Federico Fellini: Wizard of Film

GIULIETTA OF THE SPIRITS, which was recently released in this country, is the tenth of Federico Fellini's films, the most notable of which have been LA STRADA, LA DOLCE VITA, and 8½. For a portrait of one of the most original and controversial movie directors of our time, we have turned to Eugene Walter, who has lived in Rome since the early 1950s, wrote the English dialogue for LA DOLCE VITA, and acted the part of the highbrow journalist in 8½.


THE Saffa-Palatino studios are built amidst Roman ruins on the Caelian hill. One enters through a Roman wall to a pleasant garden; the crumbling arches, the cypresses, the climbing roses and bougainvillaea make it hard to believe that this is not a set itself. I walked onto a sound stage where director Federico Fellini was conducting a scene. It seemed to be part of an opera: the American actress Edra Gale (the famous Saraghina of ) was dressed as D’Artagnan with great boots and blond mustaches. A chorus of nuns, clowns, and gypsies. A record of a Neapolitan tenor aria blared.

“What is all this?” I asked, mystified.

“For the television,” Fellini said. “They wanted a scene from my new film.”

“Is this a scene from the new film?” I gasped. I had just done an English translation of the script and remembered nothing of opera in Giulietta of the Spirits.

“Of course not!” he laughed, bashing his gardener’s straw hat down over his eyes. “I’m making this to tease them.”

“Won’t they be angry when they find out?”

“Let them! It’s nobody’s business what film I’m making until I say ‘abracadabra’ and flash it on a public screen.”

No wonder Fellini has the reputation of being the biggest liar in Italy. He will proudly inform you of this himself. “The only time Federico Fellini blushes is when he tells the truth,” his wife, actress Giulietta Masina, often observes. A young American writer, recently contracted by a large New York publisher to prepare a biography of the director, says of Fellini, “He’s a hang-up. I have stack upon stack of tape-recorded interviews with everybody who’s ever known Fellini, but the book just doesn’t jell. No two people say the same thing about him, and he is completely contradictory about himself.”

Fellini is indeed hard to pin down: the Communists consider him a capitalist, while most of the Roman upper crust consider him a flaming Communist. He is, in fact, apolitical. Writers consider him the guide to a new direction in the cinema; other film directors consider him “literary.” Half the critics consider him an upstart, a maverick genius; the other half accept him as an “old master.” He is capable of leading interviewers up many a garden path, improvising whole private mythologies to keep a stupid journalist at bay. He is vague about time, but has a truly phenomenal memory for faces and names. He has been called a madman, an archangel, the power of evil, a clunk, and even — as he points out — a “fairly good film director.” He is the enemy of all that s pretentious and pompous, but he respects ceremony and ritual. He has an unquenchable monkey curiosity about everything and loves crowds and busyness.

He is a tall man, and his leonine head (black, with a few white hairs at the temples) gives the impression of a rather big man, but actually he’s slim. Everyone who meets him comments on his penetrating gaze. He dresses casually, but not sportily, the expensive suit worn carelessly. He often wears a soft black hat like Giuseppe Verdi’s. He speaks English excellently, but usually pretends he doesn’t understand a word. His French is good, his German not bad; he knows some terms of endearment and some expletives in Hungarian and Japanese. Although Fellini wouldn’t be caught dead in a “literary” conversation, he is a very well read man who has ranged further afield, certainly, than most Italian writers or film directors. He is acquainted with all the major American writers and has much curiosity about these writers themselves — their lives, their personalities. He has often said he would like to make a film based on some famous book. “I’d love to have time and money to transfer to the screen some classic work. I think most of all of Orlando Furioso or of Don Quixote. But then Jules Feiffer has several stories I’d love to film, especially Passionella. What a film that would make ! My next will probably be science fiction — maybe —" Truly, the only thing constant about him is his mutability.

