My friend, Lars Beckermann, is at it again. This time, he's sharing insights about one of Hollywood's most enigmatic directors. Selfishly, this couldn't come at a better time. We just started our slow roll to Minneapolis and my writing time will be limited. Thanks, Lars. Dinner and a movie right here, right now.
Fellini For Dummies
By Lars Beckermann
Funny how sometimes a subject matter, concept or project can seem too vast or complex to even begin to tackle. Like starting a stamp collection in your 40s - or taking up auto mechanics. Where do you start?
Well, when it comes to appreciating art, my opinion is it is never too late, and no art or artist should ever become positioned in your psyche as overwhelming.
My eldest son is midway through his first year at UCLA. He wisely chose to expose himself to a variety of film courses, UCLA being one of the finest universities in the world for that area of study. His first week in Foreign Cinema Appreciation he shot me off a text message posing the simple question: ‘What do you think of Fellini’s 8 _?’ This question was followed by the statement: ‘It rocked my world!!’
Notice the double exclamation point. Great, I thought, now I have to watch Fellini again so that my son won’t think I’m an idiot. Where do I start?
When I began my career in Hollywood I made an earnest effort to give myself a rudimentary ‘film school’ foundation and subsequently rented and watched the films I was supposed to have as reference tools. Citizen Kane, On the Waterfront, Rebel Without a Cause, From Here to Eternity, etc. Some of these films were huge in my evolution as an actor (Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden), others not at all (Dr. Strangelove, Lawrence of Arabia). When it came to thumb nailing the vast library of influential foreign cinema I was less patient. I learned very little from what’s referred to as the French New Wave, and while I was impressed by the gorgeous black and white cinematography of the Italian Neorealism movement, I stumbled through Fellini’s most notable films and then slipped them back through the rental slot and declared with a sigh “been there done that.”
So now, thanks to my son Nick’s wide eyed enthusiasm (not to mention my older brother’s in depth perspective on all things Italian), I have jumped feet first into the brilliantly rich and self-exploratory world of the late great master, Federico Fellini.
Consider this a user-friendly guide to enjoying Fellini’s films, set forth in a chronological order (with one exception) to help understand, for lack of a better word, how the director’s career trajectory influenced his themes regarding the human condition.
I Vitteloni (1953) Set in a small Italian village near the Caspian sea, this semi-autobiographical film beautifully captures the trappings and confinement of familial comfort. This film gives us a glimpse into what Fellini’s early development as a man must have been like, his view on family and responsibility, status and religion. It is beautifully shot and cast. Fans of Martin Scorsese will see why this film was so influential to him regarding male camaraderie and peer pressure. Its main characters are five overgrown adolescents, each of whom suffers a harsh clash between the illusion of comfort with the reality of becoming men.
La Strada (1954) A philosophical parable of salvation and redemption. This film marks the arrival of Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Massina, who plays the story’s beauty to Anthony Quinn’s beast. Massina’s unforgettable performance as the slightly retarded innocent, Gelsomina, made her an overnight international star, and the redemptive journey that Quinn’s brutish Zampano makes will leave a lasting memory. The mesmerizing musical theme in the film was written by lifelong Fellini partner and collaborator Nino Rota who went on to provide the unforgettable score to The Godfather.
The Nights of Cabiria (1956) Giulietta Massina now delivers a tour de force performance as the Chaplinesque prostitute Cabiria Ceccarelli. Again, mining the deep well of human salvation, Fellini gives us a heartbreaking work filled with mystery, humor and trial by suffering. Cabiria wants so desperately to rise out of her surroundings that she becomes an easy mark. I won’t give away any more. As in La Strada, Fellini’s characters are left to face the emptiness of contemporary existence while searching for spirituality.
Amarcord (1974) I slotted this film out of chronological order to provide another representation of Fellini’s genesis. Amarcord is a sentimentally beautiful and nostalgic portrayal of the kind of childhood the director was raised in. It served as the sole inspiration for the Academy Award winning Cinema Paradiso (1989). The political and social themes are poignant in Fellini’s worldview.
La Dolce Vita (1959) This is the film that cemented Fellini as one of the all time greats of the Cinema. Fellini’s chose the wonderful Marcello Mastroianni to sleepwalk through the mundane existence of celebrity-obsessed society and all of its vapidness. This was Fellini’s take on the world he now found himself thriving in. A world void of spirituality and meaning. It is a sexy, sumptuous condemnation of a life without meaning and it is holds up as even more poignant today than it was when released. And if you need more motivation to see this film look no further than Anita Ekberg.
8 _ (1962) After La Dolce Vita the anticipation for Fellini’s next film was intense and the result was a self-imposed hiatus that forced the director to look back on his career and the process of filmmaking. The result was 8 _, a film about the making of a film, again using the graceful persona of Mastroianni to lead the tour. The film also grapples with Fellini’s constant struggle with women and how he related to them. Four female characters in the story represent his compartmentalization of the women in his personal life: wife, mother, friend, whore. It is easily one of Fellini’s funniest films and one of the best representations of the insanity of making a film.
If you only have the time (or interest) to watch one of these films, it’s a tough call, but I would recommend La Strada.