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Last Updated: Friday, 31 October, 2003, 10:06 GMT
Why Fellini's films stay the course

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News Online

When Anita Ekberg plunged into Rome's Trevi Fountain in all her voluptuous blonde glory, the Swedish actress created for the world the most enduring image of Federico Fellini's films.

Poster for La Dolce Vita, 1959 (image: Massimo & Sonia Cirulli Archive, New York)
The glamour of La Dolce Vita often obscures its biting satire
More than 40 years have passed and today's ideal of female beauty has shrunk dramatically, with the Swedish goddess of La Dolce Vita now looking as period as a painted poster.

Yet the film which made Fellini a truly household name, which became synonymous with 1960s decadence and gave the language the term "paparazzi", was only one of many by the Italian director, and others were more accomplished.

Discount the time which has elapsed since his death 10 years ago, or even since 1976 when he made his last masterpiece Casanova, be gracious about the pantomime feel to some of the sets he created so lovingly at the Cinecitta studios - and just watch one of his films from the great years. You will be experiencing cinema at its best.

Whether Amarcord or Satyricon, Eight and A Half or La Strada, Fellini's great films timelessly convey the human condition with an art few other directors can match.

Asked in an interview in 1980 about his views on death, he said he thought about it like he would a new film and it did not scare him in the slightest.

Federico Fellini
Born 20 January 1920 Rimini, died 31 October 1993 Rome
Made first film in 1950, last in 1990
Five Oscars: La Strada (1954), Le Notti di Cabiria (1957), Eight and a Half (1963), Amarcord (1973), lifetime achievement (1993)
Married actress Giulia Masina 30 October 1943; she outlived him by less than five months

If we take him at his word, perhaps he could allow himself so cool a view of his own mortality simply because he had already invested so much of his life in his films?

How more poignant a symbol of mortality could there be than the detail in Amarcord of the dying mother playing with her wedding ring, now loose on her wasted finger, as her husband strains to keep his composure in front of his uncomprehending teenage son?

The scene is just one tiny part of a cinematic fabric covering life in all its forms, comedy and tragedy, wonder and disillusionment. The same film veers from the delicate and inexpressibly painful to scenes of scatological hilarity such as the pranks played by schoolboys on their teachers.

Fellini's finest work, which he made with composer Nino Rota in one of cinema's great partnerships, stands now as one long memoir of the world as he interpreted it. Few have captured life so well.


Paradoxically, Fellini the great communicator of universal experience is also the creator of worlds all of his own.

Poster for La Strada, 1954 (image: Coll Museo Nazionale del Cinema Turin)
The circus world of La Strada recurred through the later films

Coming to cinema as an artist, he often designed the sets and costumes himself and the drawings he made before each film have been preserved as an art in themselves. In films such as Casanova, he worked with light in the studio like a painter on canvass.

Satyricon, set in ancient Rome, sparked something of a fashion craze on its release in 1969 yet it was not so much the ancient world which caught the imagination of designers as Fellini's personal vision.

The grotesque, impossible warships and infernal feasts of the film come straight from the imagination of one man capable of making the psychological jump back into pre-Christian times with ease.

Likewise, he conjures up uniquely nightmarish symbols of Fascism in Amarcord, set in the Mussolini years, and remoulds Europe of the Enlightenment in his own image in Casanova.

For all its bizarre spectacle and alien ancient values, Satyricon is an epic story of friendship and its theme of civilisation struggling with barbarity - expressed most memorably in the scene where a Roman noble man and his wife quietly commit suicide at their villa as disaster approaches - has lost none of its immediacy.

Similarly, the costume feast which is Casanova only serves to heighten the sense of superficiality around the loveless Great Lover.


One summer in the early 1980s, Fellini and a friend secretly visited 18 cinemas across the Italian capital, peeking through the side-curtains only to find virtually empty auditoriums.

He concluded that he was a witness to the "shipwreck" of cinema.

"It felt like the Earth had suddenly lost its population while the machines kept functioning by force of inertia," he told journalist Costanzo Costantini of the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero.

Towards the end of his life, Fellini seemed to despair of cinema's future, turning increasingly to television, a medium he spoke of on occasion with contempt.

Cinema, however, is a great survivor and in the 10 years since his death it has picked up a whole new bag of tricks from digital technology, bringing back the audiences.

One cannot help feeling that were he alive today, the old Italian master would make The Seventh Art his own again, using digital animation as merely the latest tool for his boundless imagination.

Original posters of some of Fellini's greatest films are on display at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London, until 25 January 2004 as part of its exhibition Cinema Italia: Classic Film Posters.

Rome to mark Fellini's death
28 Jul 03  |  Entertainment

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