With his distinct, unique, and largely autobiographical cinematic style that blends reality and fantasy, Italian film director and scriptwriter Federico Fellini (1920–1993) was one of the most celebrated and influential filmmakers of the 20th century.
The Sebastian Paul and Marybelle Musco Endowed Professor in Italian Studies in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Chapman University, Federico Pacchioni is the author of Inspiring Fellini: Literary Collaborations Behind the Scenes.
Simply Charly: Federico Fellini is widely regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. His films broke new ground by creating a unique visual language, one that was at once personal and highly idiosyncratic. How did your fascination with Fellini begin?
Federico Pacchioni: I believe it originated in a love for poetry—not just a literary genre, but poetic expression, which is a kind of approach to communication and even a way of being that can be found in any media. When first watching a Fellini film, it is easy to be put off by what seems to be a grotesque cacophony of images and sounds. But if given a chance, the bizarre scenes on the screen quickly begin to lure spectators to another point of view on life, one engrossed with a sense of mystery and filled with subtleties. For me it was a matter of allowing the films to do their work on me—I began to see them for what they were, finally grasping the deeper strands that composed them, understanding their pressing human necessity, and, in doing so, being rewarded by their spiritual quality.
SC: Fellini began his career as a cartoonist and scriptwriter for neorealist directors such as Roberto Rossellini. How did this early training prepare him to become the great director we now know today?
FP: Fellini is an artists’ artist. His work can easily be interpreted as a continuous reflection on and a celebration of the act of creating, and especially of filmmaking. For this reason, following his genesis as an artist is extremely important to enjoy his films to the fullest. This is true for all aspects of his creative work, including his early years as a sketch artist, cartoonist, journalist, and screenwriter. During his career as a director, Fellini did not abandon his early artistic practices and forms of expressions, but rather capitalized on them by continuing to draw from them intensively. In his work, he organically integrated his talents as a storyteller, caricaturist, painter, and director. His work as a screenwriter quickly led him to become a director in his own right and provided him with a medium that could best express his many talents. The experiences he had with other directors and their films all marked his sensibility in different ways and became part of the creative reservoir he would continuously draw from his entire directing career. The encounter with Roberto Rossellini significantly propelled Fellini forward. Rossellini’s free-flowing approach to filmmaking, his attentiveness and openness towards the reality present around him, and his growing interests in spiritual themes were all elements that Fellini absorbed from Rossellini and would eventually make his own.
SC: The film that brought Fellini instant worldwide acclaim was La Dolce Vita. When it was released in 1959, it became an international hit winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and receiving four Academy Awards nominations. What was it about this film that resonated with audiences around the world?
FP: Fellini already had a significant following by the time La Dolce Vita was released. He had established his name as a screenwriter and attracted the attention of cinephiles around the world with four Academy Award nominations and two Oscars awarded for La Strada (1954) and The Nights of Cabiria (1957) as Best Foreign Language Film. In the years that followed this acclaim, Fellini and his team met the expectations of this growing audience with astounding vigor and originality of films such as La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963). La Dolce Vita was an extremely ambitious film that aimed at expressing, in an interconnected fashion, large themes such as: the inability of the Roman Catholic Church to speak to modern man, the human and cultural exploitation at the hand of a new type of celebrity, and media culture (the word paparazzi was coined by this film), the social and architectonic layers of the city of Rome seen as a cauldron of humanity, and the effects on Italians of years of economic boom and a new mentality of consumerism. All of these themes were intertwined in a psychologically meaningful episodic plot through the protagonist Marcello, a young journalist who is both oppressed by and the proponent of the nihilistic and materialistic culture he lives in. Movie lovers and critics around the world emphasized strongly with a character like Marcello, who was living in the shadow of other people’s fame and success, unsuccessfully pining for the romantic idea of a true artist.
SC: In your book, Inspiring Fellini: Literary Collaborations Behind the Scenes, you argue that Fellini wasn’t the “stereotypical solitary genius” that most biographical accounts would have us believe. Instead, you assert that his cinematic genius is the result of close collaborations with some of Italy’s greatest scriptwriters. How so?
FP: Orson Welles used to say that “collaborators make contributions, but only the director can make a film,” which undoubtedly is true. However, a director’s capacity for choosing the right collaborators at the right time is certainly a key ingredient in what we might call a director’s genius. Fellini was certainly not lacking in this vital talent, which was coupled with a remarkable openness to ideas and suggestions. By researching the collaborations he had with some of the finest Italian writers of the 20th century, I was amazed by the voracity and effectiveness with which Fellini absorbed and metabolized each writers’ independent work into his films. Fellini’s genius becomes much more significant culturally and artistically when considering his collaborative dynamics.
SC: Of all Fellini’s many collaborators, none were more important than Italian film composer Nino Rota. As Fellini put it: “The most precious collaborator I have ever had, I say it straightaway and don’t even have to hesitate, was Nino Rota.” How and when did this relationship develop? And what was it about Rota’s music that so attracted Fellini?
FP: Nino Rota composed the soundtrack for all of Fellini’s films from the early 1950s on, beginning with the White Sheik up until Orchestra Rehearsal, released in 1978, the year before Rota’s death. Rota created what eventually became a musical signature that could immediately identify a film as Fellinian. The collaboration with Rota is a clear indication of the romantic, rather than the modernistic, core of Fellini. In fact, Rota was rather isolated from the learned musical scene of his time and marginalized by critics who considered his compositional style backward. The reason for this was that Rota’s music did not reject tonality, and his sensibility did not share the sense of existential disorientation expressed by most of the composers of his time. Nino Rota was part of a late and still harmonic Puccinian and realist tradition, which he was able to integrate within a vast array of popular and modern forms. Indeed, the nostalgic immediacy of Rota’s music, with its timeless and universal quality, served Fellini well. It evoked the anti-modernist purity that was so dear to this director, his longing for a nucleus of metaphysical coherence, and for a primordial place of origin.
