In a business built on dreams, Federico Fellini, born a century ago, may have been the biggest dreamer of all. As a boy in Rimini, he kept a sketch pad by his bed so he could record his vivid fantasies. His lifelong passion was transforming his visions into stories to share with the world.
Shortly after arriving in Rome in 1939, Fellini began punching up scripts for movies. In 1942, he met a big-eyed gamine named Giulietta Masina, who had already established herself as a fine stage actor. They married in October, 1943, on the eve of the Nazi occupation of Rome.
After the war, Fellini penned gags for comedians, drafted radio plays and contributed to the neorealistic classics Roma, città aperta and Paisà. This experience, Fellini said, taught him that making movies was “the medium of expression most congenial . . . to my laziness, my ignorance, my curiosity about life, my inquisitiveness, my desire to see everything and to be independent, my lack of discipline and my capacity for real sacrifice.”
Fellini’s first major international hit, La strada (The Road), spotlighted three circus performers: a brutish strongman, a whimsical acrobat and a simple good-hearted girl, played by his wife. La strada won the first ever competitive Oscar for Foreign Language Film.
In La dolce vita, Fellini reproduced the via Veneto on Cinecittà’s largest soundstage. Some critics compared this 165-minute movie to Dante’s Inferno. Like the fourteenth-century pilgrim, the errant journalist Marcello wanders through a corrupt world teeming with memorable characters to emerge into the light of day. But Fellini’s voyager, unlike Dante’s, finds neither radiant stars nor any hope of salvation.
Despite critical acclaim, many Italians responded with outrage to Fellini’s torrid depiction of Roman decadence. Audiences shouted “Vergogna!” (Shame!). A woman spat on Fellini in a piazza in Milan. The Vatican declared the film an invitation to evil.
“These polemics fill me with sorrow,” said Fellini. “I’m a storyteller… I intended for it to be a document, not a documentary.” Despite—or perhaps because of—the controversy, the film set box office records. Six decades later La dolce vita remains a marvel of images, sounds, motion and light—one of the greatest masterpieces in cinema.
Devastated by the firestorm over La dolce vita, Fellini entered Jungian analysis and began sketching his dreams for his therapist. These fantastical images—a sad clown playing a trumpet, a dancing woman with a cat on her head, a kaleidoscope of haunting faces—became the basis for the movie he called Otto e mezzo (8½), since it came after seven full-length features and two short ones. Otto e mezzo won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the third for Fellini.
Otto e mezzo resuscitated Fellini’s passion. “This picture has set me free,” he said. “From now I’ll be able to make a dozen different kinds of pictures.” And so he did, among them: Juliet of the Spirits, a tender cinematic valentine to his wife; Amarcord, a tribute to his hometown of Rimini that won his fourth Best Foreign Language Film Oscar; and Ginger and Fred, with his wife and Marcello Mastroianni as aging ballroom hoofers.
Within months of Federico’s receiving an honorary Oscar in 1993, both he and Giulietta were hospitalized with serious illnesses. In early October, he suffered a stroke, fell into a coma and died. Italians grieved for Fellini as they never had for a politician, athlete or artist. Some 70,000 mourners filed past his casket in his beloved Cinecittà to pay their respects. Weakened by cancer treatments, Giulietta lived until the following spring, when she told a friend, “I am going to spend Easter with Federico.” They were her last words.
Some celebrations in Italy and around the world of Fellini’s 100th birthday have been cancelled because of the Covid crisis, but you can find many of his films streaming online.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. You can download my new book, “A” Is for Amore, for free at diannehales.com.