Federico Fellini | Critical Review by Vincent Canby

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Federico Fellini.
This section contains 1,017 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Vincent Canby

SOURCE: "Warm Memories and Hot Nightmares Are Etched in Fellini's Singular Vision," in The New York Times, October 29, 1993, pp. B1, B7.

Canby is a novelist, playwright, and the chief film critic for the New York Times. In the following excerpt from a review of a Fellini retrospective held just before the filmmaker's death, Canby provides an overview of the major films of Fellini's career.

Now that the Fellini career is approaching its end, one can follow its splendid arc with a certitude not possible before. It begins with the early, bracingly comic, sometimes somber neo-realist black-and-white comedies, and includes the breakthrough with his two black-and-white masterpieces, La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), after which he forever abandoned conventional narrative.

There followed his simultaneous discoveries of color with Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and of the power that the Cinecittà studio facilities gave him. Working within the studio, he could not only manufacture fantastic settings and the weather of his choice, but also remodel the looks of his actors. In the studio Fellini created worlds that never existed, stylized in a way that calls attention to, and celebrates, the artifice of film making in a manner that no director dared before or since.

It was also in the studio in the post-8 1/2 years that he created his cinema of grotesquerie (Fellini Satyricon in 1969 and Casanova in 1976) and of flamboyant remembrance (The Clowns, 1970; Fellini Roma, 1972). On at least one occasion he successfully mixed the nostalgic with the grotesque to come up with the magnificent Amarcord (1973). This is the enchanting memoir of his youth in Rimini, where peacocks appear out of the white blur of a snowstorm and, on a warm dark night, the Rex sails by on her maiden voyage, looking not real but like a boy's dream of a great ocean liner.

In this period, too, Fellini often went overboard in his fondness for bizarre characters: albinos, dwarfs, hunchbacks, the grossly overweight and the painfully skinny. Some call them freaks, though, I suspect, Fellini would not. Today these images seem far less arbitrary and cruel than cartoon-like, as is his depiction of sex. The female sex objects in a Fellini film tend to be as grossly overendowed as the women pictured on postcards sold in joke stores.

They make sex seem ludicrous and removed from love, which is represented by the understated chic of the model-slim Anouk Aimée in 8 1/2. There's always something prudish about sex in Fellini's films, almost anti-erotic, possibly because sex so often has its roots in adolescent fantasies that have nothing to do with love. The characters played by Marcello Mastroianni in both 8 1/2 and City of Women (1980), though self-aware, cannot reconcile their lust with their obsessive search for the ideal (chaste) woman. As a result, the Mastroianni characters are figures of high comedy, rather than tragedy.

The one time that Fellini tried to make such a character tragic, in Casanova, the result was a stillborn, chilly movie, even if it's one of the most exquisitely beautiful ever made. Fellini is a poet of the cinema, but also a great humorist and wit. He can't be solemn for very long without losing his élan; 8 1/2, though a serious consideration of one man's nervous breakdown, is comedy of the revivifying kind, largely because of the ways in which Mr. Mastroianni's Guido so earnestly deceives himself.

La Dolce Vita is a panoramic view of Roman high-life and decadence at a time when the Cold War was real and the threat of the Bomb still haunted a post-World War II generation. That the film remains so wonderfully entertaining today has nothing to do with its once-fashionable take on alienation. Rather, it's the result of the near-tabloid vivacity with which these lost lives are brought to dramatic life….

Fellini had already mapped out his own distinctive cinema landscape by the time he completed The White Sheik (1951), his second film though his first credit as a solo director, and I Vitelloni (1953).

The White Sheik, lambasted by the Italian critics when it opened, is as hilarious as any Italian farce ever made, the mad story of a small-town couple who come to Rome on their honeymoon and are separated, briefly, by the innocent bride's passion for another, quite fictitious man. Even better is I Vitelloni, Fellini's memory of the layabout pals he left in Rimini when he went to seek his fortune in Rome.

In these early films, as in so many that come after, characters are forever taking off down open roads, their hearts high in spite of everything common sense tells them. At night they find themselves in a deserted square, often in a small town, sometimes in Rome, frequently on the point of despair when, possibly, a friendly fire eater, a hooker or a cat wanders by.

After watching these films, one can only feel that Fellini has been deprived by growing up in a land without the Miss America contest. He would be especially pleased, I think, with its talent competitions whose contestants may juggle, tap dance and play xylophones. There are beauty contests in Variety Lights for Queen of the Beach, in I Vitelloni for Miss Siren and in Voices of the Moon for Miss Flour of 1989. The winners are all forlorn.

Fellini also has a curious passion for processions and parades, sometimes religious, often festive, occasionally impromptu. They appear out of nowhere to give new direction to someone who, like the prostitute played by Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria (1956), is at the point of yet another suicide attempt….

After receiving Oscars for 8 1/2 and Amarcord, Fellini this year received an Oscar for his career achievement. Though he hasn't pleased the critics much during this last decade, he made two of his most singular works: the elegant and funny meditation on art and artists, And the Ship Sails On (1983), which features, among other things, a homesick rhinoceros, and Intervista (1987), with Fellini himself on the screen to celebrate his magical years at Cinecittà.

Great films, both.

This is a sad time, but what a grand career.

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This section contains 1,017 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Vincent Canby
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