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David Filipi & Melissa Starker
Jun 23, 2022
For the latest WexCast, Film/Video Director Dave Filipi offers a brief intro to Federico Fellini, the legendary Italian filmmaker behind such classics as La strada, 8 1/2, and La dolce vita. All of those films and more will be presented as part of a summer ‘22 retrospective at the Wex, which runs July 7 through August 18.
Filipi discusses the trajectory of Fellini’s career, the big break that helped launch it, the filmmaker’s distinctive, evolving style, and a couple of the notable directors Fellini has influenced. And if you listen to the end, you’ll get a sneak preview of what’s coming to the Wex next summer.
A transcript with relevant hyperlinks is below.
Melissa Starker (introduction): This is WexCast from the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University. For this episode, Film/Video Director Dave Filipi offers a brief intro to Federico Fellini, the legendary Italian filmmaker behind such classics as La strada, 8 1/2, and La dolce vita. All of those films and more will be presented as part of a summer ‘22 retrospective at the Wex, which runs July 7 through August 18. Dave discusses the trajectory of Fellini’s career, the big break that helped launch it, the filmmaker’s distinctive, evolving style, and a couple of the notable directors Fellini has influenced. And if you listen to the end, you’ll get a sneak preview of what’s coming to the Wex next summer.
(Instrumental music plays quietly under Filipi's voice throughout)
Dave Filipi: One thing that I think is cool or interesting about Fellini’s career, and not just Fellini, but any director where you can kind of trace influences from early in their life throughout their work, I think once you start enter—like for instance, a Hollywood director, it would probably be harder and harder to detect influences from one's childhood on the person's body of work. But with Fellini, it's really cool. You know, from a very young age, he was interested in theater and puppets and circuses and American comic strips. And he even, you know, made a living as a young man, he wrote for humor magazines and he did cartoons for a couple of publications. And it was after the war, he was working, at a studio where they did caricatures of mostly American GIs and he crossed paths with Roberto Rossellini, and Rossellini had seen some of his work and his humor writing, and invited him to contribute to the Open City screenplay.
So that wasn't Fellini's first entry point into film. He had had the opportunity to intermix with other people in the film industry, but that was his obviously a pretty good break. So he contributed to the Open City screenplay, which won an Oscar. He contributed to Rossellini's film Paisan, so right there, it's like two of the great films of world cinema. And then Rossellini invited him to write part of the omnibus film that Rossellini made, L’Amore, where Fellini wrote the part that was called “The Miracle,” which starred Anna Magnani, and then Fellini also played the role of this kind of vagrant that Magnani—she's kind of like crazy with religious fever and she thinks he's a saint. And just to kind of fast forward, it's strongly suggested that they have sex and that Magnani is impregnated, and she thinks it's a divine conception, and the story goes from there. But having that early relationship with, with Rossellini definitely opened a lot of doors for Fellini in the film industry in Italy.
Obviously when Fellini was working with Rossellini and then when he was able to start making his own films, it was, you know, right at the golden era, if you wanna call it that, of neorealism in Italy. And the first films that he made as a director, Variety Lights—he codirected that one—and then The White Sheik, and then I vitteloni, and then La strada, and then a few films after that were very much still in the vein of neorealism, but already you're starting to see some flashes of Fellini themes and traits, everything from, you know, focusing on, you know, performers and vaudeville and, and circus and theater and performance like that. But then also, you know, dreams and kind of fantasy elements that were certainly not necessarily a staple of neorealism, and his films kind of continued in that vein for much of the 1950s. And then, his big, big break was with La dolce vita, where it made him an international superstar in terms of being a filmmaker.
But then around that time, he started to get into Jungian psychoanalysis and reading up on that. And you do see this clearer break and clear evolution around this time where he really did kind of enter a different phase of his filmmaking—which, you know, to be honest, a lot of people are not big fans of. Like, a lot of people call the big chunk of the remainder of his career kind of self-indulgent. And I don't think of it that way at all. I think it's amazing that, you know, a great filmmaker is getting to make such personal films where he is exploring dreams and his own desires and his own preoccupations. And really, he stated it: I don't want to tell a typical narrative, I don't wanna be bound by traditional narrative. And so you do see some of his later films are either very episodic or they're barely held together by an idea, you know, that's kind of tying the vignettes and the memories and the dreams together. And to be fair, I do tend to prefer his earlier films, but I don't think that's because I find his later work self-indulgent. I think it's really exciting that if a filmmaker got to, um, make films like that. Fellini, if you're gonna be that kind of a filmmaker, you know, like Welles was for almost his whole life was trying to scrape together money for the next film, and I don't think it was that dire for Fellini until very, very late in his career.
