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Critical Essay by Ben Lawton
SOURCE: "Fellini and the Literary Tradition," in Perspectives on Federico Fellini, edited by Peter Bondanella and Cristina Degli-Esposti, G. K. Hall & Co., 1993, pp. 191-202.
In the following essay, originally published in Italian Journal in 1990, Lawton discusses the unifying motifs of Fellini's oeuvre.
In no country more than in Italy, does "high culture" play so prominent a role in "popular culture." In fact, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish the two. This certainly is the case where Italian cinema is concerned. And while literate viewers are, for the most part, conscious to some extent of the presence of the Italian literary and artistic heritages in the films of Bertolucci, Pasolini, Visconti, and Zeffirelli, among others, their presence in the works of Federico Fellini has, for the most part, been slighted.
Critics speak regularly of a "Fellinian universe," but the expression is rarely explained or defined. What characterizes his films to such an extent that his touch can be recognized immediately? What do such apparently different films as La strada, Fellini—Satyricon, The City of Women, and Ginger and Fred have in common? All of Fellini's films reflect a common structure: a mysterious original sin (inevitably some manifestation of materialism), a downward spiraling series of misadventures, a desperate search for some sort of external help, and an ambiguous open-ended conclusion. All draw attention to themselves as film in one way or another. Fellini's personages inevitably are caricatures, types, manifestations of some facet of the human condition, and are not characters in any traditional sense. Fellini challenges the myths connected with the traditional vision of the family, church, marriage, "jet set," and aristocracy, changing the target of his barbs from one film to the next. He has a number of favorite themes: his own provincial background, women, God, Rome, the circus, the theater, and the cinema. The power of his images is so great that several of his favorite images have themselves become mythical, often in contradiction to his own desires: the pre-Christian innocence of the first stirrings of childhood lust, the mystery of the sea, the wise fool, supernaturally endowed women, and certainly not least, himself. Fellini's films, however, have more in common than the similarities mentioned above. The Fellinian universe is predicated on three fundamental concerns: the rejection of the allegory of love, the perception of film qua film and thus as art, and Pirandellian life/form dualism. Implicit throughout is also a questioning of all narratives, that is, of all authority.
It is a given that the unifying premise underlying Fellini's films is the Italian experience, as he lived it and as it was passed to him, both by the purveyors of high culture and of popular culture. Generalizing, one can observe that whenever Fellini cites those Italian authors who have been canonized by the academic establishment, he is critical and ironic. Conversely, he seems to feel that in the popular sayings and traditions there is still some mysterious, authentic poetic power. A few examples should suffice for the present. In Fellini's first independently-directed film, The White Sheik, the pathetic and obnoxious Ivan Cavalli begins to recite a sonnet clearly inspired by Dante's "Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare," which he has composed in honor of his new bride, Wanda: "Essa è graziosa, dolce e piccolina." Not surprisingly, his uncle, he of the Vatican connections, pompously declares it to be an ode. Equally predictably, Fellini deflates the whole nonsense by having a waiter arrive with something which everyone really understands and cares about: "Ecco le fettuccine calde, calde." In opposition to this we may recall the instance in La strada in which Gelsomina repeats a mysterious incantation, flapping her cape in front of the fire. As Zampanò scoffs at her he reveals his uneasiness in the presence of an ineffable mystery. Typically, he attacks what he does not understand: he rapes the ethereal Gelsomina.
