Federico Fellini: the argument against

federico fellini

This post is my contribution to the Contrary to Popular Opinion blogathon, hosted by the amazing-and-no-that’s-not-the-debate Sister Celluloid. It’s all about ‘expressing opinions that are liable to get your Classic Movie Fan card revoked’ – s0 join in my Federico Fellini ‘discussion’, then read all the entries here.

Criticising Federico Fellini feels like sacrilege. The heavyweight director has rave reviews, box-office figures and a long-lasting career that spanned more than forty years in his corner. On his office shelf (if indeed he had one, and it’s not difficult to imagine he would have) resides – amongst others – four Academy Awards (one honorary), a Palme d’Or and a BAFTA. His name is generally pre-fixed with lofty adjectives: ‘great’, ‘influential’, ‘visionary’, ‘flamboyant’… Well here’s one you hear less often: OVERRATED. And another: NARCISSTIC.

La Dolce Vita Federico Fellini

La Dolce Vita Federico Fellini

At this point, it would pertinent to note that I am not wholly unappreciative of Fellini’s legacy. He’s a true auteur and his voice, rooted in European art cinema, always stood apart from Hollywood. His ideas are embedded in popular culture (remember, that ‘paparazzi’ originated as the name of a pushy celebrity photographer character in La Dolce Vita). I approve of his criticism of ‘empty society’. I love that so often his films are like a direct pipeline into his imagination, and were drawn from his life and his dreams… Despite this, I’m not a fan, and the only Fellini films I actually like are the aforementioned La Dolce VitaVariety Lights (co-directed with Alberto Lattuada) and I Vitelloni, a very early comedy-drama, released in 1953 (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen every Fellini film, but I have seen all the ‘big guns’). So if I accept the accolades, why the aversion, I hear you ask?

8 1/2 Federico Fellini

Firstly, much of the director’s later work (notably that released after La Dolce Vita) is over-inflated and is let down by its idea of itself. Attributing this decline in standard to burnout simply overlooks the obvious: Fellini fell in love with his own filmmaking and his own idea of himself, as viewed through the lens of his own camera. Consider his comment in a 1969 interview with Roger Ebert: ‘Do you know… this is like a scene from a Fellini movie’.

La Dolce Vita (1960) was visionary, and ushered in a personal and expressive style of filmmaking that finally eclipsed the neorealism genre that had dominated Italian cinema since WWII. Yet in 8 ½, Fellini took experimentation to the point of incomprehension. The juxtaposition of dream, vision and fantasy make it impossible for viewers (and by that, I do mean myself) to understand what’s going on: to borrow from a New York Times reviewer, ‘it has no more plot than a horse race’. Narrative structure might not be the only prerequisite for great filmmaking, but it certainly aids it. But 8 ½ is also a let down because it’s so easy to ignore incomprehension in lieu of the beautiful images that are – in truth – little more than a series of tableaux with a limited common thread. The symbolism is too tangential– by prioritising imagery over ideas, Fellini appealed to an increasingly limited audience. Whilst 8 ½ has clear elements of being a ‘masterpiece’ its also frustratingly elusive; even the title is an in-joke reference to previous films.

8 1/2 Federico Fellini

8 1/2 Federico Fellini

Perhaps, then, I dislike this particular Fellini because I don’t understand it. The fault lies with my imagination, my need to fit events into neat linear boxes. Except – does it? 8 ½ is a film about filmmaking, told from the director’s point of view. Guido (played by Marcelo Mastroianni) is clearly meant to represent Fellini, so who better to explain away the confusion than the director himself? Well, no one, apart from the fact that he – frustratingly – refused to answer questions about the meanings of his imagery:

‘Meaning, always meaning!’ he scoffed. ‘When someone asks, ‘What do you mean in this picture?,’ it shows he is a prisoner of intellectual, sentimental shackles. Without his meaning, he feels vulnerable.’

