The Fantastic Films of Fellini

Russell Shortt asked:

Fellini was always something of a maverick – he never formally trained nor did he ever frequent the cinema clubs that screened the work of the dominant Italian directors. He was greatly more influenced by Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. He drew inspiration from many different elements, film being well down the pecking order with cartoons, radio comedy and caricature sketches being more dominant in his thinking. However, his greatest influence was himself or at least the memories that he possessed of his life was, his films were intensely autobiographical. In addition, Fellini maintained that it was his wife, Giulietta Masina, who was the biggest influence on his work. In 1945, he received his first break in film, when he collaborated on the script of Roberto Rossellini’s neo-realist masterpiece Open City. He made his directorial debut in 1950 with Variety Lights, this was followed by The White Sheik (1951) and I Vitelloni (1953). These films were squarely based in the neo-realist tradition, they were distinguished by their absurdist nature and their empathy towards their eccentric characters. He gained international recognition with La Strada (1954), the story of an innocent young woman (Masina) who is sold by her family to a circus strongman. Fellini diluted his neo-realist roots by peppering the piece with surrealist scenes. La Strada also marked the beginning of a life-long collaboration with Nino Rota who wrote the film’s powerful score. Fellini’s masterpieces arrived in the early sixties – La Dolce Vita (1960) and 81/2 (1963).

La Dolce Vita was shot beautifully, providing countless striking and lingering images, it was a worldwide success. It satirised Italian society and it’s hedonist obsessions, it was condemned by the Catholic Church for it’s casual treatment of ******* and it’s sexual themes; the Italian government also condemned it because of it’s criticisms of Italian society. The international film community now waited to see what Fellini would do next, he answered them with genius, he made a film about a director who did not know what film to make next. Surrealism dominated the work, with no clear demarcation between fantasy and reality. His first movie in colour was Juliet of the Spirits which once again starred Masina, who played a troubled upper class housewife. However, the film was not a success with the critics who for the first time attacked him for being self-indulgent. However, it aged well and is now viewed as a feminist film way ahead of it’s time. Elements of breaking with convention in Juliet were to be taken to the limit in his 1970 film, Fellini Satryricon, which at times is utterly incomprehensible. He completely abandoned conventional narrative and would continue to do so for much of his subsequent work. Satryricon split critics, some saw it as a continuation of Fellini’s self-indulgence while others viewed it as the embryonic stage of a new type of non-linear cinema that was relative to end of the sixties in that it examined an imaginary past as opposed to an imaginary future. However, his work after Satryicon was less acclaimed and his voice within world cinema was less and less heard. The one exception to this, was his 1974 work Amarcord which was his fourth film to receive an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. But he began to find it harder and harder to guarantee financial backing and distribution, though he continued to make films until 1990 that in retrospect are influential as Fellini continued to follow his vision. At the 1993, Academy Awards ceremony he was awarded a special Oscar for lifetime achievement in filmmaking which he dedicated to Masina.

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