So it is that Fellini manages to eel out of every category proposed for him. At first the critics thought he was in the neorealist brotherhood, but when it became apparent that he was up to something more personal, much vaster and more subtle, more satiric and poetic, and subscribing to nobody’s theories, cries of traitor were heard and are still heard, with a mounting coloration of pure envy. The recurring theme is that “out of his mélange of cruelty and gloom, of subtle malice and sticky sentimentality, of introspection and half-baked mysticism, emerges a persistent note of squalor.”

WHAT manner of man is this Fellini? His work, if we can judge him at all by it, adds up to a panorama of life, a Dickensian self-contained universe, a graph of the director’s attitude of love and mockery toward the world. Virtue is “good” and usually lives in the country, while “bad” seems most often represented by confusion, indecision, or even just noise. Fellini’s reiterated themes include the tension or loneliness of the individual seeking an island of quiet amidst the general babble and hurly-burly; and the differences between what people think, what they say, and what they do.

Fellini has often been described as anticlerical and sacrilegious, but the Church is held up, in his films, as just another unit of life on this planet, having its picturesque qualities and its built-in stresses and strains, no different in this from the world of Roman high society, the demimonde of whores and pimps, the closed fraternities of the theater, of spiritualism, of journalism. It is precisely this panoramic view which puts Fellini in a class by himself. In a sense, he is the last great nineteenth-century novelist, an epic imagination at work, proliferative, multifarious, and above all, enthusiastic. Everything serves him as material, from local jokes to old cosmologies. In the first script of there was the character of a drunken actor. By a series of sea changes this personage turned into three: the fading French actress, the intellectual journalist, the journalist’s vulgar wife.

Fellini employs a shorthand which is the essence of the cinematic art: we are usually introduced to characters in a setting or in a climactic moment which gives us their identity sharply focused. Fellini shows us, where many other directors tell us. He has a way of constructing a scene in a linear fashion; he wants to get to the point no matter how much decoration he offers besides. Quite often his flexible camera moves through a lavish set peopled with extraordinary characters, and we really only see them out of the corner of the eye, so to speak. He was very nervous about using color photography for Giulietta of the Spirits because color film is slower than black and white. “Every time I wanted to zip along in that garden-party scene, the cameraman would remind me that if I went that fast, the green hedge in the background would show alternately blue and yellow on the screen. So I had to invent new shots. It’s frustrating, working in color.”

Although there are constant references to Roman Catholic ritual and organization, his images are all ancient ones. His last three big frieze-films are just as good catalogues of human types and passions as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Gods Go A-Begging might serve as a useful carryall title for them. Lately, all the jargon of the “myth” and “symbol-symbol-who’s-got-the-symbol” commentators has been deployed to prove that Fellini is a wily and self-conscious arranger rather than a creator with original insight. Most highbrow critics cannot forgive Fellini his sense of fun. Whales send up a fine jet, but dolphins snort and turn somersaults. They’d like a whale: dolphins are too unpredictable. Fellini, as an educated and intelligent Latin, consciously or unconsciously draws on a thousand images from the Mediterranean storehouse. Mother Earth appears (Saraghina dancing on the beach in brought vividly to mind some lines from Hesiod: “Old Earth loves the sound of the flute and the tambourine; nothing pleases her more than to hear their echoes along her bays and shores”), and so do Hera, Hecate, Aphrodite, Iris, Psyche, Artemis, Odysseus, Jason, Eros, the nymphs and satyrs, Pan, Dionysus, and most of the Calendar of Saints.

All the rout can be pointed out in Fellini’s films — if one wanted to do so! And why? The only possible comment to make on them is that they make good company. But the names to conjure are Ovid, Rabelais, and Dickens rather than useless comparisons with other directors such as Antonioni or De Sica, who are only interested in domestic drama. Fellini says in a synopsis he wrote of Giulietta of the Spirits that “it finishes with Giulietta now in complete harmony with the fabulous spectacle of life which is so vastly and so delightfully more rich, magical, and supernatural when it accepts in an easy and simple rhythm the miracle of each day.”

