16 May 2015

TESSERAE -12 - Federico Fellini

Il Maestro....

Federico Fellini
Rimini, January 20th, 1920 – Roma, October 31st 1993

I am in the Grand Hotel, Rimini.  The foyer is bigger than my house and has a polished marble floor.  A classic Italian marble-topped table supports an extravagant display of flowers; marble columns with gilded capitals support a stuccoed ceiling from which hang dazzling chandeliers.  I wait a little, half hoping that Gradisca, the beautiful courtesan from Amacord, will descend the stairs and join me for a Martini on the terrace….  I wait, thinking perhaps that Federico and Giulietta might invite me to dinner…..  I am in the Grand Hotel, Rimini

I am on the terrace of the Grand Hotel, Rimini.  The umbrellas are furled, the tables are clear.  I could sit anywhere.

I am in the garden of the Grand Hotel, Rimini.  Carefully pruned palms and stately pines rise from the neatly tidy lawns.  

I am in the street outside the Grand Hotel, Rimini.  There is a huge camera.  It has Fellinia stamped on it, and graffiti on the lens.  It was given to the Comune di Rimini by Laura Renzi and Ario Rastelli in 2002. The giant camera was built in 1948 by photographer Elio Guerra as a film processing boutique, and it passed to i signori Renzi e Rastelli in the mid 70s. It now stands rather forlornly at the edge of the parco federico fellini, where you may not ride horses, hunt wildfowl, nor camp.

I am on the beach at Rimini.  Images from I Vitelloni and Amarcord fill my imagination, though the beach is quasi vuota……

Il Tempio Malatestiana, Rimini

nulla si sa, tutto s'immagina (one knows nothing, one imagines everything)

Fellini was born in Rimini, on the Adriatic coast, in 1923, but moved south, first to Florence and then to Rome, after his strictly regimented schooling.  As an artist, cartoonist, and screenwriter, he entered the film world, and worked (as scriptwriter) with Roberto Rossellini on Roma città aperta, in 1945.

Federico Fellini died in 1993, aged 73, but his influence is still felt in Italian (and world) cinema.  Recent films such as Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza and Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA are bearers of his imaginative DNA, even though technical aspects of the cinema have changed greatly in the last fifty years.

Sono un artigiano che non ha niente da dire, ma sa come dirlo….  (I am an artisan with nothing to say, though I know how to say it…..)

Fellini’s directorial debut was Lo Sceicco Bianco (The White Sheik) in 1952.  For the record Michaelangelo Antonioni was the original screenwriter and Nino Rota (who became Fellini’s lifelong collaborator) wrote the musical score.  In this film, the part of Cabiria, a prostitute, is played by Giulietta Masina, who he had married in 1943.  They had met when she was chosen to play a character in a radio comedy scripted by Fellini.  Federico died on the day after their fiftieth wedding anniversary; Giulietta joined him less than five months later.

è la curiosità che mi fa svegliare alla mattina  (it’s curiousity that gets me up in the morning)

Fellini followed Lo Sceicco Bianco with I Vitelloni which explores the lives of a group of young men (vitelloni are immature bulls) in Rimini, Fellini’s home town.  This was followed by La Strada in which Giulietta plays Gelsomina, sold by her mother to travelling strong man Zampanò (played by Anthony Quinn).  

This film was the first to win an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film.  A year later, also with Giulietta, he directed Il Bidone, and then, in 1957, Le Notti di Cabiria, (script Romanised by Pier Paolo Pasolini)  for which Fellini also won an Oscar (and Giulietta won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival).

In ten years Fellini had progressed from script writer to Academy Award winning director, and had produced films that are still fêted as amongst the best ever. What was to come, however, was to surprise the world, breaking away from the neorealist world that had itself been an earthquake in cinema history.

I Clowns

The visionary is the only true realist.

