Federico Fellini is just one of those names that dominate cinema. Along with people like Bergman, Welles, Ford, and Griffith, his impact was so large that his movies became a cornerstone of cinema’s identity. His influence ended up wide and deep. Filmmakers like Scorsese and Terry Gilliam have heavy Fellini influences in their work.
He’s also become incredibly divisive over time.
He rose to prominence at the time with European movies were surprisingly popular abroad, especially in America. In the 50s and 60s, there was a large influx of movies by Bergman, Truffaut, Godard, de Sica, and, of course, Fellini, among others, that were able to compete with most American movies in the American movie market. In 1960, Fellini’s largest success, La Dolce Vita, was the ninth highest grossing movie of the year, making $17.1 million at the box office (which translates to roughly $227 million in today’s dollars).
He was big, and unlike many of his European contemporaries he was outright fun and playful in many of his movies. And yet, he could never really escape his Catholic upbringing, Italy’s Fascist past, or the deep poverty he had known in his youth, providing a somber tone to even his most outrageous works.
Fellini started in the movies as a screenwriter, working most prominently on the script for Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City, a tale of Italian life during World War II. Rossellini’s film is emblematic of the type of films that the Italians were making at the time. Noted for their use of non-professional actors, real locations, and themes dealing with the common man, Italian neo-realism spoke to the Italian character at the time as well as fed the surging leftist critical opinion of what art should be at the time.
When Fellini started making his own movies, beginning with a co-directorial effort with Alberto Lattuada titled Variety Lights, he was firmly in that tradition, though his films were still distinct. Like with many artists with distinct voices, you can see much of what would later dominate Fellini’s work in his very first movie, especially the use of carnivalesque images and parades when a group of performers walk through the countryside to a rich lawyer’s house for dinner.
Despite his own flourishes, though, Fellini would continue in the tradition firmly until La Strada, his tale of a simple girl sold to a brutal traveling circus performer. Going back and reading the negative Italian critical reaction we see a lot of the problems that plague modern film criticism. Was the movie good or bad wasn’t the central question. In fact, some of these reviews admit admiration for the craft and performances. The problem was that they didn’t like the redemptive ending provided to Zampano, the brutal man who had abused his ward to her death. Guido Aristarco, a Marxist critic, said, “We don’t say, nor have we ever said, that La Strada is a badly directed and acted film. We have declared, and do declare, that it is wrong; its perspective is wrong.”
Fellini chafed at these criticisms, finding them closed-minded, narrow, and purposefully misguided. That he wasn’t keeping to the strict ideals of Italian neo-realism didn’t interest him. When his Italian contemporaries like Roberto Rossellini followed in Fellini’s footsteps with movies that became less concerned with the earlier strictures of the form, he was at least partially justified as the critics who lambasted him for doing something different were more and more largely ignored by the artist community.
The Sweet Life
Fellini’s height of power came in the early 1960s. He had already had large successes like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, but it was La Dolce Vita that launched him into superstardom.
Stylistically, he was already largely past his neo-realist roots. He’d been filming on built sets since Nights of Cabiria and his use of non-professional actors was becoming the rare exception more than anything else, but La Dolce Vita reveled in wealth on screen in ways that his earlier films never came close to touching. The main character, Marcello, played by Marcello Mastroianni in his star-making role, drifts around Rome in a series of loosely connected episodes as he pursues the eponymous sweet life. The movie was a smash hit probably for a few reasons. The first being that this was an energetic and sensationalized look at an exotic foreign city. The second was that it was steeped in controversy, including an accusation of blasphemy from the Catholic Church because of a sequence that centered on a crowd’s reaction to a miracle. It was also sexy, very sexy, with the iconic moment of Anita Ekberg wading into the Trevi Fountain.
It was with his next movie, though, 8 1/2, where any vestige of Fellini’s neo-realist roots were cast aside. Using dreams and visions, Fellini presents the story of a creatively blocked film director unable to make his next movie. It’s a self-reflexive film and the moment he declared to the world that he was going to only make movies that interested him. His stand in, Guido (again played by Mastroianni), is trying to make a science fiction epic, but the parts he is casting are all for parts that reflect women in his life past and present. When the production finally collapses at a disastrous press conference, Guido ends up directing the entire cast of characters in a playful march around a giant ring, like in a circus. He was only ever going to make movies that appealed to him from then on, and that’s exactly what Fellini ended up doing.
The Self-Indulgent Late Period
There’s a lot to love in Fellini’s later films, but it would be a lie to say that they’re not self-indulgent. They fully are. They are film experiments about himself and his life told in his, by this point, extremely distinctive visual style that matched perfectly with his first foray into color, the movie that was a gift to his wife, Giulietta Masina, Juliet of the Spirits.
Masina was a comedic radio performer that Fellini married during the war and starred in some of his best films like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. Fellini was also incredibly unfaithful to her, having many affairs including a long term affair with Sandra Milo whom he cast in both 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits. This film was a sort of apologia to his wife, a movie about a long suffering, demure housewife who discovers that her husband is having an affair. Pulling from their own lives, Fellini ended up writing an ending where Juliet leaves her husband, creating an ending that the husband and wife interpreted differently. He saw it as triumphant, with her reclaiming her individuality, while she saw it as sad, with Juliet being cast off into the world alone with nothing.
Not all of his later films are this obviously about him specifically. Some, like City of Women, are while others, like Fellini Satyricon, are not. However what they all share are some extreme forms of storytelling he had been dabbling in for a decade before. Heavily episodic, they leaned heavily into the grotesque displays of perversion that he seemed both attracted to and repelled from at the same time. Outlandish costumes and makeup became the norm. He worked almost exclusively on sets built at Cinecitta. Even his sort of documentary Roma built a quarter mile section of road to film the parts of the film that were “real” as opposed to manufactured.
Through these, though, Fellini kept up his undercurrent of searing takes on modernity. One of the advantages of watching a filmmaker’s work through from beginning to end is that you learn how to watch his movie and what to look for. Out of all the possible things that a filmmaker can do, he chooses a select few things, and learning through experience how he tells his stories and conveys his meaning through more easily accessible work from early in his career gives you the tools to suss out the meaning in his later films that have embraced less traditional and more formalistic approaches to storytelling. That doesn’t necessarily make the later films either good or bad, but it does create a barrier between the work and the audience who isn’t already familiar with his work.
I think this manifests most particularly with City of Women, a film I ended up loving as it came to a close, but the film’s final thirty minutes is so steeped in Fellini’s own work as well as the critical reaction to it, that it becomes a sort of inside joke. Are inside jokes funny or not funny? Well, it depends on the audience, and that’s what City of Women becomes. If you’re in on the joke, it becomes easy to see the appeal, but if you’re out of it, it must seem like a bizarre series of images and sounds that couldn’t possibly mean anything.
Not all of his later films are like this, though. I want to highlight Ginger and Fred for just a moment. It’s the story of two dancers who haven’t seen each other in more than twenty years when their act of dancing in the guise of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire came to an end. Reunited for a television special, they are two people near the end of their lives looking back at once was, reliving their glory for a few minutes, and then having to accept the fact that that glory should remain in the past. Their taste was the final goodbye to a life long gone, and no effort to reclaim would last. If I could have picked one movie to be his last, I wish Fellini had made Ginger and Fred at the end. It feels more like an appropriate goodbye than The Voice of the Moon.
So, Why Fellini?
Because he’s fun. Because his movies are well made and intelligently written. Because he created some of the most iconic images of European cinema. Because sometimes you just need to go to the circus.