(1920 - 1993) Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film
screenwriter,Also: actor/Born: January 20, 1920, Rimini, Italy/Died:
October 31, 1993, Rome, Italy
Italian humanist director Federico Fellini was among the most intensely autobiographical film directors the cinema has known. "If I were to make a film about the life of a soul," said Fellini, "it would end up being about me." Born in Rimini, a resort city on the Adriatic, Fellini was fascinated by the circuses and vaudeville performers that his town attracted. His education in Catholic schools also profoundly affected his later work, which, while critical of the Church, is infused with a strong spiritual dimension. After jobs as a crime reporter and artist specializing in caricature, Fellini began his film career as a gag writer for actor Aldo Fabrizi.
In 1943, Fellini met and married actress Giulietta Masina, who appeared in several of his films and whom Fellini called the greatest influence on his work. In 1945, he got his first important break in film, when he was invited to collaborate on the script of OPEN CITY, Roberto Rossellini's seminal work of the neorealist movement. In 1948, Rossellini directed WAYS OF LOVE/L'AMORE, one part of which was based on Fellini's original story "Il Miracolo/The Miracle" about a peasant woman (Anna Magnani) who thinks that the tramp (played by Fellini) who has impregnated her is St. Joseph and that she is about to give birth to Christ.
VARIETY LIGHTS (1950), detailing the intrigues of a group of travelling entertainers, was Fellini's directorial debut, in collaboration with the established Alberto Lattuada. THE WHITE SHEIK (1951) and I VITELLONI (1953) followed; the former was a comedy about a woman's affair with a comic strip hero, the latter a comedy-drama about the aimless lives of a group of young men. Though Fellini's earliest films were clearly in the neorealist tradition, from the start his interest in and sympathy for characters' eccentricities and his penchant for absurdist, sometimes clownish humor, makes them distinguished.
Fellini's international breakthrough came with LA STRADA (1954). One of the most memorable and moving films of world cinema, it is the story of an innocent, simple young woman (Masina) who is sold by her family to a brutish strongman in a traveling circus. Because Fellini infused his film with surreal scenes, he was accused of violating the precepts of neorealism. Ultimately, LA STRADA, Fellini's first unquestioned masterpiece, is a poetic and expressive parable of two unlikely souls journeying toward salvation. The film's impact is bolstered immeasurably by Nino Rota's unforgettable music, marking the beginning of a collaboration between the two men that would end only with Rota's death in 1979. A luminous performance by Masina, and the moving Jungian imagery of earth, air, fire and water, are also memorable elements of LA STRADA.
After two strong but relatively minor works&emdash;THE SWINDLE (1955)/IL BIDONE and NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957), the latter providing Masina with a hallmark role as the hapless prostitute&emdash;Fellini directed his two most influential masterworks: LA DOLCE VITA (1960) and 81 (1963). LA DOLCE VITA was a three-hour, panoramic view of contemporary Italian society as seen from the perspective of a journalist, played by Fellini's alter ego, actor Marcello Mastroianni. A savage if subtle satire that exposes the worthless hedonism of Italian society, LA DOLCE VITA provides a wealth of unforgettable images, from its opening&emdash;a parody of the Ascension as a helicopter transports a suspended statue of Christ over rooftops with sunbathing women in bikinis&emdash;to its signature scene of bosomy Anita Ekberg bathing in the Trevi Fountain. The film was a scandalous success, a worldwide box-office hit that was condemned by both the Catholic Church for its casual depiction of suicide and sexual themes and by the Italian government for its scathing criticism of Italy.
Celebrated as a brilliant social critic, Fellini now found himself under careful scrutiny by the international community, which anxiously awaited his next film. 81 (1963) represented a brilliant gamble: as a filmmaker who did not know what film to make next, Fellini decided to make a film about an internationally acclaimed director who does not know what film to make next, thus confronting his personal confusions head-on; Mastroianni played the director's alter ego. Having directed six features, co-directed another (counting as one half) and helmed episodes of two anthology films (each one also counting for a half), one of which was BOCCACCIO '70 (1962), Fellini realized he had made 71 films and hence chose 81 for his most reflexive film. For the first time, surreal dream imagery clearly dominated, with no clear demarcation between fantasy and reality in this groundbreaking and exceptionally influential film.
Fellini's next film, JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965), was his first in color. Again starring Masina, whose career was at a low ebb and with whom Fellini had been having personal problems, JULIET applied the methods of his previous two films to examine the psyche of a troubled upperclass housewife. For the first time, the voices of those critics who attacked Fellini for self-indulgence were louder than those who praised him for his perceptive vision. A feminist film ahead of its time, which complicates dismissals of Fellini as a "dirty old man," JULIET OF THE SPIRITS seems today even stronger than when it was released; one sequence, Juliet's memory of a religious pageant of school girls directed by unknowingly sadistic nuns, certainly stands among the most memorable and terrifying scenes in world cinema.
