As filmmakers, Federico Fellini and Spike Lee are about as far apart as, well, Rome and Brooklyn, but when the maestro died 20 years ago this week (on October 31, 1993), even Lee acknowledged his vast influence. He eulogized the Italian director by recalling the lesson of the first Fellini film he ever saw, back in high school. “It really just for me emphasized . . . what you could do,” Lee said. “There are no boundaries. There are no limits.”
Two decades later, is Fellini’s legacy in danger of being forgotten? A generation of moviegoers has grown up without wondering what brilliant, mad vision he’d unleash next. The European art cinema with which his name was once synonymous has long been eclipsed by Hollywood’s aesthetic. And you no longer have to be a universally acclaimed auteur to get your name before the title, not when Tyler Perry and even the obscure-until-three-months-ago Lee Daniels can do it.
Still, Fellini’s influence remains so pervasive we barely even notice it anymore. We toss around the word “paparazzi” and forget that it originated as the name of a pushy celebrity photographer character in La Dolce Vita. High schools across America stage the musical Sweet Charity without knowing that it’s based on Nights of Cabiria, a Fellini movie about a prostitute. And TV and movie audiences everywhere watch directors dip into hallucinatory dreams or warm childhood memories without recognizing that Fellini tapped those wells first.
Here, then, are five arenas where Fellini set the standard, lifted the curtain, and opened the doors for us all to parade through.
For all his later surrealism, it’s easy to forget that Fellini started out as a documentary-style realist, writing scripts for Roberto Rossellini. Open City, with its depiction of the privations of Roman street life as World War II ended, was the young screenwriter’s first Oscar nomination and became a cornerstone of Neorealism, a raw and unpolished style for depicting the harsh day-to-day realities of life that flourished in Italian movies and resonates to this day, particularly in the cinema of Iran.
But Fellini’s early realism also included depictions of people having fun, falling in love, or simply growing up. He perfected the mix in his early feature I Vitelloni, a story about a group of aimless young men who are small-town pals, a movie that pretty much invented the group coming-of-age story as we know it. (Movies from Diner to Swingers to even The Hangover owe I Vitelloni a debt.) For these guys, life is a party, an endless set of dinners where jokes are traded and wine is sipped. Like all parties, it has to end sometime (the crashing comedown would be more the focus of La Dolce Vita), but for now, it means immaturity can be prolonged for one more night.
Nobody worked the “life is a circus” metaphor harder than Fellini, a guy who made a whole movie about clowns (this at a time when he feared that the absurdity of modern life had outstripped the ability of clowns and comedians to satirize it). The carnival pervades nearly every film he directed, though with many shades of variation, from the ragtag performers of Variety Lights to the cruel social Darwinism of strongman and waif in La Strada to the total debauchery of Satyricon and Casanova. He was the ringmaster of a sideshow of freaks, seductresses, brutes, and troubadours, and you were free to indulge or skip each act along the way. (Provided that you pay; everything comes with a price.)
Like the party, the circus has to pack up eventually, but while the big top is still standing, why not have a good time? It’s that joyous rhythm of the circus musicians that rouses Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) from his existential moping during the celebrated climax of 8 ½, ultimately pulling the whole cast into a circle of dancers. The scene seems to be an answer to the one at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, but instead of a dance of death and resignation, Fellini’s is unequivocally a celebration of life.
Fellini had a pipeline to his own subconscious like few other filmmakers before or since. (Maybe Luis Bunuel, David Lynch, and Tim Burton come closest. And you know where Lynch’s dancing dwarfs and lipsticked grotesques come from, right?). About a decade into his career, he started reading Carl Jung and abandoning realism for surrealism. Pretty soon, he was abandoning narrative structure altogether and just presenting vignettes. A whole movie could be a dream (like City of Women, below), and you wouldn’t feel cheated or surprised. If you wanted, you could parse the imagery for literary symbolism, or to psychoanalyze the filmmaker — or you could just let it wash over you, like a real dream.
For all the libertinism on display in his films, Fellini was often a moralist, hinting at his disapproval of the empty hedonism he saw in society and depicted in movies from La Dolce Vita (below) to Casanova. Which is another way of saying he had respect for women, however patronizing. He was married just once, for five decades (until his death), to Giulietta Masina, who was his muse and who starred in several of his movies, but it’s clear from the films that even she remained elusive to him.
He found women mysterious – indeed, his alter ego, played in several movies by Mastroianni, often seemed to be drowning in a sea of women, unable to figure out what they wanted or to fulfill their desires – but he recognized them as autonomous human beings with their own interests, agendas, and inner lives separate from men’s. Not the most enlightened attitude, but one that nonetheless set a high standard for other male filmmakers to follow, notably, Pedro Almodovar and Woody Allen, who both get a lot of credit (among actresses, critics, and audiences) for finding women as fascinating as Fellini did.
The Film Set
For Fellini, a movie shoot was itself a summation of all his great themes – it was a party, a circus, a dream, even a woman. (“I even see the cinema itself as a woman, with its alternation of light and darkness, of appearing and disappearing images,” he said in 1981. “Going to the cinema is like returning to the womb; you sit there still and meditative in the darkness, waiting for life to appear on the screen. One should go to the cinema with the innocence of a fetus.”) The film set was the workshop where one could confront thorny issues, from one’s own writer’s block to society’s malaise, from the mysteries of sex to man’s place in the universe. Fellini did this most explicitly in the self-reflexive 8 ½, which became the model for all autobiographical movies about creatively blocked auteurs (from Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night to Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz to Allen’s Stardust Memories to Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion to Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou).
But the set wasn’t just a place to work out a male midlife crisis. For Fellini – and for all those who’ve emulated him – the movie set has been the place where one could resolve through art problems that are intractable in real life. Sometimes, the answer is simply to give yourself over to pure joy, pure fantasy, like Anita Ekberg wading into the Trevi Fountain (and Mastroianni following her, trying to keep up) in the most iconic scene from La Dolce Vita. For our ability to recognize such moments of blissful resolution – and for the language of moving pictures that can capture them – we have Fellini to thank.