#9 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
Federico Fellini’s two most frequent actors, his wife Giulietta Masina and the star Marcello Mastroianni, come together for the first time in a Fellini picture, and the result is a rather wonderful little gem of a film late in Fellini’s career. It’s about getting old and reflecting back on the past that’s gone, told through two characters that made their livelihoods dancing like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers around the start of the Second World War. Touching on the kind of off-kilter forms of entertainment that appeared in Fellini’s earliest films, Ginger and Fred also balances the later deeply satirical streak with his earlier humanist touches to create a very charming and touching film.
Long out of show business altogether, Amelia is invited to Rome to appear on a Christmas variety show with her long-separated partner, Pippo, as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers lookalike dancers. Not sure what she’s agreed to, the carnival of acts and personalities that end up swarming around her in the hotel the television studio has booked her into begin to make her question her decision. When she finally sees Pippo, she commits yet again.
Now, one of the fun things about this movie is how it treats Marcello Mastroianni as Pippo. In his first scene, he’s disheveled and barely awake, coming out of his hotel room to Amelia’s knocking because he was snoring too loudly. He’s a far cry from the suave movie star making role in La Dolce Vita, and that playing against type ends up working really well. Masina is the collected professional grandmother, concerned about how things look, but she also gives a wonderful physical performance, especially as the movie goes into its later stages and things get a bit kookier.
Fellini ends up doing two major things in this film. The first and foremost is the story of Amelia and Pippo reconnecting after decades apart have sent them in inexorably opposite directions, only to cross paths one last time in this one extraordinary circumstance. There was love then, but she broke it off and neither seems to really remember why. It just ended, but in the decades since, both married other people. She had a daughter, became a widow, and started running her own little shop. He got married, his wife left him, and he’s been scrounging around Europe doing little bits of entertainment here and there wherever he could get it (a more refined version of the late Zampano in La Strada). What the two end up finding by donning their old costumes and dancing together yet again for a large audience is that there was something special there, and it is something to be cherished. However, that something is still in the past and needs to stay there.
The other thing Fellini’s doing is a satire of contemporary television. There’s a television on in almost every scene, often (rather oddly and obviously) rotoscoped and composited into frame to the point that the television looks brighter and more in focus than the other action in the frame. Whether that’s intentional or not, I could never say for sure. However, it’s always there, grabbing out attention away from the more human elements playing out on screen at the same time. The acts that appear before Amelia and Pippo go out are vacuous and quickly forgotten. There’s the woman who records the voice of spirits, a flying monk (who does not fly in public, mind you), a group of little people who dance, and an admiral who did a brave and famous thing decades before. Nothing is meant to stick in the people’s minds, and yet it’s addictive. The last thing before Amelia and Pippo’s dance is the host interviewing a woman the studio had paid to not watch television for a month, and she tearfully confesses that the month was one of the worst in her life and that it was a form of torture while the host smiles to the side and tells the audience that they should listen to the woman and never turn off the television.
Fellini had obviously held a fascination with television at some point, having had a hand in several television projects including I Clowns and A Director’s Notebook, but it seems as though popular television confounded him to a certain extent. He embraces the carnivalesque aspect of it, but there is an obvious implication that television is effervescent and temporary in a way that cinema didn’t share. Amelia and Pippo do get their moment to reconnect fully with their dance, but their moment to recover and revel in that is cut short because they’re in the way of the next act. They’ve had the greatest moment of their professional lives, and they already being pushes aside for something else.
Like many men as they grow old, Fellini seemed to become more circumspect about age as he grew older. Amelia bemoans her wrinkles in a mirror. Pippo has cramps in his foot that end up making him fall on live television. There’s an implication that the two will never see each other again when they part ways at Termini Station on different trains, and it’s a touching moment brought on by two likeable and flawed characters reconnecting after a lifetime apart. It’s a light, touching film, often quite funny, and impeccably made by a master of the craft.