Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film
Occupation: Director, screenwriter
Born: January 20, 1920, Rimini, Italy
Died: October 31, 1993, Rome, Italy
Italian humanist director Federico Fellini was among the most intensely
autobiographical film directors the cinema has known. "If I were to make a film about
the life of a soul," said Fellini, "it would end up being about me."
in Rimini, a resort city on the Adriatic, Fellini was fascinated by the circuses and
vaudeville performers that his town attracted. His education in Catholic schools also
profoundly affected his later work, which, while critical of the Church, is infused with a
strong spiritual dimension. After jobs as a crime reporter and artist specializing in
caricature, Fellini began his film career as a gag writer for actor Aldo Fabrizi. In 1943,
Fellini met and married actress Giulietta Masina, who appeared in several of his films and
whom Fellini called the greatest influence on his work. In 1945, he got his first
important break in film, when he was invited to collaborate on the script of
Roberto Rossellini's seminal work of the neorealist movement. In 1948, Rossellini directed
Ways of Love/L'Amore, one part of which was based on Fellini's original
story "Il Miracolo/The
Miracle" about a peasant woman (Anna Magnani) who thinks that the tramp
(played by Fellini) who has impregnated her is St. Joseph and that she is about to give
birth to Christ.
Variety Lights (1950), detailing the intrigues of a group of travelling
entertainers, was Fellini's directorial debut, in collaboration with the established
The White Sheik (1951) and I Vitelloni (1953) followed; the former was a
comedy about a woman's affair with a comic strip hero, the latter a comedy-drama about the
aimless lives of a group of young men.
Though Fellini's earliest films were clearly in the
neorealist tradition, from the start his interest in and sympathy for characters'
eccentricities and his penchant for absurdist, sometimes clownish humor, makes them
distinguished. Fellini's international breakthrough came with
La Strada (1954). One of the
most memorable and moving films of world cinema, it is the story of an innocent, simple
young woman (Masina) who is sold by her family to a brutish strongman in a traveling
circus. Because Fellini infused his film with surreal scenes, he was accused of violating
the precepts of neorealism. Ultimately, La Strada, Fellini's first unquestioned
masterpiece, is a poetic and expressive parable of two unlikely souls journeying toward
salvation. The film's impact is bolstered immeasurably by Nino Rota's unforgettable music,
marking the beginning of a collaboration between the two men that would end only with
Rota's death in 1979. A luminous performance by Masina, and the moving Jungian imagery of
earth, air, fire and water, are also memorable elements of La Strada.
After two strong but
relatively minor works -
Il Bidone/The Swindle (1955) and
Nights of Cabiria (1957), the latter providing Masina with a hallmark role as the hapless
prostitute-Fellini directed his two most influential masterworks:
La Dolce Vita (1960) and
8 1/2 (1963). La Dolce Vita was a three-hour, panoramic view of contemporary Italian society
as seen from the perspective of a journalist, played by Fellini's alter ego, actor
Marcello Mastroianni. A savage if subtle satire that exposes the worthless hedonism of
Italian society, La Dolce Vita provides a wealth of unforgettable images, from its
opening-a parody of the Ascension as a helicopter transports a suspended statue of Christ
over rooftops with sunbathing women in bikinis-to its signature scene of bosomy Anita
Ekberg bathing in the Trevi Fountain. The film was a scandalous success, a worldwide
box-office hit that was condemned by both the Catholic Church for its casual depiction of
suicide and sexual themes and by the Italian government for its scathing criticism of
Italy. Celebrated as a brilliant social critic, Fellini now found himself under careful
scrutiny by the international community, which anxiously awaited his next film.
represented a brilliant gamble: as a filmmaker who did not know what film to make next, Fellini decided to make a film about an internationally acclaimed director who does not
know what film to make next, thus confronting his personal confusions head-on; Mastroianni
played the director's alter ego. Having directed six features, co-directed another
(counting as one half) and helmed episodes of two anthology films (each one also counting
for a half), one of which was Boccaccio '70 (1962), Fellini realized he had made 7 1/2 films
and hence chose 8 1/2 for his most reflexive film. For the first time, surreal dream imagery
clearly dominated, with no clear demarcation between fantasy and reality in this
groundbreaking and exceptionally influential film.
Fellini's next film,
Juliet of the
Spirits (1965), was his first in color. Again starring Masina, whose career was at a low
ebb and with whom Fellini had been having personal problems, Juliet applied the methods of
his previous two films to examine the psyche of a troubled upperclass housewife. For the
first time, the voices of those critics who attacked Fellini for self-indulgence were
louder than those who praised him for his perceptive vision. A feminist film ahead of its
time, which complicates dismissals of Fellini as a "dirty old man,"
Juliet of the Spirits seems today even stronger than when it was released; one sequence, Juliet's
memory of a religious pageant of school girls directed by unknowingly sadistic nuns,
certainly stands among the most memorable and terrifying scenes in world cinema.
critics called Fellini's next film his "ne plus ultra."
