March of Time: The Enduring Magic of Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini Movie - Intervista 1987 Film

With the consecutive releases of La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, in 1960 and 1963 respectively, director Federico Fellini and star Marcello Mastroianni united to shape contemporary perceptions of social and sexual interaction, existential anguish and the complexities of a rapidly-shifting, exciting yet terrifying and entirely impulsive mode of modernity. These two films, coming at a time of similarly probing cinematic documents around the world, were high water marks for the medium — groundbreaking achievements that defined an increasingly indefinable world. While Fellini and Mastroianni would each excel in their own singular efforts and diverse accomplishments thereafter, neither could easily extricate themselves from the tenor, content and the conjoined persona established with these preceding features. 

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that as the decades passed and the two grew inevitably distanced from their earlier films, the general view, rightly or wrongly, was that their greatest days, or at least their most influential, were behind them. And for each, there was an implied struggle to retain or recapture that sense of immediacy and relevancy. But by the 1980s, for Fellini in particular, even if his later films were relatively prosaic by comparison (1973’s Amarcord was his last great film), there was still the persistent recognition that each offering, no matter how uneven as a whole, was nevertheless sure to yield any number of gloriously distinct “Felliesque” qualities. So, when the star and director reunited for 1980’s City of Women (La città delle donne), followed by Ginger and Fred (1986), and, though Mastroianni is but a small part of its meta-mosaic, Intervista (1987), the three films were inextricably linked by their resounding allusions to not just the team’s prior collaborations, but to their individual careers and the endurance of their popular condition. 

Although it was, in reality, hardly that frequent, such was the impression made by Mastroianni in his work with Fellini — he was seen almost instantly as something of a self-reflective, even wish-fulfilling surrogate for the director — that the return casting of the actor is playfully alluded to at the start of City of Women, when a female voice sarcastically calls out as his name appears during the opening credits, “Marcello again?” Here, Mastroianni plays Snàporaz (a nickname bestowed on his Guido Anselmi in 8 ½), who lethargically awakens aboard a train and is almost instantly energized when his womanizing ways rouse him firmly from his slumber; “Fantastic arse,” he says of his compartment mate (Bernice Stegers), whom he swiftly proceeds to accost in the train’s restroom. Their tryst is interrupted, however, by a mysterious stop and the even more peculiar disembarking of the woman, who exits the train and journeys into the countryside. Although quickly winded as he chases her down (just the start of the film’s preoccupation with advancing age), Snàporaz follows the beguiling beauty to her destination, a secluded hotel bustling with women of all shapes and sizes and dispositions, all gathered for a raucously eclectic feminist convention. Those at the gathering assume Snàporaz is a journalist there to cover the event, an event that initially seems innocuous enough as the women engage in meditative yoga, sing songs and discuss the differences between men and women: their sounds, their anatomy, their sexuality. But as discussion turns to issues regarding patriarchal upending and demands for equity, Snàporaz, who was earlier warned about his potentially detrimental presence at the clearly gender-specific assembly, begins to chide their “angry” brand of feminism. 

Federico Fellini Movie - City of Women 1980 Film

While the women enact skits to depict scenes of discrimination and domestic hypocrisy, as part City of Women’s series of thematically related vignettes, they do so with equal parts humor and resentment, professing a fundamental positivity, exuberance and solidarity, which leaves Snàporaz somewhat bewildered as he wanders the grounds, hovering on the periphery. In this circus-like atmosphere, where indeed the women lament being seen as “clowns” and it is, to be sure, debatable as to how exactly the film does consider their behavior, it doesn’t take long before the undercurrent of gestating hostility is realized and they set their sights on Snàporaz as the embodiment of all they rally against. It’s a view reasonable enough, and necessary for how City of Women unfolds, for the picture steadily takes shape as a kaleidoscopic investigation of the character’s — and by extension Fellini’s — appraisal of women and his understanding (or lack thereof) of their elemental complexion.

