Fellini’s films and Federico Fellini the man seem sometimes to exist in the same fantastical, imagined world, so richly did the director weave autobiographical threads inspired by his experiences, memories and dreams into his work.
Fellini, a two-month celebration, runs at BFI Southbank through January and February 2020.
Our Fellini overview continues in our February 2020 issue, on sale now.
As far back as I vitelloni (1953) Fellini was looking to his own life for inspiration. The film’s portrayal of young men idling in a seaside town on the Adriatic coast drew comparisons with the director’s early life. Its lead character Moraldo, a Fellini-surrogate, is suffocated by Rimini’s small-town ways and – as the director himself had done – eventually leaves on a train heading to Rome. Fellini’s casting of his brother Riccardo as one of the gang only underlined the film’s autobiographical resonances.
The presence of an onscreen surrogate was a recurrent feature of Fellini’s films, and the most celebrated of them was actor Marcello Mastroianni, whose handsome, seductive, charismatic star persona was perhaps a wish-fulfilment projection of the director’s own. Mastroianni appeared in six of Fellini’s films, beginning with the smash hit La dolce vita (1960), which reflected the contemporary artistic and showbusiness milieu in Rome in which Fellini lived, and ending with Fellini’s 1987 film Intervista.
Central to them all was 8½ (1963), in which Mastroianni plays Guido, a filmmaker struggling with creative block. Mastroianni’s appearance in the film was adapted to look more like Fellini’s: the actor’s hair was greyed; his temples and chest hair shaved; and he was encouraged to copy Fellini’s gait and wear his hat in the same style. 8½ contains several reflexive devices, including the incorporation of criticism of Guido’s film, expressed through producers and critics voicing Fellini’s anticipated reviews; and a title reflecting the number of films that Fellini had made to date.
The autobiographical also found its way into Fellini’s films through the referencing of his dreams – an area of increasing interest to him after he first read Carl Jung in the early 1960s and began noting details of his own dreams in notebooks (eventually published in the 2008 volume Federico Fellini: The Book of Dreams).
The director’s first colour film, Juliet of the Spirits (1965), in particular, was inspired by his fascination with the psychic realm and Jungian analysis. Shot in glorious psychedelic tones, the film starred his wife Giulietta Masina as a sexually repressed housewife who gains independence after exploring her desires and fears through visions and spirit meetings. In light of Fellini’s own status as a self-confessed womaniser and adulterer, the casting and plot invite us to consider the significance of Juliet/Giulietta being the snubbed wife of a philanderer.
Fellini also regularly referenced places and locations of significance from his own life in his films. Roma (1972), for instance, depicts the filmmaker’s arrival in the city, intertwined with visions of ancient Rome, while Amarcord (1972) portrays growing up under Fascism near Rimini in the 1930s, as Fellini did. The title means ‘I remember’ in local idiom – but who is the ‘I’ who is remembering, the protagonist or the filmmaker? Fellini’s playful attitude towards subjectivity is also demonstrated more explicitly in the satirical documentary-style films A Director’s Notebook (1969) and Intervista, in which he performs as a character, ‘Federico Fellini’.
It is perhaps inevitable that Fellini’s reputation as an autobiographical filmmaker has endured. But he regularly denied in interviews that his films were based on his own life, preferring to emphasise the role of imagination in his creations. As he said in 1980: “It is not memory that dominates my films. To say that my films are autobiographical is an overly facile liquidation, a hasty classification. It seems to me that I have invented almost everything: childhood, character, nostalgias, dreams, memories, for the pleasure of being able to recount them. In terms of story, there’s nothing autobiographical in my films.”
Certainly, the design, filming style, performances and make-up in Fellini’s work all draw attention to the constructedness of his film world: it is a place of imagination, not reality. Autobiographically inspired events are drenched in the fantastical, speech is dubbed, and rather than use real locations, Fellini created sets wherever possible in order to better approximate his imagination. Similarly, the recurring tropes of the circus and parades in his work remind us that for Fellini, cinema is a spectacle, staged for the joy of storytelling and spectatorship, a space to express psychic interiority rather than represent historical truths.
Ultimately, it is ‘Federico Fellini’ who is the director’s most enduring character – an unreliable narrator and autobiographical subject constructed on screen and in public. ‘Fellini’ emerges as a persona stoked by the cumulative suggestion of a character at the films’ helm, a combination of the inetto (the inept man, described by Jacqueline Reich in her 2004 book Beyond the Latin Lover: Marcello Mastroianni, Masculinity, and Italian Cinema), a creative genius (the circus ringleader), and a man obsessed by desire for women.