Whilst I agree that our lust for ‘meaning’ is eclipsing other experiences and aptitude, it’s surely not so difficult for a visionary to explain his thoughts to the masses. Leaving it open to critical interpretation only muddies the waters of understanding. Simple answers are acceptable. Complication isn’t always better. But Fellini hid behind the masquerade that it was, and that by withholding the secrets, he’d created something that was better, more intellectual. In the case of 8 ½, it’s impossible to separate the ‘man’ from the ‘film’. Some critics have suggested that it’s the flailings of a filmmaker without a plan, that he actually made a film about himself not being able to make a film. I for one don’t buy this angle: Fellini could make the film – he just refused to explain it. As Alan A. Stone observes, 8 ½ was ‘the beginning of the end… in 8 ½ we see the blueprint for Fellini’s disintegration as a filmmaker’.

8 1/2 Federico Fellini

But it’s absurd to dismiss a director such as Fellini on the merits of one film. What other ‘issues’ are there? From his very earliest films, Fellini drew on his own experiences to create semi-autobiographical narratives. He went further when he cast his wife Giulietta Masina in La Strada (1954). After that, his films (as the previously discussed 8 ½ reveals) became increasingly introspective and personal and more difficult to relate to. As Stephen Hanson observed, each of Fellini’s films is a ‘deliberately crafted building block in the construction of a larger-than-life Fellini legend which may eventually come to be regarded as the ‘journey of a psyche.’ La città delle donne (City of Women), released in 1980 when he was struggling to secure financial backing for his projects, centred around a middle-aged journalist who, after following a woman on a train, wakes up to find himself in an all-female world, ruled by Dr. Zuberkock. An on-the-surface ode to feminism, it’s actually anything but – most of the female characters are one-dimensional (an accusation that can be levelled at much of his work). Ultimately, it’s not a conclusion to a trilogy that began with 8 ½, merely a derivative reflection on what’s come before.

La città delle donne

But it’s absurd to dismiss a director such as Fellini on the merits of one film. What other ‘issues’ are there? From his very earliest films, Fellini drew on his own experiences to create semi-autobiographical narratives. He went further when he cast his wife Giulietta Masina in La Strada (1954). After that his films (as the previously discussed 8 ½ reveals) became increasingly introspective and personal and more difficult to relate to. As Stephen Hanson observed, each of Fellini’s films is a ‘deliberately crafted building block in the construction of a larger-than-life Fellini legend which may eventually come to be regarded as the ‘journey of a psyche.’ La città delle donne (City of Women), released in 1980 when he was struggling to secure financial backing for his projects, centred around a middle-aged journalist who, after following a woman on a train, wakes up to find himself in an all-female world, ruled by Dr. Zuberkock. An on-the-surface ode to feminism, it’s actually anything but – most of the female characters are one-dimensional, an accusation that can be levelled at much of his work.

Federico Fellini and Magali Noël between takes of Amarcord
Federico Fellini and Magali Noël between takes of Amarcord

 

By referencing his work so deeply in his own experience, much of it becomes too introspective. As a viewer you want something more – a contextual understanding and meaning. Perhaps my opinion of Fellini stems from his attitude towards filmmaking: ‘our duty as storytellers is to bring people to the station. There each person will choose his or her own train… But we must at least take them to the station… to a point of departure’. I want the Fellini carriage to take me the whole way, to offer all the answers, to reveal all the secrets – not because I can’t find them myself, but because I know he has wondrous, imaginative ones that should be shared. Despite all my misgivings, I can’t deny that there’s something wonderfully natural about Fellini films, for him; filmmaking was as necessary as breathing. So by keeping his answers so close to his chest and refusing explanation, he’s short-changing the audience and, perversely, planting seeds of doubt that maybe there isn’t more to understand, that maybe it’s all a big in joke.

fellini 2

That brings me to one final point: Fellini isn’t a director you can take in half measures. Many of his films need to be watched with complete attention. Then watched again. And again. Thanks to their autobiographical and nostalgic nature, many of the subtleties only make sense once you know more about Fellini or have perhaps read Dante (I haven’t, don’t judge). But it shouldn’t be so difficult. Fellini could easily have made films with niche and mass appeal, stories that made sense on the surface but were layered with pathos on meaning. Instead, he (admirably) chose to eschew commercial success for indulgency but in the process denied movie goers across the world the chance to truly appreciate, engage with and yes, learn from an undisputed master. And that’s a pity.

