With Fellini in the cinema, and a little beyond

George Grosz, Methusalem. Costume design for the play Methusalem, 1922


Comments on Fellini's book of interviews

In the first lines of Down with the sacred truths, Harold Bloom refers to the Book of Jubilees, composed by a Pharisee around the year 100 BC as having an exuberant title for such mediocre work. Here I come across an opposite assessment when making some comments about Fellini: Interview about cinema, performed by Giovanni Grazzini. It is a remarkable work under a prosaic title, in the form of a modest pocketbook. This discreet little book – of the genre interviews with celebrities or prominent figures usually dealing with amenities, curiosities or picturesque facts of their lives and eventually of their works, not infrequently under an indigestible hagiographic approach – became more than a pleasant surprise.

The book says more, therefore, than the cover suggests, it surprises by the intelligent interlocution between who asks and who answers, being Fellini's answers extensive digressions about his childhood memories, his formative years in a fervent Catholic Italy under fascism, his initial activities as an illustrator, cartoonist, screenwriter and film director; his “method” of work, his references and influences and about so many other things beyond cinema, almost a small autobiography. All in all, what he tells us about himself, about cinema, about life, about his world, about his creation, about art, leads us on a fascinating journey. Like other exceptional talents, Fellini is approachable, though not always perceived as such, loquacious, down-to-earth, practical and, above all, genius.

There is a whole literature about this filmmaker, including books by him,[1] focusing on different aspects of his work, but in this small publication of 158 pages commented here, there is so much information, analyses, arguments, indications, allusions about the art of making cinema, exposed in such an enlightening way, so captivating by the flowering of such a shrewd intelligence that it seems that we are dealing with a theoretical treatise rather than an interview, albeit an extensive one. It should be said, by the way, that the theoretical approach or a scientific exposition is all that Fellini distances himself from; its references, its style, its “method” do reveal a refined culture, but rather are realized in the pragmatics of a unique, personal, vis-à-vis a reality that captures with wide open eyes, to transfigure it by the power of an imagination, whose resourcefulness is vicarious of more or less delirious dreams.

Close to a certain baroqueness, as some see it, seeking to distance himself from an “arid rational intellectual lucidity”, putting in its place a “spiritual, magical knowledge, of religious participation in the mystery of the universe”, as Ítalo Calvino writes, Fellini can move from the caricature to the visionary without prejudice to an expressive representation, in such a way that even when using a more sophisticated language it does not lose a popular communicative matrix. But such expressive resources, notably those of the caricatural type, however grotesque, however sanguine, always carry something true, even if such implications in favor of verisimilitude, or fidelity to the truth, are not a requirement of an aesthetic judgment.

Between the project or idea of ​​what he intends to do and its realization there are mediations, something intentional that follows a script, and much of what is improvised. Your ideas, insights, intuitions come to him at random, from fortuitous perceptions, from circumstantial apprehensions, where neither conscience nor will seem to intervene. It is in this way that he finds the resolution of an impasse, be it the characterization of a character, be it the choice of the actor who should incarnate him. It is not a matter of pure idiosyncratic caprice, but of an open subjective disposition, a free interiority that does not allow itself to be imprisoned solely by external existence, although it draws its sensitive and immediate elements from it.

Equally, from this procedure one should not infer that in Fellini everything is voluntarism, chance, sloppiness and fabrication. Rather, he is attentive to what he sees, what emerges from deep zones of the constellation of feelings, perceptions, anticipation of images, characters and atmospheres. He is fully aware of his responsibility, “not to deceive, not to be satisfied, to witness, with the expressive instruments at my disposal, the madness in which I sometimes find myself”.

He did not lack training, erudite references, refined aesthetic knowledge or enriching experiences in his craft, alongside brilliant creators in the graphic or film arts. However, he made use of this knowledge and these practices, appropriating them, elaborating them “inside” and within his work, without asking the spectator to do nothing, when watching his films, than simply see them. Seeing his films and being moved by them, as, for example, the way Roland Barthes (in Camera Lucida), in the midst of an extensive, profound and exasperating analysis that he makes of photography, in the last book he wrote, he tells us that when seeing a scene from Casanova his eyes were struck by a kind of painful and delicious intensity, “(…) as if I were suddenly experiencing the effects of a strange drug: each detail, which I was seeing so exactly, savoring it, so to speak, down to its last evidence, over whelmed me (…)”.

When presenting his films, he does not induce or suggest that they be appreciated under any type of reading, sociological, psychoanalytical, semiological or any other; although obviously they can pass through such filters and critical registers. But, it is worth insisting, no matter how dreamlike, metaphorical, sensitive, fantastic or fanciful Fellin's scenes are, they are not reduced to the production of easy emotions, or refer us to an amusing escapism; rather, they are stimuli for reflection, an imagetic path, but comprehensive of universal aspects of the human condition, of its pathos as a fundamental affective condition, but also of what it entails of deep lightness and sweetness.