But yeah, he was a very unconventional director and not terribly concerned with the commercial prospects of his films. He wanted to make personal films. And so he could have picked an easier path for himself than he did, but he, he was a very personal filmmaker.
The director that comes to mind, first of someone who I'm pretty sure has cited Fellini as an influence—and if he hasn't, I don't think he's being honest—would be David Lynch, going back to the notion of kind of tapping into the unconscious for motivation or inspiration or whatever. Fellini did that very often in his filmmaking, and I think Lynch is one of the few filmmakers who understands, like, the actual literal school of surrealism. And it shows up in Twin Peaks and especially in Lost Highway, and films like that. So I would say Lynch would be one person that really comes to mind quickly.
And Terry Gilliam, more in a superficial way, maybe. Just a film, like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where there's a narrative there, but it's told in as crazy a way as possible. If you wanna use the word indulgent, it's that, you know, in a really wonderful way. I love that film. But there's kind of every stylistic flourish you can throw into that film in telling the story. But boy, you know, if I were a director, I would not wanna be compared to Fellini. It's a lot to live up to.
I guess, the films that I am looking forward to… I've actually never seen Il bidone, and so I'm looking forward to seeing that one. I always like to see The White Sheik and I vitteloni because Alberto Sordi features prominently in both of those films and he's one of my all time favorite actors, so I just, I love watching his films over and over again.
My favorite is La dolce vita, just for all of the obvious superficial reasons—just the depictions of Rome. And it just, you know, even though it was obviously heavily criticizing and condemned, for kind of exposing the shallowness and superficiality, and even kind of the hedonism, of kind of the celebrity culture and upper class culture of Rome, I think it still has this really romantic feeling to it. And anyone who's been to Rome, of course, you want to go to the Trevi Fountain. And for me, the reason I want to go is because Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Eckberg were prancing around in there. So, um, I love La dolce vita.
If people are only able to see a couple of the films in the series and really want to be selective, I think the film you really have to see is 8 1/2, for a lot of reasons. If people aren't familiar with his work, it's about a filmmaker who is at a crossroads and having a crisis. He’s lost his confidence. He's, you know, struggling to come up with the idea for his next film, which is exactly what was happening to Fellini leading into this film. It's just such a tour de force when it comes to cinematic style. And on top of that, it's a film that's absolutely beloved by other filmmakers.
Sight and Sound is this magazine put out by the British film Institute and it's one of the world's great film magazines, and every 10 years they do a poll of critics from around the world and filmmakers from around the world, and they come up with their lists of what are the best films of all time. And then in kind of accumulating all of the polls, like which directors appear the most, they do a tabulation of who the greatest directors are just based on how many times they're mentioned. And 8 1/2 always finishes very high when it comes to the polls of the directors. I think in the last poll, which was 2012—the next one is coming out in just a couple months—8 1/2 was the fourth rated film of all time. And then in doing the tabulations of who the, you know, the greatest in quotes, greatest director of all time was, Fellini came in number one in the poll of world filmmakers and in the poll of the critics and historians and whatnot, he, he came in 14th. So it gives you a sense of how he's, <laugh> viewed by filmmakers. And I think filmmakers just identify with what Marcello Mastroianni’s going through in 8 1/2. I'm sure any filmmaker who has worked long enough has had that kind of crisis, you know, Where do I go next? And so I would definitely recommend that one.
We've done a lot of, um, partnerships over the years with an organization in Rome called Luce Cinecittà. And it's an organization whose mission is to promote Italian film culture around the world. And they help put together these amazing series; like in the past, we've done retrospectives of Pasolini, Anna Magnani, Mario Monicelli, and they get the ball rolling by, um, spearheading new restorations, the publicity around it. Usually it opens, um, somewhere in New York, whether it's MoMA or Lincoln Center, but then it travels around North America to places like the Wexner Center or, um, the Bell Lightbox in Toronto or the Harvard Film Archive, Pacific Film Archive at Berkeley, and other places like, non-mainstream theaters. And it's just, it's great working with them. A lot of these series just won't be possible without them kind of organizing things in advance. People that are listening to this might know that a Dario Argento series just opened in New York a couple of weeks ago. And we're gonna be doing that series here at the Wex in summer of 2023. And that's another retrospective that Luce Cinecittà helped organize.
Melissa Starker: That was Wex Film/Video Director Dave Filipi with an intro to Federico Fellini. For more info on our summer Fellini retrospective and all things Wex, go to wexarts.org. For the Wexner Center for the Arts, I’m Melissa Starker. Thanks for listening.
Music: Lee Maddeford, "Overture"; Till Paradiso, "Waltz with Me"; and Antony Raijekov, "Deep Blue." These works are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 Generic License.
Image: La dolce vita, courtesy of Paramount Pictures