Fellini. If a poll were taken to name the greatest filmmaker ever, the ultimate iconic auteur, his name would probably be at the top. The name is known to people who haven’t even seen any of his films. Despite the fame, Fellini’s determinedly independent course of filmmaking enabled him to evade facile categorization from critics, aside from their frequent use of the phrase, “The P. T. Barnum of the Cinema.” Thus no one ever knew quite what to expect from a new Fellini film, other than greatness. The director of such highly praised films as La Dolce Vita (1960), 8½ (1963), and Fellini Satyricon (1969), Fellini first achieved world-wide fame with the appearance of his third film, La Strada (1954), which in my opinion is his finest work and one of the greatest films ever made.
Fellini was initially associated with the Italian neorealist movement in the cinema just after World War Two. He was a script writer and assistant director for two of Roberto Rosellini’s important films of this time, Open City (Roma, Città Aperta, 1945), and Paisa (1946) . The neorealist movement, a semi-documentary form which tried to depict the most common activities of a society, had its own aesthetic limitations, and Fellini was one of the first Italian directors to move in a new direction. After his only mildly successful first film, The White Sheik (Lo Sceicco Bianco, 1952), Fellini first began to receive attention for his I Vitelloni , a sensitive study of small town aimless youths, the Italian analogues at that time of the Beat Generation. Only after this success was he able to convince skeptical producers to finance the making of his old project, La Strada.
Producers were dubious of his desire to use his wife, Giulietta Masina, as the star. As soon as shooting started, she fell and dislocated her ankle, and the film had to be held up for three months. Anthony Quinn, committed to making another film at the time, Atilla (1954), was frequently absent from the set, and often shooting had to begin at daybreak so that Quinn could rush off to the other set. This proved to be a fortunate circumstance, providing the film with its eerily grayish light and making the actors even more desolate and isolated.
The initial reviews in the Italian press were mixed – primarily a result of the demands of Catholic and Communist dogma, which unnecessarily complicated Italian criticism. But in France, England, and the United States, truly fanatical praise was showered on the film, which was to win over fifty awards in nine countries, including a US Oscar as best foreign film. The film played in New York for over three years, Giulietta Masina was placed alongside the greatest actresses of all time, and the theme, “Giulietta’s Song”, by Nino Rota (who later did the music for Zefferelli’s 1968 film, Romeo and Juliet) became an international hit and sold over two million copies in France alone. So much interpretive material has been written about the film that it would be impossible for me even to mention all of the themes (although I will return to this film later with another, longer article). It is the story of an itinerant Italian strongman who wanders about the Italian countryside performing in small towns with his servant. The episodic plot is wound up and given meaning by one of the most intensely beautiful cinematic endings. Critics often hail the film as a brilliant example of neorealism; other insist it is a symbolic spiritual fable.
Both positions are supportable, but neither seems satisfactory. The poetic quality, which makes the film so unforgettable, seems unapproachable by the intellect. And, like much great poetry, the film speaks of man’s existential loneliness in a language all its own.
- see my "Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: Open City and Paisan" for further discussion.