Film Commentary: Fellini at 100 — How the Mighty Have Tumbled

By Gerald Peary

It seems evident that hardly anyone knows about the centenary of a moviemaker who, in earlier days, was universally revered, whose hallowed name was synonymous with art-house cinema.

Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s film Nights of Cabiria.

How unfortunate that the 100th anniversary of the birth of Federico Fellini — he was born January 20, 1920, in Rimini, Italy — is also the year of Covid-19. I’m not sure how far the British Film Institute got in its planned two-month tribute; but it’s clear that a tour of his films in the US, Federico Fellini at 100, which started in January at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, never made it to Boston. Or was it ever going to play here?

How the mighty have tumbled. It seems evident that hardly anyone knows about the centenary of a moviemaker who, in earlier days, was universally revered, whose hallowed name was synonymous with art-house cinema. Fellini’s La Strada (1954) was the film that coaxed so many people into watching foreign-language pictures for the first time. It was my parents’ favorite film. His 8 ½ (1963), not Citizen Kane, was the movie most cited by other film directors as the inspiration for their careers. It was La Dolce Vita (1960), that grandiose 3-hour epic of Roman decadence, which introduced the world to paparazzi and Marcello Mastroianni and, at age 17, elevated my perspective of what cinema should be from entertainment to Meaning. As an undergraduate, I composed my first essay ever on cinema about Fellini’s masterly film, writing earnestly about “alienation in the modern world.”

Fellini died in fall 1993, the same day as River Phoenix. Earlier that year, he’d received a special Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. I vividly recall his looking into the Academy audience and seeing there his sobbing wife, actress Giulietta Masina. “Please, please, stop crying, Giulietta,” he gently admonished her. Masina, of course, shared far more than a long, long marriage with her director husband. She was often his star: first, the fragile, Chaplinesque waif in La Strada. Its enormous success made it easier in America for, among others, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Satyajit Ray, to have their films shown in foreign markets.

Marcello Mastroianni  in Fellini’s overpraised 8 ½.

It was a great cultural moment when intellectually challenging films from abroad were embraced in the USA: also Godard, Bunuel, Resnais, Antonioni. The downside was a dismissal of anything American by many who genuflected to foreign cinema. I remember 45 years ago being put off by how many Fellini admirers were snobs with a disdain for popular culture and a sneer for anything produced by Hollywood. The snootiness reached a nadir with 8 ½, adored not only by filmmakers but by the most sterile of academics. Hail Fellini, high priest of cinema modernism.

“The most overpraised film ever made,” I shouted in answer, back in the late 20th century. Has there ever been a more bloated, conceited, self-indulgent, self-important movie? A more sexist, retrograde paean to the Male Creator? God, all those grotesque faces pushed into the camera, all those people made ugly, ridiculed by Fellini’s extreme use of the wide-angle lens. All those busy, busy scenes as if profundity is measured by how many frantic, maximalist images.

I have trouble too with other Fellini films. Fellini Satyricon (1969) and Casanova (1976) are cold, heartless works. Juliet of the Spirits (1965) is too dreamy and symbolic. Ginger and Fred (1986), his last work, is slight, nostalgic, maudlin.

A scene from Fellini’s most underrated film, The Clowns.

But there are occasions, including still La Dolce Vita, when I spring aboard the Fellini bandwagon. The White Sheik (1952) is a warm, cute comedy about a chaste married woman who races off for an improbable day with her beloved male star of movie melodramas. I Vitelloni (1953), my favorite of his films, is a splendid poetic tale of male friends in a stifling provincial town longing for art and adventure. Nights of Cabiria (1956), starring Masina, is a harrowing tragicomedy of a whore with a heart of gold. Finally The Clowns (1970), the Italian maestro’s most underrated film. It’s a lovely, funny homage to those big-footed, white-faced, red-nosed, squeaky-shoed performers. It’s Fellini at his least pretentious and most personal, a reminiscence of when, as a youth, he ran away and joined the circus.

Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.


  1. Harvey Blume on July 8, 2020 at 9:00 pm

    Seems to me that dethroning Fellini is like toppling statues of Jefferson et al. Where does it stop? What is to be gained?

