By Gaither Stewart
Fellini in his signature rakish hat. Some called it the sartorial affectation of a genius; others simply dismissed it as the droit du realisateur.
FEDERICO FELLINI’S favorite interview technique was to explain while denying he was explaining, or not explaining anything while claiming he was explaining all. The symbolist poet – film director Fellini was a mixture of denial and irony, wile and innocence. Half – truths and half – falsehoods, interwoven with deceptive understatements, were his terrain.
In one of Fellini’s rare interviews with a small group of journalists toward the end of his life the film author resorted to his whole bag of tricks: “For forty years I’ve been trying to explain something I can’t explain. I hear only questions I can’t answer. Usually only a character, or a shadow of a memory, or even a form of expression, has offered me a saving hand. But I myself am impotent and defenseless.
“The truth is, with my camera I have only sketched a series of scribblings, traced out images, profiles, and pornographic designs that usually no one asked me to explain.”
It was difficult to ask him what this scene or that sequence or those words meant. Few journalists ever risked. The reality is that watching a Fellini film is like walking along the narrow edge of an abyss during an earthquake. You grasp for meanings.
Fellini’s explanations were useless as a means to understanding his cinema—because by nature he was a liar. He had to be. Whatever information or interpretation about one film or the other was wrested, wrenched or wrung from its symbolist author was necessarily a lie. One of the few truths he ever uttered in an interview was his admission that day I was present in his famous Studio number 5 in Rome’s Cinecittá studios: “I’m always autobiographical, even if I’m telling the story of the life of a fish.”
But everyone present knew that already.
That day in his studio, toward the end of his life, the Maestro – as film director Federico Fellini [ Rimini, 1920 – Rome, 1993] was popularly called – was trying not to answer a question or to explain anything about his old – always new, Oscar winning film, AMARCORD . Set in his native Rimini, the seaside resort on the Adriatic Sea, the film AMARCORD —the word means “I remember” in his native dialect and had to be translated also to the Italian public—[The latin root, recordare, means literally “passing again through the heart” –il cor–not the mind—Eds.] was in a sense Fellini’s spiritual return home after the many years of his Rome films.
A torrent of adolescent manufactured memories against a backdrop that could only be Italy.
Fellini’s explanation of the significance of that poetry was this: “AMARCORD is a kind of consonance, a harmony, that intrigues, that seduces, like the alluring name of an aperitif. I only wanted to portray a real Italian province.”
For Fellini the dreamer, the wanderer and follower of circuses, the observer of life, and caricaturist, the town of Rimini on the Adriatic Sea was the point of departure and a subtle point of reference for all his cinematographic works—for his “scribblings, images, profiles, and pornographic designs,” as he falsely modestly defined his films. The seashore resort of Rimini was the base of his autobiography, the base of all the Felliniana.
Fellini lovers recall with delight the image of the Rimini boys dancing on the wide steps of the great seashore hotel on a dark winter’s night. Much more than the thousands of discos along its coastline, that image marks indelibly the town of Rimini. The Grand Hotel today stands there almost silently, an elegant symbol of times past, which is what Fellini’s cinema, his poetry, is all about: “memories,” he liked to say.
At the exclusive north end of Myrtle Beach – like Rimini, a monument to the Rimini Belle Époque, the Grand Hotel in Fellini’s time expressed the province’s search for the beautiful world far away. Rome was far away. Europe was distant. Once a meeting place for the European aristocracy, the Grand became a hotel for politicians, artists, and writers, where in its Belle Epoch atmosphere waiters still today speak French to distinguished English guests.
I dwell on Rimini and the Grand Hotel because it conditioned the boy and the youth, Federico. It conditioned Fellini’s art, his view of life. His cinema is rich in images of the epoch symbolized by the Grand Hotel, where the famous film director always stayed on his frequent visits. The manager of the Grand once told me that Fellini changed personalities in Rimini, in contrast to his boisterous Rome image: “Here he is a quiet guest, a simple man, with no pretensions, no scandals.”
For the boy Federico, the Grand Hotel was a ray of light from the world beyond the railroad tracks, in contrast to the boredom of the provinces so isolated in those days. Later, all of his principle film characters were to be immersed in a desolate interior solitude.
“We were fourteen furious boys who couldn’t bear any restrictions,” Fellini reluctantly recalled in the Cinecittá interview. “Nothing was sacred. We teased the workers, we broke into the monastery at dawn to wake up the monks by squirting water on the cell doors. At night we tormented couples hidden behind the boats on the beach. Once we stole the clock from the Hotel Kursal. [That episode was used in Fellini’s first major film, I VITELLONI, 1953].
In I Vitelloni (also loosely translatable today as “the young slackers”) Fellini dug deep into his own experiences and observations as a youth in Rimini.