Further reading: Fellini on Fellini / Federico Fellinni: Comments on Film by Giovanni Grazzini / Fellini: I’m a born liar

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24 thoughts on “Federico Fellini: the argument against

  1. I have never seen a Fellini film, because the thought of it exhausts me. I keep seeing rave reviews about his work and how challenging it is and how deep and complex and blah blah blah. I keep telling myself that I ought to at least see “La Dolce Vita” – and I will, but the rest I cannot get excited about.

    1. I think La Dolce Vita is worth a watch. I wouldn’t recommend starting with 8 1/2, that’s for sure. He’s certainly a director that divides opinion, and it’s possible to love and loathe him in almost equal measures!

  2. So, let’s agree to disagree.
    8 1/2 is my favorite Fellini film. It is not easy, but I somehow built the idea that is a trip down Fellini’s memory lane, with himself (represented by Mastroianni) trying to find inspiration for a film.
    But there are some of his later movies that are just… ugh. I was incredibly bored by Roma and I only wanted to see Anna Magnani… who only appears at the very end!
    His black and white movies are the best for me. Have you seen Il Bidone? It has echoes of The Bycicle Thief!!!! My only big problem with Fellini is that he, even without knowing, prevented his talented wife from having a more diverse career… which is a pity, because I consider Giulietta one of th finest actresses in the world.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

    1. I haven’t seen Il Bidone. I think I’ve seen enough but perhaps I should give him one last chance! Part of me wants to the sort of person that likes Fellini, but there’s just too much for me to overlook. BUT, I do agree that Giulietta is a much better actress than she’s usually given credit for, and that’s usually because of Fellini. Fuel to the fire 😉

  3. I haven’t ever watched a Fellini film either, and several have been on my Netflix queue for years. I don’t know why–I just can’t bring myself to begin one, and this post makes me feel a little better about that, though I know I’ll eventually watch at least La Dolce Vita. I do share your frustration with films that use their “art” as an excuse for incomprehensibility, as if those of us who don’t get what they’re going for aren’t deep enough. It’s one thing for there to be ambiguity, which I like. It’s quite another to be DELIBERATELY obscure. I love this line: “Simple answers are acceptable. Complication isn’t always better.” Leah

    1. Thanks Leah! La Dolce Vita is worth a watch for the styling alone which I do LOVE but don’t get me started on trying to de-code the symbolism. Art for the sake of it is also another bug-bear. Trying to be clever is so different from actually being clever.

  4. Fine statement on this film fan-contrary position. I’ve had a longtime issue with Fellini. Mostly thinking I’m missing most of his art because I lacked something. Glad to know others like me are out there. Thanks for this.

  5. Nice work up there!

    That said… a note to those here with Fellini films in your queues or nodding in agreement here and never planning to watch anything the man directed: DO NOT begin your trip through his work with 8/12. If you’re not in the mood it wants you to be in, you’ll find it almost incomprehensible and perhaps too annoying to sit through. Go with La Strada and roll with it and definitely watch The Nights of Cabiria. Giulietta Masina makes both films soar. Personally, I think after La Dolce Vita, things kind of went askew for his work on the directorial side. But that’s just me.

    Heh. I was too busy with some home renovation madness to get involved with this blogathon, as my film would have been Gone With the Wind and why it irks me so much (hint: a study in Scarlett reveals she’s quite an idiot!)

    g.

    1. Ha, I would’ve like to read that!
      But I agree with your sentiments RE: 8 1/2. That’s a very bad place to start. In fact one of my issues with Fellini’s reliance on autobiography is that it actually contained Giulietta Masina’s career. She’s a wonderful and emotive actress who could have done so much more with that right parts.
      Thank you for stopping by!

