Italian Film Director Pantheon:
Antonioni Rossellini
Moretti Visconti De Sica

Federico Fellini is perhaps the most important film maker of all time. One can not speak of Italian cinema, let alone, world film, without at the very least mentioning Fellini. His influence is far reaching, beyond even the scope of film. The very well known, and used, term paparazzi exists thanks to one of his characters in his breakthrough film, La Dolce Vita, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1960. Directors around the world, even Hollywood, point to Fellini as a source of artistic inspiration and tribute scenes abound. The opening scene, for example, of Falling Down, is a replica of the opening scene in Fellini’s 8 ½. In 1993, shortly before his death, he was awarded a special lifetime achievement award at the Academy Awards. It was his 5th Oscar.

Fellini got his start in film working as a gag writer for Aldo Fabrizi from 1939-44. Together the pair did some mostly forgettable comedic films. Fellini made a living during the war writing short sketches for the radio, working as an artist for Italy’s fumetti (illustrated magazines) and sometimes even drawing caricatures at Rome’s café’s. In 1943, Fellini met and married Giuletta Masina, who stared in many of his films and was a major influence on his work.

Fellini’s breakthrough came in 1945, when he worked in as a screenwriter for Roberto Rossellini, who was still relatively unknown at that time. Together they created, Rome: Open City, a highly acclaimed film and one of the first in the neo-realist genre. From 1945-50, he continued to work with Rossellini as a screen-writer and eventually as an assistant director. He also collaborated on several projects with Pieto Germi. The first two films he directed, The White Sheik (1952), and Variety Lights (1951) , showed the beginnings of Fellini’s unique blend of neo-realism and surrealism.

Fellini’s first internationally distributed film was I Vitelloni (1953) , staring his wife. The following year, he directed La Strada, again staring Masina. The film received over 50 international awards, including the Silver Lion as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture, and took Masina to international stardom. These earlier films are very obviously influenced by the vaudeville shows and circus perfomances that Fellini watched as a child. Fellini is quoted as saying this about his wife’s career:

Before she can be a star, she must first learn how to play a whore.

Despite the success of his earlier films and his continued work with directors like Paolo Pasolini, Felini did not secure his position as an integral figure in Italian cinema until La Dolce Vita, perhaps his best known film. La Dolce Vita is a sweeping, 3-hour, panoramic view of Italian society and culture in the late 50’s. It was considered scandalous because of it’s casual reference to suicide, infidelity, sex and alcoholism among Rome’s high society. At its premier in Milan, the audience booed and spat at the director. None-the-less, it went on to the win the Palme D’Or at Cannes and is considered a landmark in cinematic history. Any survey film course will include, at the very least, a short look at this film.

Fellini’s next film, Fellini 8 ½, is perhaps one of the most self-referential films ever made. The title refers to Fellini’s film history. Up to that point he had directed 6 films, co-directed another (counting as one half) and helmed episodes of two anthology films (each one also counting for a half), which brought the number to 7 ½. At this stage in his career, after the unexpected success and reaction to La Dolce Vita, Fellini was confused about the direction of his film career and had difficulty choosing subject matter for his next project. Fellini 8 ½ is about just that, a film directors confusion and angst about his career. The film stars Italian hunk, Marcello Mastroianni, as the director pressured from all sides by his financiers, his critics, his stars who are asking for their lines and his friends and family. The film includes unforgettable scenes like Mastroianni’s non-chalant execution of the critic and dream sequences of debaucherous childhood fantasies which illustrate Fellini’s profound love of women.

Whoever you are, whatever your interests, this is a film that MUST be seen.

Like La Dolce Vita, 8 ½ was unanimously acclaimed around the world, winning the grand prize at the Moscow Film Festival and Best International Picture at the Academy Awards. Fellini was firmly established as a film master, genius, god. His other films from this period, Fellini's Satyricon (1969), Spirits of the Dead (1969), and Juliet of the Spirits (1965) can no less be called masterpeices.

As the 60’s continued and the 2nd golden era of Italian film (the first being the neo-realist period after 1945) came to a quick end , Fellini, like many of his fellow directors turned to television, the enemy of the cinema. It was at this point that cinema houses around the country were going bankrupt due to the emergence of the TV as a main source of entertainment. Funds for film projects dried up and Fellini did not make another internationally acclaimed film until Roma, which detailed Fellini’s love of this city and includes a cameo appearance by Gore Vidal, who was living in Rome at that time. Two years later, Fellini directed, Amarcord, another autobiographical film, this one about his childhood and which won him another Oscar.

Fellini’s later career was mostly unremarkable and in the mid-eighties he had difficulty securing funds for his films. In this period he worked on a number of projects, including publishing (Fare un Film) and acting.

Federico Fellini died on October 31, 1993, a day after his 50th wedding anniversary.

After his death at age 73 on October 31st-tens of thousands of people packed the narrow streets of Fellini's hometown of Rimini, applauding as the director's casket was carried from the main piazza to the cinema where Fellini had watched his first films as a child (and which he featured in AMARCORD). It was a fitting tribute to one of the cinema's greatest artists, who had become a national treasure for Italy and a respected master the world over.


Sources: biography on World Festival of Films, biography on Yahoo!, my own observations

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