“Experience is what you get while looking for something else.” – Federico Fellini
Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini has earned his rightful place in the pantheon of great auteurs, known for his masterpieces like La Dolce Vita and 8½ which regularly make into lists of the best films to have ever been made. His unique blend of realism and fantasy and his penchant for striking imagery has remained an essential part of cinematic discourse.
In an interview, Fellini once said, “I’m afraid of solitude, of the gap between action and observation in which solitude dwells. That’s a reflection on my existence, in which I attempt to act without being swept away by the action, so as to be able to bear witness at the same time. I fear losing my spontaneity precisely because of such testimony or witnessing, because of my habit of constantly analysing and commenting. I also fear old age, madness, decline. I fear not being able to make love ten times a day.”
He added, “Making films for me is not just a creative outlet but an existential expression. I also write and paint in isolation, in an ascetic manner. Perhaps my character is too hard, too severe. The cinema itself is a miracle, though, because you can live life just as you tell it. It’s very stimulating. For my temperament and sensibility, this correlation between daily life and the life I create on screen is fantastic.”
On what is his 101st birth anniversary, we revisit Federico Fellini’s magical filmography as a celebration of his invaluable contribution to the world of cinema.
Federico Fellini feature films ranked:
20. The Voice of the Moon (1990)
Starring Roberto Benigni and Paolo Villaggio, this 1990 dramatic comedy is based on Ermano Cavazzoni’s novel Il poema dei lunatici. The Voice of the Moon was Fellini’s last film before his death in 1993. It depicts a surreal story that takes us on a bizarre journey across the Italian landscape on a mission to capture the moon.
The Voice of the Moon won David di Donatello Awards for Best Actor, Best Editing, and Best Production Design as well as several nominations. For his farewell to cinema, Fellini revisits the themes he mastered in his earlier films like La Strada and La Dolce Vita.
19. Ginger and Fred (1986)
One of Fellini’s final films, Ginger and Fred stars Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina as a couple of old celebrity impersonators who became famous as a Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire dancing duo. The film received Golden Globe and BAFTA awards while Masina won a David di Donatello for Best Actress award for her performance.
“The real ideas come to me when I sign a contract and get an advance that I don’t want to give back, when I’m obliged to make a picture,” Fellini once said, shortly after the film’s release. “I’m kidding, naturally. I don’t want to appear brutal, like Groucho Marx, but I’m the kind of creator who needs to have a higher authority – a grand duke, the pope, an emperor, a producer, a bank – to push me. Such a vulgar condition puts me on the right track. It’s only then that I start thinking about what I can, and want to, do.”
18. Orchestra Rehearsal (1978)
Often seen as a political allegory, Orchestra Rehearsal follows the uprising of a group of orchestra members who are gathered for a rehearsal in an ancient chapel when they go on strike against the conductor. Often considered one of Fellini’s most underrated works, many have attributed the director’s use of a squabbling orchestra as a metaphor for Italian politics and an inability to work together.
The film is also etched into Fellini history for a personal reason, Orchestra Rehearsal marking the final time that the Italian filmmaker worked alongside famed composer Nino Rota, a musician who passed away in 1979.
17. Intervista (1987)
Fellini’s interesting attempt to blur the lines between documentary and fiction, Intervista is a window to the memories and dreams of Fellini himself. It is set up as an interview of the auteur by a Japanese film crew where he shows them around Cinecittà studios and tells them about his passion.
Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg also appear in this interesting documentary about Fellini which Fellini directed himself! It is as much a tribute to the great filmmaker as it is to Cinecittà Film Studios where he worked for more than four decades.
16. Variety Lights (1950)
Directed in collaboration with neorealist director Alberto Lattuada, Variety Lights was Fellini’s stunning debut which displayed a lot of pre-cursors to the evolution of his artistic vision over time. The film focuses on the volatility and disruptions within a troupe of third-rate vaudevillians when a young, ambitious woman joins them.
Variety Lights was based on memories of vaudeville tours through Italy that Fellini had witnessed while growing up. The film’s visuals anticipate Fellini’s later artistic proclivities while the interesting narrative stay true to the humanist tenets of neorealism.
