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The conjuror's illusion
on November 26, 2006
Many viewers and critics are ambivalent about Fellini's films. You hear "unstructured", "self-indulgent", "egotistic" until you imagine the reproach is that Fellini didn't have more shoot-out and car chase scenes. So let me state my bias: I think he is important in film, comparable to figures like Picasso or Kafka in other media. Further, the films I like the most are "La Strada" (1954), "Fellini's Casanova" (1976), "Intervista" (1987) and "Fellini Satyricon" (1969) ie I don't believe, as some have it, that he created some good films near the start of his career, then fell into a 30 year decline.
Intervista is an homage: to film, to Cinecitta, to Fellini cast and crew. In it Fellini richly draws on his memories, dreams and emotions, as often before. Egotistic? What else do any of us have to draw on? It is also laced with a spicy humor based on Fellini's eye for the absurd in people, places and situations which is basic to his work and often overlooked.
The film tells three stories. In the first, Cinecitta in the 40s when the young reporter Fellini first arrived there, to interview an actor; in the second, the heyday of Fellini's career, the 60s, when La Dolce Vita launched him, stars such as Marcello Mastroianni and Italian cinema itself on a triumphant and influential trajectory around the world; in the third Fellini shows us what it is like to make a film now (the 80s) when one is a celebrity, under the burden of expectations from cast and crew members and the public, represented by a Japanese TV crew trying to interview him.
The film is structured as films within film. The young Fellini's first visit to Cinecitta is itself a film, taking place on another lot, while Fellini is busy making a version of Kafka's Amerika. Memory, he seems to suggest, comes from the same source as imagination. We invent our past as much as we imagine our future: both intermingle to produce our present. This structure enables Fellini to switch backwards and forwards between the various periods represented in the film, the same way our minds work.
In another, famous, scene, Fellini shows Anita Ekberg and Mastroianni watching their younger selves perform in La Dolce Vita. Both are affected, Ekberg to tears. What do they regret: the passing of time, the passing of fame? Or has Fellini made them see the precarious border between illusion and reality, that beauty and fame are a strip of celluloid with light shining through it?
Cast and crew have a lot of screen time. This is one of the greatest films about film making, surpassing even Truffaut's La Nuit Americaine, Day for Night. All seem solicitous for the "Maestro". "If he gets sick, we don't work" says someone. Funny scenes abound as a line of hopeful would be actors claiming to have 'Fellini faces' vie for parts. This was a man whose habits and work methods were known to many Italians, not just to film workers. And the more famous Fellini got, the more power he had on the lot, until he carried and cared for over a hundred people, all dependent on him, as he strove to make another Fellini masterpiece under the expectant eye of film journalists. How unlikely a situation to inspire creative ideas is that?
Fellini was a painter with light who explored deep in his subconscious and returned with mythic images that can evoke a powerful response in us: if we let them. We can always refuse, and say he is self-indulgent, just as Picasso is confusing, Kafka obscure. We can ignore him another way, by saying he is 'great', a kind of dismissal. Fellini was a warm, caring person who loved and was loved by his colleagues as well as a charismatic, visionary one who inspired them. In Intervista we get to see both these sides of the man. Interview, some ask? He hasn't said anything, hasn't told us any facts. But he's shown us how he makes a film: and he's told us all we need to know. In fact Fellini is not to be trusted when he tells facts. Intervista is not a film, he says, as earlier, Casanova was just a film he had to make for contractural obligations. Rather, pay attention to what he shows, even to the way a papier mache elephant falls over.
Vincenzo Mollica's part documentary, part compilation of interviews about Fellini is one of the best features on Fellini I've seen, and nicely rounds out the DVD.