how Fellini’s vision might be channeled into something nostalgic and whimsical: Fellini for grandpas and grandmas. It’s a pleasing elegy for grand old entertainment, mixed with an unsubtle but effective satire of television. It features Fellini’s muse (Masina) and alter-ego (Mastroianni) working together for the first and only time, a pairing that in and of itself would make Ginger and Fred noteworthy. Fortunately, it’s also a good movie, with excellent performances from both stars. Masina’s Ginger is likeable and dignified, bemused by modernity without being overwhelmed or embittered. Mastroianni’s Fred hides his growing feebleness under a mask of rakishness, quick with a wolf whistle and a drink order. The scene where Fred repeatedly lifts Ginger while her eyes cross and they both start breathing heavily is as amusing a proxy for geriatric intercourse as I ever want to see on film.

Ginger and Fred‘s unseen network executives assemble a collection of human oddities for their Christmas spectacular variety show, with whom the elegant and put-upon Ginger is forced to share a hotel and a stage. There’s a transvestite with a divine calling to visit prisoners, Kafka and Proust impersonators (!), a troupe of bolero-dancing dwarfs, a mutant cow, a couple who tape-record ghost voices, and a throng of supplemental weirdos: extras wander around dressed like video game characters and decapitated geishas. There is some inherent irony in the way Ginger and Fred trots out its freakshow parade as a criticism of television, given the fact that Fellini himself was famous and celebrated for populating his films with odd-looking people and carnivalesque performers. The distinction, of course, is that Fellini isn’t criticizing television’s reliance on the grotesque, but the shallowness of its fascination, of the spectacle format in which every story is cut to fit in as short a slot as possible and not explored beyond its surface. His satirical circus is something stranger and more curious than television could ever accomplish (except, of course, when Fellini worked in the medium). He spends time exploring Ginger and Fred in-depth, making them three-dimensional characters inhabiting a two-dimensional world.

Some of the best bits are the brief parodies of television programming. There’s an absurd puppet show version of Dante’s “Inferno,” spot-on recreations of MTV music videos, a commercial with sexy French maid pouring olive oil on a huge lobster, a game show where housewives shovel pasta into their mouths from sinks, with the sauce delivered from the faucet. Televisions are everywhere in Ginger and Fred; in the hotel lobby, on the studio’s buses. Modern audiences will identify with the way the characters are always looking at screens rather than people—only back then, it was television that was the distraction. The screen has changed, but the message is the same.

In a strange footnote, Ginger Rogers unsuccessfully (and foolishly) sued Ginger and Fred‘s producers for trademark infringement and defamation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a hysterical send-up of Italian television, which looks like an LSD-induced vision of ours 30 years ago – a combination of Morey Amsterdam’s ‘Broadway Open House,’ ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ Alistair Cooke’s ‘Omnibus’ and the Irv Kupcinet show… One longs for fewer midgets and bizarre misfits and for more of Miss Masina and Mr. Mastroianni.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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 shows 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: , , 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)