Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Two Fellinis

I watched the film The Magic of Fellini (2002) recently. The title (1) nearly kept me away. What is generally regarded as Fellini's "magic" is exactly what I most dislike about his work. But it was fun to put faces on so many of Fellini's long-time collaborators, like Tullio Pinelli, Piero Gherardi, Giuseppe Rotunno and Nino Rota. And how sad it was to see Anita Ekberg and especially Claudia Cardinale wearing their age so helplessly and acting as if they were slightly drunk.

If the film ultimately fails to shed any new light on its subject, it is because its creator, Carmen Piccini made a simple but fatal error. Whenever someone mentions Fellini in whatever context, the degree of the person's engagement with his subject can be gauged only when they make it clear exactly which Fellini he is talking about. It is impossible to do justice to Fellini the artist without first acknowledging that there were two of him. The first Fellini was a wonderful poet of the ordinary who was clearly uncomfortable with the rules of storytelling but who, almost despite himself, told stories exquisitely when he was true to his experience of human beings and when he showed us how much he loved them by making them true.

The second Fellini was an exasperatingly erratic and irascible caricaturist who, having exhausted his creative powers - and having the honesty, in 8 1/2, to admit it - turned away from life to his thoroughly juvenile and utterly unedifying dreams, in which all women were surrogate mothers and all men were proxy Federicos. The two Fellinis are so easily distinguishable in their work that it is all the more heartbreaking. The first Fellini hit the ground running with The White Sheik (1952) and didn't break his stride until he had finished 8 1/2. (2) Then the other Fellini took over with the pointless Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and expanded on its pointlessness all the way through La Voce del Luna (1990). Somewhat neatly, the films of the first Fellini are all black-and-white, the films of the second, all color. (3)

Il Bidone (1955) (4) is the least known and least appreciated of the first Fellini's films. Made just after La Strada (1954), it has none of that film's strange poetry, due largely to the absence - in this case beneficial - of his wife Giulietta Masina. But Il Bidone does carry forward La Strada's tenuous metaphysical position, except that Augusto, the foremost bidone, is not left, as in La Strada, writhing on a deserted beach after discovering the existence of his own imperiled soul.

Augusto's (5) last act, once he is done with robbing a poor family of every lira they possess, is to try to rob his fellow swindlers of their share of the spoils. As he is leaving the poor family's farm, Augusto is asked, in his capacity as a (bogus) Catholic Monsignor, to bless a crippled girl. The way that Fellini stages and shoots this excruciating scene - from the shabby grace of the girl (whose very sweetness is almost unbearable) to the fake glory of the Monsignor; from the pain of the girl's aching truth to the pain of Augusto's faltering lies - is more moving than anything else in his work.

And the sense of place that the film projects, the beautiful particularization of the locales in which the initial three bidone carry out their crimes - from the shanty town in which everyone hovers in limbo while the government keeps promising them a place to live, to the empty nightscape of the town where everyone is sleeping except for the ones up to no good - shows us just how much Fellini was still engaged with his origins and with his age. In fact, Il Bidone exposes the extent to which Fellini deserted them both.

(1) Originally simply Federico Fellini
(2) John Simon always insisted it was 8 1/2 that started Fellini's decline. But who else so artfully dramatized his own artistic bankruptcy?
(3) Perhaps to assist puzzled fans, Fellini's name was often part of the titles of his later, considerably lesser, work, viz: Fellini Satyricon (1969), Fellini Roma (1972) and Il Casanova di Federico Fellini (1976)
(4) The original version is 20 minutes longer than the one on DVD in the U.S.
(5) Played beautifully by jowly Broderick Crawford.

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