In 1960 La Dolce Vita broke box office records, and led to Fellini being spat on in public and denounced by the Vatican.  More famous now for having given us the term paparazzi (journalist Marcello Mastroianni’s photographer friend is named Paparazzo in the film) and for Anita Ekberg’s shower in the Trevi Fountain, the film does not shock as much today as it would have fifty-five years ago, but it is still a brilliant piece of imagination, and certain themes, such as the languid amorality of the super-rich, the susceptibility of some to religious excitement, and the intrusive hunger of the press are not unknown to the contemporary world…..  It is still shocking, too, as when Steiner (Alain Cuny), the intellectual that Rubini (Mastroianni) holds in awe, says, Don't be like me. Salvation doesn't lie within four walls. I'm too serious to be a dilettante and too much a dabbler to be a professional. Even the most miserable life is better than a sheltered existence in an organized society where everything is calculated and perfected….  Not long after this Steiner shoots his two sleeping children and then himself while his wife is out.

Mastroianni took the lead again, this time as a film director at a creative impasse, in Fellini’s greatest work, Otto e mezzo ().  Endlessly inventive, beautifully shot in crisp black and white, and still captivating, this film was rated tenth in the 2012 Sight and Sound list of the greatest films of all time (and only 2001, A Space Odyssey, of the top ten, was made more recently than ).  There’s a self-knowing impishness about this picture, with Guido Anselmi (aka Snaporaz - Marcello Mastroannni) being told, Your sweet naivety is a serious failing.  And towards the end Claudia Cardinale says, You’re such a cheat…. To which he replies, And there’s no film either.  There’s nothing at all anywhere.

The film is not there to be interpreted.  Fellini was exasperated by attempts to decipher meaning.  It isn’t a film to be understood, he once said, it’s to be felt….  Cinema is an art form that doesn’t have space for meditation.  The picture is full of fascinating details, blending seeming reality with dreams and memories, with superimpositions such as the second dream of bath time in his childhood home when Guido imagines himself being bathed by all the women he has known. 

Perhaps this fantasy scene shows us Fellini’s greatest weakness.  In his ideal woman is represented by Claudia Cardinale; in La Dolce Vita she is the sweet girl from the seaside restaurant who believes that Marcello is going to teach her to type, and who waves to him across the water at the end….. Is his attitude to women cynical, satirical or chauvinist? In life Giulietta Masina was his muse, based partly on the fact that she made him laugh (and on her legendary spaghetti al pomodoro)….  I suspect that the scene in Roma in which he attempts to persuade Anna Magnani to be interviewed late at night reveals much about his emotional imagination.  Fellini had worked with Anna Magnani in Roma città aperta and he says that she could be seen as a symbolic representation of Rome.  A Rome seen as a Vestal she-wolf, a ragged aristocrat, a gloomy clown….   She refuses him with, Oh Federi’, I’m far too sleepy now….  He tries to persist; May I ask you a question? But she says, No, I don’t trust you! And firmly closes the door in his face.  This, possibly, shows the insecurity that underlies his fantasy.…..

Fellini also adds subtle references to his own influences, such as the elaborate scene when Guido’s mistress arrives at the Spa.  An enormous train fills the screen with Guido anxiously waiting on the left of the picture.  Various people descend from carriages, but not Carla (Sandra Milo), so Guido starts to turn away, in relief; then the engine reverses away, revealing Carla, who has got off on the wrong side.  

Exactly as Buster Keaton does at River Junction when his father is waiting to meet him early in Steamboat Bill Jnr…….  

And though Sergio Leone may have been referencing Keaton rather than (as well as?) Fellini in Once Upon a Time in the West (also with Claudia Cardinale) the station scene when Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives employs exactly the same trick…..  