Many critics called Fellini's next film his "ne plus ultra." FELLINI SATYRICON (1970), loosely based on extant parts of Petronius's Satyricon, is the most phantasmagorical of all Fellini's work, following the bawdy adventures of bisexual characters in the pre-Christian world. Fellini himself described the film as science fiction of the past; and indeed the whole film moves with the logic of a dream&emdash;fragmentary, at times incomprehensible, and ending, literally, in the middle of a sentence. The abandonment of relatively conventional narrative, which had increased over the course of JULIET as its protagonist's psychic world took over, came completely to the fore, and much of Fellini's subsequent work did not reverse the pattern. FELLINI SATYRICON is also unusually sensuous, more so than his other works; there is a constant tension between the film's sense-pleasing surface and its often disturbing elements, which include sex and nudity, dwarfs, an earthquake, a hermaphrodite, a decapitation, an erotic feast and orgy, suicides, mythological creatures, violence and hundreds of the most grotesque extras ever assembled. SATYRICON polarized critics&emdash;some attacked the film as proof that Fellini's self-indulgence had run amuck, and others praised it as a great fountainhead of a new kind of non-linear cinema, a head-trip (not unlike Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) representing the aesthetic culmination of the 1960s and the ultimate comment, through an examination of the imaginary past, on the present.
Fellini's work since SATYRICON was seen by many as less focused, and his international acclaim less consistent. Retreating from the splendid excess of SATYRICON, he created several very fine, more modest films, all marked by striking imagery, which diminished the distinctions between fiction film and documentary: THE CLOWNS (1971), which deals with Fellini's lifelong love of circuses; FELLINI'S ROMA (1972), centering on his love/hate relationship with the Eternal City which recurs in many of his films; and the critical and potent but little-seen ORCHESTRA REHEARSAL (1979), portraying the orchestra as a metaphor for Italian politics. Perhaps Fellini's most acclaimed post-SATYRICON film was AMARCORD (1974), an accessible work which can be seen as a summation to that point of his autobiographical impulse (the title means "I remember"). Lovingly describing Fellini's Rimini boyhood, peppered with offbeat but gentle humor, AMARCORD organizes its images through a strong emphasis on the natural cycle and a coherent narrative, though it also contained such memorable flights of fancy as the peacock that appears during the winter snow.
AMARCORD was the fourth Fellini film to win an Oscar as Best Foreign-Language Film, but as he continued making films in the 80s he found it increasingly difficult to find financial backing and distributors. The downturn in his critical reputation and the inaccessibility of several key films led many to dismiss the latter as unimportant or as further signs of his "self-indulgence." FELLINI'S CASANOVA (1976), while perhaps not one of his most important films, was unusually&emdash;indeed strikingly&emdash;cold, filled with stunning imagery which cannot be easily dismissed. AND THE SHIP SAILS ON (1984), meanwhile, proved that his flair for flamboyant characterization had not lost its comic or satiric prowess in its commentary on self-absorbed artists and motley others (including a homesick rhinoceros). GINGER AND FRED (1986), though heavily criticized by many upon its release (it was the last Fellini to get a full art-house run in the US), has more than its share of touching and amusing moments as his two most important actors, Masina and Mastroianni, play a dance team reunited for what can only be described as "Fellini TV."
Fellini's INTERVISTA (1987) carried the reflectiveness of his later years full circle. A fitting companion piece to 81 and a revisitation (with Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg) of that other landmark, LA DOLCE VITA, Fellini again directly confronted his own position and status as a filmmaker, this time with a sadder, more wistful nostalgia than he had as a younger man. Now the aging "Il Mago" ("the magician," as he was sometimes called in Italy) and his aging actors watch clips of their earlier triumphs in scenes that are extremely moving. His last completed film, VOICE OF THE MOON (1990), considered by some critics his most surreal picture, was, like INTERVISTA, a small film chock-full of references and last minute thoughts, alternately strange and sad, an appropriate postscript to a film career filled with with laughter and wonder at the bizarre circus of life.
Fellini continued to pursue other projects in semi-retirement. At the Academy Awards ceremony in March of 1993, Fellini received a special Oscar for lifetime achievement in filmmaking, which he dedicated to Masina in his acceptance speech. In August of that year, Fellini suffered a stroke, and went into a coma following a heart attack in October. After his death at age 73 on October 31st&emdash;one day after Masina (who was to die of cancer less than five months later) observed their 50th wedding anniversary&emdash;tens of thousands of people packed the narrow streets of Fellini's hometown of Rimini, applauding as the director's casket was carried from the main piazza to the cinema where Fellini had watched his first films as a child (and which he featured in AMARCORD). It was a fitting tribute to one of the cinema's greatest artists, who had become a national treasure for Italy and a respected master the world over.