Fellini, 100 years old

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Commentary on the work and intellectual trajectory of the Italian filmmaker and complete retrospective program Fellini Il Maestro

By Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez*

To celebrate Frederico Fellini's XNUMXth birthday is to focus on a cinematographic aesthetic that expresses a power that, apparently, we have become unaccustomed to. Getting to know his films and entering his universe is letting yourself be permeated by another type of subjectivity, by another temporality. His films captured a certain phantasmagoria that is revealed, even today, in powerful images and unforgettable scenes. In order for us to understand such Fellinian power, it is necessary to dimension the meaning of his work and its main traits, such as the different layers that constituted his unique aesthetic construction.

The advent of post-war Italian cinema ended up shaping a new approach to social reality. Precursor of the so-called “authors' policy” that would predominate in the artistic avant-gardes of the period and permeated by the tendency towards a realistic representation of the world that dominated cinema at the time, Italian neorealism ends up absorbing a new articulation between the author and the production, the image it's reality.

Roberto Rossellini and his films Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisa (1946) highlight this new cinematographic approach to the world. According to Fellini himself, neorealism was extremely important for Italy to know itself, creating in films the possibility of recognition between the public and the nation, thus exposing a society in ruins just after the war. In his words, such films represented “a kind of avid indigestion, the explosion of a reality that had been buried, denied, betrayed”[I], and which was only now able to show itself.

Postwar cinema's tendency to faithfully represent reality has been noted by numerous critics. According to André Bazin, Italian cinema at the time was able to build in its works “reconstituted reports” of society and its social fractures, works of extreme relevance and “perfect and natural adherence to reality”. For the critic, “Italian cinema is certainly the only one that saves, within the very interior of the time in which it paints, a revolutionary humanism”[ii], thus reinventing the cinematographic language and leading to a “progress of expression”.

It is important to understand that Fellini's formative period stems from this phase of Italian cinema, with neorealism representing the legitimate artistic impetus of an Italy under reconstruction. The approach of the young Fellini to the cinematographic production of the time can be exemplified by his participation as a screenwriter of classics of neorealism, as in the two aforementioned films by Rossellini.

Therefore, it is necessary to analyze how Fellini migrated from one position to another, that is, from supporting Italian neorealism to proposing a unique cinematographic language, extremely different from his predecessors. Already in his first films, there is a growing distance from the aesthetic assumptions that prevailed until then. However, care is needed. According to Bazin, Fellini's work cannot be understood as a denial of neorealism, given that his films continue to give primacy to the representation of a certain reality. However, the substantial change is in the very status given to reality – it is now understood in a different way.

In its language, reality is no longer corrected and distanced from possible influences from the psychology of the characters and the dramatic demands of the plot, as neorealism did. The material and visible reality is now understood in another regime of time and space, commanded by the subjectivity of the characters. Real and unreal are mixed, in an interpretation that gives the world a more complex reality permeated with multiple and contradictory attributions of meaning.

In this way, Fellini does not deny neorealism, but dialectically overcomes it. In Bazin's words, Fellini was the result of an implosion of trends in Italian cinema itself, in which the representation of reality surpassed itself in a new language: "Everything happens, in effect, as if, having reached this degree of interest in appearances, we now perceive the characters, no longer among the objects, but by transparency, through them”[iii]. The representation of the world, thus, passed from “meaning” to “analogy”, from “analogy” to “identification with the supernatural”, with that which escapes the immediacy of the materially given. Fellini revealed another reality, more fundamental than the objective world itself. He operated a “poetic reorganization of the world”.

Already in his first films, the common thread of the narrative is given by the internal conflicts of the characters and by the high degree of subjectivity conferred to the material reality. In movies like the good lives (1953) the road of life (1954) the cheat (1955) and nights of cabiria (1956), we find characters corroded by a need for asceticism and stripping of their internal conflicts, all in search of a certain personal redemption. Although it can be pointed out that, aesthetically, there are still elements of neorealism in such works, the distancing of such films from the requirement of a faithful representation of reality is visible.