The rejection of the official culture and the search for popular roots and expressions is not particularly new in the history of Italian literature. In fact, one might argue that the major Italian literary figures, from Dante on, achieved their fame in large measure as a result of their battles against the literary and social status quo. Thus, in this sense, Fellini is comfortably situated in the general flow of the Italian literary tradition of not infrequently revolutionary self-renewal. But, like his predecessors, Fellini does not simply reject all that which came before him. While poking fun at the mindless repetition of the classics, he focuses his work on those concerns which have always been of fundamental importance to the major Italian writers through the centuries. Prime among these, of course, is the attempt to make some sense of the human condition. Mankind throughout history has attempted to rationalize the noncausality of events in anthropocentric terms. (NB: Mankind, man, and the various masculine pronouns in this instance do not refer to humanity in general. Here the expressions do refer to the male gender, for it is men, by and large, who have spoken and written for humanity, creating its myths and allegories.) The Judeo-Christian tradition, in particular, has consistently refused to accept a random universe. In different ways, dependent to a large degree on the socio-economic structure of our world, we have attempted to reconstruct an explanation of the human condition. The very text underlying our world vision, the Bible, and in particular the book of Genesis, reflects this attitude. Rather than accept Leopardi's vision of nature as an indifferent matrigna of mankind, we have chosen to see ourselves as the victims of a deliberate punishment for sins we have not personally committed, nor really understand, but for which we are held accountable. This, not only because we would rather be punished than ignored, but perhaps more importantly, because the fallen condition implies the possibility of a return to a state of grace. Occidental man can, therefore, be characterized as being involved in an attempt to return to an edenic condition.
This striving has taken different artistic manifestations over the years. In the Middle Ages, given the vertical order of feudal society, it is best represented by the ideal of courtly love in which the object desired is and must be unobtainable. With Dante, in The Divine Comedy, this allegory for the human condition becomes explicit. The object of courtly love, woman, becomes a means to that towards which mankind is striving: a return to the sight of God. Through the mirroring process in Paradiso, the souls reflect and magnify God's love. This ubiquitous communication is the antithesis of the alienation of the souls in Inferno, and represents perfect happiness. This condition, as Dante observed, however, is something which can only be glimpsed in life. Permanent, perfect bliss will only come with death. In the more anthropocentric Renaissance the perception of the impermanence of all things in life resulted in a paradox. Underlying the glorification of humanity and life, there is the desperate fear which comes from the acknowledgement that we are alone. The search for an edenic condition was taken up again with a vengeance in the preeminently bourgeois nineteenth century, which was characterized by a more horizontal world vision. Sir Walter Scott's novels, for example, often culminate and terminate in the marriage with the woman desired. The romantic conclusion, "and they lived happily ever after," suggests an equation of marriage and death on at least two levels. First, no permanent condition of bliss can exist in life. Second, the story has ended and thus the protagonists quite literally exist no more. Still, this romantic version of the allegory somehow became a model for the social institution of marriage, thus creating impossible expectations. Manzoni, prefiguring the writers and filmmakers of this century, realized that the attainment of the object desired in life presents no permanent solutions. Thus, in I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) we find that, after one aspiration has been satisfied, new problems arise. Among others, Lucia, the object desired, reveals herself to be a subject with ideas of her own.
In broad terms, all of Fellini's films reflect an attempt to give artistic form to a more contemporary perception of alienation, existential anxiety, and the impossibility of love and communication: in other words, the failure of the allegory of love. The union of man and woman no longer implies perfect, eternal bliss, nor is it the culmination of the narrative. On the contrary, as a rule, the relationship either precedes the narrative, or they are synchronous, and the narrative becomes a record of the progressive destruction of all romantic fantasies and illusions. These themes, already identifiable in Variety Lights and The White Sheik, are foregrounded to the point of becoming allegorized in La Strada, in which we can see the rejection of the notion that the material (Zampanò) and the spiritual (Gelsomina) can somehow be fused. The absolute impossibility of communication, caused by the brutishness of Zampanò, results inevitably in the destruction of Gelsomina. The ironic, thrill-seeking cynicism of modern man (the Fool) fares no better. Fellini seems to be arguing that, although there may be no solution to our problems, amused intellectual detachment is no answer. It is of no real help, and it too ultimately will be victimized by the material element: Zampanò kills the Fool.