Such matters had been with Fellini since the beginning; even his debut feature as solo director, 1952’s The White Sheik, concerned itself in part with how the two sexes differed when it came to the fantasy-reality overlap of romantic engagement. And launching with the familiarly suggestive motif of a train entering a tunnel, City of Women accelerates this refrain and abounds in sexual imagery and topicality. Crudely regarding women at times (declaring his train companion a “whore” and a “hot bitch”), it’s acknowledged at the off that Snàporaz behaves, and has repeatedly behaved, like an adolescent, adopting an approach and overview unbecoming for someone of his mature age. Due to these rampant implications put into action, a threatened Snàporaz flees the hotel and seeks shelter with the film’s other most prominent male figure, the unsavory Dr. Xavier Katzone, played by a hearty Ettore Manni. Katzone (whose name apparently means “big cock”) is a cliched male incarnation as abundantly overstated as many of the women were earlier in the picture. He is enamored with weaponry and, at the moment, the celebration of his ten-thousandth sexual conquest. His is hardly a stable view of masculinity and is the flip-side of the film’s occasionally acerbic, divisive interpretation of women’s liberation and sexuality (again, this wasn’t exactly virgin territory for the filmmaker; see Fellini’s Casanova released four years earlier). But amongst the punk rock misfits and tantalizing vixens, Snàporaz also encounters, in a more down to earth reckoning, his ex-wife, Elena (Anna Prucnal), which leads to a contemplative realization of his marital shortcomings and descends into a funhouse memorial of his younger self and a final inquisition during which Fellini’s protagonist is pursued and at one point literally encaged. As a further entry in Fellini’s ongoing estimate concerning women, relationships and eroticism, City of Women is likely his most blatantly comprehensive, including everything from a woman who proudly touts her six compliant husbands to young boys masturbating to scenes of Hollywood’s feminine idols, the sexual allure of cinema being something Fellini would repeatedly embrace, using the form itself to enlighten and manipulate related encounters. The outcome, as it would be throughout his career, and no more overtly than in City of Women, is an ecstatic amalgamation of confessional adoration, fascination and perplexion. 

First appearing in City of Women with disheveled gray hair and in a rumpled, dusty suit jacket, Mastroianni’s weary comportment befits his depiction of Snàporaz, who is plagued by exhaustion stemming from his age, the overwhelming progression of events, and the endless parade of animated individuals making/rebuking his acquaintance. Despite this, Mastroianni’s physical dexterity is on full display, in his expressive gestures, his frolic through Katzone’s corridor of photographs (highlighting assorted women and their respective echoes of sexual endeavor), and in his staircase routine with two scantily clad ladies. Curiously, though, Mastroianni, in his fifties at the time, was not actually Fellini’s first choice for the role (Dustin Hoffman was an early consideration), and of his eventual star, the director stated he “hardly has the physique of a dancer.” In any event, Mastroianni’s performative skill would become central to the next film he made with Fellini, Ginger and Fred, where, for the first time, the quintessential male representative of Fellini’s cinema would also be joined by his female counterpart, Giulietta Masina, the director’s wife of more than 50 years. 

Federico Fellini Movie - Ginger and Fred 1986 Film

The innately affable Masina, who carved an indelible imprint on film history through her work with Fellini, notably in La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957), had scarcely acted in feature films since the late 1960s, but here she is as Amelia Bonetti, the Ginger to Mastroianni’s Fred, otherwise known as Pippo Botticella. Decades removed from their prime, as impersonators of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the two entertainers are brought together for a nostalgic television program called We Are Proud to Present. In the lead-up to their eventual performance, a dance number to “Cheek to Cheek” recorded against a neon, mirrored showcase and temporarily stalled due to a blackout, Ginger and Fred develops into an often-touching retrospective about retired stars, former glories (such as they were in the first place) and a changing cultural climate. It’s also about growing older and how no amount of anti-aging facial exercise can prevent one from becoming out of place and out of time, estranged by burgeoning youth and haunted by certain mortality. 

Written by Fellini alongside Tonino Guerra and Tullio Pinelli, both of whom had collaborated with the director previously, Ginger and Fred emerged from, ironically enough, a television program Fellini was supposed to make with Masina. How much remains of that aborted project is unknown, but what does come through in this sentimental dual-star vehicle is the poignant consideration of two fading performers and their complicated relationship, during the time of their greatest prominence and now in the wake of their detached and shared life experiences. Exuding an abiding elegance, Masina’s Amelia is happily married and views the broadcast rather like a joyous whimsy, at least to start, while Mastroianni’s Pippo, though balding and generally worse for wear, is still the wannabe playboy with an arsenal of lewd rhymes; he’s also less certain of the event’s diversionary or transcendent value. All the same, in some of Fellini’s most endearing sequences of genuine human interaction, Amelia and Pippo reflect on days gone by with a tender, understated sensitivity encapsulated in the picture’s bittersweet finale. Where the film directs its scorn, on the other hand, is toward the medium of television, with all its exaggerated absurdity that today, in light of what currently passes for home entertainment, doesn’t seem that far removed from reality. Even so, the satirical excesses, the artificial music video theatricality and the hyper sexualized commercials are right up Fellini’s alley, much like the composite assortment of novelties assembled for this particular variety show, a mélange of celebrity lookalikes, criminals and costumed curios representing the far reaches of religion, sexual enticement, corruption, show business and even animal oddities. 

