Federico Fellini | Critical Essay by Stanley Kauffmann

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Federico Fellini.
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Critical Essay by Stanley Kauffmann

SOURCE: "Fellini, Farewell," in The New Republic, Vol. 210, No. 5, January 31, 1994, pp. 28-30.

In the following tribute, Kauffmann discusses the contrast between Fellini's early and late films, their critical reception, and Fellini's unique approach to filmmaking. He also reviews Voices of the Moon and relates some of his personal memories of the filmmaker

Federico Fellini died in Rome on October 31, 1993. Three days later, Alan Cowell wrote in The New York Times, with appropriate tremolo:

In the studio where he made his movies and his name, Fellini lay in cinematographic state today, the lights soft, the music no more than a whisper, the tenderness of the thousands who filed by his burnished coffin mingling with the ghosts of his creations.

His funeral service was held in a Roman basilica, and, reported the Times, the huge crowd flowed into the piazza outside. Millions watched the ceremony in a live T.V. broadcast. When the coffin was brought in, "applause filled the basilica."

The coffin was then taken back to his hometown of Rimini. Variety reported that, through narrow streets packed with thousands, the coffin was carried from the main piazza to a memorial service, which was held in the theater where Fellini saw his first films and which was featured in Amarcord (1973). "Those marching in the procession applauded without interruption as other people threw roses from balconies." An Italian journalist told me that the Rimini theater is to be converted into a Fellini museum, full of memorabilia, where his films will always be available.

To say that all these events are like scenes in a Fellini film is obvious but incomplete. What they really show is how well Fellini understood his countrymen.

Loved though he was universally, the rest of the world little knew how immensely he was adored at home. When he was given a lifetime achievement award at the Oscar ceremonies in March 1993, after having won four Oscars in previous years, the Italian newspaper L'Unità, the Communist organ, ran a 160-page special supplement about him. This for a director whose works are virtually free of political comment.

Last year the Italian government made a move of recognition. A complete Fellini retrospective was organized by the Direzione Generale dello Spettacolo (with subvention from a coffee company), which was shown in Rome, Milan and Turin. It was playing at the Film Forum in New York when he died, and it has now moved to Tokyo.

Included in the list was his last film, made in 1990 and never released here, Voices of the Moon. (The Italian title translates in the singular: The Voice of the Moon.) Fellini said: "The initial idea came to me after reading Ermanno Cavazzoni's novel, Il Poema dei Lunatici, which is about mad people in Italy." He didn't adapt the novel: it simply stimulated him, particularly since, some thirty years earlier, he had spent five or six weeks with the director of a mental hospital in Tuscany, who lived on the premises.

Voices is not in any sense a clinical study. It's a poetical rhapsody, much more indebted to Leopardi (who is quoted) than to Freud. The central character, played by Roberto Benigni, is a man in a small town, lately a patient in a mental hospital, who wanders gently through that town, often at night by the light of the moon, and who thinks he hears voices from a well. But principal among his adventures are his encounters with the noise and mess of modern life—the intrusions of the media, a tawdry beauty contest—and his madness chiefly manifests itself in his quest for purity and order. (In 8 1/2 the vision in white, played by Claudia Cardinale, tells the protagonist that she has come into his life to bring purity and order.)

He never quite understands the voices from the well. At the end the moon speaks to him, with the voice of a woman in his town whom he has worshiped from afar. She bids him to stop trying to understand those voices, to be grateful that at least he can hear them. In the middle of her remarks, she begs to be excused—a break for a commercial, she says.

Benigni is known here through two films with Jim Jarmusch and the last Pink Panther picture. He is joined in this film, much of the time, by Paolo Villagio, who plays an ex-mayor of the town, gone bonkers with paranoia. Driven loony by the pressures of the world, he now suspects that the most innocent people and objects are conspiring against him.

Villagio is not known here, but both he and Benigni are, said Fellini,

two enormously popular and much-loved stars [in Italy] who have built up an intense relationship of complicity with their audiences. I broke up that complicity completely, smashed their images, destroyed the characters that had made them famous. They deserve my eternal gratitude for accepting that sacrifice. Without them … the film would never have seen the light of day.

This alteration of image can't be seen by non-Italian viewers, even with Benigni, but the experience and dexterity of the two men are patent. Benigni's soft floating and Villagio's dark, overdone ire give a course, a base, to these pathetic meanderings in the moonlight.

Unique though it is in theme, Voices is nonetheless typical of Fellini—in its heterodoxy. He said, "I was totally in the dark while making the film…. I spent each evening writing the next day's scenes on a scrap of paper." If that sounds like ex post facto bravado, which it may be, it suggests the opposite of firm structure: it's investigation—of milieu, mood, character. Think of the other films he made in this (ostensibly) freehand manner: Amarcord, The Clowns (1970), Roma (1972), Intervista (1988). True, some of his clearly structured films, La Dolce Vita (1959) and 8 1/2 (1963), share that freehand style to a degree as Fellini fulfills their designs: but here the style is almost the raison d'être. The odd aspect of these style-centered films is that, in full career perspective, they seem inventions mothered by necessity.