La Dolce Vita continues and expands these themes. Set in the decadent Rome of the late 1950's, it is a total indictment of the materialism which, like a cancer, devours the soul. By the last scenes of the movie Marcello has degenerated from his original ambition to become a writer (and thus a creative being), to journalist (who, by his own admission, merely reports the kind of news about which "inquiring minds want to know"), to public relations man for third-rate actors (who is willing to sell his ability to write, and thus his soul, to the highest bidder). His search for some sort of miraculous external assistance to give meaning to his life fails entirely. Neither his father, nor his mistress (Emma), nor the wonder woman (Anita Ekberg as
In the two films which follow, 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini continues to explore the impossibility of communication between individuals, and in particular between married couples, and the complete desperation to which anyone who requires external assistance is driven. The two films might well be described as two sides of the same coin: the search for love, communication, and happiness is depicted in man and woman respectively. In both we can observe a structure which is similar even in relatively minute details. In both we have flashbacks which reveal the noxious influences of church and family; in both we observe the desperate, futile search for external solutions; in both, the film comments on itself by drawing our attention to the fact that we are witnessing a film.
Both films are allegories, not of love, but of alienation. In 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits however, while alienation is inescapable, it does not necessarily result in terminal desperation. After the failure of all external solutions and in particular of all possible permutations of the traditional male-female relationships, Juliet has internalized those "materialistic" male characteristics she needs to survive, yet does not lose her female, "spiritual" qualities. The conclusion of Juliet of the Spirits is triumphant because she has discovered that she does not need her husband or anyone else to give her validity as a human being. The union of material and spiritual has occurred within her. A similar process occurs in 8 1/2 where Guido is condemned to creative impotence until he can reintegrate within himself both the masculine and feminine characteristics, until he can accept all of himself.
Having revealed the failure of the allegory of love in man and woman, Fellini would seem to have disposed of it once and for all. Instead, he returned to it once again in Fellini—Satyricon. It was not enough to eliminate the allegory of love, which by definition was only a symptom of the underlying error; the director wanted to identify, expose, and exorcise the mistake, the very notion that humanity needs a transcendental validation. Fellini has said that we are living in a moment of crisis analogous to that experienced during the days of the Emperor Nero. That crisis, he suggests, was resolved with the advent of Christianity, while the solution to the present upheaval, he admits, still remains to be found. Fellini—Satyricon thus becomes a post-Christian view of a pre-Christian world, in which the sacraments of the Catholic church are deliberately subverted. In fairly rapid succession we observe the marriage between Encolpius and Lichas (both of whom are men); the theft of the hermaphrodite—a divine oracle—which results in its death; the loss of Encolpius's virility; the search for a rebirth of his flesh through penance, suffered in the "garden of delights," where he is whipped to no avail; and his salvation through baptism by immersion in Oenothea's fiery loins. Ascyltus, who has never wavered from his complete materialism, is lulled in the end by a boatman for a bag of gold. Encolpius, instead, has transcended the cult of Mammon. He rejects the disgusting anthropomorphic last supper offered by Eumolpus for those who wish to inherit his wealth, and sets sail in search of further adventures.
Fellini, like Encolpius, also moved on in search of new adventures. The old transcendental world vision, with its belief in an external god, was dead, as was the allegory which stood for it. The new quest must be turned inward, for it is inside each person that the answer will be found, if anywhere. This different perception of the human condition, however, required a new form, new expressive devices. If humankind is alienated and cannot know others or communicate with them, how can an artist express him/herself in the third person singular? How can s/he speak of the past as if it were an objective event? In the films which follow Fellini—Satyricon, Fellini abandons the narrative structures predicated, however loosely, on the traditional novel, and inevitably, a large measure of his audience. Following the lead of a number of writers (Joyce, Svevo, Montale), in Clowns and Fellini—Roma the director begins to speak more openly in the first person singular, and his famous autobiographic inclinations become more explicit. The second major concern of Fellini's work becomes increasingly obvious in these later films.
Fellini, in other words, is also concerned that we perceive his films as film, and therefore as art, and not merely as documentaries of his psyche. For this reason he had begun to draw the spectator's attention to the medium even with his first independently directed film, The White Sheik. This concern became even more apparent in 8 1/2, which has been defined as the only film which deserves entirely to be called a "mirror construction." In Fellini—Roma this mirroring reaches its climax, with Fellini as Fellini filming Fellini making a film about Fellini's past (as a child in Rimini and as a young man in Rome). In the present, Fellini is filming Fellini filming Fellini, etc. Once again we have the parade of Fellini's concerns, but without the pretext of fiction in any conventional sense. The original sin here, as elsewhere, is materialism, both in the past and in the present. Its price is the impossibility of human contact. It is, however, the visit to a subway construction site which fully manifests the intent of Fellini—Roma. When the workers discover a crypt and open it, the frescoes, which had survived for some two thousand years, begin to disintegrate. Thus the function of the film—to complete the unveiling and demystification of Rome, begun in Variety Lights, continued and intensified in The White Sheik and La Dolce Vita—would appear to be achieved.
