Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Life and Films of Federico Fellini

Many of the films of Federico Fellini were influenced by events that happened in his childhood. His mother, Ida Fellini, made sure that he and his siblings were brought up Catholic (Alpert, 17). Fellini was often intimidated by religion and on one occasion he was made to keep a candle lit at a vigil, or risk disappointing Jesus, or so he was told (Alpert, 18). Alpert observes that “[s]uch early religious memories would have their later effects” (18). Another influential item in Fellini’s early life was the circus. He loved the circus, and visited it often (Alpert, 19). The circus had a strong influence on La Strada (1954), which focuses on traveling performance artists. One of the episodes in (1963) shows a young Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) and his schoolmates going to see a “prostitute” dubbed La Saraghina dance. Fellini recalls a nearly identical episode in his own life and identifies it as “his first image of sexuality” (Alpert, 21).

Fellini broke into the film industry through screenwriting. He had previous experience with writing scripts for radio broadcasts, but did not write for film until adding to the script for Roberto Rosselini’s Open City (Dixon and Foster, 212). He continued writing films, many for Rossellini, and worked as assistant director as well (Dixon and Foster, 212). One of his earlier films, I Vitelloni (1953), was partly influenced by his younger years (Alpert, 81). However, his first major exposure came from La Strada, for which he won his first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He reached the height of his fame (and infamy) with La Dolce Vita (1960), and won his third Academy Award for best Foreign Language Film with (Alpert, 3).

Federico Fellini’s La Strada begins and ends at the ocean. It opens on a shot of Gelsomina (played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina) and her siblings gathering reeds on the beach. Donald P. Costello notes that the sea is associated with “security and naturalness of youth” and is “a natural symbol for the beginning of life” (6). After Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) is released from jail, he and Gelsomina drive to the sea. In the scene, Gelsomina is framed with the sea in the background, just as she was at the beginning of the film. The contrasting reverse shot shows Zampanò with land behind him. Zampanò then wades into the water and as he is framed with the sea in the background for the first time; he experiences a rebirth of sorts. However, he rejects this rebirth by urinating in the sea (Costello, 24). The Fool (Richard Basehart) has already suggested that Zampanò may be attracted to Gelsomina, and he shows that he was hurt when she tried to leave him. But being the brute that he is, and not willing to openly show emotion, he insults her family. Nonetheless, his character has changed, if only slightly. Fellini’s symbolic composition and Nino Rota’s romantic, lyrical score cause the viewer to begin to feel compassion for him.

The only other scene with the sea is the final one. Zampanò has drunk himself into a stupor after finding that Gelsomina, has died. Again, Zampanò wades into the sea, and when he comes out receives an intimate close up. As the camera pulls back, and the scene is accompanied by a stirring full orchestra version of The Fool’s “very sad song” the viewer can see how desperate and pitiful Zampanò is without Gelsomina. She was his only chance of escaping the literal and figurative shackles of his one-trick act.

Zampanò uses Gelsomina in an attempt to branch out from his “iron lungs” act. With her he is able to try new routines, and perhaps change his reputation so he will not be made a laughingstock by people like The Fool. However, it becomes apparent to him that while his domain is the road, Gelsomina lives for the sea. It is then, an act of selfless compassion, that he leaves her; Zampanò sets Gelsomina free while dooming himself to the captivity of his act. Gelsomina’s freedom acts as a beacon of hope for Zampanò. As long as she is free, Zampanò has hope for freedom though her. Once he finds out that she has died, however, all such hope is gone and all he can do is walk into the sea in the hopes of rebirth or, perhaps as Costello stated, “the security [. . .] of youth” (6).

Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is an aesthetically gorgeous film with the most repugnant of characters. A Vatican publication called the film “obscene,” “lewd” and “depraved” (Murray, 113). However, the film condemns rather than advocates the debauched lifestyle—“the sweet life”—of the Roman upper class. Near the beginning of the film, Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) tells Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), “You know what your problem is? You have too much money.” This foreshadows the unhappiness and depravity of the ultra-rich that Fellini demonstrates throughout the film. Such immorality is represented by a clash of cultures: the old Rome, a religious city, and the modern Rome, a frivolous and debauched “jungle.” This is most obviously demonstrated in the opening scene as a helicopter carries a statue of Christ above the city of Rome. Not only is the modern (helicopter) juxtaposed with the old (Christ), but, as Edward Murray observes, Roman citizens pay little or no attention to the statue; those that do notice it are apathetic (116). Modern Rome has no use for the church or its traditions.

The culture clash theme is developed in the first nightclub scene as “Fellini replaces the image [. . .] of Christ with a shot of two muscular [. . .] Siamese dancers” (Murray, 116). After their performance, the dancers bow and politely relinquish the stage to a rock band. Again, the ancient has given way to the modern. This is also demonstrated in the scene at Trevi Fountain. Sylvia is “surrounded by her friends—Neptune and several tritons” (Costello, 45) which act as symbols of paganism and of the past. Just as Marcello and Sylvia are about to kiss, the fountain ceases to flow representing the changes Roman society has experienced. Attending church is replaced with ritualistic nightclubbing, miracles are replaced with greedy hoaxes, and love is replaced with meaningless sex.