As it could sometimes be, Fellini’s casting in City of Women and Ginger and Fred is a questionable practice, featuring many who seem to serve a purely exploitative physical purpose, but they are nonetheless treated with innocuous sympathy, and the idiosyncratic, spontaneous casting regularly on exhibit in a Fellini film is explicitly evoked in Intervista, Fellini’s penultimate feature and his ultimate ode to motion picture creation. In this film, where one woman, an archetypal Fellini figure, is randomly pulled from a train station and brought to the set, Fellini is himself asked, “Where do you find all the strange faces?” And with characters credited simply as “Star,” “Bride,” “Spouse” and “Vestal Virgin,” exemplifying his penchant for caricature and illustrative types over patent personalities integral to narrative comprehension, Intervista is a wildly loose pseudo-documentary ostensibly about the making of Fellini’s latest film, an adaptation of Kafka’s Amerika. Intervista commences with a series of interviews by a Japanese TV crew (intervista meaning “interview” in Italian) and it crisscrosses with a humorous patchwork of Fellini’s own memories, such as visiting Cinecittà as a journalist in the 1930s, a recollection realized and embodied by a stand-in for Fellini’s younger self played by Sergio Rubini. Intervista also sees a tour of the legendary Italian studio and depicts all facets of the film-within-the-film’s production, including a bomb scare, difficulty with props and actors and how a rain delay in shooting can foster communal resolution amongst the depleted cast and crew. 

Intervista Movie Film

And, of course, it features Mastroianni, first seen rising to the window of Fellini’s office (aboard an elevating platform) as the actor is encircled by gusting winds and soaring balloons. It’s more than an hour into the film before Mastroianni appears, dressed as Mandrake the Magician, on the lot to shoot a commercial, and he is only in Intervista for a short time after that, but his impact and his subsequent function yield the most heartrending moment in any Fellini feature. Fellini and Mastroianni set off for a surprise visit to the villa of one Anita Ekberg, the luminous icon of La Dolce Vita . Smoking incessantly (much to Fellini’s chagrin), requiring eye drops and dozing off during the car ride, a periodically fatigued Mastroianni proceeds to transport Intervista, its characters and the viewer, back in time when he “magically” projects scenes from Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece upon a makeshift screen. Ekberg jokingly says she heard Mastroianni has had three facelifts, while he admirably compares her considerable physical constitution to that of a gladiator, but for a few fleeting moments, the two are enlivened by the view of their younger selves, traipsing through the Trevi Fountain and setting the world — cinematic or otherwise — ablaze with their phenomenal screen presence. It is the essence of movie magic and poignantly captures the enduring potency of the form’s transformative power.

Composer Nino Rota, another Fellini mainstay as vital to the filmmaker’s work as any actor or actress, had passed away in 1979, so the music on these three films was arranged by Luis Bacalov, on City of Women, and Nicola Piovani, on Ginger and Fred and Intervista. Other invaluable contributions were made by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, on City of Women, and Ennio Guarnieri and Tonino Delli Colli, on Ginger and Fred (Delli Colli serving the same function on Intervista), and City of Women was produced by Franco Rossellini and Renzo Rossellini, nephew and son of the great Roberto Rossellini. The production design, a herculean task on any Fellini production, is rendered magnificently by the esteemed Dante Ferretti on the first two features and by Danilo Donati on the latter (he was also Intervista’s costume designer). All were enlisted to bring Fellini’s incomparable vision to life; a delirious, surreal, sometimes nightmarish voyage into the realm of remembrance and boundless possibility — “What kind of film is this?” Mastroianni wonders aloud in City of Women, while Masina asks in Ginger and Fred, “Where are we, in a zoo?” Tones fluctuate and the narrative direction, such as there is and such as it really matters, can be baffling. Overused though the analogy may be, it is very much like a dream, City of Women literally so, and Fellini remarks in Intervista that the film he’s making will in fact open with just such an illusory scenario. 

Even in Ginger and Fred, the most conventional of the films discussed here, an ordinary train station isn’t free from spectacle and commotion, its concrete world emblazoned by chaos. And yet, for all the seeming incongruities, for all that appears effectively out of context, rarely does any facet of a Fellini film feel anything but perfectly at home. The miraculous imagination behind this process is at the fore of Intervista, an unconditionally delightful roundup of Fellini’s affinity for elaborate, abstract and absurd set pieces, technical innovation and illusion. Here one sees the untethered maneuverings of studio filmmaking, even the downtime, as everything somehow manages to coalesce as part of a charmed process whereby an imaginary world is accomplished by lights, booms, cranes and smoke machines. Whether what transpires is simply a distorted memory or purely a dreamscape extract, in this film or any other Fellini feature for that matter, it hardly makes any difference. And just as it is often relatedly impossible to examine any Fellini film apart from his prior work, so conspicuous is his cinema and so intwined are his formal choices and themes, in City of Women, Ginger and Fred and Intervista, so too is it a fruitless effort to not consent as he and Mastroianni conjure and reflect the glint of their earlier collaborations. Especially in Intervista, as it prominently features Fellini throughout — the persona, the artist, the maestro, the ringmaster — one can’t help but bask in the direct, subjective joy and the elegiac reverence for cinema itself. As a result, what these three films show, above all else, is that while the director himself may have aged since the 1960s, the enchantment of Federico Fellini had never grown old, and it never will.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, The Retro Set, The Moving Image and Diabolique Magazine. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.