Federico Fellinis favorite interview technique was to explain
while denying he was explaining, or not explaining anything while
claiming he was explaining all. The symbolist poet-director was
a mixture of denial and irony, wile and innocence. Half-truths and
half falsehoods, interwoven with deceptive understatements, were
In one of Fellinis
rare interviews toward the end of his life, the film author resorted
to his whole bag of tricks: "For forty years Ive been
trying to explain something I cant explain. I hear only questions
I cant answer. Usually only a character, or a shadow of a
memory, or even a form of expression, has offered me a saving hand.
But I myself am impotent and defenseless.
is, with my camera I have only sketched a series of scribblings,
traced out images, profiles, and pornographic designs that usually
no one asked me to explain." It was difficult to ask him what
this scene or that sequence or those words meant. Few dared. The
reality is that watching a Fellini film was like walking along the
narrow edge of an abyss during an earthquake.
explanations were always useless, anyway, as a means to understanding
his cinema, because by nature he was a liar. He had to be. Whatever
information or interpretation about one film or the other was wrested,
wrenched or wrung from its symbolist author was necessarily a lie.
One of the few truths he ever uttered in an interview with journalists
was his admission one day in his famous Studio number 5 in Romes
Cinecittá studios: "Im always autobiographical,
even if Im telling the story of the life of a fish."
But everyone present
knew that already.
That day in his
studio, toward the end of his life, the "Maestro"as
film director Federico Fellini [ Rimini, 1920Rome, 1993] was
popularly calledwas trying not to answer a question or to
explain anything about his old/always new, Oscar winning film, Amarcord
. Set in his native Rimini, the seaside resort on the Adriatic
Sea, the film Amarcord
the word means "I remember"
in his native dialect and had to be explained also to the Italian
publicwas in a sense Fellinis spiritual return home
after many years of Rome films.
explanation of the significance of that poetry was this: "Amarcord
is a kind of consonance, a harmony, that intrigues, that seduces,
like the alluring name of an aperitif. I only wanted to portray
a real Italian province."
For Fellini the
dreamer, the wanderer and follower of circuses, the observer of
life, and caricaturist, the town of Rimini on the Adriatic Sea was
the point of departure and a subtle point of reference for all his
cinematographic worksfor his "scribblings, images, profiles,
and pornographic designs." The seashore resort of Rimini was
the base of his autobiography, the base of all the Felliniana.
will recall with delight the image of the Rimini boys dancing on
the wide steps of the great
hotel on a dark winters night. More than the thousands of
discos along its coastline, that image marks indelibly the town
of Rimini. The Grand Hotel today stands there almost silently, an
elegant symbol of times past, which is what Fellinis cinema,
his poetry, is all about: memories, he liked to say.
At the exclusive
north end of Myrtle Beach-like Rimini, a monument to the Rimini
Belle Époque, the Grand Hotel in Fellinis time expressed
the provinces search for the beautiful world far away. Rome
was far away. Europe was distant. Once a meeting place for the European
aristocracy, the Grand became a hotel for politicians, artists,
and writers, where in its Belle Epoch atmosphere waiters still today
speak French to distinguished English guests.
I dwell on Rimini
and the Grand Hotel because it conditioned the boy and the youth,
Federico. It conditioned Fellinis art, his view of life. His
cinema is rich in images of the epoch symbolized by the Grand Hotel,
where the famous film director always stayed on his frequent visits.
The manager of the Grand once told me that Fellini changed personalities
in Rimini, in contrast to his boisterous Rome image: "Here
he is a quiet guest, a simple man, with no pretensions, no scandals."
For the boy Federico,
the Grand Hotel was a ray of light from the world beyond the railroad
tracks, in contrast to the boredom of the provinces so isolated
in those days. Later, all of his principle film characters were
to be immersed in a desolate interior solitude.
"We of my
group were 14 furious boys who couldnt bear any restrictions,"
Fellini reluctantly recalled in the Cinecittá
"Nothing was sacred. We teased the workers, we broke into the
monastery at dawn to wake up the monks by squirting water on the
cell doors. At night we tormented couples hidden behind the boats
on the beach. Once we stole the clock from the Hotel Kursal. [That
episode was used in Fellinis first major film, I Vitelloni
Just across the
rail tracks from the Grand lies the 2300-year old town of Riminithe
streets and piazzas of Fellinis cinema. Its a Roman
town with amphitheater and Augustus Triumphant Arch of 27
B.C. But superimposed on the antiquity is Fellinis Medieval-Renaissance
community where Brunelleschi worked and where stands the Liceo Classico
made famous by Fellinis films. The narrow strip of land between
the sea and the north-south railroad tracks was a beacon to Rimini
youth, a place where in the night they felt physically the passing
of great express trains and ocean liners. The contrast between the
provincial town on one side of the tracks and the wide world on
the other became the center of Fellinis art.
