Auguri, Maestro! Si, si; January 20th marks the birthday of the wild, wacky, wondrous Federico Fellini! Arguably Italy's greatest filmmaker, Fellini crafted kaleidoscopic dreamscapes worthy of MoMA exhibition, haunting tales of heartbreak and glorious meditations on meaning in the modern world. Post war Italian Neo-Realism influenced Fellini's early black and white films such as the heartbreaking Nights of Cabiria, while his later oeuvre, including the magical Juliet of the Spirits, is marked by a purely individualistic style -- a colorful phantasmagoria where dreams and reality blend into a cinematic three ring circus -- with il Maestro as ringmaster. Let's celebrate the birthday of this legendary master of cinematic art. Forza, Federcio!
Federico Fellini was born on January 20th, 1920, in Rimini, a small fishing village on the Mare Adriatico. His family was middle class, and his upbringing provincial. The young Fellini demonstrated talent and interest in drawing at boarding school. The school was run by strict friars -- the friars who menacingly re-emerge throughout his films. Fellini left Rimini for Florence and worked as a cartoonist. Soon, he moved to Rome where he enrolled in law school; however, he avoided classes. At the age of 19, Fellini joined a traveling vaudeville troupe, a major influence for the carnivalesque elements visible throughout many of his films.
After World War II, Fellini befriended Neo-Realist director Roberto Rossellini. In 1945, Fellini assisted Rossellini with the production of Rome, Open City, a landmark film which won the Festival de Cannes Grand Prix. In 1951, Fellini directed his first film, Variety Lights. Along with the brilliant Giulietta Masina, his wife and lifelong collaborator, Fellini embarked upon an unforgettable cinematic journey. Winning numerous Oscars and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1993 Academy Awards, Federico Fellini is an indelible figure in cinematic history.
La Dolce Vita (1960) opens with an iconic image: A statue of Jesus Christ, dangling by a helicopter, hovers over the city of Roma. Drifting over bikini-clad beauties, Christ is lifted from and out of the city. Filmed at the height of the post war economic boom, Fellini's landmark film traces chic journalist Marcello as he chases the affluent, famous jet set living the deceivingly ideal "sweet life." Eschewing a traditional narrative, La Dolce Vita's structure is linear, yet lacks coherent structure. La Dolce Vita follows Marcello through several episodes, featuring some of the coolest women featured on film: Sylvia (Anita Eckberg), the gorgeous, yet, icy Swedish actress carelessly reveling under the gushing waters of il Fontana di Trevi, and Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), the utterly bored socialite whose timeless black dress and sunglasses crystallized the epitome of style. Marcello pursues Silvia, Maddalena, and a bevy of wealthy characters within a deceivingly unhappy milieu. A particularly lovely moment occurs when Marcello stops for lunch at a seaside café to write one of his stories. There, he chats with a cute, innocent waitress who sings along to a popular song on the radio. She tells him she is from Umbria, a charming, unspoiled region, much like herself. Far removed from sordid Roma, she is young and cherubic, reminding him of the angelic frescoes found in Umbrian churches. At the end of the film, Marcello encounters her once again at the beach while his friends frolic behind him. She cheerily beckons for him, yet he shrugs his shoulders, knowing he cannot return to the innocence and simplicity of the genuine Dolce Vita.
Juliet of the Spirits (1965) is a dream in images. A remarkable film featuring Federico's wife Giulietta, Juliet captures an unhappy housewife's psychedelic journey through a dazzling, yet, unsettling kaleidoscope of neurosis. A bourgeois housewife who cares for her home and carefully manicured garden is married to a lying philanderer, a snake with a charming smile. Juliet is coy and conservative and yearns for a simple, quiet marriage. Yet, her husband's infidelities ignite fear and anxiety which manifest as carnivalesque, freakish ghouls who pop in and out of scenes as frequently as Juliet's nosy housekeepers. Adding to Juliet's already fragile psyche, her sexy neighbor Suzy and the bordello-playground she inhabits beckon Juliet to loosen her traditional nature and embrace a more sexually liberated lifestyle. Featuring a hypnotic, frenzied Nino Rota score that sweeps Juliet and the viewer away on a wave of hysteria, Juliet of the Spirits is Fellini at his most sublime.
Amarcord (1973) is certainly Fellini's least abstract, most accessible film. Yet, by no means does this diminish its beauty, grace and brilliance. Amarcord unfolds like a great old tale, with an elderly narrator introducing le manine, the puffballs which drift through the seaside town of Rimini, signaling the coming of spring. Amarcord follows young Titta, his family, and the colorful inhabitants of the village from one primavera to the next. Amarcord, similar to La Dolce Vita, presents linear, yet not particularly sequential, episodes in the lives of the characters. These episodes range from the dreamy and comical, such as the hilarious scene when a buxom tabacchi shop owner smoothers Titta with her heaving bosom, to the deeply serious, such as the cruel interrogation inflicted upon Titta's father by the belligerent Fascist goons. Amarcord is filled with grace notes which enrich its worshipful quality and ensure its masterpiece status. One such moment occurs when Titta's grandfather solitarily contemplates his mortality amidst murky fog enshrouding the village. He claims, "Where am I? If death is like this...vaffanculo!" Fellini splashes a bit of Italian superstition into an innocent snowball fight in the town piazza. Titta and his friends hear a squawking bird fluttering through the sky; "It's the count's peacock!" someone shouts. The majestic bird dips into the piazza, perches on the frozen fountain and spreads its wings. A familiar symbol of la mala fortuna, or bad luck, the peacock is a subtle premonition of ensuing death, as Titta's mother falls ill and soon dies. In the Romagnolo dialect Amarcord means "I Remember" -- and we certainly will remember Fellini's heartfelt masterpiece, a coming of age filmic testament.
The films of Federico Fellini blend dreams and reality, much like the country of Italia: A romanticized abbondanza of gorgeous images, colorful characters and timeless allure. This January, if a trip to Rimini is not on your agenda, make sure to catch a few Fellini flicks, such as La Strada (1954) and 8 ½ (1963).
There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life.
- Federico Fellini (1920-1993)