Fellini is back

Fellini mistrusted self-congratulatory discussions of his own work and preferred to let his films speak for themselves. Two remarks sum up his attitude better than any others. “I don’t have any universal ideas and I think I feel better not having them”; and “I don’t want to demonstrate anything. I want to show it.” In the case of the first remark, in spite of Fellini’s modesty, the popularity of his films denies Fellini’s claim that his work does not have universal appeal. In the second case, Fellini’s preference to privilege image over ideology explains in large measure why his first declaration is untrue. It is perhaps better to remember that Fellini always claimed he was a liar but an “honest” one. Like Picasso, the artist he always admired for his creative genius and his inventiveness, Fellini believed art is a lie that tells the truth. Pettigrew’s documentary captures perfectly the ambiguity in Fellini’s personality and his work in this regard.
Besides Calvino, other friends and associates of Fellini focus on defining aspects of his personality. Tito Benzi (a childhood friend and the model for the young protagonist of Amarcord [1973]) speaks eloquently of the tragic and premature death of Fellini’s first and only child and how it affected his relationship with his wife, Giulietta Masina. Masina plays a small but important role as the prostitute Cabiria in The White Sheik, a part that prepared producers to accept her for more important performances in Fellini’s La Strada (1954) and The Nights of Cabiria (1957), two films that made her an international star less than a decade after the appearance of The White Sheik. Tullio Pinelli, Fellini’s scriptwriter on many of his most important works, from The White Sheik to The Voice of the Moon (1990), discusses the important role of scripts in Fellini’s career and quite rightly rejects the popular notion that Fellini always improvised on the set. Giuseppe Rotunno, Fellini’s cameraman on a number of major films, including Fellini’s Satyricon (1969), Amarcord, and Fellini’s Casanova (1976), offers interesting insights into Fellini’s use of light and confirms Pinelli’s rejection of the theory that Fellini valued improvisation over careful planning. Dante Ferretti, set designer of The City of Women (1980) and Ginger and Fred (1985), describes how Fellini would devote great attention to even the most minute details on a set, leaving nothing to chance and employing hundreds of sketches produced with Magic Marker pens to convey the visual images in his head to his collaborators. Finally, Pettigrew’s documentary explodes another myth about Fellini–that producers considered him irresponsible for costly production overruns–with remarks offered by Daniel Toscan du Plantier, one of Fellini’s French producers, who concludes that Fellini never capriciously wasted funds but always insisted only on incurring the expenses required to produce the desired esthetic effect.
Perhaps the most interesting comments made on Fellini’s career come from three very different actors, who worked with Fellini over a period of three decades: Terence Stamp (Toby Dammit, 1968), Donald Sutherland (Fellini’s Casanova), and Roberto Benigni (The Voice of’ the Moon). Their descriptions of how Fellini directed them are combined with a number of clips shot behind the camera during production, and these documentary clips are then juxtaposed by Pettigrew to sequences from the completed films themselves. This interaction between the work in progress and the finished product explains a great deal about Fellini’s esthetic aims and his techniques on the set. For Sutherland, the initial experience of working with Fellini was disastrous. Sutherland expected to be told how to interpret his role as the famous Latin lover, but Fellini considered actors to be puppets who were
required primarily to deliver an image, not a performance. Unfortunately for Sutherland, Fellini intended to present Casanova as a very negative figure and had signed Sutherland precisely because his physique and facial features lent themselves to Fellini’s interpretation of the famous Latin Lover. For Terence Stamp, being Fellini’s puppet was a far more positive experience: he believes Fellini’s directions on the set were extremely useful. Benigni–better known in the English-speaking world as the star and director of Life is Beautiful (1997) rather than the protagonist of Fellini’s last film, The Voice of the Moon–declares that Fellini was the first director to treat him seriously, as a true actor rather than a buffoon. All three actors agree that their encounter with Fellini remains one of the high points of their individual careers.
Pettigrew’s documentary clips, rescued from archival obscurity by his careful research, stress two themes: Fellini on the set, directing his actors; and locations that have been transformed by the passage of time since they were first employed in Fellini’s works. Clips showing Fellini at work will be extremely interesting for the viewer unfamiliar with the director’s methods. In the famous scene from Amarcord where the Fascist officer administers castor oil to the protagonist’s father, we see Fellini giving the actor every one of his lines and reciting the responses, playing every role himself behind the camera. The actor playing the Fascist officer merely recites a list of numbers and has no script to declaim: since he was cast for his facial features and not his rhetorical skills as a professional actor, Fellini simply dubs in the dialog after the shooting has been completed. In clips from other films, such as Fellini’s Satyricon, nonprofessional actors hired on for their faces and not their acting ability, repeat numbers to the camera that will later be dubbed with proper dialog. In yet another scene from Fellini’s Satyricon, Fellini directs the two male protagonists as they make love to a slave girl and then to each other. Again, there is no dialog: we see Fellini off camera (but only a few inches away from the actors) directing their every minute gesture. Later, when the scene is replayed from the completed film, it has been magically transformed into something quite exceptional.