That necessity grows out of the binary nature of Fellini's career. As with many artists, his work falls into periods—in his case, two. From 1950, when he co-directed Variety Lights with Alberto Lattuada, through The Nights of Cabiria in 1957, his films were in the neo-realist mode pioneered by Rossellini and Visconti and De Sica. We can catch glimpses of the subsequent Fellini in La Strada (1954) and Cabiria; but Fellini was intent on neo-realism. His masterpiece of the period, I Vitelloni (1953), is unswervingly neo-realist.

These earlier films are the ones that have by far the closest relation in Fellini to the Second World War—in style, not in subject. Neo-realism was a stylistic response to the war, and his early films are his response to that response. A biographical fact, as well as an aesthetic atmosphere, may be involved. Fellini was not caught up in the war. Born in 1920, he was of age for military service, but, with some ingenuity, he found medical reasons to avoid the draft—whether because he was anti-fascist or non-fascist, as has been conjectured, or simply out of self-preservation. We can't say or judge. But we can hazard that his first group of films, largely concerned with people struggling to survive, was a kind of indirect acknowledgement of the sufferings brought on by the war; and may have been seen by him as a sort of expiation.

Yet it was only when he left neo-realism and turned to quite different social strata, with La Dolce Vita, that we see the emergence of the Fellini whom the world knows best, the baroque, theatrical, gallant stylist. Maturity and self-confidence had much to do with the change, of course, but so did his upward social mobility. Success had come to him; and with success had come that perk so important to serious artists who succeed—the chance to see that success is hollow.

A salient aspect of his second-period films is that, unlike his earlier pictures, many of them have no programmatic narrative or drama. The two outstanding exceptions are La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2; and even with the second of these, Fellini himself has testified to his troubles in finding a program. He said, in an interview in Le Monde in 1990, that he had written a letter of resignation to the producer because he was blank, when he was summoned to a launch party for the picture. "They all raised their cups and drank to my health. 'Dottore, this film is going to be a great one. Cheers!' I almost died of shame." He went back to his office, tore up his letter of resignation, "then filmed the story of a director who can't remember what film he's supposed to be making."

The result was the masterpiece of the second period and, most certainly, one of the best films in world history. But 8 1/2 is the last Fellini film of notable cogency. Most of the rest, scintillating and endearing and invaluable as they often are, are either (seeming) improvisations or adaptations—Satyricon (1969) and Casanova (1976). These two, though they teem with Fellini images, rank low on the Fellini scale. Some of the others, ad hoc though they may appear, are major achievements—Amarcord, The Clowns, Intervista.

Why did Fellini make these free-form films? Here is a speculation. He had cut loose from the people among whom he grew up, had moved from the imperatives of sheer survival to the luxury of melancholy and despair. After his first two films in this contemplative vein he had great difficulty—like Guido in 8 1/2—in synthesizing narrative out of his new social and spiritual environment. Yet he was brimming with talents that he had to use. A post-Guido Guido, he more or less gave up on constructing conventional narratives or dramas and turned to the exploration of his talents in themselves, employing them on memory, not on new experience. His new experience was not as fertile for him as was the past. The past is the real site of Amarcord and The Clowns, of Intervista and And the Ship Sails On (1983). A yearning for the lost orderliness of the past is the dominant key of Voices of the Moon.

Out of these necessities and pressures came the new Fellini form, best described (as others have noted) by a literary term—the personal essay. Samuel Johnson said that doubtless the Lord could have invented a better fruit than the strawberry but doubtless also he never did. We might say, somewhat lower down the scale, that doubtless Fellini could have commissioned scripts of greater cogency but doubtless also he never did. He preferred to make films out of his talents themselves and his remembrance.

In discussions of Fellini, his views on women are recurrently examined. (Two weeks after his death Le Monde ran a cartoon set in Heaven. On a cloud in the lower left sits Fellini in a director's chair, megaphone in hand, a motion picture camera next to him. In the air float starry-eyed, big-busted angels in low-cut gowns. In the upper left corner on another cloud, St. Peter is complaining to God: "Since he's been up here, it's been a madhouse.")

It's worth noting that at least some feminist critics are far from antagonistic. A new anthology of recent criticism, Perspectives on Federico Fellini is helpful on this point. Co-edited by a prime Fellini expert, Peter Bondanella, with Cristina Degli-Esposti, it contains much of interest, including a section on "Fellini, Feminism and the Image of Women in His Cinema."

Two of the four pieces in this section are on Juliet of the Spirits (1965). Teresa de Lauretis, after some thick terminological slogging, seems to find some aesthetic and thematic utility in the film. In a much more enlightening essay, Marguerite Waller dissects several sequences in the film to show how carefully Fellini avoids those Hollywood patterns of composition and editing that treat women as voyeurs' prey. Waller contends that, in the very method of his film, he fights for woman's selfhood, allowing us to see "that Hollywood's highly restricted, patriarchal rhetoric is not the natural extension of the human psyche it is sometimes claimed to be."