FELLINI was born on January 20, 1920, at Rimini (the Roman Ariminum) on the Adriatic. It’s that other Italy, which doesn’t quite fit any part of the standard image of happy pizza-eaters singing and dancing in eternal sunshine with orange trees and volcanoes in the distance. The Adriatic is a sulky sea, and a busy one. There are squalls and passing mists, and even on the hottest day of August a cold rain can suddenly rush in from the sea and chill the sunbathers. The beaches are made up of pebbles as often as they are of sand, and deep water begins usually a few feet out from the shore. The salt wind blows continually. Rimini leads a double life: festive summer resort, and dull winter city.

Not far away up the coast is Loreto, where stands the Virgin’s House, which is said to have flown there from Nazareth, supported by angels. From the top of Mount Conero, the highest point on the Italian coastline, one can see the curve of the earth and a gray line on the horizon which is Yugoslavia. The gray-white flinty soil of the inland slopes yields half a dozen very good dry white wines.

Before going there I asked several Italian friends about Rimini. Among the replies were “gloomy,” “very Catholic,” “Byzantine — you know, very religious in the procession sense.” The theatrical designer Beni Montresor, who worked with Fellini on I Vitteloni, was particularly illuminating about the towns of the northern Adriatic. Though raised in Venice, he has long been acquainted with Ancona, Sirolo, and Rimini. “Actually it was the Church that gave me my sense of theater,” he explained. “You know, we have so many saints and feast days in that part of Italy, and the churches are decorated differently for each one. . . . As a child I used to run into church on the way to school every day . . . not to pray, but to see what new banners and tapestries had been brought out. . . . I think my work in the theater had its first impulse then.”

In Rimini one notices that people walk more briskly and directly than they do in Rome or in Naples. They are generally taller. One is always seeing a familiar face on the street, but it turns out that it is familiar from Byzantine paintings and mosaics: a rather full face, with languorous black eyes. A cook in Rimini informed me that no woman there would throw away an eggshell that was still in two cracked halves. The shells must be completely crushed so the “witches can’t ride in them.” With my own eyes I saw a pig dance there. Its owner let it out at dawn in order to clean the pen, and the pig cavorted about, doing pirouettes and jumping on its hind legs and pawing the air. “Pigs hate filth,” the man said. “They like mud because it’s cool and good for their sensitive skins, but they hate filth. They are far more intelligent than dogs.”

Rimini has all the requisites for a tourist site: the Malatesta Temple, an Augustan arch, avenues of plane trees leading to the beaches; but it also has a secretive air, and life does not spill out into the streets and courtyards as in Rome or in Naples. Its Byzantine history is somehow still evident, just under the surface; like Venice, it still faces East. One is reminded that the Slavs and the Greeks are really close at hand, just over the water. The clouded beaches, the mysterious and moody sea, the windy salt marshes, the rocky slopes with rock houses — all the backgrounds of Fellini’s films are here. Even the closing sequence of La Dolce Vita, with late party guests going home as the fishermen are pulling up a monstrous fish in the gray light, looks more like the Adriatic than it does like the Tyrrhenian near Rome, where it was filmed.

Fellini’s father, a wholesaler in wines, coffee, and groceries, traveled frequently in northern Italy. The rags-to-riches aspect of the Fellini myth is a journalistic invention: his family was always comfortably well off and educated. His mother and his married sister, Maddalena, live in Rimini still. His younger brother, Riccardo, is an actordirector who lives in Rome and has just made his first important feature film. Fellini’s mother looks much younger than her almost seventy years and has a face which in repose might pass for one of Theodora’s ladies-in-waiting in the mosaics at Ravenna. She is not the usual sullen and suspicious Italian mama. She is handsome and humorous, with a wide smile and a speck of mischief in her black eyes.

“Federico has always loved comic things and crazy unexpected things,” she told me. “When he was young, we quickly realized there was no hope of getting him to school when the circus was in town. And he’d sit through a variety show from the first matinee until closing. Finally I just gave up.”

