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Critical Essay by Richard A. Blake
SOURCE: "Arrivederci, Fellini," in America, Vol. 169, No. 18, December 4, 1993, pp. 10-11.
A Roman Catholic priest, Blake is also an American film reviewer, editor, critic, and educator. In the following essay, he argues that Fellini's Catholic heritage was an important source of artistic inspiration.
News of Federico Fellini's death on Oct. 31  at the age of 73 came as less of a surprise than the discovery, a few weeks earlier, that he was still alive. The Maestro had regained the attention of his public during his final illness, beginning with a stroke in August and reaching a climax with heart failure in mid-October. With an irony that only he could appreciate to the full, just as he was preparing to leave this life, a retrospective of his works opened at the Film Forum in Manhattan. He lives on as memory, history, monument.
Clearly, something had happened to Fellini the artist long before his final seasons among us. His latest film, Voices of the Moon, was released in Italy in 1990, and three years have now passed without a screening in the United States. Thirty years ago, in the age of La Dolce Vita (1961) and 8 1/2 (1963), English-speaking critics and audiences would have demanded subtitled, dubbed and sanitized screenings of the latest Fellini before the emulsion dried on the work print. Here was no Alfred Hitchcock, who continued making interesting films into his 70's. Fellini's string of magnificent achievements reached its end when he was in his mid-40's.
Film scholars and biographers will now begin the long, delicate work of trying to discover what happened to the later Fellini. Prosperous and established, perhaps he had grown comfortable, losing both his creative energy and the urge to prove himself, or perhaps, too, he felt he had already said everything he wanted to say, and better than almost any other film maker who comes to mind. Surely he felt the death in 1979 of Nino Rota, his long-time musical collaborator, who provided the ebullient musical scores that are so much a part of the experience of a Fellini movie. Possibly he simply lost touch with his public; certainly his public lost interest in him.
These reflections are particularly poignant for those of us who began to study films seriously in the 1960's. With Ingmar Bergman—whose name veterans of that era invariably link to Fellini's, as though fellini/bergman were one word—he offered legitimacy to the claim that movies could be art. Both directors came out of the experience of war asking serious questions of life, and both turned to theology for answers—for a time. For the religious communities, their films seemed to recast the religious questions of the day in a current vernacular. Moving bravely beyond the negative tone often associated with the Legion of Decency, church people like myself saw in the new films from Europe a magnificent new catechetical instrument that was accessible to the masses and challenging to elites.
Initially, our appreciation of Fellini in exclusively religious terms was in fact too narrowly focused, but it was valid. In the opening of La Dolce Vita, for example, the outstretched arms of a statue of Jesus, borne by helicopter over the city of Rome with all its decadence and emptiness, offered a perfect visual representation of Christ's universal salvific plan. The innocent young girl waving to the hero on the beach in the closing scene repeated the notion that humankind is ever renewed, ever redeemable. Only later did some critics suggest that Christ was in fact leaving Rome, and the voice of innocence had failed to transmit its message to the debauched and exhausted hero. Was Fellini, in fact, offering a vision of despair at the collapse of Christian civilization?
The issue cannot be resolved with certitude, because for an artist like Fellini, the world offers few definitive answers. The films immediately preceding La Dolce Vita do indeed present parables of redemption. In La Strada (1956), Giulietta Masina, his wife of 50 years, plays Gelsomina, a waif who discovers through a conversation with a Christ-figure clown, the Fool (Richard Basehart), a reason to continue living amid her brutal surroundings. Similarly, in Nights of Cabiria (1957), Ms. Masina, this time as Cabiria, an abused prostitute, finds that life holds beauty as well as cruelty. Discovering this pattern in his thinking, however, still does not solve the riddle of La Dolce Vita. Is he simply restating the theme of redemption, or has he explored it, found it wanting and abandoned it?
Earlier and later works offer few clues. Coming out of the neorealist tradition of post-war Italy, Fellini began his career in film as an assistant director for Roberto Rossellini, on Open City (1945). Fellini's own early works retain that grainy, documentary look of his mentor, but Fellini, who once worked as a cartoonist, peopled this somber universe with clowns and comic poseurs. In The White Sheik (1952) and I Vitelloni (1953), his earthy realism was tempered with a genuine affection for his creations. No wonder he could find something redeemable even in the brutal Zampano (Anthony Quinn) in La Strada.
