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Monday, June 15, 2020

Federico Fellini: A Look into the Life and Career of an Icon

A Fellini family portrait 
Update, November 18, 2021: The Museum of Modern Art in New York will host a retrospective of Federico Fellini’s work that will include 21 feature films and three shorts, all digitally restored in 4k resolution.

The retrospective, which will run from December 1, 2021 - January 12, 2022, is part of the Federico Fellini 100 Tour, a series of centennial tributes to Fellini, which travels to major museums and film institutions worldwide. Click here for details.. 

Federico Fellini

“The term became a common word to describe something on the surface you can say is bizarre or strange, but actually is really like a painter working on a film,” said Martin Scorsese when asked to define “Felliniesque,” an adjective inspired by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

The oldest of three children, Federico Fellini was born in the seaside town of Rimini in 1920. His father was a travelling salesmen, so his mother was left to do the bulk of raising the children. One can argue that Fellini was born for his destiny. “You could tell that even as a child, he was different and unique. He was very intelligent, well above average. He was always the one to organize things, direct the others, make up games. He could control the other kids with just a look, said Fellini’s sister, Maddalena, in an interview with journalist Gideon Bachmann. 

Not only was Fellini directing the children, he was putting on shows and charging admission. His mother, Ida Fellini, talked with Bachmann about the future director’s early fascination with creating a show. “At 10 or 11 years of age, he already showed a penchant for playing with puppets. He was already very keen on putting on shows for his friends. I’d buy him the puppet heads, and he’d put together costumes for them like a tailor. Then I bought him a little puppet theater. We had a huge terrace where he’d put on puppet shows for his schoolmates. He’d charge them a coin or two. They were his audience.” 

When Fellini entered his mid-teens and became part of a group of friends, he started frequenting the local cinema in Rimini, The Fulgor, which is still standing today and has recently been renovated in his honor. Those years influenced many of his films, inspired his caricature-drawings of actors and gave him a taste of the good life, earning money doing what he loved. 

“I think it was the summer of 1936. Federico was very good at drawing caricatures. He had this idea of posing as an English caricaturist by the name of Russell. We’d go to swank spots like the Grand Hotel here in Rimini,” recalled his childhood friend, Luigi Benzi. “He’d do very good caricatures, which we’d sell for five lire each. As soon as he’d drawn one, he’d take a break, and the five lire would quickly disappear. We’d do things like rent a carriage, and he’d buy a bag of candy, and we’d toss the candy out as we rode down the street. He liked to see little kids following behind, picking up the candy. By evening, all the lire he’d earned would be gone.”

Around the age of 16, Fellini started to send his illustrations with humorous captions to publications, including a Sunday edition newspaper called La Domenica del Corriere for which he was compensated. In 1937, he began to work for an artist in Rimini creating illustrations and caricatures, which were sold in the artist’s shop. That led to more caricatures for local movie theaters of famous actors in exchange for free admission to the movies for Fellini and his friends. 

Alberto Sordi in “The White Sheik” 
Fellini moved to Rome in the early 1940s. Upon his arrival, he drew caricature drawings for the satirical magazine, Marc’Aurelio and wrote sketches for EIAR, the public radio service in Fascist Italy. That’s where he met his future wife, actress Giulietta Masina, as she performed his skits. 

After the war, he began working as a screenwriter mostly with Roberto Rossellini on numerous films, including “Rome Open City” (1945), “Paisan” (1946) and “L’amore” (1948).

Fellini’s 1950 directorial debut “Luci del varietà” (Variety Lights) kicked off a prolific movie-making decade. He teamed up with Alberto Sordi in 1952 for “The White Sheik” and the following year for “I Vitelloni,” a highly autobiographical film that follows the shenanigans of a group of unemployed young men who roam around their seaside town of Rimini. Fellini based the story on his own group of high school friends, casting his younger brother in the role of Riccardo. 

Antonio Cifariello in “Agenzia Matrimoniale”
Also in 1953, he made a short video essay for Cesare Zavattini’s docu-fiction compilation, “L’amore in città” (Love in the City). A hidden treasure, “Agenzia Matrimoniale” is narrated by Fellini himself and tells of an experience he had during his early journalism days in Rome when he was reporting on an agency that arranges marriages. The busy streets of contemporary Rome in the 1950s serve as the perfect backdrop to this touching story about a young woman willing to marry a werewolf in order to be taken care of financially. Like most of Fellini’s works, it turned out to be somewhat of a case study on the human condition. 

During the mid-1950s, Fellini had a string of box office hits, which included two Oscar-winners for Best Foreign Language Film – “La Strada” (1954)  and “Le notte di Cabiria” (Nights of Cabiria) (1956) starring his wife and collaborator. It was just a warm up for the next two films that would define his career. 

Marcello Mastroianni and Aimee Anouk in "La Dolce Vita"
“In a way, it’s a sequel to “I Vitelloni.” Moraldo has come to the big city. He’s become a journalist, and he’s achieved a certain level of success. So the film is the tale of his adventures as a reporter, combined with parts of his private life,” explained Fellini during the making of “La Dolce Vita.”  He went on to say, “We’ll see Rome as we’ve come to know her in the past three or four years, this chaotic explosion of the city in every direction with its various characters- strange characters and strange encounters.” Of course, those encounters included the immortal image of Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in the Fountain of Trevi.

(Click here to read about the making of "La Dolce Vita.")