    Fellini — Antonioni, Bergman, Kurosawa, Renoir among others — brought so many of my generation into an appreciation of film as art, high art, a formative experience, not to be gained, for whatever reason, at that point by looking at great American directors.

    But Peary, film scholar that he is, needs to pick that formative experience apart

    Yeah, so Fellini is or isn’t as tremendous as we thought he was on first contact.

    Point is he was a portal

    • Gerald Peary on July 10, 2020 at 3:29 pm

      Isn’t the idea of criticism to say what you think, whether others agree? Harvey, it feels like you are trying to shut me up, to say it’s an unseemly thing to express an opinion which you don’t share. Sorry I’m picking your “formative experience” apart.

  2. Roberta Silman on July 9, 2020 at 7:36 am

    What about Amarcord? It seemed to come from a special place in Fellini’s heart yet isn’t mentioned. And sometimes greatness needs time to be rediscovered. Perhaps in a more compassionate post pandemic time?

    • Gerald Peary on July 10, 2020 at 3:24 pm

      You are right about Amarcord being one of the really good ones. Somehow, I forgot to mention it.

  3. Matt Hanson on July 9, 2020 at 1:46 pm

    The new poster I bought of the French edition of 8 1/2 would be very mad at me if I didn’t love the movie as much as I do. And I am cognizant of the sexist critique, but Clive James wrote about how it isn’t. So there’s that. I think Fellini is parodying himself much more than he lets on.

    I have yet to let La Dolce Vida work its magic on me. But I remain hopeful. 8 1/2 went over my head the first time I saw it, without having much of a background in film.

    I love Amarcord and Nights of Cabiria a lot. The former had to sort of click into place and the latter was a tear-jerker right in that last scene in the forest.

    Very fond of Juliet of the Spirits, especially the last scene. La Strada less so. Don’t remember Vitelloni very well.

    My college friends were all really into Fellini, and admittedly most of them were guys, but at least we were all about taking the maestro seriously. If people aren’t watching his films much these days, then we’re in serious trouble.

    • Steve Provizer on July 9, 2020 at 4:29 pm

      Matt-You write that we’re in serious trouble if people don’t watch Fellini’s movies anymore. I realize there’s at least a bit of a rhetorical flourish to that, but I’d gladly swap that trouble for many others. In any case, I think there is an emotional universe that Fellini explores-usually at some distance-that is unusual and worth the investment. I also think that his ebullient, borderline surrealism was a good fit during the Auteur wave of the 50’s-60’s. It almost seems that his films worked better when you were seeing them in rotation with the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Kurosawa and Bergman. Those guys worked off each other pretty well.

      • Gerald Peary on July 10, 2020 at 3:36 pm

        There is nothing distant about Fellini. He sticks his nose and your nose right in there. And I would call his films expressionist rather than surrealist.

        • Steve Provizer on July 10, 2020 at 4:48 pm

          I say sometimes your nose is in it, and sometimes, Fellini’s nose is held too high to touch our noses…There are a lot of parades and other imagery that is more surreal than expressionist.

      • Matt Hanson on July 17, 2020 at 4:54 pm

        Oh, of course there are bigger problems in the world than whether or not people watch Fellini movies.

        But if we’re talking film culture, which is important since visuals are way more influential than words these days, then yeah I think it’s a problem.

        Plenty of people these days are absorbing tons of movies, but a much smaller number are interested in foreign or classic stuff and Fellini is both.

        I only say that because I love both of these genres and I’ve noticed how people sometimes recoil at the idea of kicking back with a Fellini flick.

        You’ve all heard the complaints– I don’t like subtitles, culture shock, it’s “pretentious”, yadda yadda blah blah.

        One of the reasons why I love Fellini so much is because he can mix the “highbrow” and the “lowbrow.” Sure, there’s lots of nutritional stuff, but there’s plenty of sheer entertainment value too.

        That’s what I was getting at.

