The last phase of Federico Fellini’s career is his most misunderstood, neglected and underseen.
The Italian director’s filmography can be roughly split into four acts, beginning with his neorealist period, which saw him rise to international acclaim through the success of films such as La strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957).
Then in the 1960s came the triumphantly flamboyant yet introspective works, La dolce vita (1960) and 8½ (1963), while 1965’s Juliet of the Spirits marked the threshold of what would become his truly experimental period, within which he made some of his most surreal and cynical films.
What concerns us here is the last slice of his career, which kicked off with City of Women in 1980 and ended with swansong The Voice of the Moon (1990) a decade later.
Collectively, Fellini’s entire body of work represents the hopes, dreams, desires, memories and inner obsessions of one of Italy’s most inventive and personal film directors. His 80s and 90s work is no less important in this respect, yet it has been largely ignored in the bulk of film criticism, mostly left as a footnote in the shadow of his more widely acclaimed films.
More than ever, this period sees Fellini contemplating his own mortality. Topics such as ageing and the decline of the Italian film industry, together with reflections on a culture that was becoming alienating to him, are rife in these later works. Consequently, Fellini’s last films are bittersweet and often tinged with a sense of melancholy, as well as a tragic irony. They deserve to be seen and celebrated much more than they have been. Here’s why…
City of Women (1980)
Originally conceived as a joint project between Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, over a decade before it was finally made, City of Women bears similarities with 8½ as a self-reflective mid-life crisis film. The central character, Snàporaz – played by the star of La dolce vita and 8½, Marcello Mastroianni, who often stood in as the director’s alter-ego on screen – is supposed to represent the darker elements of the ‘Fellini by proxy’ Guido, whom we meet in 8½.
The plot is something of an odyssey, with Snàporaz, a narcissistic and libidinal creature, shown trapped in a world dominated by women he doesn’t understand. As his journey progresses he meets angry feminists, is sexually abused by a large woman in a greenhouse, and is forced to face up to the guilt he carries over his own less than stellar treatment of women in the past.
At the heart of the film is a thesis on wanting to be loved and desired; and on the male ego as it ages. The comedy is bawdy, culminating in Snàporaz taking a fantasy fairground ride when he’s given an intimate tour of some of the most erotic memories in his life and – most importantly – the women who inspired them. The pièce de résistance of this sequence involves a young man visiting a prostitute. All of a sudden the woman’s backside grows massively out of scale, and the parting shot, as Snàporaz reaches the end of the line, is not only incredibly funny but leaves very little to the imagination.
The film was attacked by some feminists at the time of its release for what was seen as rampant misogyny, but this argument appears to miss the point. In fact, you could view the film, much in the same way Fellini tackles the subject of infidelity and guilt in Juliet of the Spirits, as a treatise on the fickle and often ridiculous nature of men who are driven by selfish desire. It’s a wry assault on the male ego rather than an affirmation of it.
And the Ship Sails On (1983)
In his biography, I, Fellini, the director stated that And the Ship Sails On was his ode to Italian opera, a subject he had resisted previously, as he explained: “It was in later life that I came to appreciate our Italian operatic tradition. I suppose the reason I said and wrote so much about not liking opera is because every Italian is supposed to love opera, especially every Italian man… All my life I’ve had a natural resistance to what everyone likes, or wants, or is ‘supposed’ to do.”
Set aboard the eponymous ship, the film is a pure exercise in Fellini-esque imaginative artifice, packed with equal doses of whimsy and darkness. The entire setting is constructed on a huge soundstage, complete with a giant plastic ocean that ripples and waves in the background constantly. If this wasn’t fake looking enough, the director further plays around by having characters break the fourth wall, speaking directly into the camera, as well as panning away at the end of the film – much like Andrzej Żuławski would do in his own homage to opera, Boris Godonov (1989), six years later – to reveal the entire camera crew at work, and the boat being propelled up and down on a mechanised lift.
Yet the film doesn’t only focus on opera. Instead, Fellini presents a series of strange and compelling characters who represent the flaws of human nature, including royalty, a journalist, a blind woman who experiences people’s voices as colour, and a large gathering of Yugoslavian refugees who come aboard in the second act. Highlights include an opera singer sending a chicken to sleep through song while a vast crowd of impressed kitchen staff look on.
Although this film is the least autobiographical of Fellini’s later films, it does reflect his ongoing obsession with the themes of Italian history, tradition and mysticism.
