Monday, January 20, 2020

Some Thoughts on Federico Fellini

100 years ago today Federico Fellini was born in Rimini, Italy. He would not only become one of the most famous directors of all time, but one of the most influential as well. For a time he may well have been the most famous movie director in the world aside from Alfred Hitchcock. He had an influence on such diverse directors as Tim Burton, Barry Levinson, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Lina Wertmüller. Mr. Fellini has also been one of my all-time favourite directors for much of my life.

Unlike many of my favourite directors, I would not be exposed to the work of Federico Fellini until I was already an adult. After all, I grew up in a rural area where foreign films were almost never shown at our theatres or on the local television stations. Fortunately, as I entered adulthood, the advent of the VCR would change things. Video rental stores sprang up everywhere, among them the greatest of the them all, 9th Street Video in Columbia. It had everything, from silent movies to films from the Golden Age of Hollywood to a substantial collection of foreign films. My friend Brian and I made frequent trips to Columbia to rent movies there. It was through 9th Street Video that I would see my first films directed by Federico Fellini.

The very first Federico Fellini movie I ever watched would also be one of his most famous. La Dolce Vita (1960) is not only one of the best known foreign films of all time, but also one of the most famous. The title itself would enter the English language, and the name of  a photojournalist character, Paparazzo, would lead to the word paparazzi, used of independent photographers of high-profile people. Both Brian and I had been looking forward to La Dolce Vita, and neither of us was disappointed. To say we were blown away by the movie would be an understatement. To this day, that first viewing of La Dolce Vita, would leave a lasting impression on me.

Quite naturally, Brian and I sought out Federico Fellini's other movies. It should come as no surprise that the next Felllini movie we watched was 8 1/2 (1963). 8 1/2 (1963) did not impress me as much as La Dolce Vita did, but watching it was still an incredible experience. As a writer I could identify with the lead character, director Guido Anselmi (played by Marcello Mastroianni), as he suffered through director's block. The inability to be creative is a crisis that no creator wants to go through. Over the next few years Brian and I would watch more of Federico Fellini's films: La strada (1954), Giulietta degli spiriti (1965), Le notti di Cabiria (1957), Fellini Satyricon (1969), and others.

Over all I preferred Federico Fellini's earlier work to his later work. La Strada, Le notti di Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, and Giulietta degli spiriti are all masterpieces to me. For me, at least, Mr. Fellini's later works sometimes became so exaggerated as to be self-parody (in my opinion this is particularly true of Fellini Satyricon), but even when I might not appreciate some of his later films, I still had to respect the artistry behind them.

Federico Fellini may be the most famous Italian director of all time, but, except for his earliest films, he never really delved into the most famous movement to emerge from that country, Italian neorealism except in his earliest movies. Mr. Fellini was less interested in capturing reality as it is than he was in capturing the inner world of the human experience. For that reason the imagery in Mr. Fellini's films could often felt more like it came from dreams rather than real life. From the nightmarish sea creature caught in fishermen's nets in La Dolce Vita to a sacrilegious fashion show a noblewoman holds for a Cardinal (which, among other things, included priests on roller skates), the visuals in a Federico Fellini film could be stunning, uplifting, surreal, shocking, and even offensive, but they were never forgettable.

In the end, while every single one of Federico Fellini's movies might not be a masterpiece, they are all in his own voice. What is more, he dared try to do something few directors have ever done. He tried to capture the world of dreams, with all their illogic and chaos, rather than record reality. When he was successful in doing so, he made movies better than any other director to ever live.

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