La Dolce Vita dispels all notions of glamor in the lives of the upper class. While the nightclubs appear to be fancy and luxurious at the beginning to both Marcello and the viewer, this façade soon dissolves as Marcello and Maddalena have sex in a prostitute’s dilapidated, flooded apartment. At the beginning of the film, Marcello simply observes “the sweet life.” This is accentuated by the fact that he is a journalist, always watching, never participating. By the final party, however, Marcello has been completely drawn into the depraved lifestyle; he is “no longer objective and no longer an observer” (Costello, 69). He is the first to break into the house and he takes control of the party, even though it is not at his house. Fellini’s camerawork seems unattached and spectatorial; the point of view is often that of a person passively sitting in the circle. A few shots place the camera outside of the circle, further detaching the viewer from the scene. Although Marcello is lost to “the sweet life” (consummated by his rejection of the innocent Paola (Valeria Ciangottini) on the beach in the next scene) the viewer still has hope to reject the empty lifestyle.

One of the many important themes in Fellini’s is the nature of dreams. Not only are nocturnal dreams discussed, but daydreams and fantasies appear in the film as well. Fellini has stated that is not a direct autobiography, but does contain some of his life’s experiences (Ketcham, 66). Therefore, the dreams of Guido are not necessarily those of Fellini, but they may share some similarities. The link between Fellini’s life and work is demonstrated in his cataloging of dreams. As Peter Bondanella notes, “the period when Fellini was most involved with the exploration of his dream life” coincided with when he “was in the process of preparing ” (94). The specific dream Bondanella writes about directly correlates to Guido’s “blockage of artistic creativity” (Bondanella, 94). Such a lull in creativity is not only something that Fellini may have experienced, as most artists do, but is something that he often dreamed about (Bondanella, 95). While the episodes in are not dramatizations of specific events in Fellini’s life, he most certainly can relate to them.
“Guido seems to have divided women into sexual creatures and ethereal Madonna figures” (Murray 145). This is best exemplified in how he treats his wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimée), and his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo). As Charles B. Ketcham observes, Luisa and Carla are polar opposites—at least in the eyes of Guido (72). However, women do not always conform to his dichotomy: Carla plays the role of a prostitute for Guido, but states that she would like to be a “homebody” instead (Murray, 145). This references a theme seen in La Strada and La Dolce Vita as well: modern man’s inability to love. In La Strada, Zampanò has sex with a prostitute and refuses to marry Gelsomina. In La Dolce Vita, Marcello rejects Emma for Maddalena, who subsequently rejects him. In , Guido’s Oedipus complex and categorization of women prohibit him from love. This is directly stated in the film by Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), Guido’s ideal woman; she states that, “he doesn’t love anyone,” and that, “he doesn’t know how to love.” This theme that has been hinted at in two of his previous films is explicitly realized in .

From the beginning of the film, Guido is portrayed as an everyman character. In the first scene, Fellini does not show his face. He could be anyone (including the viewer or Fellini), and the viewer is encouraged to identify with him though point of view shots (Murray, 138). Throughout the film, Guido’s actions are not necessarily those of Fellini, nor those of the viewer. However, both parties will, in most cases, be able to relate to Guido. takes elements from different parts of Fellini’s life including his dreams and his previous films to create a semi-autobiography that can apply to more than just himself.

In many ways Fellini was a part of the neorealist movement in Italy. André Bazin notes that in La Strada, “there is no mise-en-scène” and that the events in the film are merely shown to the viewer (200). In this way, Bazin states that Fellini has not “departed from Italian neo-realism” (201). Much of the camerawork in La Strada and the other films discussed above further exemplifies the seamless techniques of neorealism; the viewer can nearly forget he or she is watching a film. However, Fellini still creates stylish and aesthetically pleasing compositions. Fellini, especially in later films, strays from certain neorealist conventions. For example, he cast professional actors instead of amateurs. Rather than shooting on location, he had grandiose sets created at Cinecittà (Bondanella, 65). While his films appear visually real, his narratives are sometimes fantastical and symbolic. Fellini did not reject Italian neorealism, but rather expanded from strictly documentary style filmmaking to a more poetic type of cinema.

A theme that is often seen in Fellini’s films is that of religion, or, more specifically, the impotence of the Catholic church. In La Strada, Zampanò steals, or attempts to steal, from a convent whose Sisters had given him food and a place to sleep. In La Dolce Vita, modern society has no use for religion; miracles only exist as pitiful grabs at fame and money. In , Guido searches “in vain for spiritual nourishment from the church” (Murray, 142). Fellini’s religious upbringing and confrontations with the church has clearly influenced his filmmaking. He does not present the struggle for “spiritual nourishment” as unique to Guido or himself. Instead, he encourages the viewer to relate to the struggles of the characters in his films. He does this through subtle editing and realistic composition. There are no disorienting close ups or alienating wide shots. Fellini visually places the viewer in his films, whether it be on the road, in the sweet life, or in his dreamworld.


Works Cited

Alpert, Hollis. Fellini, a life. New York: Atheneum, 1986.

Bazin, André. "La Strada." Cross Currents 6.3 (1956): 200-03.

Bondanella, Peter. The Films of Federico Fellini (Cambridge Film Classics). New York: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Costello, Donald P. Fellini's road. Notre Dame [Ind.]: University of Notre Dame P, 1983.

Dixon, Wheeler Winston, and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. A Short History of Film. New York: Rutgers UP, 2008.

Ketcham, Charles B. Federico Fellini the search for a new mythology. New York: Paulist P, 1976.

Murray, Edward. Fellini, the artist. New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1976.

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