Perhaps the international appeal of “La Dolce Vita” and “8 ½” was the way in which Fellini presented Rome – with so much hope and enthusiasm for life, an immaculate city with newly built piazzas for enjoying and embracing “the sweet life.” Since there was always speculation as to how much of himself he put into his films, Fellini admitted that he was inspired by his own experiences when writing “La Dolce Vita,” telling an Italian journalist, “The film is autobiographical in the sense that it’s the sum of encounters I’ve had over the last few years. I’ve traveled the world screening my films. It’s a feverish life, if you will, a life that turns into publicity. My intention was to communicate a feeling of chaos, of disorder.”

The film was a huge success at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival where it premiered. The president of the jury, Belgian author Georges Simenon, was wildly passionate about the film. “I had the distinct impression that I had seen an exceptionally vigorous piece of work that will leave an important mark in the history of cinema. What I had seen was unprecedented and alive. At the same time, I had discovered an artist rich in both strength and sensitivity,” Simenon revealed.

“8 ½” 
Fellini’s follow up feature film to “La Dolce Vita” was the Academy Award winning “8 ½.” A film about making a film, Fellini drew on aspects of his childhood, his years as a journalist and his career as a director. Marcello Mastroianni is in his prime as Fellini’s alter ego, Guido, a filmmaker experiencing a severe case of writer’s block. The symbolic eerie open, a dream sequence in which Guido is hyperventilating in a locked car during a traffic jam is symbolic for the director trying to meet a deadline for his producer but unable to freely create the material. From Saraghina on the beach to his wife to his mistress to a sequence in which Guido is trapped in a room with domineering women, Fellini examines his own relationships with the women in his life. Whether they have come and gone, are still next to him or a distant memory, the women he knew left a lasting and profound effect. He told Bachmann that he was trying to portray three levels on which our minds live: the past, the present and not the future, but the conditional– the realm of fantasy.

Fellini’s first color film came in 1965 with “Giulietta degli spiriti” (Juliet of the Spirits). The advent of technicolor gave way to a whole new world of creativity, and he spent the next decade making abstract, visually over-the-top films such as “Fellini Satyricon” (1969), “The Clowns” (1970), “Roma” (1972) and “Amarcord” (1973).

(Click here to see a clip of Anna Magnani in "Roma.")

Perhaps a means of passage from his prime into his twilight years, acknowledging the values and social movements of the new generation, is the 1981 “City of Women.” Fellini was ahead of his time with this film as he explored and interpreted the new punk and feminist social movements of the period. Mastroianni stars as Snàporaz, a male chauvinist who makes a pass at a beautiful woman in the bathroom of a train as it’s arriving at the station. He exits the train as he sees her walking into an open field opposite the station. As he calls out to her, she turns around and snaps a photo of him while the train leaves the station without him. As he wanders through a forest, he stumbles upon a hotel filled with women. It’s a feminist convention and he is forced to address the disrespect he has demonstrated all his life towards women. Desperate to get back to the station, he catches a ride with a bunch of teenagers listening to punk music and is met with a game-changing detour.

Marcello Mastroianni in "City of Women"
The combination of Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s set design is a feast for the eyes. As the title suggests, Fellini once again examines his relationships with the women in his life. From a scene in which his wife breaks down about the distance that has grown between them to a hallway lined with pictures and recordings of women from the past to a dance sequence with young, beautiful dancers and a mother figure next to him to young boys on a beach with the Saraghina figure to a final scene in which the true love of his life is revealed, Fellini appears to enjoy this never-ending quest for the significance of the female presence in his life. 

Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina in "Ginger and Fred"
As Rome always played a main protagonist in the films he made there, Fellini’s 1986 “Ginger and Fred” is no different. However, as those older films had an air of hope and wonder to them, presenting Rome as his pristine playground, the city was presented as the complete opposite in this last film he would shoot there. This transition to the new generation of Romans that began in “City of Women” comes full circle. Instead, we see a much more contemporary Rome, closer to that which exists today with overflowing garbage containers, old furniture littering the sides of the road and clandestine immigrants selling packs of tissues and trinkets. The nostalgic story of two retired dancers meeting after decades to perform on a tacky variety show is representative of the Rome in which Fellini found himself during the last years of his life– nostalgic for the sweet memories of the past while living in an unrecognizable present.

Roberto Benigni in "The Voice of the Moon"
The 1990 film, “The Voice of the Moon” starring Roberto Benigni and Paolo Villaggio was Fellini’s last film. It had some success in Italy but wasn’t distributed in the United States at the time. At this point in his life, he was having a hard time getting his projects financed and instead did some work for television.

In March of 1993, Fellini was presented with an Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement by Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. The following June, he was admitted to a hospital in Switzerland for angioplasty. Two months later, he suffered a stroke while in his hometown of Rimini. He underwent some rehabilitation and was transferred to a Rome hospital to be closer to Masina who was also hospitalized at the time. Shortly thereafter, he had a second stroke and fell into a coma. He passed away on October 31, the day after the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary. 

Fellini once offered this insight into the success of his films: “If you talk about life with sincerity without trying to lecture anyone, without being too heavy-handed in your philosophizing or in the messages you send– When you talk about life with humility and most of all, with a sense of proportion for things, I think that everyone will be able to identify with you, and make your story their own.”

Click on the images below to stream films available on Amazon Prime. Click here to browse the selection on the Criterion Channel. If you're in Rome, check out Dante Ferretti's homage to Fellini, "Felliniana - Ferretti dreams of Fellini," at Cinecittà. Click here for details. 

Click here to read about Fellini's influence in Paolo Sorrentino's work and here to read about his impact on Woody Allen's films. 



-Written by Jeannine Guilyard for the August issue of Fra Noi Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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