Guido's parents being directed in the original trailer

Fellini's imaginative invention is also discovered in the ending of . As seen today the entire cast descend the stairway from the rocket launchpad, and then dance around the circus ring, with Guido directing them and then joining in.  Many of the cast are dressed in white.  Fellini shot an alternative ending, which was never used and which has been lost.  In that ending the entire cast, all dressed in white, were in a railway carriage, which eventually entered a tunnel. Apparently this was discarded as it was too pessimistic, with the suggestion of Guido's suicide (though Fellini kept the scene with the pistol under the table.....)  What makes the ending more intriguing, however, is that a version of the stairway and circus ring ending was shot earlier for the original cinema trailer, and in this version the cast were dressed in dark clothes. Somewhere in his imagination the suggestion of death, represented by the white clothed cast disappearing into the tunnel, has merged with the ongoing dance of life round the circus ring, as the white clothes are introduced. Guido's parents (representing Fellini's) appear in both versions.....

The final version - Guido's parents in white

Recently digitally remastered (coinciding with its fiftieth anniversary) the film, which won another Oscar for Fellini yet again as Best Foreign Language Film, is, in the words of François Truffaut, complete, simple, beautiful, honest, or, as Les Cahiers du Cinéma put it,  we must all admit that 8½, leaving aside for the moment all prejudice and reserve, is prodigious. Fantastic liberality, a total absence of precaution and hypocrisy, absolute dispassionate sincerity, artistic and financial courage – these are the characteristics of this incredible undertaking  (Pierre Kast).

what good is giving up my independence, my friends, my roman restaurants, my crazy Italian people, traffic at rush hour by the coliseum? I would have made money and lost my joy of life. and that's all filming has been about for me: joy of life, battle of life, comedy of life, fascination of life. life! life! life! 

Although Fellini continued to dazzle, and in some respects grew more fantastic, few of his works in the last thirty years of his life come close to the brilliance of 8½.  I Clowns (1970), Roma (1972) and Amarcord (1973) are all wonderful in many ways (the ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma, the family day out in Amarcord and the final scene of I Clowns are superb examples of  not only Fellini’s imagination but also his cinematic range) but from Casanova (1976) on I think it fair to say that his star was waning. 

Fellini Satyricon (1969) was perhaps the turning point, when he reached a peak of extravagant invention with colour and visual creativity.  The “autobiographical” trilogy of the early 70s showed his sense of irony and humanity, and explored his own childhood and youth, but it could be thought that his later preoccupation with colour may have sapped his imaginative strength……

When you shoot a film, you don't really know what it is about

I lived in Fellini’s Rome in the 70s and 80s.  Il Maestro would emerge from his flat in Via Margutta and take a morning coffee at Bar Canova on Piazza del Popolo.  Friends and acquaintances (Charlie Borromel, John Francis Lane, et al) were appearing regularly in his films, and it seemed as if everyone would queue at Cinecittà when the call went out for extras. My first encounter with Amarcord was in a cinema d’essai (arthouse cinema) near the Colosseum one Christmas Day.  Two young men in military uniform smoked continuously in the stalls, the blue trails rising in the lazy afternoon, the audience (cumulatively of about five) sleepily submerged in Fellini’s strangely unreal world….

Later I watched as his story unfolded – Orchestra Rehearsal, City of Women (Snaporaz again), And the Ship Sails On… to The Voice of the Moon….  Then, in 1993, at only 73, Il Maestro was felled by a stroke, and ended his days in hospital, dying of a heart attack on October 31st, his death mask snapped on a marble slab by a fan who caused immediate public outrage at the ironic intrusion…. 


And so ended a career of 25 films, four Oscars, and countless other awards.

It comes back to me in the Grand Hotel, Rimini, and on the sands of the empty beach.  It is sad that the photographic kiosk that stands forlornly by the park in his name should be defaced, but perhaps the mischievous scribbles were left by Titta, Patacca and Teo, skipping school on their way to dance on the beach….

The Grand Hotel itself is a memorial to Fellini, with its film set qualities and its ability to stir the imagination, to have visions of what it might be like to be rich, or famous, or powerful….


Those few moments in the foyer, waiting for Gradisca, brought the spirit of Fellini to life for me, and sent me back to Otto e Mezzo, and then to the other films.  Wonderful.  Wonderful…..

And then I go down to the beach, to watch La Rumba…..  Life is a party – let’s live it together!


Pictures from films used solely for illustrative and promotional purposes; not for profit.

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