Certainly far from being alienated, what could intrigue some is the fact that Fellini, like some other great filmmakers, just remember Bergman, overlooked concerns or approaches to politics, at least in its explicit, committed or radicalized forms. . His passions are of a different nature, his work has other axes, other motivations, although usually critical or even demolishing bourgeois society, its culture and institutions.

His films, to varying degrees, overstepped their own boundaries, impacting customs and morals. His invectives were not few on the culture of a society, the Italian one, in its most retrograde aspects, which was self-celebrated and represented by the landed aristocracy, the papal nobility or fascism, over which “I liked to exercise my propensity to mock ”.

The clerical reaction to Dolce Vita, it is illustrative; L'Observatore Romano, intended the film to be censored, its negatives burned, and the filmmaker's passport confiscated. On the door of some churches one could read, in a manifesto marked with mourning: “We pray for the salvation of the soul of Federico Fellini, notorious sinner”.

There was also no lack of criticism from the left, accusing him of insisting too much on the “poetics of memory”, in the case of the good lives, or not establishing clear links between the narrative and social issues or political intentions, On the road of life.

If it is a fact that art is conditioned by social formations, there are no determinations without mediations that range from psychological to moral, from aesthetics to metaphysics, introducing themes such as love, death, happiness, rationality, evil, chance. , the temptation of evil or good, the Faustian appetite, memory, anguish, alienation. Themes and conditions worked in the form of a succession of images, in the case of cinema, of dreamlike, illusory visions that, as a counterpart to the real world, refer to experience, in a continuous flow, through the consistency of a given style.

If we wanted to illustrate in a singular figure the Hegelian affirmation of the universal march of history towards the conscience of freedom, possibly Fellini could be a frontrunner. In a dialectic of evolution, he and his work seem to rise from a still personal and authorial freedom back to the level of universality, of self-awareness, of realization of his work and of its enjoyment by all.

Among the requirements to be a film director, Fellini lists curiosity, humility before life, the desire to see everything, laziness, ignorance, indiscipline and independence. Qualities that can be seen in his films, with emphasis on curiosity and openness to the world, to see it without reservations or judgments. Some English critics make approximations between his works and those of Charles Dickens, due to their ability to empathize with characters, due to the exaggeration and chaos of what is narrated or shown. His preferred types are the outsiders, the marginalized, the victims of life, of society, who are looked at in the face, never from above, nor outside the context of their difficulties.

Their capacity for wonder is limitless, there is chaos, but they are the creative type, their points of view are not fixed, their conception of life remains open.

In 1982, during the 35th. Cannes Film Festival, Wim Wenders invited a few fellow directors, one at a time, placed them alone in front of a camera in a hotel room, to answer a single question, “What is the future of cinema?”, which resulted in the documentary “Room 666”. Among others who reflected on their craft, Godard, Fassbinder, Antonioni, Herzog, Spielberg, Ana Carolina stood out.

The result seems to reveal more of the personality of each one than the exposition of arguments or a more consistent digression. I cite this fact because at the same time, in 1983, the interview with Fellini, the subject of this comment, was published in book form. It is true that between a brief reflection in front of a camera, where the word is mediated by the moving image, and the intelligent interlocution with someone, over the course of a few meetings, which will later take the form of printed text, there is an enormous difference in context, times and languages.

But we are still enchanted by the inspired profusion of Fellini's reflections, in contrast to the fragmented verbiage of some brilliant minds from new wave, of German or Hollywood cinema; somewhat frustrating. In addition to the complexity of the issue, covered by the stripped-down way in which it was formulated by Wenders, those directors struggled, in their coldness and dispersion, to go a little beyond enunciating some concerns with the advent of competition from television and some other points, unlike the warm, friendly and calm way in which Fellini faced the future of cinema, in the text referred to here.

It is something surprising the clumsiness, the even embarrassment, with which they are in front of the camera, having their heads, at that moment, and usually, behind it (as Godard says). It has different perceptions about the future of cinema, whether as a language, which seems to be lost in the face of other media, TV and advertising, for example, or with the technological changes that seem to impact or threaten it as an art form .

Between pessimists and relatively optimists, they express uncertainties and anguish, either because some think that the industry and commercialization of films leave little room for authentic creation, which would retreat into marginal niches, or because critics have demolished cinema as such, or because of the displacement from the focus of the characters to the directors, the photography, etc.

