For many Americans, Federico Fellini (1920–1993) is the very definition of foreign filmmaker. A few years ago, a critic with The New York Times stated unequivocally that cinema in the second half of the 20th century had been dominated by three men: Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Fellini. At a given point, it seems, Fellini succumbed to such idolatry, actually including his name in the title of some of his later works. While his films can be very entertaining, and there are visually stunning moments, I suggest that he was overrated. Although early movies like The White Sheik, I Vitelloni, La Strada, and Nights of Cabiria seem to have a strong emotional core, I find the films from La Dolce Vita on to be overinflated. With his confessional signature piece Otto e mezzo (8 1/2), the director essentially admitted that his inspiration, his muse, had deserted him. Between 1939 and 1952 he had been a writer on over two dozen films, including Roberto Rossellini’s excellent Open City, Paisan, The Miracle (in which he had also acted), Flowers of St. Francis, and Europa 51. Is it not possible to imagine that he had burned himself out? Like both Bergman (in the 1960s and 1970s) and Kurosawa (in the 1990s), he seemed to pull away from narrative. His fantasies, however, seemed less rooted in anything personal or autobiographical than theirs did. Rather, Fellini’s seem rooted in a desire to make the world seem more bizarre, populated by the weirdest-looking, most flamboyantly behaving people he could find. (Was this experimentalism or self-indulgence?) Occasionally, Donald Sutherland (Fellini’s Casanova) or Giulietta Masina and Marcello Mastroianni (Ginger and Fred) could drag him back to something approaching cine-reality, but the Oscars, Grand Prizes, and honorary degrees kept flowing from his legend.
I am aware that there is an apparent contradiction between, on the one hand, criticizing Fellini for being too self-indulgent and, on the other, praising someone like his hero, Charles Chaplin, for being an authentic auteur for the autobiographical nature of his films. Both directors had practically unprecedented control of their work, so there is a single word that seeps into the discussion to help make this distinction: discipline. Chaplin took several years to make each of his features; he endlessly rehearsed and discarded shots, scenes, and characters that didn’t meet his standards. I don’t get the sense that Fellini ever had doubts about any of his inspirations—he was after all, Fellini. Perhaps a solution to the Fellini-as-auteur enigma was hinted at by Stephen Hanson, who wrote that 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.’”
Fellini, of course, insisted that he had not betrayed his neorealist roots. When we think of neorealism, we tend to think of grainy film stock; shots that don’t quite turn out perfectly but are not reshot for a scarcity of film stock; the gritty black-and-white quality we associate with Open City and Paisan, and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine. I Vitelloni (The Young and the Passionate), Fellini’s vivid recreation of his youth in Rimini, holds essentially true to that model, as subsequently do La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. I Vitelloni impressed Eugene Archer (an early Andrew Sarris mentor) with Fellini’s “understanding of his characters…and with the compassion of the director’s approach…. I Vitelloni stands as a model of progressive film technique…the significance of Fellini’s achievement goes beyond the area of form…. I Vitelloni distinctly evokes the image, not of art, but of life.” So, up to a point, Fellini is correct when he insists on his fealty to neorealism: “Telling the story of some people, I try to show some truth.” The question remains as to whether we have, all along, had too narrow a conception of the movement or whether Fellini, in his solipsism, drifted from his roots, but still felt a need for denial.