Gaetona Marrone's article on City of Women (1980) is more descriptive than analytical, yet is certainly not adversarial. But the surprise in the group is by the rampant feminist Germaine Greer. She had known Fellini somewhat, and in 1988 she was asked by a London magazine to interview him. Greer understands as much about Fellini's female characters as anyone, but this interview has no touch of opposition to his male-gazing; titled "Fellinissimo," it is a carol of adulation. (He asks her why she likes him, and she says something about his teeth and his hands. "He tries another tack. 'What don't you like about me?' 'The fact that you must die,' I say.")

Greer scrupulously includes every compliment that Fellini paid her on her various charms, and we can see that, more than mere egotism on her part, it is the record of a kind of seduction. She knows that, besides his respect for her intelligence, he is pelting her with petals of attentiveness and courtesy. Add to this his attractiveness as a man and his stature as an artist and add further that, after her return home, he telephoned to thank her for interviewing him, and we can see that he has, so to speak, been making a film with her: directing scenes. And she has collaborated.

I don't imply that a feminist as such is, or ought to be, impervious to male attention, but it's almost as if he had persuaded her to discard her militancy during their time together, to allow him to be his Italian-male self, in the most traditionally voluptuous diction. Finally it's not his triumph, it's hers, because she wrote the piece. But she makes it clear that, by his very being, he persuaded her to write it as it is.

What he did fundamentally with her was to perform. This is by no means to say that he was faking: it was part of the truth of his nature to perform. We all do it to some degree, as current psychologists and philosophers constantly remind us, but not all of us rejoice in it as Fellini did. Thus it's not quite accurate to say that he put himself into some of his films (The Clowns, Intervista, Roma): it's more apt to say that he couldn't keep himself out of them. That's why his death gave so many of us an added pang. We were not only losing the artist, we were losing the man.

I spent one day with him, August 11, 1964, on the Roman location where he was shooting a scene of Juliet of the Spirits. I arrived early in the morning to find him in the middle of a large room, while members of the crew bustled around him. He was sitting on a box with a portable type-writer on another box and was busily rewriting the scenes they were to shoot that day.

The morning whirled by, as a short scene with Giulietta Masina and Valentina Cortese was shot and re-shot. (It was cut from the finished film.) Then a lot of us, including the two actresses, went to lunch with him—at the Rizzoli studios, because he liked the polpettine (meatballs) there. He and I talked a great deal during lunch (his English was adequate, my Italian inadequate), mostly about how difficult it was, in these days of deeper psychological understanding, to create credible villains in drama and film. After lunch we all snoozed in various places until the sun moved to the place where Fellini needed it.

But, in all that sparkling Fellini-centered day, something contradictory stood out. He insisted that I meet some of his collaborators. He introduced me to his editor, the other Mastroianni, Ruggero, who disliked any mention of his resemblance to his actor-brother. He told me how closely he worked with Fellini during the shooting of a film, even during its planning. Fellini brought along to lunch his masterly cinematographer, Gianni di Venanzo, but di Venanzo was shy, despite Fellini's asking "Gianino" to speak up.

At the end of the long, marvelous day, as Fellini and I shook hands, he asked, "Why you don't go to see the genius who helps me make my films whatever it is they are?" I asked who that was. "Piero Gherardi." Gherardi, the set and costume designer for Juliet, had also done the same flamboyant work for The Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. (I did try to see him, but he was out of Rome, and by the time I got back a few years later, he had died.) I said I thought he had meant the composer Nino Rota. Fellini threw up his hands and looked heavenward in gratitude.

All this emphasized what is true of every good director but has never been more true of any than of him. One of the signs of a director's talent is his ability to assemble colleagues who are both artists in their own right and seeming extensions of his temperament. It's impossible to think of several Fellini films without remembering Rota's music: it's as if Rota were Fellini in musical form. The clothes and hats and sets that Gherardi designed, the gradations of black and white that di Venanzo found, make us think, "Ah, Fellini!" Dante Ferretti's designs, crowding one after another, are the chief train of interest in City of Women. Tonino Delli Colli's lighting holds Voices of the Moon midway between reality and dream.

These men worked on other director's films, often beautifully, but never better than they did with Fellini. Their contributions to his work, far from lessening our estimate of his genius, only amplify it. He knew how to extend, so to speak, his faculties.

One of the reasons that this article is long is that I dread coming to the end of it. I don't want to, can't, won't "sum up" Fellini. I'll say just one thing. During his lifetime, many fine filmmakers blessed us with their art, but he was the only one who made us feel that each of his films, whatever its merits, was a present from a friend.

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This section contains 3,036 words
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Buy the Critical Essay by Stanley Kauffmann
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