In them, the materiality of reality and its meaning is not exposed at all. It is hidden in the characters themselves, in their internal tension, in the irreconcilable subjective conflicts they carry throughout the plot. Such trends of decentering the real to the detriment of the fantastic, imagination and subjectivity become even more evident in the director's two best-known works, The sweet life (1959) and Eight and a half (1963)

In all these films, the characters do not evolve, they do not manage to appease their internal conflicts in a development that ends in reconciliation. Sometimes, we have the impression that they remain lost in the midst of a conflicting subjectivity, which ends up printing in reality the doubts and inconsistencies of their own personalities. Fellini reversed the status of what is shown on the screen: the recorded facts and events no longer have the logical scope in the chain of a linear narrative, they are no longer there in order to illustrate the character of the characters. In fact, reality is now subject to the imponderable, the irrational, the wandering of the characters in their own interiority. It is from this marginality of facts that the essence (always unresolved) of his “heroes” is revealed.

By representing reality from this angle, Fellini explores elements that will embody a new language. The excessive use of satire and the absurd, for example, is a reflection of the suspension of belief, so rooted in neorealism, of the transparency of signs and facts. There is no more transparency in the materiality of the world for Fellinian cinema. A new field of reality is constituted, focused on the contradictory interior of subjectivity, and which is shared between us, spectators, and the characters we see in the films. The world is no longer represented as true and eternal.

Fellini's films suspend the pretense of being real – they themselves want to pose as works of art, as distant representations of immediate reality. In this sense, the true attribution of its meaning lies in the mediation operated between the world and the technique of cinematographic language. We can say, then, that “the totality of the world gives way to the scenic process as a new field of immanence”[iv]. According to Fellini himself, so that the images “can truly constitute the deepest, most honest, loyal and credible expression, so that they can be the testimony of what someone imagined, these images need to be totally controlled”[v].

The film touches the world when it represents it as a work of art, as an allegory of an immanent subjectivity. Whether in Guido's long imaginations in Eight and a half, as in the representation of the small town in Amarcord, a new subjectivity emerges, at the same time individual and collective, which dyes the world with the colors of human interiority, thus taking its contradictions to a maximum, destructive exposure.

At first, Fellini could also be seen as a director who comes from a context of emergence of a new conception of film director, as observed in the authors' policy and in the New wave. Resuming the role of virtuoso who prepares the material and performs the montage, Fellini is present at every moment and in every scene of his films, reminding us of the impossibility of representing images without the author's mediation.

However, even starting from this ground common to the French, Fellini takes a leap forward, in which he strips cinema of its authenticity value. According to Luiz Renato Martins, the director consciously implodes and completely dissolves the aura and cult of the artistic object: Fellini wants to relocate the image to another level. For Martins, “Fellini would have constantly highlighted the artificial and repetitive aspect of cinema”[vi], using irony, pastiche and absurdity, always in a critical way.

When he recognizes that the work has lost its aura, his cinema finds the power to represent reality in its complexity – objective and subjective, natural and supernatural, ordinary and extraordinary. Thus, his films can not only take a journey through different times and spaces, but, in Fellini's own words, carry out a “journey through a soul”, making it possible to face the emergence of the irrational as what is most true to be represented.

If we take this interpretation as valid, we can see Fellini as a director who managed to accomplish in cinema what for Benjamin was the “historical task” of the seventh art: “to make the gigantic technical apparatus of our time the object of human innervations”[vii]. In the director, technique is not only present at all times, but wants to be seen and felt, thus giving the work an “artificial nature”. When we watch Fellini, we have the director warning us all the time: “This is a movie!”. We then have, in Benjamin's terminology, a “matured form of art”, in which reality, now mediated and purposefully purified by technique, has become artificial, however, true.

According to Glauber Rocha, this is the power of Fellinian cinema. As an example of an “incomparable aesthetic vulcanization”, Fellini is the “documentarist of the dream”, recreating it “magically through scenographies and actors”, the dream as “the projection of his Camera-Eye”[viii]. Here is one of his greatest strengths: he managed to overcome the historicist ruins of realism, “industrialized madness”, revamped the unconscious. It becomes understandable why Fellini said he would have wanted to be a magician if he wasn't a filmmaker. According to the director, the two professions would basically have the same objective: “to give chance to spontaneous dreams”[ix].

When we focus on the development of his work, we see how his distancing from the aesthetics of neorealism and the construction of a new narrative and imagery subjectivity was transformed into the generating engine of his plots. With the establishment of a new relationship between the work and the reality it represents, the director also ended up dissolving the spectator's contemplative paradigm in the face of a “subjective unit” that would constitute the personality of the characters. Subjectivity has not only become the lens through which the world is viewed, it is no longer understood as a self-centered unit.

