Exquisitely choreographed, Federico Fellini’s works sparkle with ingenuity. They make frequent appearances on lists of the best movies of all time and major directors such as Lina Wertmüller and Stanley Kubrick champion their influence. Revisiting Fellini’s extensive oeuvre on the centenary of his birth presents me with their panoramic elegance, yet their chauvinism is equally disturbing.
Fellini fine-tuned the profession of auteur, making a movie a personal journey, a dynamic montage where time is caressed, mise-en-scène enchanted, and every take a ballet. His Machiavellian control produced delectable visions. He imposed ideals of grace and decorum on his creations. Pliant to his imagination, male characters are often torn between creative integrity and superficial love. His was a celebratory type of masculinity and entitlement, where women must seek adoration or, if implicated in men’s fantasies, submit to desire.
Inspirational or insufferable, Fellini asserted an indelible influence. Here are five films (all currently streaming online) that show off his dazzling bravura.
Often thought of as Fellini’s definitive statement, the film opens in traffic gridlock. Guido, the movie’s protagonist, ascends into the sky from his car and floats away. His epiphany is short-lived. He is soon yanked back to earth, and the film’s proper begins by introducing him as a jaded film director. Guido is in the middle of a crisis with a grand sci-fi movie project. There is a vast set, a rocket launchpad, all under construction. Other aspects of the production are mired by his creative impasse. Rather than addressing the problem, he seeks conflict and distraction, bringing his frivolous mistress, Carla, and embittered wife, Luisa, to the spa hotel where his production crew is staying. This scenario is punctuated by fantasies, including a joyless orgy featuring his multiple love interests. In the end the only certainty is that Guido will never change.
La Dolce Vita (1960)
La Dolce Vita tells of a dissolute celebrity reporter, Marcello. The lilting timbre of his name is like a lament hailed by his companions, among them, Paparazzo, a voracious press photographer. The action takes place in fractured scenes, at night or dawn. Marcello drifts into parties, flirtatious relationships, and arguments with his fiancé Emma. He yearns, halfheartedly, to be a serious writer and wholeheartedly, to meet a famous actress who has recently come to Rome. Like Marcello himself, the narrative and roving camera are easily distracted. Its end, too, is episodic, as Marcello encounters an angelic figure but is unable to understand her before becoming distracted again.
La Strada (1954)
In La Strada, the road is not a place but a state — that of itinerant performers. A circus fool asks, “Are you sure you are a woman, you look more like an artichoke?” The woman in question is Gelsomina, a Chaplin-like figure (played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina) sold by her mother to an abusive vagabond and circus performer. She is taken on tour and integrated into his feeble strongman act. Gradually, as with the onset of Stockholm syndrome, she develops some affection for the brute. Ultimately, after a chain of violent incidents, her pure spirit challenges his sense of entitlement, leading to circumstances where the audience must decide whether to feel touched or repulsed.
I Vitelloni’s title is often translated to “big calves” and fittingly, the movie depicts a group of five men in their late twenties, idly clinging to their youth. They hang out in a quaint coastal town. When one of them marries and takes a honeymoon in Rome, the others envy the adventure. But, when Fausto returns, he resumes to his old ways, as an obnoxious playboy, duplicitous and bullying. When he harasses his employer’s wife, he loses his job. Rejecting the lessons of chastisement, he embarks on a regime of petty crime and seduction. His friends close ranks to protect him. Ultimately, he brings woe and disgrace to his family. Among the group, there is a lone spirit who aspires to be a playwright. His work, focused on “lives thinking of women and money,” sums up the small-town mindset.
Amarcord revisits the little world of the seaside town, similar to Italy’s Rimini, where Fellini was born. With characteristic procrastination, the film portrays a community in the 1930s, unable to mature under the country’s fascist regime. Prowling the streets, along with a cast of misfits, are pupils, their bizarre teachers, perverted priests, and fascist Black Shirts. The cast of men is consumed by an unrequited desire for beautiful women. Hungry for distraction, their caprice is punctuated by parties and glimpses of modernity, manifest in the sight of a passing ocean liner and a motor race. But in this town, sadly, the only thing that changes is the seasons.
Fellini, a two-part retrospective of the director’s films screens at BFI Southbank London (Belvedere Rd, Lambeth, London SE1 8XT) through the end of February.