    • Gerald Peary on July 10, 2020 at 3:34 pm

      Because Clive James says that 8 1/2 isn’t sexist, therefore it isn’t? I didn’t realize that James is the arbiter of sexism. Sexism might not be the right word but 8 1/2 to me is the apotheosis of high hetero white male modernism. So yes, 81/2 is a kind of broad-chested statue on a horse which could use a bit of knocking down.

      • Matt Hanson on July 17, 2020 at 4:30 pm

        No, of course James isn’t the arbiter of sexism. But I think he made a good argument for why it’s not sexist. I can’t find the book where his essay about the film appears at the moment. But all I really wanted to point out that there are some legitimate arguments for why it isn’t.

  4. Ken Straiton on July 11, 2020 at 6:59 pm

    I think it is very difficult to criticize Fellini for 8 1/2, because he has already incorporated most of the possible criticisms into the film itself. The entire film revolves around a meditation on his own failings, losses, desires, and weaknesses.

    Whether or not you believe it should be elevated to the position of The Greatest Film, it remains a masterwork of the cinema.

    • Gerald Peary on July 11, 2020 at 11:49 pm

      Because someone incorporates critiques into a film doesn’t therefore make the film immune to outside critiques. You mean critics should just sit on their hands with 8 1/2 because the maestro has said it all within his film? Poppycock. And, yes, I am in an admitted minority who doesn’t adore Fellini’s film or consider it a masterwork.

  5. Thomas Garvey on July 12, 2020 at 2:46 pm

    I’m not sure I track Mr. Peary’s argument – or rather I’m not sure he has made an argument. He seems to be asserting that Fellini has been largely forgotten (although the only real evidence of this on offer is the failure of a traveling film program because of the pandemic). And he takes this supposed loss of renown to mean that he was right in his initial dislike of 8 1/2 nearly sixty years ago – and that dislike was because sexism, or perhaps “high hetero white male modernism,” or something like that.

    Of course other great directors have been forgotten by the public too, including Agnès Varda, Lina Wertmüller, Chantal Akerman, and others . . . and I’d never advance that as even an implicit argument against their films. Therefore I’m not at all sympathetic to Peary’s opening salvo – so let’s move on to 8 1/2 and “high hetero white male modernism.”

    But it’s hard to argue that 8 1/2 represents high modernism, isn’t it, when it’s so obviously postmodern. Yes, Fellini turned to modern icons Freud and Jung to validate his cinematic fantasies of the 60’s – but the resulting films were clearly ironic pastiches that relentlessly undercut their own perspectives. And while you could argue that Fellini’s attitude toward his own work was expressionist, the promiscuously mixed imagery he produce reads as more surrealist, as other commenters have noted. Moreover, the reforming zeal of modernism is entirely absent from late Fellini, and the atmosphere is one of restless, questioning skepticism, despite the modernist elegance of the façades through which the characters move. (Indeed, Mr. Peary sometimes seems to mistake set décor for cinematic style.)

    Of course Peary is quite right in stating that Fellini was white, male, and hetero (you might add to that, and how!). Whether it follows that he was sexist is a more complex question. The wide gallery of intelligent, formidable women in his films (beginning with his wife, whom he directed to great acclaim) argues otherwise. That he was inspired by female beauty is undeniable – likewise, that he always hungered for fresh inspiration; but as others have pointed out, he’s honest about that failing himself, and understands the damage he inflicted on those around him. As for the rest of us, we’re left with one of the most lyric and ravishing legacies in cinema history. I can’t really say I’d rather have it otherwise. Indeed, I long to see a female director inspired by a similar gallery of men, and portray them with the breathless spark of infatuation so often evinced by Fellini. (But I’m not holding my breath.)

    Reading between the lines of Mr. Peary’s post, I’d venture the following analysis: he admired Fellini’s early, naturalist works (I Vitelloni, The White Sheik, Nights of Cabiria) but, then as the director’s practice became more oneiric and free (8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini Satyricon), his enthusiasm fell off precipitously. An analysis of that great divide in style could prove interesting, and I hope Mr. Peary attempts it.

