Friday, November 23, 2007

Looking for Fellini


Just back from Italy, and thinking inevitably of Fellini's films, which have done so much to define the country to outsiders. But memories they tend to remain; I'm not sure I've ever found myself actually in Fellini's Italy, whereas Antonioni's, say, is ever present, and any left turn down a side street can land us unexpectedly in Argento's.
Our guidebook goes so far as to describe Parma as "Fellini-esque", but try as I do, I'm never fully transported into the maestro's world. Occasionally something vaguely evocative flashes by the window of the train, quiet stretches of simple habitation that might once have been something like the open, dusty landscape of La Strada (1954) or Le Notti de Cabiria (1957). But we tourists rarely end up where Fellini's characters do. It's when I'm back home that the link starts to take shape: Fellini's is an imagined Italy, a remembered Italy, an Italy of the soul rather than the senses.
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His critical reputation has fluctuated over the years; acknowledged in the sixties as one of the great international masters, his work has more recently come under attack for being over-sentimental, insufficiently critical, too whimsical, lacking in political engagement, too pretty visually, and more entertaining than the work of a serious artist has any business being.
The qualities in his work which once seemed daring and new – the celebration of misfits and outcasts, the lurches from realism into fantasy and back again, the non-condemnatory presentation of decadence and criminality – tend now to be overshadowed by those which once seemed reassuringly traditional: the commitment to narrative and characterisation, the communication of emotion, the underlying optimism, the love of showbusiness and artifice.
All these things conspire to relegate him in the age of alienation that his work anticipated, explored, and prematurely forgave.
He entered the film industry in the early forties as writer and occasional actor, often apprenticed to Rosselini. His early films as director gave notice of his preoccupations, but what now seems the instantly identifiable Fellini style was perfected in three consecutive masterpieces, La Strada, the lesser known Il Bidone (1955) and Cabiria, perhaps his best film of all.
All three feature his wife Giulietta Masina, an extraordinary actress - half Doris Day, half Harpo Marx - and few artists in history have been fortunate enough to find so perfect a muse. In their collaborations she developed a unique screen persona: broad, often brash and loud, defiantly unrealistic yet affectingly vulnerable and sincere. She could be naturalistic when necessary, but her speciality was the girl who belonged in the circus yet was somehow washed up in the tenements of post-war Rome, a misfit whose simplicity acted as a magnet for misfortune. She died a few months after her husband in 1994; her clown-like face remains one of the key icons of world cinema.
La Strada has her as a simpleminded young girl sold by her mother to a travelling strongman (Anthony Quinn); he mistreats and rejects her, only realising her true worth when she dies. Il Bidone is the picaresque story of a band of travelling conmen who rob the poor disguised as priests (with Masina wasted in a subsidiary housewife role). Cabiria returns Masina triumphantly to centre stage as a naïve prostitute whose dreams of love and happiness are constantly rewarded with sorrow and bad luck.
The scenarios sound like something Thomas Hardy may have rejected as too depressing, but Fellini’s handling elevates them from mundane realism almost to the level of fairytale, aided in every case by beautiful use of locations, stylised composition, a rich, often grotesque gallery of supporting players, Nino Rota’s hauntingly distinctive scores and Masina’s amazing performances.
Their dramatic climaxes – Quinn’s enigmatic moment of anguished realisation on a darkened beach in La Strada, Masina stoically walking in step with a band of strolling musicians after yet another crushing betrayal in Cabiria – transcend their pessimism to become deeply moving, cathartic experiences for the audience, more epiphany than tragedy.
La Dolce Vita (1959), which both confirmed and consolidated his international reputation, is glossy, stylish and still relevant in its scepticism towards a society proudly cutting itself loose from its core values. Its pose of total objectivity, standing back from itself and observing without comment, remains its most striking feature, along with its now iconic visual highlights (the massive airlifted Christ, Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain et al). But there is a brazen self-assurance that was new for the director, a kind of methodological shorthand that seems to suggest Fellini knew he was now established and could afford to play the maestro, to be a little showier and less rigorous.
He was famous now, an arthouse celebrity whose name was familiar not just to his followers but also to the wider public, for whom he became totemic of world cinema to those with no time for it. There is a superb episode of Steptoe & Son in which Harold takes Albert to see (1963), though the latter would prefer Nudes of 1963. Galton and Simpson were always astute monitors of fashionable intellectual traffic, Colin Wilson and Bertrand Russell having provided lively inspiration for some of the best Hancocks. That Fellini had now penetrated their world of British bourgeois aspiration indicated his ascension to the ranks of cult hero, and the status couldn't fail to influence the work.
With his gaze turned inward completely, and there is a similar sense of self-indulgence in its attempt to turn director’s block into existential crisis, despite the customary mastery of style.
Both are major and important works, and full of good things (including an appearance by Barbara Steele in the latter), but they lack the emotional resonance of the less autobiographical films. There is no point in denying the man’s keen sense of himself as auteur, and it could be argued that it got the better of him after 1963: whatever else Fellini Satyricon (1970) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) may be, they are certainly as hubristic as they sound. Fellini at his best wears his heart on his sleeve and is never afraid to be deemed naive, and he was never better than in the three exceptional works made immediately prior to La Dolce Vita.