  6. I’m actually going to have to agree with you. I’ve actually got quite a few criticisms directed at other directors along similar lines such as Andrei Tarkovsky and don’t even get me started on Jean-Luc Godard (the only reason I didn’t write an entry on him for the blogathon was that I’d written a huge pile of material dedicated to expressing how much I hate that guy’s work). I had to watch 8½ for one of my classes and it was tedious. I very nearly walked out of that one before it was finished, and I’m not entirely sure how I didn’t.

    The weird thing is that while I don’t really like Fellini, I’m a huge fan of David Lynch, a director who was heavily inspired by his work. Many of Lynch’s films are every bit as subjective and dreamlike as Fellini’s, and yet there’s something in one that is missing in the other. I could never figure out precisely what. Even more curious is when you consider the “plot” of 8½ (at least as much of a plot as you can get with this kind of movie) is basically the exact same as David Lynch’s (far better) movie Inland Empire. In both cases you have a character who gets involved with the production of a demanding movie (a director in 8½, an actress in Inland Empire), attempts to cope with the mental strain of their job by retreating into their mind. In the end, the character metaphorically “dies”, bringing them back into reality and allowing them to finally overcome their problems and finish the movie. That basically describes both films, but I would argue that Inland Empire is a superior movie.

    1. You know what, I’m a Lynch fan too and I’ve always had difficult reconciling my dislike of Fellini against that. BUT I’ve come to the conclusion that Fellini is indulgent for selfish reasons, and not for the ‘greater good’ (i.e., for the audience). In contrast, Lynch’s surrealism feels like it has more purpose, like his sharing something wonderful rather than expecting you to decipher what’s in his head. It’s open to interpretation of course, that’s just my reading.

      I really must give Inland Empire a re-watch as I haven’t seen it for a long time. Do you have such a definitive opinion on Bergman?

  7. Good post, presented with gusto, lots of fun to read!

    So… don’t hate me, but…I LOVE 8 1/2—the final sequence always makes me weep, no kidding. I also love Amarcord, Nights of Cabiria, and La Strada… and have somehow never seen La Dolce Vita, weirdly… But he’s definitely not for everybody. I don’t mean that as an elitist comment, but in the same way we talk about food. I can’t stand cilantro (turns out that’s a genetic thing, the deep hatred of the beloved herb), it’s just one of those things. Do I understand all of 8 1/2? No, and that’s not a problem for me. Maybe my tolerance for obscure is higher than a lot of movie lovers.

    I do wonder if what you are referring to as complication is (or was in Fellini’s mind, anyway) more toward mystery. If I read you right you’re saying he was willfully obscure, and I don’t think he was; but being clear wasn’t a priority for him. Maybe it’s a distinction between thinking of art as something that poses questions vs. something that provides answers. He was definitely not interested in the latter. On the other hand, neither is Bob Dylan.

    La Dolce Vita is the decisive break from his roots in neorealism, isn’t it? So it makes sense that it’s the last one you enjoy.

    The things you discuss here were certainly common criticisms of him when the films were new. I wonder if in recent years, after his death, he hasn’t fallen into the “must love” column, as if you can’t be a serious film person without adoring him. And that’s just silly.

    But hey, I also love half a dozen Godard movies. So maybe it’s just me…

  8. Nice writeup; this is definitely a valid position on someone as high-falutin’ as Fellini. Self-consciousness is a drawback to many famous “artsy” directors, I do feel. Take Jean-Luc Godard, for instance. His 2011 release Film Socialisme is clearly an example of someone whose reputation has turned his head into a gigantic balloon and who no longer has anyone around who can tactfully tell him “No.” If you want a little fun, go look up all the Godard fan reviews that try desperately to make Film Socialsme out to be some kind of True Masterpiece That The Commoners Just Can’t Understand, then look up Roger Ebert’s fantastically cutting, to-the-point review. Disclaimer: I like 8 1/2 myself–I actually own it–and believe it or not it’s the first Fellini I watched. However, I went into it fully expecting it to be incomprehensible “artsyness” and thus was not disappointed. 😀

  9. Thanks for the interesting writeup. Without being a huge stan, I do really like Fellini – mostly for the reasons that you don’t, it seems! You express very well your ambivalence towards him, one that I imagine many people share.

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