  6. Gerald Peary on July 14, 2020 at 11:01 am

    There’s no scientific way to prove that Fellini has been largely forgotten. But that’s certainly what I have felt in conversations in the last twenty years, that there’s far far more interest among those who care about cinema in, say, Scorsese, Tarantino and, God forbid, Wes Anderson. And there have been far more revivals of the works of Agnes Varda, which I applaud, than Fellini. Yes, I admire in general Fellini’s early works (I would call them quietly poetic rather than strictly naturalistic) to his later ones. But there are exceptions such as The Clowns and, I neglected to mention it, the lovely Amarcord. But everyone to their taste: if you prefer the oneiric films, your decision. If you think 8 1/2 is a gift to the world, good for you. Obviously, I don’t. I consider Fellini a high modernist, not a post-modernist. All the imagery flows through Fellini’s brain and consciousness and is not post-modern random. We can argue surrealism/expressionism, but if Fellini is a surrealist give me Bunuel and Cocteau. So what if Fellini “understands the damage he inflicted on those around him”? That’s the forgiveness we give to high modernist geniuses, that they live on their own plain. Speaking of high modernism, what do you mean about its “reforming zeal”? Great female characters? A few, and often sentimentalized. But compare Fellini to the fabulous gallery of women in the films of another high modernist, Ingmar Bergman. It’s Bergman all the way, whose films, early and mostly late, I adore.

  7. Thomas Garvey on July 15, 2020 at 9:25 pm

    Well, there may have been a brief resurgence of interest in Agnès Varda after her death last year – but that’s because she’d largely been forgotten already (except, I guess, among your friends). Nothing against Varda, I find her interesting – but she’s no Fellini. A few notes on terminology – yes, “modernism” is generally thought of as having a reformist streak, manifested in an eagerness to shatter antiquated conventions, or disturb the audience with uncanny juxtapositions to unlock deeper, more honest responses. You could argue that the oblique, formalist shocks of someone like Resnais are high modern; but as “8 1/2” is so obsessed with the means and modes of cinema, and deconstructs itself and its creator before our eyes – all while mourning the impact of modernism itself! – it pretty clearly qualifies as postmodern. You could say that it’s romantic postmodernism, I suppose – perhaps that’s why you think it’s expressionist. And just for the record, there are great female roles in Fellini’s “La Strada,” “Nights of Cabiria,” “8 1/2,” and “Juliet of the Spirits.” Maybe there are more in Bergman – but do you really want to cite Bergman? Surely you’re aware of the many stories that have surfaced in recent years of Bergman’s sexually predatory habits. Routinely bedding his actresses, the supposedly tormented genius lurched between five failed marriages as he fathered nine children (whom he subsequently ignored). He’s already being described as “the Harvey Weinstein of Sweden”! And all this after seven years in the Nazi party?! If you’re horrified by “high hetero white male modernism,” Ingmar Bergman is a strange idol.

    • Gerald Peary on July 15, 2020 at 10:38 pm

      I still don’t agree with you about modernism’s reformist streak. It’s more a revolutionary streak, stripping away everything not essential to the art itself. Yes, Bergman was probably more of a sexual creep than Fellini, though Fellini was known to have stepped out regularly on his dear actress wife. But Bergman has it all over Fellini for great women’s roles. You mention four Fellini movies with fine women’s parts. With Bergman, there are probably twenty such films. Persona is to me everything that 81/2 is to others, and speak about being brilliantly on the cusp of modernism and post-modernism! Anyway, Thomas Garvey, I’ve enjoyed our intellectual arguments, and may we agree to disagree.

  8. Thomas Garvey on July 16, 2020 at 9:34 pm

    Sure, we can agree to disagree. And I’m not arguing that there are more great female roles in Fellini than in Bergman. I just hope you remember the actresses behind all those roles you admire. Because they all had to sleep with Ingmar Bergman to play them.

    • Gerald Peary on July 17, 2020 at 7:40 pm

      Or maybe wanted to sleep with Bergman. For sex, it’s great to be a high modernist male! Truffaut also slept with every woman who starred in his movies until Isabel Adjani in Adele H. She dared say “No.”

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