Several say they don't go to the movies or watch films often, some, less concerned, don't take the issues mentioned so seriously, or refer them to cycles in which good and bad films alternate. There is a certain consensus regarding cinema reestablishing itself in contemporary times, as an art worthy of its nature and originality, as long as it is made with passion, vigor, love and reflection (Susan Seidelman, Ana Carolina), as an expression of individuality ( Fassbinder), connected with life (Herzog), solve budget problems (Spielberg), equate the contradiction between cinema-industry and cinema-art so as not to alienate the masses, on the one hand, and not alienate them, on the other ( Yilmaz Guney).

Antonioni, with more serenity and loquacity, recognizes the seriousness of the threats to cinema, whether due to the emergence of TV, which impacts the spectator's mentality and eye, or due to the difficulties of adaptation, even in the face of new technologies (it is what best anticipates innovations, still only sketched at the time). The issue, he says, is adapting to the demands of the spectator and the spectacle of tomorrow; claiming to be a practitioner, not a theoretician, he sees transformations as inevitable, not only at the technological level, but also in terms of mentalities and feelings, which implies trying out the new possibilities that arise, trying out new things, doing them instead of talk about them, to finally show what we feel, what we think we should say, or, agreeing with Godard, that the task of cinema is to show, with its language, with its imaginary world, what cannot be seen.

Returning to Fellini, like any work, his films can be criticized by aesthetic, social or political criteria, but it is difficult not to recognize a “soul” in them, incorporating senses, meanings and feelings of an existence, whose determinations, both peremptory and the prosaic ones illustrate life as we live it or as we might imaginatively live it.

If the language of cinema is primarily metaphorical, it is not surprising that Fellini has described himself as “a great liar” and his art as an authentic factory of illusions, but that does not mean he abdicates, operating through such means and subterfuges, enabling him to to unlock something about the world or the human condition, making them susceptible to greater understanding, allowing us to see something of them that we wouldn't otherwise see. Fellini excels in the art of arousing an emotion, and of taking us beyond it, beyond a fleeting affection, towards clarification, intelligibility, insofar as it facilitates the establishment of a relationship of empathy or elective affinity. with what we are seeing.

Time and the experience of time – in addition to cinematographic time itself, which presupposes images in temporal succession –, a recurrent theme and axis of some of his most notable works, do not appear to us as singular moments or as mere chronology, but flow with fluidity , leaving traces of experiences that we see with the charm of a poetic nostalgia, but not with a banal sentimentality, and points to a path that its characters will follow a path to travel, whose vicissitudes and destinations are not given and even less can we glimpse them .

A film can be appreciated in multiple ways, theme, script, narrative conduction, use of scene shots, soundtrack, lighting, acting, etc. It is from this set that results a work that can captivate or bore us, but in the case of Fellini, perhaps we could highlight the work of the actor (let us be clear, of both or of many other sexes) from all these elements. If it is true that a character can only be understood by the situations he is supposed to represent, with this director he is endowed with such expressiveness that he seems to be the one who typifies what happens, before being typified by them. Actor and situation are remarkably intertwined, but it is the different types of characters and the diversity of ways of representing them – which in the case of literature constitute the essential elements of a narrative -, that allow Fellini to portray with great skill the richness, the diversity and psychological depth of the human condition.

He says he never had problems with actors; he likes your defects, your vanities, your neuroses. He is grateful to them for what they do for him, marveling to see how the ghosts he lives with in his imagination, come to life, talk, move, smoke and do what he tells them, interpret the film's dialogues as he imagined. He regards comic actors as benefactors of mankind; a wonderful craft.

A director who, in the midst of neorealism, is able to refer to the real and concrete dimensions of life, to the “pure record of the real”, but, more importantly, to transcend them through the filter of his creative subjectivity, giving them a cinematographic treatment full of openings and problematizations.

He recognizes that he was privileged in terms of creative freedom, never constrained to do what he didn't intend to, in his relationship with the producers. Even in “America”, when he half-jokingly accepted an invitation to prospect conditions to make a film, when he was offered everything he needed, resources, financing, relations, contacts, etc., after literally walking around the United States for two months, under the auspices of generous perks, he said abruptly to his hosts, despite the fact that “America” pleased him, that he could not film there, because even if the country seemed to him an immense and ingenious set for his vision of things, “I wouldn’t know put it in a movie”. only in Cinecittà, in Studio 5, felt really creative and in good spirits, supported by the “great network of my roots, my memories, my habits, my home, in short, my laboratory”.

To narrate an experience, to express a feeling in the face of a new reality, to give it credibility, to give it life, without mistakes or distortions, he believed that it could only be done in his own language, “the only way you can has available to communicate with himself, even before that with others. The misunderstanding arises from the fact that cinema is thought to be a camera... and, on the other hand, a reality ready to be photographed”. By the way, a timely reminder now that everyone with a cell phone in their hand thinks they are filmmakers. His work, he clarifies, requires a reference to language as a vision of the world, of myths, of collective fantasies. The substratum of his creations implies the speculations that are constructed by the different systems of representation, among newspapers, television, publicity and the synthesis of the images that we know.

