Who is Fellini? In the book Fellini, Fellini says that, “Critics have accused him of being a charlatan, hypocrite, clown, and demon, and have hailed him as a magician, poet, genius and prophet” (Fellini, Back Cover). The film La Dolce Vita represents more than just a significant step in the evolution of Fellini’s cinematic style. It reminds us of films in America like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, or The Godfather. Why? Because La Dolce Vita “transcended its meaning as a work of art and came to be regarded as a landmark pointing to important changes in Italian society as well”(Bondanella, 65). It received the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Its commercial success represents the triumph of “the serious art film at the box office” (65). This film grossed over 2.2 billion lire in only a few years at a time when tickets in Italy cost only between five hundred and one thousand lire.
This article will explore Fellini’s influence on pop culture, Christianity’s influence on Fellini and how La Dolce Vita, maybe his greatest work, marked his own personal departure into darkness.
Fellini’s Influence on Filmmakers
There are many legendary filmmakers influenced by Fellini. Among the names are the following: Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Emir Kusturica, David Lynch, Girish Kasaravalli, David Cronenberg and of course Martin Scorsese. The latest examples are Lady Ga Ga’s short film Paparazzi and the feature film/musical Nine.
John Baxter, author of Fellini, points out how Woody Allen in his film Stardust Memories and Arthur Penn in his film Mickey One were influenced by Fellini’s consistent vacillating between reality and the dream world (Baxter, 195). Stardust Memories is considered to be one of Woody Allen’s best films. It is shot in black and white which is reminiscent of Fellini’s 8.5. The story parodies Fellini’s film in the sense that it’s about a famous filmmaker who is inundated with fans wanting him to make another hit like La Dolce Vita. Mickey One is a surrealistic film dealing with Kafkaesque paranoia which ultimately made this film into a cult classic. Like Fellini, director Author Penn ignored the usual conventions of narrative.
It’s about a stand-up comedian, named Mickey, who gets mixed up with the mob. Throughout the film, Mickey avoids his performances because he doesn’t want to be attacked by the mob. He finally decides to stop hiding and running. He does his act. All the while, a mute mime-like character known as The Artist continues to pop up everywhere. In the end The Artist releases a machine called “Yes.”
Before director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman went on to do Batman and a plethora of other award winning films, they did a little film called Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. At this point no one really knew Burton and Elfman. This story was about a man-child named Pee-wee on a nation wide search for his bicycle. In the midst of this 1985 comedy, Burton and Elfman decided to pay homage to Fellini by drawing musical inspiration from his composer Nino Rota. The score of the film was a critical element to the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
Burton went on to direct successful films like Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd and Batman. Elfman went on to compose music for films and shows like: The Simpsons, Desperate Housewives, and Batman. Burton and Elfman continue to work together and draw inspiration from Fellini. Interestingly enough, Fellini has admitted to drawing inspiration from faith.
Christianity’s Influence on Fellini
We can see the Christian influence on Fellini in La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 and all his prior films. For example in 8 ½ Guido represents a character that mirrors Fellini’s own confusion. This film was his response to the success of La Dolce Vita. Guido’s search for a kind of personal liberation was similar to his own. He was attempting to throw off his double minded upbringing. Although Fellini grew up in a Christian environment, the Christians represented the corruption in society. This contributed to his confusion. While Christians represented corruption, atheistic Communist represented the people trying to liberate their country.
Alpert, author of Fellini, drew more parallels between Fellini and the Guido character in 8 ½. Like Fellini, Guido “was a victim of medieval Catholicism which tends to humiliate a man rather than restore him to his divine greatness” (Alpert, 178). The only time Fellini felt the spiritual grace mentioned in the Bible was when he was making a movie. He said that on a film set “he feels reborn” (Alpert, 178).
Fellini was known for exploring Christianity in his films. Before La Dolce Vita, Fellini designed what Bondanella, author of Italian Cinema, called a trilogy on conversion. This trilogy consisted of: La Strada, The Swindle, and Nights of Cabiria (Bondanella, 231). With La Dolce Vita, Fellini uses the city of Rome as a metaphor for Western culture. This is “viewed from a double perspective – before the advent of Christianity” (232). Most people do not know that the original title for La Dolce Vita was 2000 Years after Jesus Christ. But they settled on the ironic title “the sweet life” showing that this life is not sweet at all.
The theme of La Dolce Vita is that this way of life is a façade and a masquerade. This theme was codified in a remark made by a female impersonator. After an all-night romp that is quite Felliniesque, the impersonator says, “I was all made up but now I look ghastly” (Bondanella, 233). This cultural confusion finds its visual parallel in the most famous of images in the film – the opening shot. This shot of shows a helicopter carrying the statue of Christ with its “benediction over the ruins of an ancient Roman aqueduct” (233).