“When Federico was in his teens,” chimed in Maddalena, who is a copy of her mother, “he never slept. He’d go out walking after supper and walk God knows how many kilometers to some fishermen’s bar or a workmen’s tavern and sit there drinking wine and talking. Or he’d go to the railroad station and wait all night to see the train come in and the mailbags unloaded.”

“He always liked to draw caricatures,” remarked his mother. “And he was very clever at it. But mischievous too — some of them were very naughty, they were so sharp. I had to hide them! He always hated pompous people.”

“Once Federico and Riccardo rented a little shop in town,” said Maddalena, “and sold caricatures and comic drawings.”

When questioned about his films, Signora Fellini said, “Oh, I’ve enjoyed them all; they are full of jokes and references which sometimes only his family can see. was the saddest. It made me cry when the son says to the ghost of his father, ‘Please don’t go; let’s talk — we’ve never really had a talk.’ Because, you see, Federico and I have never had a talk. He’s played tricks on me, and he’s always made me laugh —we’re good friends — but I don’t feel I really know him.”

“He never sat still long enough,” Maddalena said with a laugh.

DURING the war years, when the syndicated comic strips from America could no longer reach Italy, Fellini worked for a house in Milan which invented new series of adventures for such heroes as Mickey Mouse and Dick Tracy, and he drew hundreds of these cheerfully pirated strips for the Italian newspapers. After the war he went to Rome; he lived there by drawing on-the-spot caricatures in cafés along the Via Veneto. Fellini still draws constantly, doodling faces and figures while he listens to sound-track takes or sketching his conceptions of characters to help him in casting a film. He has worked in vaudeville, too, writing skits and songs for one of those small troupes that do two-a-day tours of the provincial cinemas. In that period he made the acquaintance of composer Nino Rota, who has written the music for all of Fellini’s films. He also worked at this time with actor Aldo Fabrizi. Fellini’s first him was as codirector of Lights of Variety, which deals with such a traveling vaudeville troupe and has a cast including Aldo Fabrizi, Edoardo de Filippo, and Giulietta Masina. His second film was The White Sheik, which deals with the hero of a photographic “true romance” comic strip and a young girl from the country who is enamored of him. All his experiences give nuance and detail to every film. In the hero’s mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo), talked mostly in comic-stripese, and the hero spoke back to her in this same highly special dialect, full of “Wow! . . . Zowie! . . . Arf! . . . Whammo!”

There are private jokes and visual puns in every one of Fellini’s films. In all the old people who are guests in the luxury hotel at the spa were real inmates of a Roman old folks’ home. They were given for the him new hearing aids, dental care, whatever they required — and were permitted to take home with them afterward the finery they wore on the set. On the other hand, all the employees of the hotel were titled aristocrats from the Almanach de Gotha. The concierge was played by Prince Volkonsky; the lady violinist in the open-air café was the Princess of Sanseverina. It had nothing to do with the film itself, but it had a lot to do with Fellini’s sense of turning things topsy-turvy, his sense of a looking-glass world. The priests in 8½ were played mostly by old women, while in Giulietta of the Spirits a whole bevy of young nuns is played by boys Fellini selected from the beach at Fregene. Why? “Because they walk more like nuns than nuns do,” says Fellini.

Bookshelves in a scene contain books by Fellini’s friends; stagehands and electricians are pushed into bit parts. Each film has one costume or chair or object or musical theme from the preceding one. A thousand details not visible to the general public, like embroidery on Victorian underwear, yet making possible some new discovery on each viewing of his films. One legend would have it that Fellini works without a script and represents a modern triumph for the ancient Venetian tradition of commedia dell’ arte improvisation. Yet the original scripts for most of his films have been published, and one glance shows that the final film is very close to the original scheme on paper. In a short note introducing the first script of Giulietta which he sent to the producer, Fellini wrote:

As is my habit, working slowly but surely in the labor of preparation, I reserve the right to revise, sharpen, change or substitute scenes, characters, to enrich situations, to determine the rhythm of the film, the dialogue, to create a climate sometimes comic, sometimes anguished, sometimes astonished.