Em nights of cabiria, the title character expresses well this transformation of subjectivity: we don't know how to decipher it completely and we don't know what she really wants, not even her dreams. Everything is opaque and uncertain. We are surprised by her actions, by her immense moral strength, by her unmistakable humor. The same occurs in the road of life, with both main characters, Giselmina and Zampanó. The construction of his subjectivity is conflicting, contradictory and never resolved.

There is no indivisible subject that evolves, but constantly mobilized desires and affections that are never satisfied, never meet. In the case of Marcello's character, in The sweet life, the involvement of this same subjective opacity occurs in an even more confusing way. What does Marcello hope to find in Sylvia, the famous American actress? Marcello runs through the entire film in a zigzagging search for an object of desire that he never manages to fully grasp. His subjectivity is not built towards a safe place, but rather, in the very wanderings he makes through the nocturnal life of the Roman aristocracy, in the confusions and parties that, lost, he tries to find.

The complexity of Fellin's characters has always been an important point to understand how the director reconfigured the representation of subjectivity and reality in cinema. Not to standardize the character of the characters is to recognize the complexity of human nature itself, its most brutal reality. There is a desire to find oneself and to save oneself which, if resolved, nullifies the complexity of reality and the work. According to Fellini, “what do they demand of my characters? Let them loudly proclaim their repentance? Those who are drowning do not cry out their own repentance, but ask for help. My whole movie is a cry for help.”[X]. His ideas were, in short, the result of a “kind of suffering that seeks its realization”[xi].

with the movies the road of life e nights of cabiria having been awarded at the Oscar in the category of Best Foreign Language Film, Fellini becomes internationally famous and acclaimed as one of the great filmmakers of his time. However, it is only with The sweet life that his stature is duly recognized. At this time, Fellini came to be seen as a symptom of a change in the expression of the new authorial status of cinema, an example of the maturation of cinematographic language.

According to the reception of the film at the time, they credit his work with a conception of cinema that goes beyond its own premises, capable of acidly revealing “the predominance of marketing in the culture and services” of its time, as a representative of a “radical change in values ​​and conduct”[xii] of society, revealing in a metalinguistic way in their works the fetishes that circulated around cinema, its stars and its entire industry. With the launch of Eight and a half, also awarded an Oscar, Fellini consolidates himself as the most recognized author of Italian cinema after Rossellini, making clear in this work the rupture and overcoming with all the tradition of cinema at the time. Seen as the apex of his new language, Fellini explores in this film not only a new representation of subjectivity, but a new representation of an “I” divided by memories of childhood and the past. The director starts to encourage new ways of representing society and history, social relations and the collective imagination.

Following such trends in his later works, the director manages to convey the image that he is supplanting not only an old and idealized representation of subjectivity, but of Italian society itself. Fellini goes on to examine objectivity through shattered subjectivity, carefully observing “the historical transformations from a totalitarian culture, with an agrarian and provincial background, to a society marked by market mechanisms and essentially conflictual, in terms of the process of industrialization and urbanization”[xiii].

The allegorical representation of characters and community life in Amarcord, a film also awarded by the Academy, is an example that demonstrates the director's attentive look at the historical legacy of the war marked as a deep scar on Italians. The famous scene of the fascist march that erupts from a dark smoke that fills the streets points to an Italy that had not yet let go of its authoritarian past. Likewise, in the emblematic scene of city residents with their boats in maritime procession to see the “greatest achievement of the regime”, a large transatlantic ship, there is a desire to be crossed by modernity, by the new and unprecedented.

The look of astonishment and admiration of the characters in front of the great work of the industry is the look of the public in front of the task of modernity that takes them by storm. It is Fellini's own perspective, a reflection that always borders on incomprehension in the face of the possibilities of the future. All this, of course, interspersed with an aesthetic construction of dissolution of the aura, of exposing the film as a work that mediates reality, but is not a reflection of it. The scenographic sea of ​​plastic is a reminder of the artificiality of Fellin's work itself. According to Roberto Schwarz, Fellini calls into question the “subjective guarantee of authenticity of art itself”, a task he undertakes from the “revelation of possibilities of desire” in different layers – whether regarding the subjectivity of the characters, or reflecting on the paths of Italian society.

When trying to Eight and a half, Schwarz clarifies how the image, in Fellini, becomes independent and powerful, capable of giving “total publicity to everything”. According to the critic, “the image harbors possibilities that the plot is unaware of and resists being framed in it; it is for him, who disposes of it, as a personal wish for the march of society: it is a subversive cell, whose wealth, without use for the plot, breathes”[xiv].

