“I first met your name in the Pasquino cinema in Rome. In Trastevere. They show films in English there. You had written the sceneggiatura for a film I saw that I liked. An Anglo-French-German film. With an Italian director.”
“The Doomsday Girl?” Beard said. “Oh, but they changed so much. He did, I mean, Ruffini. All directors want to write, but all they can do is rewrite. It didn’t end at all the way I wrote it.”
– Anthony Burgess, Beard’s Roman Women (1)
Even a decade after his death, Federico Fellini’s oeuvre remains something of an impregnable fortress. Burgess’s fictionalised Fellini, Ruffini, drawn from his impressions of the maestro during his work on Fellini-Casanova (1976), is denoted as chronically prone to “rewriting” – and this, perhaps, is the crux of the matter. After all, the film director’s game is one of rewriting reality, not of writing about reality. Fellini repeatedly rewrote his themes, his films, his life; a Borgesian methodology that rejoiced in its own increasingly tattered results (the Furies that follow Guido in Otto e Mezzo (1963) are reduced to the threadbare bar-room philosophers of the Luna Park sections of La Città delle Donne ). And the desire to write, displaced onto the cinematic obsessive-compulsive rewriting, was a desire to write what, exactly? Everything other than the constant subject of his work: to write about the world outside Fellini.
The problem is two-fold. Initially, Fellini is part of the same history that he desires to relate. Pasolini had talked of “throwing [his] body” into the struggle, but for Fellini it was more a question of a mind already in the midst of the struggle, a psyche that was the arena of the struggle; the formative experience of Italian society in the first half of the 20th century had already taken its toll, eradicating the hope of objectivity or perspective, rendering non-subjective writing impossible. This leads to the second aspect of the problem: Fellini’s intellectual development was inevitably founded on that cultural and intellectual winter of Mussolini’s Italy. After the liberation, the position from which Fellini could critique fascism was a position itself created by the experience of fascism – his was unavoidably a standpoint intrinsic to the fascist mindset. This results in one of the strongest currents in Fellini’s work, determining both the extreme subjectivity of the framing of his stories – particularly the directly autobiographical ones – and providing the “excuse” for the over-the-top aesthetic, the parade of grotesques, the “Felliniesque”, the need and imperative to shock his viewers out of complacency. This, combined with the refusal to allow the viewer to relate to the pansexual, spermatorrhoeascape of Fellini-Satyricon (1969), more science fiction than a realisation of the realm of the Ancients, resulted in Fellini’s most salient artistic expression.
The compulsion to rewrite the world from his own perspective, to the extent that the title prefix “Fellini-” crept in, is a kind of delirious apogee of the auteur theory. Fellini’s differing films always contain the same set of preoccupations. So it is no surprise that the oeuvre always seems more than the sum of its parts, intimately felt, widely “relevant” and of unfathomable depths – and most critical approaches to it wind up as reductionist, trivial or trivialising, and uncertain of their critiques. The writers seem undone by an inability to pinpoint the jouissance of the Fellini universe, or outflanked by Fellini’s plundering of the coordinates of both high and low art. He placed himself in the tradition of the great European modernists – Kafka and Beckett, Joyce and Bartók, Mann and Eliot, Brecht and Grosz, Proust and Tadeusz Kantor – and so could dissemble away, riffing off childhood memories, fantasies, dreams, all shot through with (well announced) residual Catholic-Fascist guilt and chauvinism, nod to former collaborators such as Roberto Rossellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini and court the contemporary intelligentsia, all safe in the knowledge that everything ultimately came to achieve a certain socio-political “relevance”. And so it did; Fassbinder wasn’t the only idiosyncratic auteur able to address European terrorism in the late 1970s (in the immediate aftermath of the Baader-Meinhof deaths, in Germany in Autumn); Fellini did so to, in Orchestra Rehearsal (1979), in relation to the kidnapping and execution of Aldo Moro. Even late period Fellini is vibrant enough to deliver a precise warning of what was to come – that which would be manifest in the shape of Silvio Berlusconi (a deregulation huckster and worthy successor to his colleagues in Il Bidone ) – in Ginger e Fred (1985) (which only Umberto Eco seems to have taken seriously at the time).
From the vantage point of 2002, Fellini’s grand studio mock-ups seems more than just burlesque Brechtian verfremdungseffekt or baroque expressions of terminal alienation tempered by that favourite of 1960s European filmmakers, the “inability to communicate” in the “modern age”; there was something of the grotesque and ridiculous (pace Felliniesque) in the Genoa protests last year too. Berlusconi had reimagined the Palazzo Ducale for the world leaders, their strolls, chats and informal photo ops, to the extent that the location became more like a studio set, the whole enterprise akin to Fellini’s famous reconstruction of Via Veneto in Cinecittà for La Dolce Vita (1959); even imported ripened lemons had been attached to the lemon trees. In reality, the area was another impregnable fortress, a cage surrounded by a five-metre-high steel wire, 20,000 members of the security forces, armed, snipers and (apparently) anti-aircraft weaponry. What was Berlusconi expecting? The last days of the Czar? During the summit, despite the civil war raging outside the cage, the sun shone, the lemons glistened and the Palazzo functioned as intended. Such an occurrence cries out for the language of Fellini.
