MUBI's retrospective Fellini at 100 is showing April 29 - July 13, 2020 in many countries.
As someone raised in a town of 500, itching to escape to the nearest city for the best part of my childhood, Fellini’s characters have always felt familiar. “His films are a small-town boy’s dream of the big city,” Orson Welles told Playboy in a 1967 interview, and indeed, dotting them are heroes and eccentrics who either share the director’s provincial origins (a man born and raised in Rimini, a seacoast town in Italy’s north, and moved to Rome as he was pushing twenty) or dance through the frame with the stupor of perpetual strangers in strange lands. “He’s right,” Fellini said about Welles’s remark, “and that’s no insult.” For that naïve awe is the source of the ageless charm of Fellini’s whole cinema. If the films he made over a career spanning five decades still feel so alive and vibrant, it’s because they nurture the same childlike wonder of their protagonists, and their inordinate lust for life.
Fellini entered cinema in the heyday of neorealism. Among the several scripts he worked on through the 1940s one finds credits in Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), and more under Alberto Lattuada and Pietro Germi. But his early career would veer toward an entirely different kind of cinema, wherein characters would no longer be defined primarily by their socio-economic circumstances, but from a clash between their social role and their subconscious, between reality and illusions. That tension surfaces all through Fellini’s first two features, Variety Lights (co-directed in 1950 with Lattuada) and The White Sheik (Fellini’s 1952 first solo directorial effort), and serves as the bedrock of his third, I vitelloni (1953), a portrait of five overgrown adolescents who dream of fleeing their sleepy seaside town without doing much to make the dream come true. There’s Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), the gang’s leader and local Don Juan; Alberto (Alberto Sordi), the perpetual child living off his sister’s wages; Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste), the wannabe writer; and Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini, the director’s own brother), the aspiring tenor.
But the most interesting among them is Moraldo, the youngest and the quietest of the gang. He’s played by Franco Interlenghi, the elder of the two Roman urchins in Vittorio de Sica’s 1946 Shoeshine, who here saunters through the picture as a largely taciturn observer, bestowed with a sense of innocence and curiosity the others could never fathom. He listens in wide-eyed spell to their stories, tags along for new pranks, and at night—when the city is dead, and the streets empty—he indulges in long, solitary walks. If there’s anyone for whom I vitelloni unfolds as a coming-of-age, it’s him: as his friends plunge deeper in a post-adolescent limbo, Moraldo learns from their failures, and decides not to follow suit. In one late night stroll, he meets Guido, a boy who toils in the town’s train station. They exchange some small talk, and strike up a friendship. It’s Guido who is the only person Moraldo says goodbye to, one early morning, as he hops on a train and leaves. He doesn’t know where he’s going, doesn’t know why he’s leaving, only that he has to, and while Guido waves at him the camera moves through his mates’ bedrooms, the Vitelloni all asleep, for one last goodbye.
Moraldo, writes Peter Bondanella, is the first of all Fellini’s characters to experience an epiphany, a conversion. But his departure does not suggest an erasure of awestruck expression he wears through the film. In fact, Fellini’s characters never lose the ability to be stunned by life, even as things around them fall apart. It’s what Peter Harcourt has called “the characteristic Fellini miracle”: a process of self-renewal, where joie de vivre trumps all despair.
Arguably the most famous of those miracles occurs in La strada (1954), the winner of the first of Fellini’s four Foreign Language Film Oscars. In it, Giulietta Masina (whom Fellini had married in 1943, and who’d already starred in Variety Lights and The White Sheik) returns as Gelsomina, a young girl palmed off to a traveling circus strongman to assist him in his act. The strongman is Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), a brute, one-trick giant drumming up change with displays of herculean strength across the country's piazzas. Zampanò is a beast, and the contrast with the mysterious grace Gelsomina exudes cannot be more striking. “She’s a little strange,” her mother warns the man before bidding her farewell, but Gelsomina is hardly the dimwit he treats her as. In fact, she is witness to a reality that lies beyond our field of experience. She can commune with the sea, with the trees, even with the spirit of a dead dog. If her appearance tips a hat to Chaplin’s Little Tramp, her aura suggests something far more intricate: in Fellini’s words, “she’s both a little crazy and a little saintly.”
