Tag Archives: Federico Fellini

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?

Must See

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 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).


Opening scene from 8 1/2

 

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

110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

AKA Satyricon; The Degenerates

“…to eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination; to invent everything and then to objectify the fantasy; to get some distance from it in order to explore it as something all of a piece and unknowable.”–Federico Fellini on his motives for adapting Petronius’ Satyricon

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Potter, Max Born, Hiram Keller, Mario Romagnoli

PLOT: Two students, Encolpio and Ascilto, argue over their dual ownership of the handsome slave boy Giton, whom Encolpio loves and Ascilto has sold. Encolpio seeks Giton through a series of adventures that take him across the ancient Roman world, encountering a pompous actor, a wealthy merchant who holds nightly orgies and fancies himself a poet, unscrupulous slavers, and other long dead satirical targets. Eventually Encolpio becomes involved in a plot to kidnap an albino hermaphrodite demigod, is cursed with impotence, and seeks the services of a witch.

Still from Fellini Satyricon (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • Petronius wrote the rambling, erotic, and highly literary “Satyricon” during the reign of Emperor Nero, 1st Century A.D. It is sometimes considered the world’s oldest surviving novel.
  • The original Roman satire survives only in fragments, which explains the often incoherent nature of the story in Fellini’s movie. Fellini invented a few small details (and one major one, in the hermaphrodite character who replaces the penis-god Priapus’ role in the story) to bridge gaps or help the story flow in the direction he wanted to. The director refers to the fragmentary nature of the source narrative by allowing the story to jump forward in time, and even ends a scene in mid-sentence (as Petronius’ surviving work ends in the middle of a sentence).
  • Fellini’s name appears in the title not out of vanity, but to distinguish the movie from a competing adaptation directed by Gian Luigi Polidoro which was also released in 1969. Polidoro registered the title Satyricon first. United Artists purchased the international distribution rights to both films and sat on Polidoro’s movie while they promoted Fellini’s more marketable name.
  • Fellini used international actors for the main parts (joking that he did so because there were no Italian homosexuals). The director saw that dubbing into Italian was deliberately made slightly out of sync with the actors’ lip movements to create an additional feeling of strangeness.
  •  was offered the small but important role of Trimalchio, but was too ill to accept it (Karloff died in February of 1969).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Picking a single image to represent Satyricon is like trying to single out one scene that captures the essence of a sprawling carnival. The film is a nonstop parade of extreme imagery, grotesque tableaux and freakish costuming.  No one scene sticks out as more bizarre than another, and nothing is supposed to; everything inside  the borders of the known world of Satyricon is as weird as everything else, from the whorehouse at the center of the empire to the blank spot at the edge of the map where monsters be. Forced to select something, we went with the image appearing five minutes into the film of the actor Vernaccio, dressed in a porcine pink helmet with a fin on top, carefully placing a tiny pill-like object on his outstretched tongue. It’s Fellini’s signal to the Summer of Love crowd that the movie is dosing itself right now—strap yourselves in for the trip to come.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fellini seizes upon the fragmentary nature of his classical source material as an excuse to fly off on flights of phantasmagorical fancy; he sets his camera to observe these imaginary denizens of gluttonous old Rome as if they were alien lifeforms. Satyricon is the work of a master filmmaker at his most self-indulgent—but when tremendous talent
indulges itself, the results are typically spectacular.


John Landis on the trailer for Fellini Satyricon

COMMENTS: The surviving text of the Satyricon begins with randy bisexual student Encolpio in Continue reading 110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

CAPSULE: NINE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Rob Marshall

FEATURING: Daniel Day-Lewis, Stacy Ferguson (“Fergie”), , , Judi Dench, Sophia Loren

PLOT: Celebrity director Guido Contini finds he can’t get started on his latest movie script because the women he’s romantically entangled with keep bursting into song whenever he’s around.

Still from Nine (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Musicals, by their very nature, are a little weird, because in everyday life people very rarely ask you for the time in the key of A-flat minor. The musical genre traditionally atones for the sin of departing from reality by doubling over backwards to be reassuringly conventional in narrative and thoughtlessly blithe in message. Nine is no exception to the general rule; we only cover it here because it was inspired loosely by the great weird film 8 1/2 and it’s fascinating director, .

COMMENTS: First things first: Nine, while inspired by Fellini’s 8 1/2, is obviously aimed at those who never saw the original film, or who saw it but didn’t like it much. Keeping that in mind off the bat makes the film feel much less like an insult to the maestro’s memory, and much more like what it is: a highly fictionalized puff piece that aims solely to entertain, while presenting the artist’s struggle to create as just another two-dimensional backdrop for the song-and-dance spectaculars. Except that these songs and dances are not really spectacular, so much as acceptable. The tableaux—which range from minimalist tinker-toy girders to a sequined Folies Bergère nightclub to a fashion runway strobe-lit by paparazzi flashes (the irony!)—are all flashy, pretty and eye-catching enough. The problem is that it would be, for the most part, an act of charity to describe the melodies as memorable, so that most of the numbers come across as all sparkle and no spark. The one exception is provided by Stacy Ferguson (better known as Fergie). Putting the only professional singer in the cast together with the movie’s only hummable melody (“Be Italian”) is an eggs-in-all-one-basket strategy that gives audiences something to remember, but also highlights the mediocrity of the rest of the musical performances.

As for the rest of the star-studded female cast, none can really sing or dance, and there is an unrelenting sameness to their lyrics (which are mostly about how each dame would rather be sleeping with Daniel Day-Lewis than doing whatever she’s doing now). At some point the musical numbers become numbing interruptions that make the melodrama interesting by comparison. Day-Lewis’ Italian accent is passable and he does invest his Guido with a charming childlike quality that almost makes his irresistibility to women believable; but, though he’s game enough, he just can’t carry a tune, and having him half-sing/half-talk through the climactic songs is no solution. Still, the razzle-dazzle of the production numbers, numerous cameos (i.e., Sophia Loren) and Fellini references, Fergie’s musical triumph, and a vampy song by Cruz—whose lingerie-clad tramp around a mirrored floor while wrapping pink ropes around her willowy frame is sultry enough to make her song and dance talents irrelevant—are enough to transform Nine into passable, if forgettable, entertainment. Plus, it features more corsets and fishnet stockings per minute than you’ll see outside of a fetish video, which can hardly be considered a bad thing.

Nine isn’t really inspired so much by 8 1/2 as it’s inspired by the most famous scene of 8 1/2, the harem/lion tamer sequence, where Guido famously envisions himself as being adored, then harried, by the various females in his life. The fact that the movie’s psychology ignores all other aspects of the director’s creativity and inner artistic torments in favor of the reductionist “it’s all because he’s conflicted about his unrealistic image of women” is disappointing, but hardly surprising considering this is squarely middlebrow Hollywood stuff. After all, what else would you expect from a movie whose title announces its intentions by rounding up an inconveniently weird partial number to a nice, easily digestible integer?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The challenge for Marshall, following his Oscar-winning Chicago, was to bring another hallucinatory musical to the screen without repeating himself or dimming the material’s blazing, untamed theatricality. By my score card, Marshall hits more than he misses.”–Peter Travers, Rolling Stone