Fellini seemed to understand the vast pantomime of contemporary Italy, and how cheap illusionism was hijacked by necessity, how unreality became the given. This was slightly apparent during the period immediately after Fellini’s death with the ignominious collapse of the Christian Democrat party (DC) coalition, former Prime Ministers now on the run from the law, literally in the case of Bettino Craxi, mass trials and so forth. It may be too early to say, but the addiction to unreality that sustained the parliamentary power of the DC and their partners across the years of crisis in the 1970s and beyond must surely be seen as an extension of post-war Italian “collective amnesia”; the refusal to come to terms with the fascist past. It was a pervasive phenomenon, and one that, ironically, determined two Italian voices with whom Fellini had testy relationships, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and Pasolini. The PCI, crippled by subservience to Soviet Stalinism and reluctant to think beyond the “Golden Age” of the immediate post-war years of optimism and power-sharing, locked themselves into a cultural and historical sensibility of the latter half of the 1940s. Pasolini, a gadfly to the PCI, albeit one who mostly remained formally within the PCI, naturally then confronted the fascist past directly and brutally, and was continually attacked for doing so. The political Disneyland of contemporary Italy, arguably still in the throws of the collapse of the DC and the post-war political consensus, needs to be addressed in an EU context – not just as a reminder of deregulatory practice that drags the political spectrum to the right (Berlusconi, after all, is the forerunner of Tony Blair), but as an example of the price exacted from an addiction to unreality.
On the home front, Fellini cannily second-guessed possible criticism, particularly feminist, by pleading guilty-as-charged within his films, thematically and expressionistically – the confessional stream-of-consciousness that so often doubled-up as reflexive self-criticism, for example, resulting in the screenwriter’s verdict on Guido’s recollections of a childhood encounter with a whore and Catholicism – that such cheap tricks will never pass in an art film of this calibre. Perhaps Pauline Kael was, in a way, right to “give up” on Fellini-Casanova, noting that Fellini had “made an epic of his own alienation” after prematurely leaving the cinema – there was no quarter given from which she could form a critical opinion against this disagreeable film. And she wasn’t the only one; Fellini’s audience shrank, along with the Italian cinema-going public (drawn away by Berlusconi’s deregulated television channels in the 1980s) and Cinecittà, like the village of Bertolucci’s La Strategia del Ragno (1970), seemed an abandoned ghost town, overrun with weeds. But this chimed with Fellini too – his final films include a requiem for Cinecittà and all it stood for (Intervista ), intimately intertwined with his own life, and the life of his generation of Italians, and the fascist roots of the addiction to unreality (in the period of the White Telephone dramas).
The problem for the critic is finding a way into the impregnable fortress. Laying siege seems to have had no effect. In fact, if anything, the oddments that turn up in the process, if one waits long enough (the full opening of Il Bidone, shorn from the US release, the wonderful English-language dub of Fellini-Satyricon, the brilliance of the semi-obscure early 1970s TV work, the seminal missing section of Le Notti di Cabiria ) only strengthen Fellini’s body of work. Catapulting a “rotting carcass” (psychoanalysis? Marxism? feminism? structuralism?) over the castle walls in the hope that disease will spread within, driving out all kinds of unexpected occupants, gives rise to some results but nothing much that hasn’t already been accounted for by Fellini, as noted earlier. Marxist analysis, particularly in relation to Fellini’s refusal to stay within the PCI-approved theoretical constellation of Neo-Realism, only shores up Fellini’s place among the great Italian filmmakers of the post-war years who engaged with the social, psychological and moral burden of Italy’s fascist past and the upheavals of the period of “modernisation” of the early 1960s. Repeatedly battering down the entrance to the castle has some uses – there is a satisfying critical biography from Hollis Alpert (2) (and a worthless one from John Baxter (3)). But these, and a number of interview books, and Fellini’s own authorised recollections (4) (which amounts to pretty much the same thing), are only skirmishes. The main tome, a full auteur study, has yet to appear – so P. Adams Sitney’s exemplary wider study of the Italian cinema (5) will have to suffice in the meantime. Perhaps Fellini remains the problem here too: he “lied” so profusely, colourfully and so charmingly that the recorded “life” is an Orson Welles-like sprawling mass of embellishments, contradictions and fictions – more “rewriting” and another facet to the way in which his films coquettishly flirt with any number of possible readings and interpretations.