The images of this new subjectivity make Fellini's works accomplices of incoherence, thus unraveling the complexity of the characters and the historical reality to which they are attached, whether in the country's fascist past, or in its more distant past, as in Satyricon (1969). In the realm of the image that is anchored in the complexity and heterogeneity of a new subjectivity, contradiction becomes the rule, not the exception. Hence the important weight given by Fellini, in numerous of his films, to the issue of memory and childhood.

The images we construct in different periods of life are generally opposite and conflicting. Our child “I” is not realized in our adult “I”, just as we also start to face our childhood memories in a modified way, matured by time. Fellini knows how to articulate, like no one else, the present, memory and fantasy. In Eight and a half, the coming and going between the different temporalities of Guido's life imposes this logic of contradiction, which sees in images and memory the true field of realization of realism: “The real is the present, childhood is imaginary; but the clarity is in childhood, of which the real, present, is an intricate reflection”[xv].

The truth is in these representations, a “beauty touched by the improbable”, triumphant for being able to reconcile the irreconcilable. We can go further: by playing with the linearity of time, Fellini establishes a particular time regime, which does not exist in the real world, only in the subjectivity of the characters. For Gilda de Mello e Souza, this is the director's greatest achievement. Between real and unreal time, “the latter is the only signifier”. Time was blown up, and “the prominence of the real and the present was annulled”[xvi].

That is why we must face Fellin's work with a mixture of admiration and annoyance. It places us in front of another type of subjectivity, in a potent field of affections and images capable of eroding simplistic apprehensions of reality. Her work resists reductionism – it recognizes the particular, places it in contradiction with the whole. But, even so, we should not make Fellini an idol of worship. We must overcome fan clubism.

At a certain point in his reflection on the work of art, Benjamin declares that works left for posterity should not encourage a debate centered on the figure of the artist, thus resulting in a certain apologetic, psychologizing and romantic posture regarding his personality. In opposition to such a conception, we must take the artist only in what he wanted to say in his works, that is, in the form and content that he chose to convey his message.

Fellini must be admired for the construction of another way of representing the world, for the development of a specific cinematographic language that started from the recognition of the poverty of reality to seek space for fantasy. Still with Benjamin, we could say that “what dies in the master with the completed creation is that part of him in which the work was conceived. But behold, the completion of the work is not a dead thing.” When a work is seen, it is created again by the beholder, “creation gives birth to the creator”[xvii].

In a venting tone, Fellini once declared that he had the impression of having become an “object of tourism”, and that he was revolted by it. According to himself, “my province is of the metaphysical genre, it can be anywhere on the map”[xviii]. This is how Benjamin's words about the creator who becomes capable of surpassing nature are illuminated: "His native land is not the place where he was born, but rather, he comes to the world where his native land is"[xx].

*Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez is a graduate student in sociology at USP.

In commemoration of the centenary of the birth of Federico Fellini, the city of São Paulo will host, from March 12th, the retrospective Fellini, Il Maestro, which will take place in CinemaSesc, on Rua Augusta. The program, with thirteen films showing, covers all phases of the director's career, from his first productions, such as The Good Lives (1953) and the road of life (1954), including undisputed classics such as The sweet life (1959) Eight and a half (1963) and Amarcord (1973), and reaching his last films, such as Ginger and Fred (1985) and the voice of the moon (nineteen ninety). Tickets cost R$1990, with half price options and discounts for members, and can be purchased on the website of the sesc.

retrospective schedule Fellini, Il Maestro:

12/3 (Thursday)

 14 pm: The Voice of the Moon (122 min, DCP)
16:30 pm: The Good Lives (107 min, DCP)
18:30 pm: The Road of Life (108 min, DCP)
21 pm: Nights of Cabiria (110 min, 35mm)

13/3 (Friday)

 14pm: Orchestra Rehearsal (70 min, 35mm)
15:30 pm: And La Nave Va (132 min, DCP)
18 pm: Juliet of the Spirits (137 min, DCP)
21 pm: The Sweet Life (174 min, DCP)

14/3 (Saturday)

 14pm: The Clowns (92 min, 35mm)
16pm: Ginger and Fred (125 min, 35mm)
18:30 pm: Amarcord (123 min, 35mm)
21 pm: Eight and a half (138 min, DCP)

