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.
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.
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.
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.