Just across the rail tracks from the Grand lies the 2300 – year old town of Rimini—the streets and piazzas of Fellini’s cinema. It’s a Roman town with amphitheater and Augustus’ Triumphant Arch of 27 B.C. But superimposed on the antiquity is Fellini’s Medieval – Renaissance town where Brunelleschi worked and where stands the Liceo Classico made famous by Fellini’s films. The narrow strip of land between the sea and the north – south railroad tracks was a beacon to Rimini youth, a place where in the night they felt physically the passing of great express trains and ocean liners. The contrast between the provincial town on one side of the tracks and the wide world on the other became the center of Fellini’s art.
The scene in AMARCORD of the boys of the provinces dancing together the old – fashioned dance, slowly and silently, on the steps of the Grand Hotel, and the passing in the night fog of the mysterious ship, the REX, underlines the contrast. It is the reality of their yearning and the symbolism of the REX in the night—in the distance, intangible and evanescent.
Is Fellini’s art cinema, plastic art, or symbolist poetry? The answer, I believe, is all three.
While AMARCORD was his return home, Fellini lovers will appreciate that I VITELLONI marked Fellini’s spiritual departure from his hometown to Rome. The word of the title meaning “fat calves” refers to the sons of provincial bourgeois families who didn’t work and lived off their fathers. In the latter film, the Maestro claimed he depicted the reality of life in the Rimini of that period. So to speak! For reality for Fellini was a relative term. The film that won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival that year was an artistic adieu to Rimini, which liberated him to set out for other worlds. To Rome, his adopted city.
Yet, Federico Fellini was no Thomas Wolfe. He departed but had no difficulty returning. His friend, Alberto Moravia, wrote that, “Fellini’s cinema had Rome as its protagonist rather than as its background and setting.” For Moravia, one of Italy’s major writers and an ardent film critic, Fellini’s Rome is “a city of imagination, composed of corporeal and Baroque fantasy, a place to give vent to a certain sentiment of life.”
Moravia noted however that “when Fellini speaks of his native Rimini he becomes sober and delicate.”
During the intervening years between his physical departure – escape from Rimini and the provinces in 1939—recorded in I VITELLONI and filmed in Rimini—and his spiritual return there in 1973 with his film masterpiece, AMARCORD, Fellini never really deserted the complex town – image on the Adriatic Sea. The Rimini images created by the Roman – Medieval vestiges on one hand and the typical provinces and the world of tourism on the other, remained in his blood.
Therefore, the mature Fellini, the artist and magical recorder of people and things, searching for outlets for his world of fantasy within his autobiography, found Rimini again with such ease and delicacy.
In no other western country more than in Italy is more apt the expression, “No one is a prophet in his own country.” Especially in the case of Federico Fellini, who was less admired and less understood in realistic Italy than abroad. Many Italians today say frankly, “I never liked Fellini. I don’t understand him.”
La Dolce Vita (1960) was Fellini’s first major international success, a film soon to become iconic. It was also a box office hit at home, not usually the case with the more avant-garde Italian directors. The movie marked Fellini’s final break with his neorealismo phase. Some on the left were disturbed by what they saw as a plunge into bourgeois self-indulgence.
Though that is blasphemy among cinema lovers in France or the United States, also many cinema critics and festival juries never understood his art—though they recognized it as the work of genius. Therefore all his Oscars! Because of his genius of expressive ambiguity the Maestro so influenced his contemporaries and the subsequent generation of filmmakers that today, to be called “Fellinian”, is the highest accolade. Perhaps no other filmmaker ever won more awards and received more acclamation and recognition in his own time for works so few people could comprehend.
Fellini himself—liar, master of understatement and denial, weaver of dreams and fantasy—said about his own films, “I don’t understand them either. I don’t seem capable of even suggesting an interpretation.”
Ennio Flaiano, the film critic and sometime Fellini collaborator, viewed Fellini’s work as “a search for himself”—rare but not unheard of among film makers. “His themes are the conflict between life and dream, the incommunicability among human beings, and rejected love. His merit is that he presents the sum total of good and evil, of fall and redemption.”
Many, including some prominent critics, thought that in 8-1/2 Fellini was giving the public an intimate and literal autobiographical vignette but the whole plot was simply an essay on what might have been his life as an artist, but wasn’t.
These should not be understood as simply hollow words. If one keeps Flaiano’s diagnosis in mind—life and dream, incommunicability, unreturned love, good and evil, and redemption of man—and if one recalls one is dealing with a symbolist poet and weaver of dreams and not just another film director, one can comfortably walk into Blockbuster and take home confidently 8 1/2 [Otto e Mezzo], put it in the video, and sit down and appreciate Fellini’s most difficult film.
Giulietta Massina, in the unforgettable role of Gelsomina, the loyal but dimwitted waif, in La Strada, Fellini’s perhaps most heartwrenching moral tale, with strong echoes of his neorealist past.
The most Fellini himself ever admitted about his vast work—The White Sheik, I Vitelloni, La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, Satyricon, Giulietta of the Spirits, Casanova, Amarcord, Ginger and Fred, The Interview, and all the others—was this: “I put myself in front of a mirror only in 8 1/2. The rest is memories.”
Unfortunately, his own story of the autobiography of a fish belied that admission, too.