SC: Another strong and enduring collaboration of Fellini’s was with Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, who appeared in six of his films. What do you feel was the secret of their success?
FP: Marcello Mastroianni, like Rota’s music, also became part of Fellini’s signature as a cinematic auteur, providing continuity and interconnectedness to his films. Fellini used Mastroianni as a sort of alter ego, blurring the line between fiction and autobiography, and underscoring the subjective and personal nature of his films. Another element that was particularly effective in their synergy was the fact that in Italy Mastroianni represented the figure of the Latin lover. Since so much of Fellini’s cinema is a meditation on the male’s position in modern Italian society and on his erotic fantasies, Mastroianni was the ideal puppet of choice to explore these issues.
SC: Fellini’s 1963 film 8 ½ is considered one of the greatest ever produced. Its influence on subsequent directors is inestimable. Indeed, directors Woody Allen, David Lynch, and Martin Scorsese have cited it as one of their all-time favorite films. What was it about this film that captured the imagination of so many?
FP: 8 1/2 is certainly the culmination of Fellini’s trajectory into the skies of international auteur cinema. Coming after the tremendous success of La Dolce Vita and the many scandals and debates generated by that film, 8 1/2 turned the camera lens 180 degrees on the director himself, who is trying to cope with the enormous pressures applied on him by producers, intellectuals, and journalists to produce another earth-shaking film. In this way, Fellini managed once again to cater to his audience with an original and yet majestically auteurist filmic gesture. The success was overwhelming, leading to another Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film and adding to a long list of other prestigious awards. The film has remained a chief point of reference for any director or artist reflecting on the creative process itself, with its challenges and joys. This is evident in important films that followed Fellini’s, such as François Truffaut’s Day for Night, Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. But 8 1/2 accomplished even more. It represents a true masterpiece in its attempt to realize a complex psychological plotline, as it manifests and blends with great psychic realism different levels of the protagonist’s life: his present condition, memories, fantasies, and dreams.
SC: Fellini loved women. They were a constant presence throughout his films. But his relationship with them was complex and often controversial. What was his view on women?
FP: The female characters populating Fellini’s cinema are many and varied, as a single film such as The City of Women reveals. There are the female characters played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina, who range from the child-like and saint-like Gelsomina in La Strada to Cabiria, whose headstrong pride hides her innocence and generosity; from the betrayed home-wife Giulietta, who heroically traverses the hell of her mental demons in Juliet of the Spirits, to the nostalgic dancer of Ginger and Fred, who embodies the nobility of a pre-television approach to performance. In Fellini’s cinema, the women played by Masina are destined to suffer the degeneration of their social context because of their sensibility and purity; they play more or less apparent Christ-like figures, acting as a litmus test for society and a vehicle for a denunciation of states of human degeneration. Another category of women in Fellini’s films belongs to the mother archetype, which functions to psychically and physically overpower man. This archetype, which is present since time immemorial in Mediterranean cultures, is found in all of Fellini’s films but becomes more explicit after his encounter with Jungian thought. Fellini’s dream journal deeply explores this form of archetype and is the reservoir from which evocative images, such as Sylvia in La Dolce Vita, Suzy in Juliet of Spirits, Saraghina in 8 ½, other prostitutes of Satyricon and Roma, and the shopkeeper in Amarcord come. Even though the presence of these grotesque women could be simply mistaken as an attempt to capitalize on the marketability of eroticism, it is because of the psychological realism of Fellini’s cinema that they appear so frequently, as they are the ghosts haunting the Italian male’s mind. Films such as Fellini’s Casanova and The City of Women make this deeper psychological meaning absolutely and eloquently clear.
SC: During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Federico Fellini seemed to have lost his footing, producing films that were critical and commercial flops. As film critic Phillip Kemp put it: he was “widely dismissed as sentimental, overblown and self-indulgent, a film-maker snared by his own intellectual and aesthetic pretensions.” Do you agree with this assessment?
FP: The adjectives used by Kemp are all very accurate in a sense; however, such a comment can be misleading from an artistic and cultural point of view. The characteristics listed by Kemp are certainly present in Fellini’s later films—not necessarily as shortcomings or vices, but as important and necessary artistic traits at this juncture in Fellini’s artistic journey. The last phase of Fellini’s cinema, which includes films such as Ginger and Fred, Interview, and The Voice of the Moon, is actually a thorough and poignant cinematic meditation on the experience of alienation and nostalgia inherent in aging. Fellini’s reuse of images and motifs from his previous films at this point is a way to articulate his discourse on aging at a profound artistic level. As a striking example of this, one could take the scene in Interview with Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg nostalgically watching their young selves in the Trevi fountain from La Dolce Vita. Fellini’s late films are his most mature expression, and therefore they are those more entrenched in the continuity and self-referentiality of his work, and those more drenched in the sadness and resentment of growing old. In Fellini’s later films, sentimentalism and self-indulgence are virtues of the exceptional continuity, authorial coherence, and human honesty of this director.
SC: For the uninitiated wishing to immerse themselves in Fellini’s films, where would you suggest they begin?
FP: From the beginning! I recommend starting as early as possible in Fellini’s work, perhaps even including his work before he became a director, and follow the evolution from there. Most of all, I recommend letting the films do their work without resisting them.