At least half of all film-makers asked about the directors they most admire include Federico Fellini in their top three. And he seems to have a particular fascination for purely commercial directors – perhaps because his was the cinema of visually expressed emotions rather than intellectual rigour. He was indeed a great director. But there’s a kind of critical resistance to his work that once caused him to write to me (I was then deputy film critic for the Guardian) to ask if there was anything I could do about the carping notices that invariably flowed from the pen of Richard Roud, my predecessor.
There was not. But I have to confess that the longer he worked, the more I doubted Fellini. In fact, my favourite of his films has always been his first – Variety Lights, which he co-directed with Alberto Lattuada way back in 1950. It’s a marvellously sympathetic study of a travelling theatre group, which, perhaps because I was once an actor, seemed to me the best film about the theatre I’d ever seen.
There’s no doubt, though, that 8½, made 12 years later, is his real masterpiece; La Dolce Vita and Fellini’s Satyricon his most spectacular epics, while Amarcord is the self-referential film that turns his most faithful supporters weak at the knees.
8½ is probably the most potent movie about film-making, within which fantasy and reality are mixed without obfuscation, and there’s a tough argument that belies Fellini’s usual felicitous flaccidity.
Its title refers to the fact that, up to then, Fellini had made seven features and two episodes in composite films that added up to about a half. Its central character is Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), a film-maker based partly on Fellini. He’s a successful director, with everything in place to make another hit but with no actual story to tell – perhaps as Fellini felt after the success of La Dolce Vita.
Guido procrastinates, retreats into his messy private life with wife and mistress, goes to a nightclub clairvoyant who makes him recall his childhood and he fantasises about keeping a harem of women at bay with a whip, or about being hounded to death by desperate producers and a hostile press. Guido never makes his film, whereas Fellini did.
When it came out, the film seemed incomprehensible to many who had hitherto loved his work. In one Italian town, the audience attacked the projectionists. As far as Fellini was concerned, however, 8½ was ‘sincere to the point of being indecent’ and not at all difficult to understand.
Later, critics referred to Jung, Kierkegaard, Proust, Gide, Pirandello, Bergman and Resnais in burrowing for his influences, and Alberto Moravia insisted Guido was an Italian version of Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. Fellini strenuously denied all this, though it is true that many others were making subjective films around the same time, notably Bergman (The Silence) and Kazan (The Anatolian Smile). ‘Certain issues are in the air,’ was all Fellini would say.
He won his third Oscar with 8½, so it can hardly be as complicated a film as some have made out. But it does remind one of Bergman, with whom Fellini was going to collaborate on a film, together with Kurosawa. Nothing came of it, but Fellini recalls meeting Bergman at Cine citta, the great Roman studio where Fellini made so many of his films. During their talk, Bergman ‘pointed with his very long finger to a corner of the swimming-pool. Beneath the rain-rippled surface of the water an infinity of little organisms, like a Sumerian alphabet, were whirling around at bacterial velocity. Bergman squatted down on his heels and began talking to the tadpoles with a happy smile on his face.’
Both directors regard humans as if they were tadpoles, to some extent, but whereas Bergman divorced himself from the equation, Fellini, at least in 8½, did not. Which is why it is a better film even than The Silence.