(1970), loosely based on extant parts of Petronius's Satyricon, is the most
phantasmagorical of all Fellini's work, following the bawdy adventures of bisexual
characters in the pre-Christian world. Fellini himself described the film as science
fiction of the past; and indeed the whole film moves with the logic of a
dream-fragmentary, at times incomprehensible, and ending, literally, in the middle of a
sentence. The abandonment of relatively conventional narrative, which had increased over
the course of Juliet as its protagonist's psychic world took over, came completely to the
fore, and much of Fellini's subsequent work did not reverse the pattern.
is also unusually sensuous, more so than his other works; there is a constant tension
between the film's sense-pleasing surface and its often disturbing elements, which include
sex and nudity, dwarfs, an earthquake, a hermaphrodite, a decapitation, an erotic feast
and orgy, suicides, mythological creatures, violence and hundreds of the most grotesque
extras ever assembled. Satyricon polarized critics-some attacked the film as proof that
Fellini's self-indulgence had run amuck, and others praised it as a great fountainhead of
a new kind of non-linear cinema, a head-trip (not unlike Stanley Kubrick's
2001: A Space Odyssey) representing the aesthetic culmination of the 1960s and the ultimate comment,
through an examination of the imaginary past, on the present.
Fellini's work since
Satyricon was seen by many as less focused, and his international acclaim less consistent.
Retreating from the splendid excess of Satyricon, he created several very fine, more
modest films, all marked by striking imagery, which diminished the distinctions between
fiction film and documentary:
The Clowns (1971), which deals with Fellini's lifelong love
Fellini's Roma (1972), centering on his love/hate relationship with the
Eternal City which recurs in many of his films; and the critical and potent but
Rehearsal (1979), portraying the orchestra as a metaphor for Italian
Perhaps Fellini's most acclaimed post-Satyricon film was
Amarcord (1974) an accessible work which can be seen as a summation to that point of his
autobiographical impulse (the title means "I remember"). Lovingly describing Fellini's Rimini boyhood, peppered with offbeat but gentle humor,
organizes its images through a strong emphasis on the natural cycle and a coherent
narrative, though it also contained such memorable flights of fancy as the peacock that
appears during the winter snow. Amarcord was the fourth Fellini
film to win an Oscar as Best Foreign- Language Film, but as he continued making films in
the '80s he found it increasingly difficult to find financial backing and distributors. The
downturn in his critical reputation and the inaccessibility of several key films led many
to dismiss the latter as unimportant or as further signs of his
Fellini's Casanova (1976), while perhaps not one of his most
important films, was unusually-indeed strikingly-cold, filled with stunning imagery which
cannot be easily dismissed.
And the Ship Sails On (1984), meanwhile, proved that his flair
for flamboyant characterization had not lost its comic or satiric prowess in its
commentary on self-absorbed artists and motley others (including a homesick rhinoceros).
Ginger and Fred (1986), though heavily criticized by many upon its release (it was the
last Fellini to get a full art-house run in the US), has more than its share of touching
and amusing moments as his two most important actors, Masina and Mastroianni, play a dance
team reunited for what can only be described as "Fellini TV."
Intervista (1987) carried the reflectiveness of his later years full circle. A fitting
companion piece to 8 1/2 and a revisitation (with Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg) of that other
landmark, La Dolce Vita, Fellini again directly confronted his own position and status as
a filmmaker, this time with a sadder, more wistful nostalgia than he had as a younger man.
Now the aging "Il Mago" ("the magician," as he was sometimes called in
Italy) and his aging actors watch clips of their earlier triumphs in scenes that are
His last completed film, Voice of the Moon (1990), considered by some
critics his most surreal picture, was, like Intervista, a small film chock-full of
references and last minute thoughts, alternately strange and sad, an appropriate
postscript to a film career filled with with laughter and wonder at the bizarre circus of
Fellini continued to pursue other projects in semi-retirement. At the Academy Awards
ceremony in March of 1993, Fellini received a special Oscar for lifetime achievement in
filmmaking, which he dedicated to Masina in his acceptance speech.
In August of that year, Fellini suffered a stroke, and went into a coma following a heart attack in October. After
his death at age 73 on October 31st - one day after Masina (who was to die of cancer less
than five months later) observed their 50th wedding anniversary-tens of thousands of
people packed the narrow streets of Fellini's hometown of Rimini, applauding as the
director's casket was carried from the main piazza to the cinema where Fellini had watched
his first films as a child (and which he featured in Amarcord). It was a fitting tribute
to one of the cinema's greatest artists, who had become a national treasure for Italy and
a respected master the world over.
>> Federico Fellini Filmography
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