Sam Rohdie’s Fellini Lexicon is not the tome we are waiting for. Nor does it set out to be. But it represents one of the most incisive, sustained insights into Fellini’s mind, work and world. It could be called a post-structuralist assault on Fellini’s oeuvre, taken as a complete and unified expression and therefore it’s fair game to select certain thematic aspects and track their undulations across the entire filmography. The book does not represent the same lengthy “treatments” that Rohdie afforded Antonioni (6) and Pasolini (7) (Fellini Lexicon can easily be read in four or five hours), but it sticks with the elliptical approach first evident in those studies. Rohdie, you see, sneaks around the back, tunnels into the castle and once inside, takes the rooms as he finds them. And the bitter pill of post-structuralism is well sugared: this playful “lexicon” consists of 39 “entries”, which are cross-referenced, and can be taken in any order. The entries target the obvious suspects (Clowns, Dance, Giulietta, Spectacle), and the not-so-obvious (Chaplin, Oxymoron, Werewolf, Zoology). It’s probably not much use to the lazy student, and it assumes the reader is familiar with all of Fellini’s work (and, rather perversely, tends to veer towards the more obscure films, I Clowns  features a fair amount, for example). Rohdie freely throws in fragments of autobiography and often takes the scenic route to points he makes (as he did too in his studies of Antonioni and Pasolini – perhaps, in their fragmented approaches, one could have anticipated a “lexicon” was in the offing). He writes with verve and humour and it is a pleasure to re-read many of the entries.
Rohdie adopts a faux-naïve approach. Perhaps this is a reaction to the directions in Fellini scholarship prior to his – a desire to “get back to zero” and begin afresh (the authors of a recent study of Tarkovsky confessed to the same impulse (8)). It can also be seen as a wily strategy to cut through the rewrite tendency and, although it may not be the casual reader’s cup of tea (and does occasionally suggest the platitudinal), is undoubtedly effective; to unfairly chose a particularly pedantic passage as an example:
Cinecittà is where the film Intervista begins and where most of its action takes place. It is a film manufactured on a set whose setting is the film set. Two films side by side and similar are overlapped and intersected.
Intervista creates an imaginary space where films are being filmed. Filming films is the actual real function of Cinecittà. In Fellini’s films it is included in his film, in fact is the central location of it, to function exactly like it normally functions, but doubled. Cinecittà is the place where films are made including a film that is set in Cinecittà where the film you are watching is being made and also has been made as if narrated and narrating in the same instant. (9)
Such a listing of the narrative framing devices and reflexive loops can then unpick even the tightest of stylistic knots, working to “explain” sequences that, most importantly, do not immediately suggest themselves as in need of “explanation.” And Rohdie’s approach here is infinitely more useful than something akin to “The unstable narrative status of Cinecittà as locus of fiction-manufacture in both this film and in its historical function finds a resonance in a narrative that embodies the ambiguity through an evolving series of increasingly self-referential…” and so forth. Rohdie reminds us in the course of the lexicon of his own stint on Screen. Perhaps we do need reminding.
It seems churlish to note those things “left out” but Rohdie’s rather disingenuous introduction doesn’t quite seem apologetic enough (“The procedures [in the writing of a “lexicon”] impose limits among which are brevity, precision, exactness… I have made choices in accord with what I believe to be structurally pertinent to Fellini’s films. The choices are also a matter of chance, preference and association….” (10)). It’s rather like visiting a good restaurant to find a brace of choice dishes “off the menu”. The political debates of the 1950s (late Neo-Realism and the PCI’s cultural line), particularly in relation to La Strada (1954) and as mentioned above, constitute one such example – and is an area that has yet to be fully researched and articulated. Nor is the “brevity, precision, exactness” extended to the design of the book. It is handsomely put together, without a doubt, but the lavish illustrations (black and white throughout and a colour section of stills) lend little more than prettification. There is, however, an excellent select bibliography.
On the beach at the close of La Dolce Vita, the young girl, a sort of redundant Beatrice in this, Fellini’s Inferno, previously likened to an angel in an Umbrian fresco, looks towards Marcello (who wanders off, back to the “Eurotrash” crowd, sealing his fate) and then to us. Fellini holds the moment for a beat and then disconcertingly fades to black. It is as if to say, on the part of the film, with her quizzical look, “What do you make of all this?” But it is also to posit, on the part of Fellini, in the assured nature of her gaze, “I know what you will make of all this.” Rohdie has eschewed both these approaches in his writing on Fellini – approaches that have determined almost all previous critical work on Fellini – and cut to the quick. Fellini Lexicon is an essential on a journey into the maestro‘s work.
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- Anthony Burgess, Beard’s Roman Women, Penguin Books, 1979. p. 18
- Hollis Alpert, Fellini: A Life, Paragon House Publishers, 1988
- John Baxter, Fellini, Fourth Estate, 1993
- Federico Fellini, Fellini – Cinecittà – Meine Filme und ich, Interbook (Hamburg), 1998; Charlotte Chandler, Federico Fellini, I, Fellini, National Book Network, 2001
- P. Adams Sitney, Vital Crises in the Italian Cinema: Iconography, Stylistics, Politics, University of Texas Press, 1995
- Sam Rohdie, Antonioni, British Film Institute, 1990
- __________, The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini, British Film Institute, 1995
- Vida T. Johnson, Graham Petrie, The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, Indiana University Press, 1994
- Sam Rohdie, Fellini Lexicon, British Film Institute, 2002, p. 112
- _________, Fellini Lexicon, p. 1