#19 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
Fellini’s last movie. He started his directing career with Variety Lights in 1950 and ends it here, in 1990, with forty years of change to his beloved home country in between. It turns out, though, that Fellini didn’t have a whole lot more to say. He’d been repeating certain ideas since the fifties, but he’d been able to provide new twists and variations, the most interesting in his late career being his self-reflective turn in City of Women where he provided a critique of his own view of women. The Voice of the Moon feels like a light bauble to end a great career with, more like a coda than a final statement. That’s not to say that there aren’t joys in this final film, but it just seems to come to very little while repeating too much.
The two main characters of The Voice of the Moon both have mental issues. The first, Ivo, played by Roberto Benigni, was released from a mental institution, and the second, Gonnella, was a local magistrate but removed from his post because of rising senility issues manifested by obsessions with conspiracy theories. Ivo is a wistful young man who hears voices from the moon and from wells in the middle of the night. He seems to have trouble interacting with most people such as, early in the film, a group of young men crowd around an isolated house to watch a woman undress and he can’t keep quiet, loudly trying to tell the other guys something that made him laugh. He drifts through their small town, mostly idolizing the local beauty Aldina, a blonde who wins the regional beauty contest.
The two end up meeting about halfway through the film in the town market, bumping into each other for the first time, and Gonnella’s conspiracy mindedness immediately hits a chord with Ivo. When Gonnella starts pointing out people around them acting normally but insisting that it’s all an elaborate act to lull him into a false sense of security, the innocent Ivo starts to consider it. Gonnella latches onto Ivo and Ivo latches onto Gonnella, and their journey culminates with them discovering a rave in an old, remote, and large building. Set to Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel”, Ivo casts off his ideal Aldina who scoffed him endlessly, offering up the shoe of hers he had been holding onto almost the entire movie and finding that it fits on every woman’s foot he meets. Gonnella critiques the gyration that is modern dancing, recalling the more elegant form he had practiced as a young man before his love, a woman he calls a French Duchess, appears out of nowhere and the crowd gives them space to dance to “The Beautiful Blue Danube”.
The end of the movie is an extended outdoor press conference after two local brothers who owned construction equipment had used their crane to capture the moon and hold it to the earth with rope in a nearby barn. I was enjoying the film as the kind of loosely episodic adventure that Fellini had become well-versed in until this where the final sequence seemed to be taking up questions that the rest of the movie had never concerned itself with. Fellini often returned to the idea of meaning in the modern world, but the familiar satirical targets reappearing here, in particular the Church, felt out of place considering what had come before as opposed to the same target feeling like a natural fit in a movie like Roma. It didn’t help that Ivo and Gonnella are barely involved in the events as well.
Eventually, the movie ends with Ivo hearing the moon speak to him about how his grandmother laughed every time she saw him and Ivo walking up to a well bemoaning how no one listens anymore because the world is too loud.
I can’t say that I disagree with Fellini about the modern world generally being too loud for quiet introspection, but the way he presents the idea in The Voice of the Moon ends up feeling like the rantings of an old man who’s found that the world has passed him by. In particular, Gonnella’s dance seems to stem from that, and it turns what could have been a beautiful moment of things lost to time into something much more bitter, a tone that doesn’t really fit well with Fellini’s carnivalesque milieu in general. His satire always had bite, but he dressed it up entertainingly in a way that softened the initial impact with the satirical elements needing to be teased out a bit, but the softer exterior feels almost completely removed here.
In terms of repetition, this usually isn’t something to bring up in a review. Fellini approaching the same idea for the 20th time could have the same impact as the first or the fourth, but here the ideas feel more like going through the motions, like Fellini is just bringing them in because it’s habitual rather than he has something else to add to the idea. The ideal woman, for instance, is Aldina, but Ivo just gives her up in a (possible) fantasy sequence where every woman can wear her shoe. It almost feels like a throw away moment rather than the point of Ivo’s journey which, when mixed with Ivo at the end, talking to the moon about quiet, almost ends up feeling like it’s from a different movie.
Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t fun to be had in this movie. Fellini knew what he was doing in individual sequences that hold up in isolation quite well. The story of Nestore and his recently divorced wife’s insatiable sexual appetite is amusing, for example. The press conference around the captured moon is controlled chaos executed well, with an idea at its core about searching for meaning. I just don’t think that Fellini’s loose production style ended up pulling all of his ideas together. It was always a risk with how he worked, and I just don’t think that the bet paid off this time.
The Voice of the Moon is the work of an artist too set in his ways to really break out of them, too enthralled to the same ideas that have dominated his work his whole career to say much new, and too talented to let that drag the whole affair down.