I should like to point out that the film must be a complete “stylistic reconstruction” of reality, in order to obtain a special and evocative atmosphere; that the characters must be “rendered” in such a way as to achieve a neat and unequivocal precision.

The first thing one notices when Fellini is working is the non-Italian lack of confusion. Two hundred actors and technicians can be on the set, and yet there is only a murmur; everybody is working on his piece of the huge scheme. One doesn’t even see the camera at first: it is small and flexible and has nothing to do with Hollywood monsters. On one occasion Fellini got the female stars of in a tizzy by telling them that “a famous South American star” was coming the next day to work in the film. Her name was said to be Dolly Grandi, and in a cast already full of well-known players happy even in small roles, there was considerable resentment for this unknown lady. When she arrived “she” was nothing but a “big dolly,” a hoisting mechanism rented from an American studio for certain shots at the end of the film, where the camera had to rise above a dancing crowd.

Fellini loves tracking shots and quick switches of viewpoint within a single sequence. In one famous single shot contains seven separate scenes — not to provide a treatise on virtuosity, but to maintain the nervous rhythm Fellini prefers. He howls for silence or shouts with impatience when something has gone wrong or someone hasn’t understood, but for the most part he is very mild on set, smiling, greeting every single person upon arrival and at the end of the day. He knows all his coworkers by name, a staggering rarity among film directors. There is no such thing as an “extra” in one of his films. Every single person has an identity and usually has a close-up or a bit of action. He is not the Svengali-type of director at all; he draws out from the actor something which is of the actor. He will indicate movements and say something like “speak slowly” or “presto!” What he really seeks is only suggested casually before the second or third take: “Wriggle like a happy fish,” or “You are hungry for your supper.” He is thought malicious in making actors play without foreknowledge of their part or their lines, but since the baffling sense of destiny is one of his points, that slight uneasiness in the actor, an unknowing, adds immeasurably to the effect. He prefers a hard, even cruel, photography to that which enhances.

FELLINI’S work is often said to be autobiographical. “Even if I set out to make a film about a filet of sole, it would turn out to be about me” is his way of putting it. But he also says, “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” Then, too: “There is absolutely nothing autobiographical about my films, if you mean flat reporting and dull stony facts.” Another time: “I never deal with emotions I have not experienced.”

Still, I Vitelloni does recount the lives of young men in a coastal town like Rimini, bored and unoccupied and dreaming of the big city. This was to have been followed by Moraldo in Città (Moraldo is the youth who escapes to Rome at the end of I Vitteloni), which was never made, although some of the material was incorporated into La Dolce Vita, with its hero the successful and disillusioned journalist. follows in the canon, and originally the hero was to have been a writer. The present Giulietta stands a little aside, although the effect of a strict religious education is one of its themes. It is a kind of concerto for Giulietta Masina, and a proof of the actress’s artistry. Until now she has played waifs and street girls.

It is impossible to speak of Fellini’s films without speaking of his designer and friend, Count Piero Gherardi. “Piero and I have a kind of second-sight relationship,” Fellini explains. “Even before a film has taken complete form in my head he has understood what it’s about and comes up with ideas and sketches that clarify things for me.” La Dolce Vita, 8½, and Giulietta of the Spirits are all Gherardi’s work. He re-created the Via Veneto in the studio for La Dolce Vita, and nothing is more revealing than to stroll down the real street with a photograph of the set of it in one’s hand. Omissions and exaggerations and meaningful choice — and there is the essence of Gherardi’s art.

For Fellini, cinema is neither art nor is it new. “Cinema is an old whore,” he mutters, “like circus and variety, who knows how to give many kinds of pleasure. Oh, they’ve been trying to wash her face and make her respectable, but it can’t be done. They’ve brought her in off the street and propped her up in the parlor with a thick volume of philosophy in one hand and an Introduction to Freud in the other; but she’s still an old whore. Once a whore always a whore. Besides, you can’t teach old fleas new dogs.” Fellini with a down