Director: Federico Fellini

by | Apr 5, 2020 | 0 comments

An Interesting Subject and a Great Cast Aren’t Enough to Pull Us Through

Federico Fellini was only one of the various groundbreaking directors to emerge from the neo-realist movement in Italy after the end of World War II. However, while neo-realism, as its name indicates, focused on telling stories without any manipulation and a loyalty towards authenticity, Fellini from an early start was already fascinated with the fantastical elements of the human mind, leading his later films to come much closer to surrealism – precisely the opposite of neo-realism. This fascination with fantasy and dreams seem to form the backdrop of the rather tragic stories that Fellini brought on screen and will be seen in the analysis of La Strada (1954), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 ½ (1963), and Amarcord (1973).

 Fellini’s collaboration with actress-wife Giulietta Masina in La Strada cemented the Italian director’s certain fascination with performance and fantasy as a form of escapism. This was the perfect mix of Fellini’s later surrealist style and his neo-realist roots, for it showed the contrast of a real and tough world with the hopes and dreams of its protagonist. Masina plays a village girl, Gelsomina, sold to a traveling performer as a wife and employee. Despite being constantly abused and humiliated, Gelsomina keeps a certain faith in her husband Zampano (played by American Anthony Quinn) and the kindness of strangers (Fellini perhaps channeling some Tennessee Williams). Despite being shown again how cruel and harsh the world is, how Zampano takes advantage of her, Gelsomina retains her hope and positivity until the end. The plot seems to be exploring a toxic relationship that brought symbolic parallels to the state of Italy at the time. As with other neo-realist directors, the intent of their films was to point out the harsh realities of Italy at the time; thus the decaying relationship and humanity as seen in La Strada is Fellini’s own pessimistic view of the crumbled and destroyed Italian society after fascism. Fellini doesn’t offer much hope for the objective viewer, but it is in Gelsomina’s incredible loyalty to her abusers and society that a tragic hope might spark. However, perhaps Fellini isn’t so much asking us to take Gelsomina’s perspective, as much as that of her abusers. That is why La Strada ends from the point of view of her husband Zampano, mourning Gelsomina’s death and blaming himself for having destroyed her joy and goodness. As such, La Strada can be taken to be a cautionary tale to viewers, of how pessimism must be banished first before any real recovery can happen in Italy, or else risk having it fade away, only to leave an echoing tune line Gelsomina. La Strada stylistically also beckons Fellini towards the relationship of art and the abstract. This is done in incredibly subtle tones with the relationship of characters and music; it is only in Gelsomina’s made-up trumpet tune (composed by Nino Rota) that she is able to find some sense of autonomy and power. It is this tune itself, which remains behind and leads to Zampano introspecting his errors. This music is the escapism that Gelsomina provides to her circus attendees, other main characters, and even the viewers of La Strada itself. This use of music by Fellini, or sometimes the use of silence, will prove to be a frequent tool that he will use, not to manipulate viewers towards certain emotions, but to discover the boundaries of realism and fantasy.

Fellini’s biggest box office success of his career would be the Palme D’Or winner La Dolce Vita, which would be one of the most obvious steps in the world of fantasy and surrealism – shrugging off conventional structures of telling a story. The film follows gossip journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) in a series of encounters with actresses, old friends, jobs, and parties. The entire film seems to flit about as if stringing together thoughts instead of telling a story. Fellini is thus able to extract his film from the realm of realism, allowing the atmosphere for viewers to be one of a heterosexual male fantasy. Throughout the film Marcello is seen hanging about with beautiful women (the most prominent Anita Ekberg) and exploiting their admiration for his pleasure – never suffering consequences emotionally or physically because of it. All of Marcello’s encounters for the majority of the film seem to pit him as the leader and hero of every scene, always knowing the right people at a club or witty retort to make. Fellini, being conscious of this treacherous fantasy, is able to shake its fragile frame by showcasing the suicide (and murder of his children) of one of Marcello’s admired friends. This leads Marcello to begin to see the sham and posturing of his life along with the upper class that he seems to admire so much. La Dolce Vita climaxes with the last house party, where Marcello begins to humiliate his guests, slapping women around, abandoning his fiancé on the side of a road, and defeathering cushions on guests. It is this anger and shattering of fantasy that causes viewers to feel shocked and perhaps even guilty of having enjoyed earlier moments of the film. Earlier in the film Fellini purposefully creates visually stunning moments of Marcello’s fantasies (bathing in the Trevi Fountain with Anite Ekberg, covering the apparition of the Virgin Mary in a field, etc.) creating an alluring aura that makes the snap of Marcello in the end to seem all the more impactful. However, the full-blown surrealism and confusion of dream, fantasy, and memory wouldn’t come until his next big success: 8 ½ .

