Excerpted from Federico Fellini: His Life and Work by Tullio Kezich. Copyright © 2002 by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Published in March 2006 by Faber and Faber, Inc. All rights reserved.
Introduction: September 1952, on the Terrace of the Hotel des Bains
There was some trepidation on my part at my first encounter with Federico Fellini. I knew his name and I’d liked Luci del varietà (Variety Lights, 1950)—but I had assumed that it had been conceived of and written by codirector Alberto Lattuada, and that newcomer Fellini’s name had only been added to the credit out of friendship, or for contractual reasons. The truth is that I was a little perplexed by the boundless ambition of this screenwriter who wanted to become a director. I thought the qualifications for the job of film director (an undertaking later characterized by Fellini himself as “Christopher Columbus trying to command a crew that just wants to turn back”) included the indispensable but loathsome ability to “assume authority”—as it would have been described under fascism. I couldn’t see how such an attitude was consonant with a writer’s temperament.
The meeting had been arranged by the actor Leopoldo Trieste, a mutual friend, during the 1952 Venice Film Festival on the terrace of the Hotel des Bains (immortalized by Thomas Mann in Death in Venice). Federico had probably preferred this hotel to the more sumptuous Excelsior because it looks like the Grand Hotel in his hometown of Rimini, a reminder of his childhood. Or maybe his troupe hadn’t been considered VIP enough for the grander hotel. We met on September 7, the day after the screening of Lo sceicco bianco (The White Sheik), which didn’t do badly with the public, though the critical mood seemed to suggest that nothing particularly favorable was forthcoming.
Gathered around the thirty-two-year-old director that day on the terrace was a little group of people in wicker armchairs. There was constant coming and going and I don’t remember exactly what anyone was talking about, but once I’d insinuated myself, I felt as if I were a new member of a merry fraternity. I suddenly felt lighthearted and relaxed, like (to use another typical Fellini expression) Pinocchio among the puppets—or like Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island: among the pirates who tell “sailor tales in sailor tunes.”
Federico was still skinny back then and wore his hair long over his neck. I remember thinking something was off at our first encounter. Maybe he was trying to make me feel that way, with those mannerisms I later came to recognize as the director’s own quirks—sideways glances, pauses, that almost imperceptible smirk. We discussed the Italian films in competition that year and I was somewhat embarrassed to be talking about these particular films with the person who’d written them all—from Pietro Germi’s Il brigante di Tacca del Lupo (The Bandit of Tacca del Lupo) to Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51. The brashness of youth led me to admit that both pictures had left me cold. And Federico replied that the major defect of film critics was how abstract we were. Then he expressed the utmost solidarity for Germi: “Where the bersaglieri slither up the mountainside like worms—wasn’t that a wonderful scene? But more important, you can tell it comes from a true story. Amedeo Nazzari’s character is based on one of Tullio Pinelli’s relatives…” When the conversation turned to Rossellini, Fellini’s tone changed from respect to devotion: “I like everything he does. I always like him.” By declaring himself to be unreservedly of the Rossellini camp, Fellini was revealing himself as a believer among the skeptics.
Even though I agreed with his positions at the time (it’s true that Tacca del Lupo isn’t a run-of-the-mill film, and that Rossellini’s shift out of neorealism was something many of us were slow to grasp), I was most struck by his delivery. Under the sun and in the wind off the Adriatic, the names of Germi and Rossellini had a different ring than they did in the debates at the cineclub, or in the petty quibbles among the churlish scribes. I started to realize that my arid and labored vision of cinema had yet to grow—it was a branch that might one day put out leaves. While sitting with these new companions, overflowing with energy and openness, I felt as if I were embarking on a brighter path.
The insidious and ominous cold war atmosphere tested our frazzled nerves in those days; the specter of the Salazar Project seemed to weigh heavily on Italy—and we were unconvinced (at least some of us were) that Stalin would provide any salvation. The Rosenbergs were being marched toward the electric chair in the United States, and General Eisenhower would shortly be elected president. We were all fomenting the discord that would ultimately bring Italy to the battle over Majority Law (aka the trickster law) that the Christian Democrats would eventually use to consolidate power.[*] We were oppressed by the fear that the country was sliding to the right, back toward the old order—and we were looking to cinema to take a political position, launch real accusations, and aggressively choose sides. We were disillusioned by the political inwardness that followed liberation, and we wanted cinema to take on our social issues diagnostically—we even expected it to be prescriptive. In the cineclub we were constantly evaluating films based on how big or small their influence might be on current events or the future. “Does this film explain the real causes of evil in the world?” we’d ask, and “Does it offer any contribution for change?” We rejected classic antimilitarism, like All Quiet on the Western Front—because by condemning the First World War, such films hadn’t managed to stop the Second. It was considered an embarrassment that documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran was a mere recounting of the changing of the seasons and that he hadn’t been able to champion a revolutionary conscience. There was a hunger for the “positive hero,” for a messiah of political cinema.