And here’s the miracle. Humiliated, abused, and rejected time and again by Zampanò, who’s incapable to acknowledge her beyond her role as aide or sexual object—much less to reciprocate her affection—she breaks down before Il Matto (Richard Basehart), a high-wire artist she’s met along the way. “I’m no use to anybody,” she cries, “I’m fed up of living.” To which Il Matto replies with the Parable of the Pebble: everything has a purpose, never mind how inscrutable that purpose may be. Writing in 1956, André Bazin argued that, for all their rough and primitive psychologies, La strada’s characters have a soul, and the film is nothing but the experience that they have of this fact, and its revelation to our eyes. As Gelsomina listens to Il Matto and the parable works in her, drawing her eyes skyward, she understands that she belongs in the world. She has a destiny. She is irreplaceable.
This life-affirming energy bursts through Fellini’s entire work, even in films that suggest no chances of redemption. Take La dolce vita (1960). The Rome of the late 1950s painted by Fellini is a desolating wasteland dotted with a miscellany of mortifying characters. They’re the desiccated blue bloods haunting rundown castles in Bassano di Sutri; the paparazzi swarming along Via Veneto like flies over carcasses; the affluent folks staging orgies inside Ostia’s villas; a swamp of wannabe intellectuals and artists, drunkards, sycophants, parasites, old and nouveaux riches.
At the center of that inferno ring lies Marcello Mastroianni’s gossip columnist and aspiring writer, Marcello. La dolce vita takes off where I vitelloni had ended, doubling as a heir to a film Fellini wrote but never directed, Moraldo in Città. That aborted project was meant to follow the youngest of the Vitelloni as he settled in Rome—“like an animal venturing for the first time in a wood to seek out the meaning of life,” as Fellini pitched it in an interview. Marcello is Moraldo’s successor: like Moraldo, he’s is a young man from the provinces (we’re told he moved to Rome from Cesena, a town nearby Rimini), but the capital has drained his spirit and castrated his creativity. Both films end with kids bidding farewell to their protagonists, but where Moraldo could speak to Guido, Marcello can’t even hear (nor does he seem to recognize) the young girl who calls for him as he kneels before the sea, his face disheveled after the umpteenth night of debauchery. She’s Paola (Valeria Ciangottini), a small-town girl herself, whom he’d met at a beachside restaurant earlier on. Fellini immortalizes her as a beacon of purity, which the film suggests Marcello has forever lost, slotting him in the circus of spiritually broken folks around him. And yet.
And yet every one of them twirls through the film with boisterous, irresistible energy. Every frame, every sequence thrums with so much vibrancy as to turn La dolce vita into a hymn to life. The film wreaked havoc in Italy: it was debated in parliament and banned by the Church. The critical reception Fellini had traditionally received back home took a sudden U-turn. Marxist critics who had scoffed at the Christian humanism they’d perceived in works like La strada could now rally behind a work they saw as an indictment of bourgeois and ecclesiastic corruption, and Catholic intellectuals who’d praised the director’s previous works shunned him for pornography. It was Pier Paolo Pasolini who offered one of the most eye-opening arguments, suggesting the film was, in fact, the highest and most absolute product of Catholicism of those last years, on account of all the vitality it emanated. Sure, the society Fellini portrays is mired in degradation and depravity, but grace is omnipresent in the film, circulating from person to person, from image to image.