Bankrolled by the persons who would appear to think that big breasts, weirdness and Fellini are synonymous, Casanova was meant to be an exploitation film. What else could come of the filmic rendition of the autobiography of the notorious Italian lover and adventurer (Angelucci 1977)? The money-men, however, had not realized that the Latin lover has been the object of Fellini's scorn, from Checco in Variety Lights to virtually everyone in Amarcord. Speaking of the latter, Fellini is quite explicit. [In Peter Bondanella's 1978 Federico Fellini: Essays in Criticism] he defines the attitude of his protagonists as a "matter of being fascist both psychologically and emotionally, and therefore of being ignorant, violent, exhibitionistic, and puerile … the acceptance of the same old monstrous out-of-date myths … the dream of the American cinema, or the orientalizing dream concerning women … an arrested development at a child-like stage … [whose] fault … lies with the Catholic Church". Thus his Casanova is a soul-less machine for whom sex is a performance, an athletic event, a tool, but never love.
This movie, as well as Orchestra Rehearsal (Prova d'orchestra), inevitably baffled those critics who have failed to identify a major conceptual thread which weaves its way through Fellini's work, namely the Pirandellian life/form dualism. In very simple terms Pirandello, the Nobel prize-winning dramatist and author argued that we are caught between life (passion, instinct, fantasy, all of which are mobile, chaotic, in perpetual and joyous becoming) and form (reason, common morality, social conventions, and all that is deterministic, immobilizing, and morally rigid). Life wants to acquire consistency, but to do so it must become form. When this occurs, it is destroyed. Pirandello went on to suggest that we all hide behind masks, and therefore can't know others and, quite frequently, we don't even know ourselves, except, perhaps, for brief instants when communication is made possible thanks to love.
Even from Fellini's earliest film, Variety Lights, he has always been obsessed by this dualism. In Variety Lights he shows us mysterious, talented night people, the Brazilian singer, Buffalo Bill Jr., the Cowboy; and Johnny the Trumpet player, who, when put on a stage—that is, when given a form—become absolute failures. They simply cannot perform. The magic which was theirs in the empty midnight squares of Rome has vanished. Casanova is the epitome of this process. He has chosen a role for himself: that of courtier and adventurer, and has given it such perfect form that it is entirely lifeless. Interestingly, as Casanova dances with the wooden ballerina, as the film ends, he too becomes wooden, but he also becomes younger and graceful once again, suggesting that something which is completely lifeless, the very essence of form, can somehow acquire an aesthetic quality, movement, and even life.
Orchestra Rehearsal is perhaps the most programmatic exposition and discussion of Pirandello's life/form dualism. Fellini's critics argue that the chaos of the orchestra is a metaphor for Italy, and the order and harmony which triumphs in the end is nothing less than a call for law and order, a call for a new Mussolini, a new fascist Duce. By extension, they contend, Fellini is a fascist. Granted, the film is a metaphor for Italy. Fellini, notwithstanding his comments to the contrary, has always been "political" in his films. Not programmatically or didactically, perhaps, but his work is certainly referential, always commenting upon the world in which he lives. This being the case, is he calling for a new Duce? Of course not. Once again we are confronted with the life/form dualism. To become a performance and to have consistency, the vital and chaotic orchestra rehearsal must have a form. However, form implies lifelessness and, ultimately, entropy, so that as the film draws to a close the screen fades to black. It is difficult for a filmmaker who has said that the "cinema is light" to be more explicit. The absence of light is the absence of cinema; quite literally it is the absence of life. Thus, if we do have a political metaphor, it is certainly not a call for a new duce. If anything, it would seem to be the opposite. At the same time, Fellini is also suggesting that terrorist extremism is dangerous both because it is immediately destructive and, more importantly, because it may well lead people to opt for a duce, and thus, once again, for the blackness of Fascism.