Other interesting scenes show Marcello Mastroianni on the set of The City of Women, with a laughing Nanni Moretti on the set watching Mastroianni’s performance (Moretti is never identified by Pettigrew’s film). Mastroianni was Fellini’s perfect actor because he cared absolutely nothing about his motivation in any specific scene: when Fellini told him to move to the right or the left and to recite a line, the actor simply did as he was told without asking questions. Although such an attitude was very untypical of Anglo- Saxon actors such as Stamp or Sutherland, in such masterpieces as La Dolce Vita (1959) or 8 1⁄2 (1963), the personal chemistry between Mastroianni and Fellini worked magic. Other interesting archival footage in Pettigrew’s film includes a scene cut from Fellini’s Casanova–that of Casanova making love to a Moor–and shots behind the scenes of Juliet of the Spirits (1965) in which it is Fellini himself (but off camera) who offers his wife Giulietta Masina sangria, a drink that plays an important role in the film.
Numerous links between locations in films and their condition today are made. Thus, we see the spot where Zampanò abandoned Gelsomina in La Strada (near Ovindoli, a small town eighty kilometers from Rome); the courtyard of the Palazzo del Drago in Filicciano (seventy kilometers from Rome) where Guido and Claudia meet in 8 1/2 Cecchignola Military Reserve
(some twenty minutes from Cinecittà outside of Rome), where Fellini shot the scene in which Guido imagines his father’s tomb in 8 1/2 and so forth. These shots, so precious to the specialist, are unfortunately wasted on the neophyte, since they are never clearly identified in the documentary. Indeed, the individuals interviewed by Pettigrew are not identified for the audience until the end of the film, an unfortunate arrangement of his material that presupposes a great deal of knowledge about Fellini that few of Pettigrew’s spectators will possess.
Nevertheless, the numerous clips of Fellini discussing his work and his esthetics (thankfully uninterrupted by endless journalistic questions and accompanied only by pertinent clips from his works or other comments by his collaborators) provide what one reviewer rightly calls a master class on filmmaking, Fellini style. Among the topics Fellini addresses are the relationship of reality to fiction (the former is mistrusted, the latter is praised); the question of improvisation (Fellini rejects it, declaring that making a film is similar in its attention to detail to the launching of a rocket ship into space; Fellini does believe in what he calls disponibilità or openness to possibilities on the set that have not been envisioned prior to shooting); inspiration (Fellini has no use for waiting for inspiration, believing that creative artists who do so merely waste precious time in relying upon such a Romantic concept); alienation (Fellini asks how a man can be a film director, a vocation that is akin to being a magician, if he or she lacks faith in the future); imagination (for Fellini, film directing involves a combination of the qualities of a simple artisan and that of a medium); imagery (for Fellini, cinema is first and foremost painterly, relying upon light more than dialog); and esthetics (regardless of whether something is beautiful or ugly, culturally sophisticated or simple, Fellini’s only criterion of value is whether a work of art is “vitale” or alive).
There is no question that Pettigrew’s documentary on Fellini represents, in Fellini’s own words, the most detailed and lengthy conversation with him ever recorded. Its only other rival is a documentary shot by the BBC in 1987 entitled Real Dreams: Into the Dark with Federico Fellini. While the BBC film is more accessible than Pettigrew’s documentary, it makes fewer demands upon the spectator. Ultimately, Pettigrew prefers to let Fellini take center stage, and few viewers of this fascinating documentary will remain untouched by Fellini’s eloquent prescription for a humanistic cinema that depends less upon special effects, car chases, and explosions than upon a poetic view of the human condition. The DVD version of the film that is planned for the future will contain a great deal of previously unreleased archival footage Pettigrew was unable to include in his film because of limitations of time, and that alone would make it an ideal purchase for the serious collector.
Fellini on the film, and interviews with the main protagonists Leopoldo Trieste (Ivan Cavalli) and Brunella Bovo (Wanda Cavalli). In addition, Fellini’s assistant Moraldo Rossi provides important information about the film’s production. Criterion has already produced other excellent DVDs of such Fellini films as Variety Lights:, 8 1/2, Fellini’s Satyricon, Juliet of the Spirits, Orchestra Rehearsal, and And the Ship Sails On. A new Criterion DVD of La Strada, Fellini’s best loved film, is scheduled to be released in time for the anniversary celebrations in October 2003. It will include extensive critical commentary and supplementary materials. Not surprisingly, the Criterion DVD of The White Sheik is, in every respect, an improvement over the currently available videocassette of the film.
