One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 95
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
I treated myself to my latest “fill in the blanks” film series a couple of weeks back. That is, I checked in with a favorite filmmaker and screened some of his films that I’ve never seen.
Gaps in a cinephile’s education frequently emerge with the films of the great foreign language filmmakers, those lions of the international cinema whose works haven’t always been easily accessible. Yes, a lot of them were issued on DVD and even Blu-ray over the past 25 years, but there have been plenty of others during that time that weren’t released in restored or at least acceptable editions. Fortunately, it’s gotten a lot easier to track down the goodies in the streaming era.
So on Wednesday evening, July 27, I began bridging the gaps on the great Federico Fellini.
For me, the Italian master Fellini, one of the essential filmmakers in the history of world cinema, is perfect for this kind of exercise. By my count, he has directed and co-written 20 feature films, as well as four shorts that appear in various anthology projects. I have seen the bulk of the films that are rightfully considered his masterworks—it’s a list that includes La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1957), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 ½ (1963), Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and Amarcord (1973)—but there are nearly as many others that I’ve never seen. Fittingly, they span the nearly 40 years that Fellini sat in the director’s chair.
Like a handful of the 20th century’s most prolific and eminent artists, Fellini sustained his distinct identity while also dramatically breaking new ground over the course of his long artistic life. (For other legends whose evolution fueled their art and vice-versa, see Pablo Picasso and Miles Davis.)
So in curating my Fellini furlough, I was able to choose five of his films from five different decades. I felt it was a sound methodology for me to experience the wondrous breadth and growth of Il Maestro’s work.
I began with 1955’s I Vitelloni, Fellini’s third feature. Like most of Fellini’s early work in the 1950s, it embodies the tenets of the neorealist film movement of post-WWII Italy. Featuring contemporary stories about the working class and their daily lives (in an economical, moral and spiritual sense) and frequently shot on location with staid camerawork and nonprofessional actors, these were the kinds of films that Fellini had first worked on as an apprentice for neorealist giant Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City, Paisan) in the 1940s.
I Vitelloni (Italian slang for “the layabouts”) flashes its neorealist cred in the early depictions of its characters, along with its provincial setting on the Adriatic Coast. But its bittersweet story of five twentysomething young men drifting between their immature ways and the call of adulthood as they lazily plan to escape their small town lives offers something more.
The narratives about each of the men—an aspiring playwright, a newly married womanizer, and an amateur singer, among them—exude more flair and emotional substance than was customary of films from this period. Fellini’s active camera captures the fast-talking crew smartly, almost telling them (and the audience) that if that if they don’t slow down and begin taking things seriously, nothing better will come their way. The playful score by Fellini’s regular composer Nino Rota, in the pair’s first collaboration, enlivens the drama and its occasional laughs. Sequences set during a town festival and on the beach are also forerunners to major scenes in later Fellini films.
I Vitelloni notably laid the groundwork for a number of American twentysomething male-buddy films, including George Lucas’s American Graffiti, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and, most of all, Barry Levinson’s Diner.
Next up was 1968’s Spirits of the Dead, an Italian/French horror omnibus comprised of three Edgar Allen Poe stories adapted by Fellini along with France’s Roger Vadim and Louis Malle.
Fellini’s segment, “Toby Dammit,” the filmmaker’s second color film following Juliet of the Spirits, was inspired by Poe’s 1841 tale “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” It concerns a vice-ridden gambling man who engages in a series of wagers with the Devil himself. The gambling escalates in risk, ultimately ending badly for Toby, who would have done well to avoid the story’s titular bet.
Fellini only uses the ending of Poe’s story in his adaptation, crafting a contemporary story around a dazed and drunken British film star (Terence Stamp) who arrives in Rome to make a western-styled tale of redemption. He is soon zipping around in a Ferrari and encountering the kind of baroque and bizarre characters and situations that Fellini had begun embracing earlier in the decade in La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2—the films that began to define his later brand of cinema as “Felliniesque.” It remains the style by which Fellini is most identified. Where else to see nuns in sunglasses hauling musical instruments through an airport and the Devil in the form of a blonde-tressed young girl?