With The City of Women Fellini turned his focus once again on the relations between men and women or, perhaps more precisely, to the seeming virtual impossibility of establishing any such relations. In many ways this film is very reminiscent of 8 1/2. But here the fiction that the problem is one of creative impotence has been eliminated. Here Fellini deals more directly with the fundamental problem of masculinity. Already with Amarcord and with Casanova Fellini had returned to a problem which might have been assumed to have been resolved: the conflict between the sexes. With Fellini—Satyricon the solution had seemed to have been found in the bisexual protagonists. In reality, what the film showed was that the problem is not one of a conflict between the sexes, but of masculinity itself, regardless of the gender with which it attempts to establish a relationship. Man's fears concerning his sexuality drive him to virtual suicidal frenzy (see Fellini—Satyricon), to performing, or fantasizing about—which, as we shall see, are essentially the same thing—the most ludicrous enterprises (see Amarcord—the car race, the duce-blessed wedding, picking up the tobacconist, etc.). It also leads man to attempt constantly to prove himself sexually; to attempt to ascertain his masculinity through the sheer number of his sexual conquests (Casanova), to a point which is absolutely dehumanizing not merely to women—who in fact are not really involved at all except as figments of his fantasy—but to himself. And while painting and statues have served in the past to convey and impose the male perception of women, cinema would appear to be the perfect vehicle for conveying these male projections. Thus City of Women, a film which from the incipit announces itself as film, presents one man's oneiric, semi-unconscious and thus semi-involuntary projections. But, given that this is a reflexive film, then what we are shown is not what women are, or even what Fellini believes them to be, as some have argued, but Fellini's admission that the women on his screen, and in fact on any screen are the projections of men's sexual fantasies. The major parallel/analogy between this conclusion and that of 8 1/2 is that in the former the protagonist accepts his past experiences to unblock his artistic creativity; here the protagonist, who can only be the director himself, since it is his projection which we see on the screen, accepts his unconscious fantasies for what they are, and deliberately returns to the tunnel of sleep fully intending to enjoy the stimuli furnished by his reality (in this case the mystery woman seen in the opening shots, Donatella Damiani, and a young woman who has been with her throughout the film).
Donatella Damiani would appear to be the perfect personification and caricature of Fellini's idea of the ultimate woman: she is at once both virgin and whore. Her voice changes constantly, from tones of childlike innocence, to heavily dialectally inflected sounds, full of the wisdom of the gutter; she has a delicate, angelic face, slender legs, buttocks and waist, and BREASTS. Breasts that are so large that they transcend the possibility of desire. So large that the impact on the viewer is not unlike that of the tobacconist's breasts in Amarcord on Titta: they are suffocating, offputting, aesthetically unpleasant, almost ludicrous. And rather than feel lust, one feels sorry for the person so burdened. Fellini seems to be saying, this is what we men want? Fine, I will give us all we want and more. So much more that one can't help but ask oneself if the breasts are in fact real. The even greater projection of Donatella Damiani as the hot air balloon which transports Fellini, raising him on the wings of desire, so to speak, might lead us to surmise that the original Donatella Damiani was somehow fabricated (perhaps by Mario Rambaldi) as are so many of Fellini's most striking images. The further fact that Fellini then has Donatella Damiani, as feminist terrorist, shoot down her own inflated image, suggests that women have a legitimate right to attack this reification of themselves. But, and here we come to the fundamental filmic paradox, Donatella Damiani reappears in the scene which follows, in the train, as Fellini awakens from his dream. Fellini looks at the mystery woman he had met as the film opened, and at Donatella Damiani, and then with a smile he goes back into the tunnel of sleep and fantasy. We are thus confronted with an endless, almost Escher-like image: while women have the right to object forcefully and even violently to their exploitation by men, presumably even in their dreams, men have the right to dream; of course women have the right to shoot down these dreams, which men will promptly embark upon once again.
