It’s kind of like sayinig “Hey, I’m going to learn how to be an auto mechanic.” Or “I think maybe I’ll take up bird watching.” Both great ideas, noble in their intent, one practical, one not so much – but with both, where does one start?
This is what I find when I mention Fellini to my fellow film enthusiasts who are not all that familiar with the legendary director. They usually make some dismissive remark about either “circus clowns” or “parades of midgets.” What a travesty! Sure, “circus clowns” and “parades of midgets” can be found in some of the master’s works, but the films of Federico Fellini offer substantially more than surreal dream sequences and carnival sideshows.
What I have come to admire most about Fellini’s films is how unapologetically autobiographical they are. He literally takes his audience on a guided tour of his childhood, his adolescence into manhood, his flexing and stretching, and his mid-life yearnings – fetishes! -and shortcomings. And each step of the journey is brought to life with such vivid storytelling panache that it has become all to clear to your trusty reviewer that this director might just stand alone atop the mountain, possibly sharing footing with Orson Welles and just above Paul Thomas Anderson (what’s that? you say – that’s for another Lars List).
So my advice to those of you not yet versed in the sweet music of Maestro Fellini is to watch them in chronological order based on the filmmaker’s evolution as a man, not necessarily in the sequential order of when the film was made.
Here are six of the very best films of Federico Fellini. Six spectacular films that not only entertain and at times dazzle, but also represent an accurate character arc of the man himself. I highly recommend watching them in this order if possible.
I Vitelloni Distributors insisted Fellini change the title, and after his first film, The White Sheik (1952), tanked at the Italian box office, he didn’t have much leverage. Nonetheless, he stuck to his guns and kept the title. And the title says it all. ‘Vitelloni’ translates to “mother’s pets” or “the unemployed of the middle class.” And that is what this film represents in the maturing process of the young director, surrounded by the paralyzing malaise of his peer group, living in a small seaside village, headed nowhere. Beautifully shot in shadows and fog by Italian great, Otello Martelli (Stromboli, Bitter Rice), I Vitelloni (1953) is to Fellini as Mean Streets (1973) is to Scorsese.
Amarcord Although Amarcord was released in 1973, the latter post-neorealism chapter of Fellini’s career (died 1993), it should be seen after I Vitelloni to understand and appreciate where the filmmaker’s love of life and overall worldview spawned from. Set in a fictional Italian village (very similar to the one in Cinema Paradiso, which was inspired by Amarcord), representing the small town of Fellin’s youth, Rimini, Amarcord is the phonetic translation of the Italian words “Mi Ricordo” or “I remember.” It is a coming-of-age tale of Fellini’s childhood, full of colorful characters (including a narrator and tour guide) and annual rituals set against the backdrop of emerging political fascism. It’s a film that will give you a big stupid grin on your face and make you want to watch it over and over. Amarcord won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
La Strada Widely considered Fellini’s greatest film – you will get no argument here. There must have been something in the air in the magical year of 1954, the same year On the Waterfront won the Oscar and James Dean starred in East of Eden. La Strada, or “the road,” is an extremely simple story of spiritual redemption. Of brutality vs. humanity. The overwhelming power of the human conscience. It stars Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, and Anthony Quinn, both beyond description brilliant in their portrayals. The film features a hauntingly sweet musical score and theme from longtime Fellini collaborator, musical composer Nino Rota (also worked with Coppola on The Godfather!), and yet another effort alongside cinematographer Otello Martelli. La Strada did not get released in America until 1956, and then it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It was also the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Found that on Wikipedia and thought it was kind of cool.
Nights of Cabiria Again starring Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, but this time in a tour de force performance as a foulmouthed, streetwise hooker who falls hard for a dapper don who sweeps her off her feet and lifts her out of squalor. Can’t say anymore about the story, but the themes explored in Nights of Cabiria (1956) are obvioiusly big ones for Fellini at this point in his professional journey. Can faith heal all wounds? Is there an eternal spirit that forges on in the face of brutality? Will the innocents always be lambs for slaughter? This film has a sharp wit, a beautifully moody and shadowy ambience (DP Aldo Tonti), and ultimately leaves you in awe.
La Dolce Vita Italian for “the good (sweet) life,” La Dolce Vita (1960) is an examination of the moral hypocrisy and decay of success and affluence, told through the casual meanderings of a passive celebrity journalist, played pitch perfectly by Italian megastar Marcello Mastroianni. This film marks the beginning of Fellini’s stylized period, leaving behind the “neorealism” that made him famous – fancy word for “movies that look like everyday real life” – don’t let that kind of terminology throw you off when trying to enjoy foreign films! Voluptuous Anita Ekberg (yes, the scene at dawn in Rome’s Trevi Fountain) is probably reason enough for my male readers to sit through the seductive and hypnotic narrative of La Dolce Vita, a story that leads the viewer through seven episodes seemingly covering seven days, tracked by our hero journalist, all the while being harrassed by his totie, ‘Paparazzo,’ a scooter-driving camerman who became the prototype for the now infamous career choice known as “Paparazzi.” Learn something new everyday, right? Great film, a feast for the eyes (again DP Martelli). Much to dissect and ponder. Don’t miss it.
8 1/2 How to handle lofty expectations and the inevitable and crushing question: What’s next? After the worldwide success of La Dolce Vita, Fellini was now under the microscope more than ever and pressed to come up with another brilliant film to wow the critics and give investors and distributors reasons to pop more champagne. La Dolce Vita was Fellini’s 8th film, so without a “brilliant” followup to it, he embarked on film number 8 1/2, a film about making a film when you really don’t have a film yet to make. Now that’s brilliant. And in my opinion, crucial backstory for the viewer to know in order to fully enjoy and appreciate 8 1/2 (1963), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Early working title for the picture was La Bella Confusione, or The Beautiful Confusion. If possible, watch this film with commentary (crierion disc offers various film historians) to learn just how intricately woven the imagery/symbolism is, your viewing experience will be greatly enhanced.
If this assignment is too time demanding and you rent/buy just one of Federico Fellini’s films, go with La Strada, a true masterpiece of immense emotional depth and deft storytelling simplicity. But do yourself a favor and watch ’em all. Ciao.