Clocking in at 45 minutes, “Toby Dammit” isn’t essential Fellini, but it’s frisky, luridly fun and the most memorable installment of the anthology.
I jumped ahead a decade to 1978’s relatively tame Orchestra Rehearsal, a satire that follows an Italian orchestra as its members discuss what drew them to their instruments before going out on strike against their conductor. This following a memorably excessive and indulgent cycle by the filmmaker that included Fellini Satyricon (1969), The Clowns (1970), Roma (1972) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976).
Subtitled The Decline of the West in C# Major and told from the point of view of a television documentary crew covering a rehearsal in a medieval auditorium, this one is as political a Fellini film as I’ve ever seen. At least, it feels political or metaphorically so, particularly when the rehearsal descends into anarchy and destruction. But as I’m not all that up on Italian politics of that time (or today, for that matter), it didn’t wholly work for me.
Orchestra Rehearsal could be considered another minor entry, yes, but as it concludes with everyone working their problems out and coming together in the name of music, of artistry, it did leave me smiling at the end.
With its clear reference to Hollywood’s favorite dancing couple and star turns by longtime Fellini collaborators Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina (Mrs. Fellini!), I arrived at 1986’s Ginger & Fred with curiosity and anticipation.
The two veteran performers are perfect as Pippo and Amelia, Italian impersonators of Astaire and Rogers who are brought out of 30 years of retirement to reprise their ballroom dancing act on the gala Christmas special of a TV variety show. Since this is a Fellini film sending up Italian television, other guests include a squad of merengue-dancing midgets, a defrocked priest and his soon-to-be-bride, a cow with 18 teats, a charming Mafia kingpin, and the inventor of vitamin-enriched edible underwear.
There’s a lot of glittery spectacle to take in here, reminiscent of Roma’s infamous Vatican fashion show sequence—the costumes, sets, performances and production pieces are all fantastically over-the-top—but Ginger & Fred is a hit-or-miss affair, sort of like the kind of European variety shows it’s satirizing. With Masina as a proud but sensible widow who agrees to the show to please her grandchildren and Mastroianni as her former partner, a boozing, weary womanizer, the two actors and their warm, knowing, been-there-done-that smiles are the highlight here. And their climactic “Cheek to Cheek” dance number is worth the wait.
Fellini was nearing 70 when he made his final film—and the last pic for my series—1990’s evocatively titled The Voice of the Moon.
The film concerns a poet (Roberto Benigni) recently released from a mental institution who finds himself smitten by a lovely young woman (Nadia Ottaviani). His obsession fuels his journey across several small towns in Northern Italy, where he encounters other off-center characters who are weaving their way through their own stories.
An uneven, episodic work that contains some sections that are absolutely stunning, the film contains major sequences set at a beauty pageant, a dance club, a sprawling warehouse and, most significantly, a cemetery with a ladder that leads to the stars. Clearly, it’s an allegorical dream film that points towards death. At one point, our poet asks, “Where does the fire go when it goes out? It’s just like music. Nobody knows where it goes when it ends.”
Voice didn’t receive a regular theatrical rollout in the U.S.—it was never clear as to why—but it ultimately made its stateside debut in 1993 and was subsequently included in a handful of U.S. retrospectives before its Blu-ray and DVD premiere in 2017.
Made three years before his death at 73 in 1993, The Voice of the Moon is a very satisfying final chapter in Fellini’s cinematic oeuvre, with reflective, lower-key samplings of his inimitable views of life, death, love and sex on full display. Well-liked in Europe but virtually ignored in the U.S., it definitely makes for engaging viewing for fans of Il Maestro who’ve already taken a substantial dip into his remarkable four-decade filmography.
It's also for people like me, who have seen most of Fellini’s previous works and have every intention of hopefully checking them at least one more time.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.