The scene in Amarcord
of the boys of the provinces dancing together the old-fashioned
dance, slowly and silently, on the steps of the Grand Hotel, and
the passing in the night fog of the mysterious ship, the Rex
underlines the contrast. It is the reality of their yearning and
the symbolism of the Rex
in the nightin the distance,
intangible and evanescent.
art cinema, plastic art, or symbolist poetry? The answer, I believe,
is all three.
was his return, Fellini lovers will appreciate that I Vitelloni
marked Fellinis spiritual departure from his hometown to Rome.
The word of the title meaning "fat calves" refers to the
sons of provincial bourgeois families who didnt work and lived
off their fathers. In the latter film, the Maestro claimed he depicted
the reality of life in the Rimini of that period. So to speak, for
reality for Fellini was a relative term. The film that won the Golden
Lion at the Venice Film Festival that year was an artistic adieu
to Rimini, which liberated him to set out for other worlds. To Rome,
his adopted city.
Yet, Federico Fellini
was no Thomas Wolfe. He departed but had no difficulty returning.
His friend Alberto Moravia wrote that, "Fellinis cinema
had Rome as its protagonist rather than as its background and setting."
For Moravia, one of Italys major writers and an ardent film
critic, Fellinis Rome is "a city of imagination, composed
of corporeal and Baroque fantasy, a place to give vent to a certain
sentiment of life.
Moravia noted, "when Fellini speaks of his native Rimini he
becomes sober and delicate."
During the intervening
years between his physical departure-escape from Rimini and the
provinces in 1939 recorded in I Vitelloni
in Rimini and his spiritual return there in 1973 with his
film masterpiece, Amarcord
, Fellini never really deserted
the complex town-image on the Adriatic Sea. The Rimini images created
by the Roman-Medieval vestiges on one hand and the typical provinces
and the world of tourism on the other, remained in his blood.
mature Fellini, the artist and magical recorder of people and things,
searching for outlets for his world of fantasy within his autobiography,
re-found Rimini with such ease and delicacy.
In no other
western country more than in Italy is more apt the expression,
"No one is a prophet in his own country." Especially
in the case of Federico Fellini, who was less admired and less
understood in realistic Italy than abroad. Many Italians today
say frankly, "I never liked Fellini. I dont understand
Though that is
blasphemy among cinema lovers in France or the United States,
also many cinema critics and festival juries never understood
his art, but recognized it as the work of genius. Therefore all
his Oscars! Because of his genius of expressive ambiguity the
Maestro so influenced his contemporaries and the subsequent generation
of filmmakers that today, to be called "Fellinian",
is the highest accolade. Perhaps no other filmmaker ever won more
awards and received more acclamation and recognition in his own
time for works so few people could comprehend.
master of understatement and denial, weaver of dreams and fantasysaid
about his own films, "I dont understand them either.
I dont seem capable of even suggesting an interpretation."
the film critic and sometime Fellini collaborator, viewed Fellinis
work as "a search for himself"rare but not unheard
of among filmmakers. "His themes are the conflict between
life and dream, the incommunicability among human beings, and
rejected love. His merit is that he presents the sum total of
good and evil, of fall and redemption."
not be understood as simply hollow words. If one keeps Flaianos
diagnosis in mindlife and dream, incommunicability, unreturned
love, good and evil, and redemption of manand if one recalls
one is dealing with a symbolist poet and weaver of dreams and
not just another film director, one can comfortably walk into
the video store and take home confidently 8 e 1/2 [Otto
e Mezzo], put it in the video, and sit down and appreciate
Fellinis most difficult film.
The most Fellini
himself ever admitted about his vast workThe White Sheik,
I Vitelloni, La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, Satyricon,
Giulietta of the Spirits, Casanova, Amarcord, Ginger and Fred,
The Interview, and all the otherswas this: "I put
myself in front of a mirror only in 8 e 1/2. The rest is
his own story of the autobiography of a fish belied that admission,