La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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My review of Shawn Levy’s book Dolce Vita Confidential which excavates in scrupulous detail the circumstances leading up to the film’s production is here:  http://offscreen.com/view/dolce-vita-swinging-rome.

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Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

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Giulietta Masina suspects that her event manager husband is a philanderer and a mystic confirms her worst fears so she hires a private eye to follow him and get the proof. That’s it, in a nutshell. Except it’s SO much more. She’s more contained, conventional, bourgeois than her cliquey flamboyant friends who show up to have a seance to celebrate her birthday. They all have artistic lives, huge hats, exotic lovers and her equally worldly sisters have beautiful little children to add injury to insult. The woman next door entertains her lovers in a tree house:  when Giulietta returns her cat she demurs from their offer to join them. She enters a world of fantasy and flashback, frequently finding an amusing correlative on TV for her woes and Fellini indulges his wife’s character in all kinds of daydreams and psychic excursions, memories of frightening nuns from childhood, intimations of sex in a brothel. She’s so different from the artificial environment in which she finds herself which is incredibly photographed and looking as fresh as if it were made yesterday. The images are like jolts to the senses:  this was the maestro’s first feature in colour and boy did he revel in its painterly possibilities with Gianni De Venanzo’s cinematography making pictures that sing. Critics argue about the film’s significance and whether it was his explanation to Masina for his own extra-marital life, but it is sheerly wondrous, a throwback to when films mattered.

Nine (2009)

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This must have been a dazzling stage show – showstopping dance numbers, terrific women performers, a variety of takes on Federico Fellini’s partially autobiographical masterpiece 8 1/2.  Arthur Kopit’s idea and Maury Yeston’s music apparently made for a great night on Broadway and earned plaudits for both Raul Julia and Antonio Banderas when they tackled the role of the great man or at least his avatar. But this is a film. And Fellini made some of the best. Rob Marshall is a theatre director, through and through, an expert choreographer and someone who can stage things … but his films are made in the editing room (I give you Chicago.) This is not so rare – only 6 directors or thereabouts in Hollywood ever have final cut:  there’s just too much money riding on it. Kate Hudson has an amazing dance number, some of the best screen actresses of the age are the satellite visions of director Guido’s reality and fantasy and the costumes and hairdos are very pretty. But the yawning chasm of pantomime at the centre of this appalling travesty is Daniel Day-Lewis who allegedly spent 2 years working as a shoemaker in Florence in preparation. He should have watched Mastroianni’s films.  Even 8 1/2.  I mean, he copied John Huston for his takeoff in There Will Be Blood, non e vero?! Dreadful. Adapted, if you can believe it, by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella.

8 1/2 (1963)

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A great film, like fine wine, simply gets better with age. And the viewer’s increasing age helps too.  Fellini’s masterpiece – well, one of them – is a magnificent, epic carnival of creativity, narrative, beauty, obsession, dithering, memory, fantasy, love, family, sex, religion, school, acting, obligation and film. He and Ennio Flaiano devised the story and the screenplay was assisted by Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi (the team behind il maestro’s La Dolce Vita). I hadn’t expected to watch it today, but there it was and I was gripped, even moreso than before. Perhaps its impact and universality derive from the need to make sense of things, to construct meaning, to sort things out rationally so that a narrative can be constructed and things have a natural flow – which of course life rarely does.  And filmmaker Guido is constantly disrupted by the people in his life and the film critic sent to haunt him. And there’s a ruddy spaceship and he’s supposed to make a sci-fi film. Guido’s past and his inner life surround him in a mythos of fabulism and fatalism. In the fifty-plus years since its release, it is very difficult to make the claim for any film, anywhere, that it is better than this.  All human life is here. The beautiful confusion indeed.