Luckily for us, you don't have to be immersed in your country's culture to enjoy its films; in relation to his art, we place ourselves as spectators able to enjoy and understand it, in the same way that Goethe, in relation to another expressive form, when he coined the term, the possibility and the necessity of a World Literature, through the wide exchange of works through translations, which are in themselves creations in their own right (in a register opposed to the adage Translator, traitor), cinema, the art of mass society par excellence, can also claim the status of World Cinema, regardless of where its productions, directors and actors come from.

When asked how to face reality, understand the historical moment in which we live, he modestly recognizes that he does not have instruments or maturity of reflection, nor distance to understand who and how society is run. But he never ceases to question himself about what were the obscure labyrinths that brought it here, to these situations of stagnation, suspecting that it will continue to stumble rather than according to models or projects leading to higher levels of civilization. In this sense, he mentions the “monstrous selfishness that takes hold of humanity in the face of the impoverishment of the planet's natural resources. The prospect is catastrophic (…)”. Anticipating today's growing concerns about climate change, he points out the limits of progress, in such a way that it is as if the future is already over, in the face of an “exciting irreversibility for those who, …, would like to find themselves on another Ark of Noah and travel amidst the disaster with an elect few and some animals.”

Without disregarding the concerns in which we are immersed, the pervasive anguish and fear of our time, he reminds us that artistic expression also has a playful aspect, an invitation to fantasy. If this may seem like heresy or perversion in the face of so many hardships, traumas or threats, it is still necessary to lift our eyes from the ground, reacquire a sense of the gratuitous, not to let free time be subtracted from us, to make it more of an emptiness, an impediment to establishing a relationship with oneself and with life. “Beauty would be less deceptive and insidious if we started to consider beautiful everything that gives an emotion, (...). And this, the emotion, in the way it is played, radiates energy, “(…) this is always positive, whether from an ethical or aesthetic point of view. Beauty is also good. Intelligence is goodness, beauty is intelligence: both entail a liberation from the prison of culture”.

As I mentioned, there are many other themes, stories and facts in the book besides those referring to cinema and art; they are picturesque situations, experiences, wanderings, encounters of the filmmaker, reflections and memories, when he entered the sixth decade of life.

He tells, for example, how, to escape military conscription during the war, he simulated mysterious illnesses, bribing Italian doctors; once he acted crazy, he spent three days in a madhouse, in his underpants, with a towel over his head, like a maharajah. With Italy occupied, the Nazi doctors were not so condescending, ordering him to report to his regiment, at the same time that the place, a hospital in Bologna, was being bombed by the Americans, which allowed him to escape.

Being with Rossellini, during the filming of country, They got lost when looking for a hut on the muddy bank of the Po River, which was supposed to serve as a backdrop, when they were surprised by a boy of about three years old, coming out of the bamboo groves, who, after saying in Venetian dialect: I am socialist, quickly guided them to the desired location.

He became friends with the poet Evtushenko, when he met him on the occasion of the Eight and a half, at the Moscow Film Festival. Years later they met one night, beautiful and a little cold, on the outskirts of Rome, walking along the river. Suddenly Sergej was in his underpants and reciting some verses he entered the water. Fellini and some friends lost sight of him for a long time; when they were worried, they already considered calling for help, the Soviet embassy, ​​calling Khrushchev, already lamenting, “He was a great poet”, behold, after having swam a few kilometers, the figure appears, wanting to know who was bigger, if Tasso or Ariosto. how glorious veal, concludes Fellini.

Figures like Fellini show us how art enriches life, whether on an individual level or on the larger level of society. It also helps us to understand that, despite its apparent lack of immediate or practical utility, beyond reductionisms, ideological or instrumental traps or an art-for-art-type abstraction, in which it seems to be contained, present itself or disappear , art is an affirmation of the creative power of humanity, an expression of its complexity, its contradictions, its possibilities, its reality, its truth.

Fundamental and inescapable conditions under which we continue to seek a meaning, a fullness for existence, in the time that is up to us to live it, here and now, resisting fragmentation, dispersion, the crumbling of values ​​and objectives, replaced by others, fleeting and partial that succeed each other without rest, without being able to discover ways to reach them.

*Remy J. Fontana, sociologist, is a retired professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).


Fellini. Film interview. Directed by Giovanni Grazzini. Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian Civilization, 1986.


[1] See especially, Federico Fellini, Make a movie. Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian Civilization, 2000.

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