I realized right away that such concerns held little sway in Fellini’s circle. There was no talk of political duty—either that day in Venice or at any of the many encounters that followed. They spoke of other matters; they were even frivolous. Federico operated on his own frequency, and he was in it for the long haul. Watching him interact with people was like watching one of his future films, the way he moved so easily from the serious to the silly, from the grotesque to the pathetic. He used irony to diminish drama and celebrated oddities entirely on a different plane from the ideas that held such currency at the time. It must seem strange to use so many words in order to explain a very simple thing—but it is this quality that is so fundamental to understanding the problems inherent to Federico Fellini’s biography. Why did his films meet with such incomprehension in Italy during his first and most passionate decade of production, for example? Why was the political left so slow to recognize whose side the director was on?
When he first came to the world of cinema, Fellini irritated people by openly rejecting ideology. He was in fact almost apolitical—at least in terms of how the notion of being political was presented, or rather imposed, at the time. Politics and soccer, effectively the most traditional topics of Italian society (both high and low), left Fellini feeling like a bored little boy listening to adult conversation. When I was with Fellini (and I’m thinking of the young Fellini, before he became a guru and was assaulted on a daily basis by the media, and forced into commenting on serious issues), we talked about school days, about what Rome was like when he first lived there after escaping from Rimini, about people in common, about psychological typologies and fables, about books that barely anyone had heard of, astrology, curious stories that appeared in the back of newspapers, of dreams, parents, women. Only in moments of intense spontaneity might we find ourselves talking like Marcello and his disturbing friend Steiner in La dolce vita, about a “clear, useful art that will have meaning tomorrow.”
At our first meeting on that terrace on the Lido of Venice, Fellini launched spontaneously into the story of La strada. For me it was a moment caught between magic and embarrassment. I was worried by the idea that he was working on a film/fable—even one with neorealist influences. So genuinely worried, in fact, that I promised myself I’d actively discourage him if I ever had the chance—a promise I later had the opportunity to fulfill. And yet at the same time I could see the new vistas this narrator was beginning to unfurl, his new perspective on ancient realities: impoverished Italy; the cold muddy fields that the traveling entertainers (the subproletariat of theater) trod upon; the primitive, even brutal, relations between men and women; the peasant world at the margins of reconstruction; lost languages; magic; childhood; and ancestral memories. Naturally and unconsciously this new cineast was preparing to knock down the walls of the petit bourgeois culture that had burgeoned alongside a united Italy (especially in Romagna, central Italy, where Fellini was from—a region marked by temporal power), to challenge a middle class that had erased all traces of the culture that had come before it. Fellini was considered a crepuscular sketch artist in his early films and he was appreciated as such, or merely tolerated. But the sad odyssey of Gelsomina—that elusive, and, for many, crypto-Catholic figure—became a rallying cry. For years in essays, public debates, in the cafés along via Veneto, Fellini, with his defiantly anti-intellectual spirit, was accused of being “outside culture.” Not until the 1970s did the intellectual left begin to rediscover the legitimacy of the fable form, recognizing its mythic, symbolic, even subversive potential. Horizons wouldn’t broaden until after Stalin, Benedetto Croce, and Pope Pius XII had all disappeared. When intellectuals eventually did strike out into that foreign terrain, “the science of man,” many were surprised to find that the director of La strada had already cut the path.
In the more than forty years since our friendship began on the terrace of the Hotel des Bains and until he passed away, I watched clashes brew and solidarities form within the ranks of Fellini’s most loyal followers: “Fellini is always true to himself” versus “Federico has changed”—a perfect contradiction. Thinking back, I would say that both are true. The creator of 8½ knew how to pull off the impossible task of being faithful to himself and never refusing to let things change. How? It’s a difficult story to tell, almost impossible to explain. The religious faith he’d been indoctrinated into as a child, then lost along the way—the faith he periodically referred to with the confused anxiety of trying to recover something—left our hero with a firm belief in destiny, chance, and circumstance. It carried him through unexpected choices, from one phase to the next of his career, which he started and continued without any specific goal until he discovered the cinematic mission. He believed in chance meetings, in love affairs, and in friendships—all of which came to him with incredible speed, and were like constant revelations that tended to endure. He lived inside of things with indomitable curiosity and unflappable openness. He abandoned himself to what Dostoevsky called “the river of life.” He was serenely aware that the river always carried you somewhere. The book you are holding, written by a companion on that journey, aspires to be the ship’s log for this mysterious and glorious existential itinerary.
[*] Majority Law was a proposed amendment to the Italian Constitution giving the prime minister’s party an automatic majority in the parliament, superseding the system of direct representation.