15/3 (Sunday)

 13:30: Nights of Cabiria (110 min, 35mm)
15:30 pm: The Voice of the Moon (122 min, DCP)
18 pm: The Sweet Life (174 min, DCP)
21:30: The Clowns (92 min, 35mm)

16/3 (Monday)

 13:30: Nights of Cabiria (110 min, 35mm)
15:30 pm: The Voice of the Moon (122 min, DCP)
18 pm: The Sweet Life (174 min, DCP)
21:30: The Clowns (92 min, 35mm)

17/3 (Tuesday)

 13:30 pm: Amarcord (123 min, 35mm)
16 pm: Juliet of the Spirits (137 min, DCP)
18:30 pm: Satyricon (129 min, 35mm)
21 pm: E La Nave Va (122 min, DCP)

18/3 (Wednesday)

 14pm: Ginger and Fred (125 min, 35mm)
16:30 pm: Orchestra Rehearsal (70 min, 35mm)
18 pm: Eight and a half (138 min, DCP)
21 pm: Rome (120 min, DCP)

[I] FELLINI, Federico. Interview granted to Roberto D´Ávila and Walter Salles Jr, made for the program “Conexão Internacional”, on TV Manchete, 13/06/1984.

[ii] BAZIN, Andrew. Cinematographic Realism and the Italian Liberation School (1948). In: What is cinema? São Paulo: Ubu Editora, 2018, p.310.

[iii] BAZIN, Andrew. Cabiria, or the journey to the confines of neorealism (1957). In: What is cinema? São Paulo: Ubu Editora, 2018, p.393.

[iv] MARTINS, Luiz Renato. Conflict and interpretation in Fellini. São Paulo: Publisher of the University of São Paulo and the Italian Institute of Culture, 1994.

[v] FELLINI, Federico. Interview granted to Roberto D´Ávila and Walter Salles Jr, made for the program “Conexão Internacional”, on TV Manchete, 13/06/1984.

[vi] [vi] MARTINS, Luiz Renato. Conflict and interpretation in Fellini. São Paulo: Publisher of the University of São Paulo and Italian Institute of Culture, 1994, p.22.

[vii] BENJAMIN, Walter. The work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility (1st version). In: Magic and Technique, Art and Politics: Essays on Literature and Cultural History. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 2012 (Selected Works, Vol. I), p.188.

[viii] ROCHA, Glauber. Glauber Fellini (1977). In: Fellini Visionary: A Dolce Vida, Eight and a Half, Amarcord. Org. Carlos Augusto Calil. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1994, p.300.

[ix] FELLINI, Federico. Interview given to Piero Blanchi, from the newspaper “Il Giorno”, 05/04/1973.

[X] FELLINI, Federico. Interview granted to the newspaper “L'Express”, 10/03/1960.

[xi] FELLINI, Federico. Interview granted to Valério Riva, from the newspaper “L'Express”, 07/10/1973.

[xii] MARTINS, Luiz Renato. Conflict and interpretation in Fellini. São Paulo: Publisher of the University of São Paulo and Italian Institute of Culture, 1994, p.16.

[xiii] MARTINS, Luiz Renato. Conflict and interpretation in Fellini. São Paulo: Publisher of the University of São Paulo and Italian Institute of Culture, 1994, p.18.

[xiv] SCHWARZ, Robert. The lost boy and the industry (1964). In: Fellini Visionary: A Dolce Vida, Eight and a Half, Amarcord. Org. Carlos Augusto Calil. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1994, p.155.

[xv] SCHWARZ, Robert. The lost boy and the industry (1964). In: Fellini Visionary: A Dolce Vida, Eight and a Half, Amarcord. Org. Carlos Augusto Calil. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1994, p.153.

[xvi] SOUZA, Gilda de Mello. Fellini's somersault (1980). In: Fellini Visionary: A Dolce Vida, Eight and a Half, Amarcord. Org. Carlos Augusto Calil. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1994, p.163.

[xvii] BENJAMIN, Walter. Small snippets about art. In: One-way street. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 2012 (Selected Works, Vol. II), p.285.

[xviii] FELLINI, Federico. Interview granted to Stefano Reggiani, from the newspaper “La Stampa”, 26/06/1973.

[xx] BENJAMIN, Walter. Small snippets about art. In: One-way street. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 2012 (Selected Works, Vol. II), p.285.

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