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Monday, January 4, 2016

Federico Fellini's Impact on Woody Allen

A scene from Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories"

Tonight I watched the film, "Woody Allen: A Documentary." I was not expecting a connection to Italian cinema but since one usually ends up presenting itself, tonight was no different.

A scene from Federico Fellini's "8 1/2"
The documentary brought up the similarities between Allen’s "Stardust Memories" and Federico Fellini’s "8 ½." These are films that I saw 20+ years ago when I was young and exploring the masters of cinema. I found both films fascinating but I believe that I was too young to understand the complexities of them. My memory recalls their visual aspects- the zany characters and faces and a strong sense of the surreal. In "Woody Allen: A Documentary," Allen himself talks about the impact that Fellini had on his career. Although I've seen just about every film that Allen has made, I didn’t realize how strongly Fellini influenced his work. After watching this film, and yesterday by coincidence, Ettore Scola’s 2013 "How Strange to Be Named Federico," I can see similarities not only in their work but also in their unique personalities, their curiosities about life and mortality and their undeniable comic genius that catapulted each of them to success.
Ettore Scola directs his grandson, Tommaso Lazotti, as a young Fellini
“Fellini loved driving and he treated his insomnia by taking his friends out in turns for midnight drives: true and tried kidnappings. He’d pick up drunks, compulsive liars, dethroned princes, even a few streetwalkers.. out of curiosity, out of an uncontrollable love for life. And with him, that car became a confessional booth. Life was a party, he loved to say, so why not live each moment as one?”  I really enjoyed this line in "How Strange to be Named Federico." Many of the scenes take place in a car driving around Rome. Through the windows, you can see the landmarks, the fountains, the piazzas and of course, the Romans. Rome was to Fellini what New York City is to Allen- a metropolitan muse. Speaking to that muse, Fellini’s "La Dolce Vita" was Allen’s "Manhattan" just like Fellini’s "8 ½" was Allen’s "Stardust Memories." Furthermore, Scola says "The White Sheik" inspired Allen's 2012, To Rome With Love .

"Woody Allen: A Documentary"
The qualities I feel are the strongest between the two filmmakers are taking an average character and putting him into a completely surreal fantasy world, the diversity of stories ranging from comedy to love to tragedy and the strong presence of the muse in their work- For Fellini, it was Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina, his wife of 50 years, the city of Rome and the Romans. For Allen it was (in the '70s and '80s) Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow- with whom he had relationships, the island of Manhattan and New Yorkers. It is noted in Scola’s documentary that “Fellini adopted Mastroianni as an ideal alter-ego in his main films. In fact, he took better care of him than he did himself: forcing physical exercise and diets on him that he himself never did”. In Allen’s documentary, he talks about his closeness with Keaton and how her friendship gave him the ability to see life from a woman’s perspective.

Ettore Scola and Federico Fellini
The biggest difference I see in their work is how uncomfortable Fellini felt in front of the camera whereas Allen is a total ham and comes alive. Scola recalls how “it took many car rides and convincing to get Fellini to play himself in Scola's 1974 ensemble masterpiece, "C'eravamo tanto amati" (We all loved each other so much). When he did finally accept the offer, it was on the condition that he wouldn’t be filmed from behind, “so no one sees my bald spot”.
Another aspect of these masters’ films that I appreciate is their way with music and how it's a protagonist of its own- for me most notably in Allen’s opening scene of "Manhattan" with Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue"...  

... and Fellini’s closing scene of "8 ½" with Nino Rota’s "La passerella"..

On that note, Scola, also a master screenwriter and director, beautifully ended "How Strange to Be Named Federico" with Rota’s signature circus-like melody in a collage of powerful images from his films with Alberto Sordi and Mastroianni. It reminded me of the equally beautiful scene from John Huston's 1952 "Moulin Rouge" in the very final moments of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's life when that signature can can music plays with the images of his friends and muses. 
With each of these scenes, I was struck by an explosion of nostalgia which made me ponder the great question of Woody Allen and the reoccurring theme of his films, why can’t life be eternal? Surely we are not eternal, but one thing is for sure.. the magic of cinema.

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