The White Sheik occupies an important place in postwar Italian film history because it reflects the beginning of Fellini’s transition from neorealism to a cinema of poetic fantasy, what critics and film historians often describe with varying degrees of approval or disapproval as “the road beyond neorealism.” Although suggested by a story originally written by Michelangelo Antonioni, The White Sheik creates a world that is immediately recognizable as a Fellinian universe by those who have seen several of his other and later works. It focuses upon the world of provincial sentimentalism and the foto- romanzo, the photo-strip cartoon magazine that dominated popular Italian culture in the 1950s just as television would dominate popular culture in Italy after the 1960s. Neorealist cinema stressed protagonists who were essentially social types–the anti-Fascist partisans in Rossellini’s Rome Open City or Paisan; the fishermen of Visconti’s La Terra Trema; the unemployed Roman who loses his bicycle in De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief; the poor pensioner in De Sica’s Umberto D., and so forth. The neorealist protagonist was defined by his or her sociopolitical or economic situation. While such figures were wonderfully drawn and individualized, they were nevertheless ‘typical’ in their reflection of the consequences of specific social conditions–widespread unemployment, poverty, and the chaos in Italian society during and immediately following the Second World War. In the neorealist cinema from which Fellini’s cinema developed, a protagonist’s environment usually shaped his or her character and, therefore, his or her destiny.
While Fellini himself worked on the scripts of many of the most important neorealist classics, his early films depart in important respects from neorealist practice. Even though his locations may often be authentic provincial places outside the commercial studios (such as those selected from the small towns and the country roads that are so evocative in La Strada), and his actors sometimes nonprofessionals, the abrupt shift in direction Fellini’s cinema takes in his “road beyond neorealism” begins in what may be called the “trilogy of character”-Variety Lights, The White Sheik, and I Vitelloni (1953)–a group of films followed by what may be called the “trilogy of salvation or grace”–La Strada, Il Bidone (1955), The Nights of Cabiria (1957).(n3) In the first three films, Fellini abandons the socially defined protagonists of neorealist cinema for eccentric individuals with special links to the world of entertainment and whose personalities all embody a fascination with dreams and fantasies. The “trilogy of character” accepts a Pirandellian definition of character as bifurcated between “mask” (how a character acts in society) and the character’s more authentic “face” (the character’s truer aspirations, ideals, fantasies, and illusions). In the second three films, Fellini links such protagonists with a special affinity to the world of fantasy with traditional Christian symbolism, employing the idea of conversion, grace, and saintly suffering for entirely secular and nonreligious poetic purposes.
The White Sheik was such a financial disaster when it was first released that it very nearly ended Fellini’s directing career as quickly as it had begun. Yet, half a century after its release, it has been described as a comic masterpiece by no less authoritative voices than Orson Welles and Woody Allen. The film juxtaposes the personalities of two newlyweds, fresh from the provinces on a Roman honeymoon. Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste) represents the typical petit-bourgeois patriarchal husband, characterized by a mechanical (and always completely ridiculous) obsession with time and order, while Wanda Cavalli (Brunella Bova) must repress her romantic aspirations and is forced to seek an emotional outlet from a liberal dosage of photo-romance magazines. One character in these publications in particular has her enthralled: The White Sheik, a comic version of the Rudolph Valentino character from the silent classic films The Sheik and Son of the Sheik. In real life, this dashing figure is a tawdry fraud and failed Lothario named Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi in his first important role), but Wanda sees only in this cartoon figure the dashing lover she lacks in her married life.
After the couple reaches their Roman hotel, Wanda sneaks off to meet her idol, and the rest of the film focuses upon the misadventures of the couple before they finally reunite just in time to attend the papal audience at the Vatican with Ivan’s relatives. “Dreams are our true lives,” says Wanda to the editor of the photo-romance magazine, but she eventually discovers that Fernando Rivoli in the flesh is a poor substitute for her dream world built around the romantic projections she has created around this magazine character. While Wanda’s romantic view of the world is buffeted by her experiences, Ivan’s moralistic authoritarianism weakens to the point that he goes off with a Roman prostitute before meeting up with his wife the next morning. Fellini structures the entire narrative around two separate storylines, cutting back and forth between Wanda’s misadventures and those of Ivan, in a form of dramatic and intrusive editing that many neorealists would have rejected as far too close to Russian or Hollywood practices.
Ivan and Wanda are recognizable comic types, and The White Sheik offers no dramatic epiphany at the close of the film. We see the clash of mask and face in their stories, but at the conclusion of the film, Wanda leaves behind the world of the photo romance, declaring that Ivan is now her White Sheik, while Ivan maintains quite dishonestly that he, too, has remained pure and innocent during the time they were separated. Both characters depart from one set of illusions and at the close of the film, they accept a very different set of illusions upon which to base their future married life.


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