John May, author of Nourishing Faith through Fiction, considers this the most extraordinary indictment of modern society ever brought to the screen. May calls this film “one of the greatest cinematic creations of the religious imagination” (May, 79). He claims not to notice a Christ-Figure, other than the statue figure of Christ at the beginning of the film. At the end of the film when a big fish appears, “we can find an adequate reference for the big fish in the Book of Revelation when, after the blast of the seventh trumpet, the appalling beast from the sea appears that blasphemes God and his dwelling place: Revelations13:1” (79).
Where May and I disagree is that May looks at the “opening and closing sequences providing a striking biblical framework for judgment” (79). While he notices a lack of grace, Fellini and I notice that grace is extended in the beginning with Christ and at the end with the representation of innocence we find in Paola. Unfortunately our main character, Marcello, chooses folly instead of hope.
Some believe that this film can be structured into seven episodes. And like the movie Seven, Fellini creates clear evocations corresponding to the Seven Hills of Rome, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Sacraments, the Seven Virtues, and the Seven Days of Creation. These are the “would be” seven episodes:
1. Marcello’s evening with the heiress Maddalena.
2. His long, frustrating night with the American actress Sylvia that ends in the Trevi fountain at dawn
3. His relationship with the intellectual Steiner which is divided into three sequences: a) the encounter, b) the party, and c) the tragedy (what is love)
4. The fake miracle
5. His father’s visit – inverted prodigal son, or double prodigal son (like in Sling Blade)
6. The aristocrat’s party
7. An “orgy” at the beach house – Like the end of Easy Rider.
Then there is a break between these seven episodes. There’s the restaurant sequence with the angelic character named Paola.
John May would argue that there is another spiritual numerology in play. There are literally 8 nights and nine mornings “suggesting that Fellini complemented his biblical imagery with a structure taken from Italy’s greatest religious epic” (May, 79). The epic John May refers to is Dante’s Inferno and the 9 circles of judgment in hell. Every morning “the Eternal City of Rome becomes Dante’s City Dis” (79). Marcello is Fellini’s modern everyman. His 9 offers consist of the following: wealth, stardom, religion, art, family, tradition, love, sex and even grace in the form of the innocent girl. His turn from grace marks his journey into darkness.
Fellini’s Journey into Darkness
Tullio Kezich, author of Fredrick Fellini, chronicles the relationship between Fellini and Rossellini at the time this movie was in production. When La Dolce Vita came out, Rossellini publicly criticized it. He said that Fellini is “going down the wrong path and that someone should stop him” (Kezich, 93). Fellini started off working with Rossellini – the father of neorealism. When Fellini finally meets up with Rossellini again, Fellini said he thought that Rossellini looked at him “as Socrates would have looked at his student Crito, if Crito had suddenly lost his mind” (93). Rossellini, in a box office sense, was wrong but in a spiritual sense he couldn’t have been more correct.
Fellini considers this film as a confession of a man, Marcello. Many critics have concluded that Fellini is this man. Fellini says the last scene is symbolic of folly (Marcello) and hope (Paola).
Marcello’s thematic line in the film is, “yes I’m making a mistake, but we’re all making a mistake.”
He bounces about from one meaningless encounter to the next. The only real connection he makes in the film is with Paola. The seven episodes could reflect Fellini’s attempts to find meaning in life. For example Marcello wants to connect with his father (or God the father). But they continue to keep their distance and the father leaves.
When his friend dies, the stable family man, cops are pouring over the apartment. Like Marcello, they are able to gather all sorts of information about death but they have no real grasp for the meaning of life. This film could also have been titled “the sweet death” at this point. He remembers Steiner’s words that probably ring true for Fellini: “Salvation doesn’t lie within four walls.” But where does it lie? Love…? When Marcello confesses his love to a woman, she cheats on him. Pleasure…? Marcello takes part in a wild party and still feels empty. No doubt, Fellini has had the opportunity to participate in all these episodes himself. It appears that Fellini did not find the answer either.
At the end of the film, Marcello runs out to the beach and they pull a huge fish onto shore. Could this symbolize the monstrous evil that will not leave Marcello/Fellini? The ending has a witness, Paola, watching Marcello but in the end the witness is looking at us, which begs the question – are we lost? Are we prodigals? Have we found the meaning to life? Perhaps the meaning lies within the first shot of the movie – the shot of Jesus Christ.
Fellini admits that Marcello’s departure mirrors his own spiritual journey. A short time later in Fellini’s life he goes a little wild and experiments with LSD. Experimentation with the effects of LSD was in vogue around that time, and Fellini was asked by a scientist friend to try the hallucinogen under controlled conditions. The scientist and his colleagues were interested in what might happen to an artist such as Fellini when under the drug’s influence. He consented because he didn’t want to “seem like a coward” (Alpert, 179). It was during this time that his preoccupation with magic and the occult increased.
Did he ever return to innocence? Did he ever find the meaning of life? We’ll never know. But years later, when he was told he would die soon, he got in his car and made a final attempt to reunite with his love – his wife. Perhaps she was his real Paola. And maybe this signifies his return to innocence.
HOT!!! Want To Promote Your Latest Songs, EPs, Albums, Mixtapes and Videos?