As the film ends, the opening titles are repeated, suggesting that this is a circular process, that the end of this film is either the beginning of the one we have just seen, or at the very least of a very similar one and that we are thus embarked in an ongoing process of anakuklosis. In other words, Fellini now freely admits that as man he can no more understand women than the Venetians of Casanova could raise the giant woman's head from the lagoon. If there is a light at the end of this tunnel, and in the film there is, I would suggest that it is to be found in Fellini's acknowledgement that, notwithstanding the fundamental and congenital differences between men and women, in some sort of way coexistence is possible, perhaps only and precisely as a result of the awareness of this difference. In addition to St. Augustine's City of God and City of Man (cfr. 8 1/2), now we also have Fellini's The City of Women. With E la nave va Fellini might be said to be repeating himself once more, to be returning once again to one of his major concerns. The issue here is once again power and its abuses, not as it manifests itself in the relations between the sexes, but through the subservience of the news media to various established power structures. The film has two diegeses: on one level we see and hear, eventually, the history of the development of film, from the earliest silent, black and white documentaries to a narrative film shot on the sophisticated sound stages of Cinecittà; on the other we witness the story of the fools traveling on the Gloria N., a luxury liner, at the outset of World War I. The history is depicted by the manner in which the narrative is represented: as the latter opens, we see black and white silent images of the port of Naples in 1914, passers by, and a reporter whose words directed at the camera are expressed through subtitles. Gradually as sound and color are introduced we learn through a sort of ante-videocam roving film reporter that the ship's passengers, la crème de la crème of pre-WWI European society, are on their way to the Aegean island of Erimo to scatter the ashes of Edmea Tetua, allegedly the greatest soprano of all time. Among the participants in this alleged tribute to art are many of the greatest musicians of the era. It soon becomes obvious, however, that their presence on board is a tribute to their vanity, their over-inflated egos, and their jealousy of their rivals. On the ship is also an enormous, lovesick rhinoceros who, significantly, is far more docile than the human cargo.
The narrator—a person who would be charming—is somewhat reminiscent of the narrator of Amarcord. Unlike that avvocato, however, this reporter is a man of singular ignorance who does not merely report the news, he twists, distorts, expands, misinterprets and invents it. He is patently incompetent, but this deters him not in the least. In short, he is both the historical ancestor and the cinematic descendant of Marcello, Paparazzo, and the other Mammon-worshipping reporters of La Dolce Vita. He is also the forebear of television, the medium which, as we shall see in Ginger and Fred, is dedicated to the complete reification of humanity.
Here, as in La Dolce Vita, the reporter is shown to be subservient to all the powers that be, from the major-domo, to the obese and obtuse Prussian Grand Duke Harzock, to random singers, directors, composers, and musicians. But he is not the only subject of Fellini's scorn. The beautiful people on this ship of fools are more concerned with the body odor of the Serbian refugees than with their plight; they and the Austro-Hungarian warship postpone what will become WWI for the time it will take to bury the great soprano, Edmea. Art, presumably, triumphs over the savagery of war. But only briefly.
Once the burial is over everyone goes back to business as usual: the Austro-Hungarians round up the refugees with the assistance of the personnel of the luxury liner. Then, for reasons which remain unexplained, they proceed to shell the liner and eventually sink it. Somehow, for reasons which, according to the reporter, are not clear—even though we see what happens quite distinctly—the warship also sinks. But not everyone is lost: as we might have predicted, the reporter is saved. As the film ends we see him in a large lifeboat accompanied by the gigantic rhinoceros. He tells us rather matter of factly that some passengers were saved by a passing seaplane, others by a boat. Then he brightens noticeably and adds: "Did you know that rhinoceroses produce excellent milk?" This final line is an apt synthesis of Fellini's perception and indictment of the news media. WWI, a conflict which ravaged an entire generation of the world's youth, has just begun; a warship and a luxury liner have both sunk. Apparently only a handful of persons from the latter may have been saved. We know nothing of the fate of the Serbian refugees who were being transferred from the liner to the warship when the conflagration occurred. At this moment, in the midst of these tragedies, all the reporter can think of is rhinoceros milk. The final iris-in of the camera focuses our gaze on two small figures bobbing on a plastic ocean: the reporter and the rhinoceros. I think Fellini would argue that the former is by far the more dangerous.