In his later years, Fellini retreated (or advanced) from the teeming streets of Rome and began to explore his own private universe. In 8 1/2 he enters the interior realm of his own mind and tries to document the artistic process by showing how a director, suffocating under the artifice of the studio, recycles his own life into his film. As a gesture of brilliant and self-conscious irony, the film comes to life through his mastery of studio technique posing as the wild, unedited dreams and aspirations of the director's imagination.
So captivated did Fellini become with the world of the imagination that after 8 1/2 he seemed to abandon "realism" more completely with each successive film. In Juliet of the Spirits (1965), he tried to recreate the world of a wealthy, no-longer-young married woman trying to understand her life and her husband. Now working in color, mostly pastels, the images became baroque, an example of set and costume design gone mad. With all its visual excess, watching the film is like hiking through a strawberry sundae barefoot.
With each new film, the images became more grotesque, the action more surreal and the story lines more insignificant. As critics grew impatient with this development, ever more frequently the new films bore the brand "self-indulgent." This may be unfair. At his most outrageous, Fellini was always fascinating to watch; but, at least for my taste, his work offered more delights to the visual palate in small portions, like petits fours for the eyes. The wonderful ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma (1972), for example, is a brilliant anti-clerical satire; but the film, taken as a whole, is like caviar eaten with a rablespoon: too rich, too much. Every Fellini fan has favorite scenes from Satyricon (1969) or Clowns (1970) or Amarcord (1974); but by this time, few could find delight in sitting through the entire work.
Like his critics, Fellini late in his career was showing signs of exhaustion after a prolonged period of excess. In City of Women (1979), Ginger and Fred (1986) and Intervista (1992), the characters try to cover their age and fatigue with memories, and the result is nostalgia. Looking back can be fatal to an artist, since the vocation demands plunging forward, taking risks and running new rapids. In many ways, Fellini simply developed creative rheumatism and ceased to be interesting.
That cruel statement implies no diminishment of Fellini, one of the sublime artists of the century. At the peak of his creative parabola shimmer several genuine masterpieces. His decline, if we may call it that, says as much about his audiences as it does about him. Special effects, created in the laboratory, have dulled our ability to see Fellini's masterly presentation of the grotesque and the lovely. Audiences accustomed to the trivialized corruptions of trivial people each night in made-for-television movies no longer find his portrait of decadence disturbing. Sadly, even Nino Rota's wonderful scores must seem dull to generations wired from childhood into the skull-splitting, mind-rotting electronic mishmash of rock, rap and reggae.
Theologically, the audiences have changed, too. In a world where the notion of sin has become dulled, the drama of redemption loses its poignancy. In such circumstances, Gelsomina, Cabiria and Zampano no longer wrestle in the arena of grace; they merely keep going, since the human struggle for survival or salvation—even for many believers—functions quite independently of the divine. "Being a good person" can become the sole criterion of human worth. Thus, too, it makes no difference if Christ hovers over Rome or prepares to depart from it. Again, even believing Christians today are more inclined to see the workings of grace as arising from within the human person rather than entering from without. Rome will find (or not find) its own "salvation" through its own human devices, whether Christ has departed or was never there in the first place.
As one raised a Catholic, Fellini retained a sharply critical view of the church, and his satire bites close to the bone. Even as the 1950's rolled into the 1960's, the church of Fellini's childhood was beginning its death rattle. Pompous cardinals, befuddled priests and sadistic nuns decorated with yards of starched linen were less in evidence, if only because they were becoming more adept at covering their traces. Even so, Fellini could not escape the images and thought patterns of his childhood. Despite a disaffection from the church, he remained undeniably a Catholic artist.
Fellini surely kept pace with much of his audience by abandoning his theological and religious concerns after La Dolce Vita, but—here is the point of all this—his work became impoverished by his change of focus, and this may be the key to his apparent decline. Like many a "Catholic" artist, Fellini found his most productive source for reflection in his religious heritage, and once that ceased to interest him and his audiences, his work lost much of its vitality. The exuberant but fading Italian religious traditions of ornamentation, spectacle and histrionics provide endless visual material for a film maker, just as the English religious style lends itself to literature, thus giving T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene verbal material by the shelf load. Similarly, their redemptive struggles too may strike today's readers as a bit "quaint."
The world would be much poorer without the films of Federico Fellini. Now that his films can be studied as artistic artifacts in their proper cultural contexts and are no longer subjected to the tyranny of ticket sales and the fashions of the day, we may once again recapture the magic of his imagination and the riches of his thought. Ciao, Maestro, e grazie.
This section contains 1,785 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)