Sunday, August 7, 2011

Remastering the Film: Federico Fellini

Love is predicated on the belief in the integrity of another human being's existence. That is why love is the ruling principle of art. Going to all the trouble of painting a portrait or a landscape, of putting layer upon layer of detail in a novel so that a character "comes to life", of a filmmaker pursuing an actor with his camera, alone with him across a piece of the earth we have never seen until we are compelled to care what happens to him - these are all acts of love, and Federico Fellini's best films, The White Sheik (1952), I Vitelloni (1953), La Strada (1954), Il Bidone (1955), The Nights of Cabiria (1957), La Dolce Vita (1960), and 8 1/2 (1963) are shining examples of this.

The White Sheik is a beautiful and engaging satire of the provincial dreams of Wanda, a newlywed in Rome who secretly plans to meet her fotoromanza idol, "The White Sheik", while her husband scrambles to cover up his wife's misconduct. It was a flop in Italy, but Fellini's next film, I Vitelloni, is a dramatic account of his life in Rimini, his family and friends whom he left behind, just like Moraldo does, to pursue his dreams in Rome.

The international success of La Strada made Fellini famous, and it's a mixture of realism and fantasy (Gelsomina, played by Fellini's wife Giulietta Masina, is half-moron, half-angel), beautiful and compelling. Il Bidone, which is his most misunderstood film, is also my personal favorite. Like La Strada, it's oddness is mitigated by the presence of a Hollywood star, in this case Broderick Crawford, as the leader of a trio of con men.

Nights of Cabiria followed a character that Fellini introduced briefly in The White Sheik, an eternally optimistic prostitute, played by Masina. The film became the inspiration of the Broadway musical and Hollywood film Sweet Charity.

La Dolce Vita originated in a script that Fellini intended to be a follow-up to I Vitelloni, called Moraldo in the City. But Fellini expanded the script considerably (the uncut version is three hours) and the film ultimately became what Vernon Young called a "flawed epic" - but an epic all the same.

After La Dolce Vita, Fellini was arguably the most famous film director in the world. For the next thirty years he was certainly one of the most famous people in Italy. Even people who knew little or cared less about film recognized his genius. His next film, 8 1/2, is about a film director who has run out of ideas and who tries everything to rekindle his inspiration. It is filled with dreams of suffocation, of people - actors, producers, and women, women, and more women - who demand from him results instead of excuses. Dwight Macdonald, who got into a famous published argument with John Simon over the film's value, called it Fellini's "obvious masterpiece". I agree.

Perhaps because of his unprecedented rise, Fellini's decline was precipitous. After 8 1/2 his Midas touch suddenly became a minus touch. It's difficult to overestimate the magnitude of Fellini's wrong turn. I have already
mentioned the chasm that divides his first seven feature films from the rest. Coming from the artist who made I Vitelloni and The Nights of Cabiria, self-parodic rubbish like Amarcord (1974) or labored nonsense like And the Ship Sails On (1983) were painful disappointments. Rather than diminish the importance of those first films, his subsequent work has enhanced it - for no other reason than that they were inimitable, no matter how many times Fellini tried.

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