From the ad for rhinoceros milk, the mind cannot help leaping to that other far more famous ad for milk in The Temptations of Dr. Antonio, to the giant billboard with Anita Ekberg and to what became in Italy a famous jingle: "Bevete più latte, il latte fa bene." While at the most obvious level that film has been seen primarily as an indictment of a certain type of religiously-inspired phobia of sex and women, it is also, rather obviously, an identification if not indictment of the deceptive practices of advertising. But, if in Dr. Antonio Fellini argues for freedom of expression over censorship, by the time of Ginger and Fred he has come to see that advertising destroys both the physical environment as well as the mind/soul through its constant and concerted distortion of all signs—including a likeness of Dante and the opening verses of his Divine Comedy—to ends which can only have utilitarian significance. The poster of Dante is not merely a source of transitory amusement. With his most recently released film in the United States, Fellini returns to his cultural roots and to his most fundamental concerns in a world in which the eye of God has been replaced by the television monitor: the allegory of love and life/form dualism. The Rome he depicts in Ginger and Fred no longer has the organic vitality and vibrancy it had—whatever its other defects—in the flash-backs of Fellini—Roma, in Variety Lights, or in The White Sheik; it doesn't even have the vaguely amused, detached and sophisticated anomie of the Rome he condemns in Fellini—Roma. Here the worst manifestations of the postmodern flattening of events and souls, which he found among the elite decadents of La Dolce Vita, has become the norm among all the social classes. The city resembles nothing so much as the post-apocalyptic Los Angeles of Blade Runner: dingy plastic garbage and mud suffocate streets crowded with pathetic bag-people; the privileged are whisked to and fro in vehicles, their senses sealed from the outer world by the ubiquitous tv monitors; the only signs of life, light and color are generated by the various advertising media: billboards, neon lights, and still more tv monitors endlessly blathering promotional messages interspersed by the occasional soccer match or game show.
As the film opens Ginger (stage name of the allegedly hap-
By the time of Ginger and Fred, the societal and spiritual decay foreshadowed by the crumbling statue in the final shot of The White Sheik has been achieved. Thanks to television, everything has become spectacle, but it is a spectacle performed almost without exception by lifeless zombies in a tyrannical inferno in which vanity, following Dante's laws of contrappasso, has become its own punishment. Form (television) has extinguished virtually every last spark of life. The allegory of love, in both its transcendental and immanent acceptions, has been suffocated by fear and a surfeit of materialist fruition of every kind. Amelia Bonetti, like Wanda before her, has married for security and not for love. Her attempt to recapture the magic of her professional and personal relationship with Pippo Botticella is as futile as Wanda's attempts to find her white sheik in Fernando Rivoli. There is, however, one fundamental difference. While the particular dì di festa towards which Ivan and Wanda had looked with joyous expectation has passed, they continue, albeit somewhat more hesitantly, to dream of the future. This is clearly not the case for Fred and Ginger. They have long since passed the mezzo del cammin of their life. And while for an instant they do catch a glimpse of their bliss as they dance in the TV variety show, their possa (physical strength) and their fantasia (imagination/creativity) (Dante, Paradiso XXXIII, 142), are suddenly gone, as they were for Dante after he had gazed upon and within the vivo lume (living light) (Dante, Paradiso XXXIII, 110).
Fellini's creativity, however, unlike that of his protagonists, is not flagging. On the contrary, following Dante's example, his disio and velle would appear to be moved by "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle" (Dante, Paradiso, XXXIII, 143-45). He continues to work with greater energy than ever, creating a narrative universe which is truly his own. Dipping into the magma of Italian tradition and culture while forging ahead, always on the cutting edge of intellectual pursuit, he transcends the bounds of critical analysis by creating mythical overarching responses to the paradoxical questions posed by the Western perception of reality.
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