Set on the 50th anniversary of Cinecittà film studios, Intervista is less of the celebration it was perhaps intended to be. It’s more a melancholic abstract poem on the director’s early experiences with the Italian film industry, including comparisons to how the industry had changed over time, with Cinecittà shown as a shell of its former self, crumbling into disrepair by the late 80s.
Fellini himself struggled to find funding for his projects during this period, moving into directing TV commercials – his first in 1984 for Campari – although he justified this move as not purely a cash grab, given he was allowed a lot of creative freedom in this work. Previously he had resorted to finding funding for City of Women from Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse (although the producer dropped out) and aka the man responsible for defiling Tinto Brass’s Roman epic Caligula (1979) by adding hardcore inserts.
In a break from the past, Mastroianni doesn’t stand in for the director this time. Here, Fellini actually appears himself. In the present day he is being followed by a Japanese documentary crew, where they ask him questions about his life and career as he attempts to make an adaptation of Kafka’s Amerika. Parallel to this is a film within a film, starring a younger version of Fellini, documenting the filmmaker’s first visit to Cinecittà as a young journalist.
But Mastroianni does appear as himself, allowing the director to pay tribute to their friendship, which is conveyed with touching warmth, depth and intimacy. The film’s most heart-wrenching scene comes during a visit to Anita Ekberg, when Mastroianni and Ekberg are shown watching their love scene from La dolce vita. The moment emphasises how much time has passed, as we see the ageing stars observing their former sex-symbol selves.
Ginger and Fred (1986)
Following on from the theme of time passing in Intervista, Ginger and Fred tackles the same subject in greater depth. The idea for the film was conceived by Fellini’s wife and longtime muse, Giulietta Masina, who had originally envisioned the project as part of an episodic television series, with her husband directing her story. The concept was finally produced as a standalone film when funding couldn’t be found for the series idea. The film also ran into problems when star Ginger Rogers attempted to sue the producers. This upset Fellini, who saw Ginger and Fred as a tribute to her and her former partner Fred Astaire.
The film focuses on an Astaire (Marcello Mastroianni as Pippo) and Rogers (Giulietta Masina as Amelia) tribute act who are reuniting after several decades apart for a Christmas television special. As a result, the couple are forced to face their own mortality, and the fact they have aged considerably. This is punctuated rather harshly in a scene in which Ginger attempts to wear her former wig for the act, before realising she looks ridiculous.
Fellini wanted Mastroianni to look particularly aged for his role, which included him having to put on some extra weight and have his hair thinned out – a transformation that the star, who according to Fellini was particularly vain, did not enjoy. Yet it all works for the greater good, adding to the poignancy of his performance.
Ginger and Fred can also be seen as a stabbing attack on the mindless spectacle nature of television, which is something Fellini admitted he hadn’t intended and found somewhat ironic given the idea originated as a TV project. However, the most compelling aspect of the film is derived from the love story between Ginger and Fred, which spans decades. Love and loss are key to its emotional potency.
The Voice of the Moon (1990)
In his autobiography the director wrote that he hoped The Voice of the Moon wouldn’t be his final film. Sadly, nature had other plans and Fellini died on 31 October 1993. The film mixes themes of death, spiritualism and the importance of listening to ghosts of the past, consequently leaving things on an uncanny final note for the director, given this would be his last word in cinema.
The plot is not easy to summarise, but mainly focuses on an innocent central character, Ivo (played by Italian comic actor Roberto Benigni), who has just been released from an asylum for mental health issues. Ivo is shown to be frequently in tune with the spiritual world. He’s joined by the equally whimsical Gonnella (comic Paolo Villaggio). Together the pair travel around searching for meaning in an outrageous world populated by madness and strange characters.
The eponymous moon is a central theme throughout the developing narrative, which sees a pair of brothers attempt to catch it in a machine they have constructed. Like Ginger and Fred (and indeed many of Fellini’s earlier films), The Voice of the Moon attacks crass, culture-based spectacles, with a show-stopping scene involving disco dancers assembled in a warehouse bopping out to Michael Jackson, as well as a grotesque beauty contest.
The film’s power comes in one of its final lines. Ivo states, following boundless chaos and corruption: “If we all quieted down a little, maybe we’d understand something.” It’s a line that applies to every Fellini film ever made. Everything he was, everything he dreamed of – his memories, his loves, his desires, his fears, his regrets – he put on the screen to share with us. All we need to do is open our minds and listen, especially with these later films, which haven’t been heard nearly enough.
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