Federico Fellini: 10 essential films

Fellini was a flamboyant Italian master whose genius still looms large over the history of cinema. Here are 10 key films that continue to inspire filmmakers and audiences today.

20 January 2016

By Pasquale Iannone

La dolce vita (1960)

In a directorial career spanning four decades, Federico Fellini became Italy’s most celebrated filmmaker, but in recent years, while the critical stock of his contemporaries Pier Paolo Pasolini and Michelangelo Antonioni has remained high, you get the feeling that Fellini’s has taken a bit of a dip. This might seem odd, especially when you consider that La dolce vita (1960) and 8½ (1963) remain cinephile staples. It could be that the many films he made either side of this golden diptych haven’t been fully appreciated – especially those from the 1970s and 80s – but there can be little doubt that his ever-playful, loose, carnivalesque approach (both in terms of sound and image) has produced some of cinema’s most breathtaking moments.

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I vitelloni (1953)

I vitelloni (1953)

A favourite of directors ranging from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, Fellini’s third feature as a director tells of a group of male friends drifting through the last scraps of their youth in an Italian coastal city not unlike his hometown of Rimini. Melancholic, but also very funny, I vitelloni includes one of Nino Rota’s most affecting scores. The composer would become one of Fellini’s closest collaborators across three decades, right up until his death in 1979.

La strada (1954)

La strada (1954)

Fellini’s wife, the actor Giulietta Masina, had already taken on small roles in her husband’s first films Variety Lights (1951), The White Sheik (1952) and I vitelloni, but it was La strada that provided her with the role of a lifetime. She plays Gelsomina, a sweet, innocent young woman who is sold to chain-snapping circus strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn). The film won Fellini his first Academy Award and it’s always been a firm favourite with audiences. Bob Dylan cited La strada as a key influence for his 1965 song ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Masina played a prostitute called Cabiria in The White Sheik and five years later the character returned as the protagonist of Fellini’s 1957 film, set in his adopted city of Rome. Cabiria is very much in the mould of La strada’s Gelsomina in terms of her good-naturedness. “[She] has a chorus of voices around her,” the actress told Lino Del Fra around the time of the film’s release, “people who observe without understanding her or who take advantage of her. She’s not a victim however – her ability to react surprised me.” 

La dolce vita (1960)

La dolce vita (1960)

Fellini’s 1960 opus, his celebrated tale of life in and around the Roman glitterati, marked the beginning of his long artistic association with actor Marcello Mastroianni, which would continue all the way to 1987’s Intervista. Anita Ekberg co-stars as American actor Sylvia Rank and her splash in the Trevi Fountain with Mastroianni’s jaded journalist is one of cinema’s most indelible images. Of all Fellini pictures, La dolce vita has had the biggest cultural impact – the term ‘paparazzi’, for instance, comes from the name of one of the celebrity-baiting photographers in the film.

8½ (1963)

8½ (1963)

Has any film better captured not only the travails of filmmaking but also those of the creative process more broadly than Fellini’s 8½? Juggling a host of personal and professional demands, we find Mastroianni’s film director protagonist Guido Anselmi slipping in and out of dreams and reminiscences. Shot by Gianni Di Venanzo (La notte, Salvatore Giuliano), the film cast a long shadow on subsequent films about filmmaking, most famously perhaps on Woody Allen’s 1980 picture Stardust Memories.

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

After being absent from her husband’s films for almost eight years, Giulietta Masina made an extraordinary comeback in Fellini’s first colour film. The fluid blending of fantasy and reality seen in 8½ continues in the story of a middle-aged bourgeois housewife and her growing interest in otherworldliness. Academic Peter Bondanella has called Juliet of the Spirits “one of the first post-war European films to espouse the cause of women’s liberation” and Fellini would return to this subject in a more tongue-in-cheek register in 1980’s City of Women.

Fellini’s Roma (1972)

Roma (1972)

Rome had been such an important part of Fellini’s work that it was only a matter of time before the city was brought completely centre-stage. Featuring the stunning production design of Danilo Donati, the film sees Fellini pushing the episodic structure of La dolce vita even further, taking us across a range of time periods in the city’s history. The film is also notable for featuring the final big screen appearance of the great icon of postwar Italian culture, Anna Magnani.

Amarcord (1973)

Amarcord (1973)

Two decades after I vitelloni, Fellini returned to memories of his hometown, this time for a dreamlike evocation of the sights and sounds of his childhood during the 1920s and 30s. Riotously priapic teenage boys, a impossibly buxom tobacconist, a mad uncle and an elegant town beauty are just some of the characters that populate Amarcord, all wrapped up in another beautiful score by Nino Rota.

City of Women (1980)

City of Women (1980)

Few Fellini films will make jaws drop like City of Women. As the protagonist Snàporaz, Mastroianni is made up to look much like Guido in 8½. The film follows the character’s surreal, gloriously outlandish journey across spaces populated almost entirely by women. “My film is like an after-dinner chat with a man who has had a little too much to drink,” Fellini told Lietta Tornabuoni in 1980. “It is a tale of the women of yesterday and today, told by a man who cannot understand them, like a kind of Little Red Riding Hood wandering about in the forest.”

And the Ship Sails On (1983)

And the Ship Sails On (1983)

Fellini had production designer Dante Ferretti recreate the exterior and interior of a pre-WWI luxury cruise ship entirely in Cinecittà studios for his film about the voyage of a group of characters sailing out from Naples to scatter the ashes of recently deceased opera singer Edmea Tetua (Janet Suzman). It may foreground its artifice at every turn – right down to its shimmering plastic sea – but And the Ship Sails On is undoubtedly one of Fellini’s most moving films.

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