The F Word
Down the road with Fellini.
By Chris Herrington
NOVEMBER 1, 1999:
Italian director Federico Fellini's reputation is up for grabs. Emerging in the late 1950s, Fellini was one of the artists responsible (along with Sweden's Ingmar Bergman) for the emergence in popularity of European art film in the United States. For a generation of collegiate intellectuals and casual cinephiles, the names Fellini and Bergman were synonymous with cinematic art. But the last 20 years have seen a major critical re-evaluation of Fellini's work (not to mention Bergman's), especially when compared to the enhanced reputations of European contemporaries like Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Michelangelo Antonioni.
I can go both ways on Fellini -- marveling at the technical facility of his best films, while being turned off by the preciousness and sentimentality that mars much of his work. Orson Welles famously said of the man that "he shows dangerous signs of being a superlative artist with little to say." Indeed, even a legitimate masterpiece like the autobiographical 8 1/2 (1963) is more impressive for its form than content. As an investigation of creativity it's a little self-serving, but as stream-of-consciousness filmmaking nothing can match it.
Fellini's work began to be reinvestigated last year with the theatrical rerelease of a restored director's cut of his 1957 film Nights of Cabiria. The restored Cabiria, which unfortunately bypassed Memphis during its fairly widespread run, is now out on video and forms the centerpiece of a multi-volume Fellini video series from Home Vision Cinema. Three of the five films in this "Fellini File" series, including Nights of Cabiria, are early films starring the director's wife and muse, Giuletta Masina.
These films -- Cabiria, Variety Lights (1949, his debut), and La Strada (1956) -- mark the transition from the Neo-Realist style that gave Fellini his start to the carnivalesque spectacles he indulged in the '60s and '70s. The visual style of these early films is very simple and, like the Neo-Realist films (The Bicycle Thief being the most famous example), they center on "common" characters. But Fellini's concerns, even here, are more personal and philosophical than social and political, and his visual sensibility reveals itself in a mise-en-scène that frequently gives way to pure spectacle.
Variety Lights (co-directed with Alberto Lattuada) is perhaps Fellini's most conventional film, but works beautifully on its own terms. It's a "backstage" story about a shabby traveling theatre troupe. Masina plays the mistress of the troupe's director, who discovers a beautiful younger performer and temporarily abandons Masina in his forlorn pursuit of her. Masina's role here is more of a supporting one and comes before she'd developed the screen persona that would make her famous in La Strada and Nights of Cabiria.
La Strada, the film that announced Fellini's arrival on the international stage, is the subject of more intense debate than any of his other films. It was considered a masterpiece at the time, and still is by some, but many hate it. I find it to be insufferable -- a portentous parable suffocated by symbolism. Anthony Quinn plays circus strong man Zampano; Masina is Gelsomina, the waifish, naive young spirit who serves as Zampano's chattel. The tritely humanist film features the most horrendous overacting and shameless mugging found in any film not directed by Stanley Kramer (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner).
Masina's Chaplinesque performance as the sexless, childlike Gelsomina garnered her an international reputation, but it was with the follow-up, Nights of Cabiria, that she delivered the goods. A series of vignettes from the life of an aging Roman prostitute (Cabiria, played by Masina), Nights of Cabiria is a far tougher and more honest film than La Strada. It earns its sentimentality, not to mention the uplifting grace note that ends the film. Masina's performance is much more fully formed, the perfection of a heavily theatrical style that, upon repeated viewings, seems clearly to be the missing link between two of the screens greatest performers: Masina's debt to Chaplin is well-chronicled, but it seems apparent to me that her performance as Cabiria is an obvious foundation for the groundbreaking work that actress Gena Rowlands (A Woman Under the Influence) would do 20 years later.
Nights of Cabiria consists of five episodes in which Cabiria moves from hope to disillusionment, along with two very brief episodes that follow the opposite emotional trajectory. One of these brief episodes is the film's final scene; the other, amazingly, is the scene that was removed from the film after its premiere and has only now been restored. It's amazing because this scene, in which Cabiria stumbles upon a man who goes out at night to deliver food and clothing to poor people living in caves on the city's outskirts, seems to be the most crucial portion of the film, a moment that alters the meaning of all that come afterwards.
This formerly excised scene deepens the religious critique of the scene that directly follows, when Cabiria and her fellow prostitutes (along with a pimp and crippled drug dealer) go to a religious ceremony in search of salvation, only to find a grotesque procession where canned prayers are piped in on loud speakers and carnies sell candles outside the church. It also makes sense out of the film's hopeful ending -- providing evidence of human grace for Cabiria to fall back on after a truly gut-wrenching moment of debasement and disappointment. The film's final scene is truly remarkable. Cabiria, in tears, wanders into a street carnival, a typical Fellini metaphor, "the road to life," that feels earned here where similar metaphors from La Strada (which translates to "The Road") are hollow. Her look of anguish gradually transforms into a smile, her furtive glance subtly meeting the camera and crossing our own gaze -- it's a chaste invitation for the viewer to join her on this road.
"Fellini File" also includes an excellent widescreen version of the childhood remembrance Amarcord (1974), considered by many to be Fellini's last great film, as well as the marginal And the Ship Sails On (1984), merely one of his last. All films in Italian with English subtitles.
To order, call Home Vision Cinema (1-800-826-3456).
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