This stupefying joy of being does not traverse Fellini’s films as a leitmotif: it’s the cornerstone upon which his cinema stands. In 8 1/2 (1963), Mastroianni returns as Fellini’s own stand-in, and the film ends with a line that echoes as a summation of the director’s whole cosmogony: “life is a feast, let’s live it together.” The words are uttered after a moment of almost unspeakable loneliness. Mastroianni’s Guido, an acclaimed cineaste wrestling with a creative block, has just decided to abort his new film. He’s spent the past few days locked in a spa hotel, ignoring his cast and crew while chasing childhood memories, nightmares, unresolved traumas. He’s sought—and failed—to squeeze those apparitions into a script, and as the project keeps slipping farther away, he comes to grips with the fact that he may have never be able to make sense of his life, much less his art. In the epilogue, Mastroianni watches as the scenography of his abandoned film is being pulled down, when he’s suddenly overwhelmed by an unspeakable joy. “What is this outburst of happiness that makes me tremble, gives me new strength, new life?”
It’s another miracle, nothing short of the seismic epiphany Gelsomina had experienced as she realized her place in the universe. Guido makes peace with his ghosts, and accepts himself as a fragile, confused, imperfect human being. He begs those he loves to do the same, and then joins them for one last, glorious dance, made immortal by Nino Rota’s triumphal score. Life is a moveable, intricate and messy feast, and 8 1/2 captures it as such. Like La dolce vita, it does not unfold along a linear path but cavorts with the free-floating exuberance of a poem, where images of breathtaking potency, symbols and dreams coalesce into a richly affecting vision. One does not watch 8 1/2: one experiences it, to borrow from the words Bazin had chosen for La strada, as a great aesthetic emotion, an encounter with an unsuspected universe.
The undying appeal of that universe is rooted in its youthfulness, and in Fellini’s ability to embrace the messiness of life with the same amazement of his protagonists. This is the lesson Juliet of the Spirits (1965) arrives at, with its portrait of Giulietta (Masina), a housewife who realizes she’s been living far too long in her husband’s shadow, and watches as the marriage crumbles. It’s one of the liveliest of all Fellini’s features—his first in color—and it’s a joy for the eyes: a triumph of lush hues and outrageously glamorous costumes (courtesy of Piero Gherardi), which only amplify the film’s dreamlike aura.
For Juliet, frequently interpreted as a companion piece to 8 1/2, straddles reality and mirages with the same rebellious oomph of its predecessor. Giulietta’s moribund marriage resuscitates childhood memories; like Guido’s in 8 1/2, they are intimately linked with sexual development and its repression. In one, Giulietta remembers the day her grandfather took her to the circus, fell smitten with a trapeze artist twice as young as him, and abandoned the family to run away with the girl. In another, she recalls a play staged at her Catholic school, where she played a saint burn alive. And like 8 1/2, Juliet is a lesson in self-acceptance. As Giulietta treads into her subconscious to rescues her child self from the flames, she resolves to move forward, leaving behind her husband but not the spirits she’s carried with her since childhood, and which she finally accepts as part of her own fabric.
Giulietta’s youthful aura is Fellini’s, and it will ripple on to the director’s later works. Even as some of them take on a more melancholic tone, exhuming his years in the capital (Roma, 1972), his childhood in Rimini (Amarcord, 1973), or his baptism inside Cinecittà’s studios (Intervista, 1987), the past never reeks of stale air, and the stupor they are all drenched in makes the anecdotes feel vibrant, as if relived with present day immediacy. Intervista was Fellini’s penultimate film. It’s a reunion of friends, peopled with some of the director’s legendary collaborators. Toward the end, Fellini drives with Mastroianni to Anita Ekberg’s villa, outside Rome. Mastroianni sports a magician’s outfit, and conjures a projector and a white cloth, over which Fellini screens the Trevi Fountain scene from La dolce vita. Ekberg was 28 when she waded into the fountain; Mastroianni, 35. It’s been almost thirty years since that night, and here they are again, reunited for one of the most heartrending scenes Fellini has ever shot, gaping at that scrap of film history as if it was the first time. You recognize that look: their awe is yours, too.