 8 ½ would prove to be one of Fellini’s most fascinating films for various reasons. In terms of its conception, Fellini couldn’t figure out what he wanted his film to be about, but as the shooting date approached he decided to simply tell the story of a director who can’t remember what his film is about. This direct parallel delivered one of the most stylistically rich films to have ever been produced, influencing many filmmakers in the future. 8 ½ seems to flit around scenes and sequences whose exact origin is hard to determine, one is at a loss to figure out when reality ends and the protagonist Guido’s (Mastroianni again) imagination kicks in. This results in a surreal journey worthy of Buñuel and Dali. Because of this incredible cloudy structure, it is hard to discern what the film is really about, as one is able to project one’s own worries and interpretations on the vague storyline. However, what is clear from 8 ½ is that Fellini was beginning to look inwards at himself for inspiration instead of diagnosing society around him. Guido is in the midst of a mid-life crisis, not wanting to accept his aging as he attempts to sleep and flirt with younger actresses. This leads to a dreamlike moment, where the irony of his female choices comes back to bite him; the scene shows how all the women of Guido’s life come back to scold him for throwing them away when they got old enough. It proves to be one of the more feministic moments in Fellini’s films, which in his later career tended to veer towards the objectification women and the heterosexual male fantasy. This introspection into the reliability of memory and its effect on the present would prove to be a core part of Fellini’s most autobiographical film: Amarcord.

 Amarcord is a curiously titled film, which makes fun of the rural accent trying to say “I remember.” It is only a small detail in Fellini’s analysis of a distorted sense of memory of fascist Italy. Fellini had been apolitical even during Mussolini’s reign, despite working on government propaganda pieces (he was even sent to cover the Italian conquest of Libya). In Amarcord Fellini ridicules the fascist regime, but at the same time doesn’t take a particular political stance, instead focusing on showing the danger of nostalgic memory. The entire film is infused with a tone of sarcasm. At the time it proved to be one of Fellini’s rare ventures into color photography, and along with a saccharinely cheerful score from Nino Rota it proves to be a mocking of the possible glorification of the days of Mussolini. Like his other surrealist work, Amarcord throws off the idea of a conventional structure, having a series of vignettes over the course of a year. A handful of colorful characters from the small village where the entire film is set kick around an echo of a plot. The various “memories” that Fellini shows in the film involve the misery that the characters endure: from a broken family who abuse and ignore each other, the sexual repression of the young men, the false hopes of the young women of being rescued by a rich duke, and the fascist marches and ceremonies. The entire tone of the film is that of a comedy, but the actual actions taking place are really dark and violent ones. From a huge bonfire that recalls a pagan ritual (this taking place in heavy Catholic Italy), to domestic abuse and threats, and even the murder of a musician for playing an anti-fascist tune. In this latter example, Fellini again uses music as a form of power, both of resistance as much as an escape from Mussolini. These images and sounds bring together a contrasting aura that proves to be arresting to viewers since they see that no manner of colorful adornments can better the horrible life under fascism. This shunning of fascism is also replicated towards other forms of government, allowing Fellini to confirm his apolitical stance. This is particularly seen in Amarcord with the passing of the giant cruise-ship SS Rex, which the villagers sail out to see and wait for hours to pass by. This pitiful look at rural farmers being ignored by a passing symbol of capitalism’s enormity is Fellini’s own subtle condemnation of one of the fascist alternatives as well.

 Tracing Fellini’s trajectory in these three decades shows how he began to discover his distinct style and somehow breaking conventions of storytelling in the process. The neorealist beginnings seen clearly in La Strada gave way as Fellini began to become fascinated with humanity’s utility of fantasy, both as a form of escape from misery as well as a dangerous addiction and toxic reliance. La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ were clearer entries of a surrealist Fellini perfecting his visual style and moving from a critique of society, that his earlier films purported, towards an exploration of himself. 8 ½ was a view of Fellini in his confused present, but this introspection would culminate with Amarcord in which the Italian director would analyze the dangers of nostalgic history. His own exploration of his memory and past in small-town Italy during fascism would prove to be the basis of a mixture of tones; contrasting them in a way that jolts the audience. His bold forays into new forms of filmmaking to make his points, whether artistic or societal helped cement him as one of the best directors in cinematic history.

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