15. City of Women (1980)
An intersection between the worlds of fantasy, comedy and drama, City of Women stars Mastroianni as a middle-aged man who tries to understand his attitude towards woman by entering female spaces. It is an investigation of sexuality and the inherent normative biases that cloud our perspectives.
When it was screened out of competition at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, Tarkovsky saw it and noted in his diary: “At the Cannes Festival the papers said that Fellini’s last film was a total disaster, and that he himself had ceased to exist. It’s terrible, but it’s true, his film is worthless.”
14. The Clowns (1970)
Fellini’s tribute to his lifelong fascination with the carnivalesque, The Clowns is a pseudo-documentary which transcends genre. The veteran filmmaker dismisses any claims that clown acts are superficial entertainment, proving that philosophically loaded themes of life and death exist beneath the surface.
Although it is considered to be “lesser Fellini”, The Clowns is an important work in Fellini’s filmography because it displays his treatment of cinema as a carnival. Like many of his other works, it blurs the lines between fact and fiction because it does not believe in those binaries. The film only cares about the autobiographical and the universal.
13. Fellini’s Casanova (1976)
Adapted from the autobiography of the legendary 18th-century adventurer Giacomo Casanova, Fellini creates a masterful examination of Casanova’s troubled legacy. Starring Donald Sutherland as the title character, the film depicts the philosophical erosion of Casanova’s identity as he keeps finding comfort in the momentary pleasures afforded by hedonism.
Fellini disliked Casanova and wanted to reveal the “void” in his life. The film won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design as well as several other accolades, including a David di Donatello Award as well as two BAFTAs.
12. Roma (1972)
A semi-autobiographical comedy-drama, Roma draws on Fellini’s own experiences as a young man when he moved to Rome from his native Rimini. The protagonist of Fellini’s brilliant film is the city itself, exploring how modernity has changed and corrupted the life in Rome.
Although it was rejected by the Academy as well as the Cannes committee, Roma has become an essential part of Fellini’s filmography. It is an extremely personal work which manages to be universal in its scope, like all good art should.
11. The White Sheik (1952)
Directed and written by Fellini, this early delightful romantic comedy was the filmmaker’s first solo directorial project. The White Sheik stars Alberto Sordi as the alluring title character who becomes the object of a young bride’s desires when she finds herself in Rome on a terribly boring honeymoon.
Intended to be satirical in nature, the script was started by Michelangelo Antonioni but producer Carlo Ponti handed it to Fellini and Tullio Pinelli instead. It was later remade by Woody Allen in one of the sections of his 2012 film To Rome With Love.
10. Il Bidone (1955)
Featuring the likes of Broderick Crawford, Richard Basehart and Giulietta Masina, Il Bidone builds on neorealist themes of social consciousness and tells the story of a group of swindlers who exploit the poor in the countryside. It is as humorous as it is poignant, showing how modern scepticism is not conducive to moral awakenings.
Il Bidone was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and has been declared a masterpiece by later critical evaluations. It also served as the inspiration for Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1995 film The Star Makers.
9. And The Ship Sails On (1983)
Set just before the commencement of the first World War, Fellini’s surreal film about a period of transition is also filmed on a transitory space: aboard a ship. It follows a group of friends who are gathered on a luxury cruise ship to scatter the ashes of a dead opera singer as the world around them undergoes irreversible changes.
Famous novelist Alberto Moravia explained, “What is brilliant is the intuition that European society of the Belle Epoque had emptied itself of all humanism leaving only an artificial and exhaustive formalism. The result was a society founded on a continuous yet contemptible melodrama.”
8. Juliet of the Spirits (1965)
A mystical portrait of a middle-aged woman (Giulietta Masina), Juliet of the Spirits is a psychological incursion into the psyche of an oppressed wife who wants to leave her philandering husband. It presents these problems through the surreal landscape of dreams and visions. It won the 1966 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Fellini said, “Juliet touches on myths within human psychology; its images, therefore, are those of a fable. But it treats of a profound human reality: the institution of marriage, and the need within it for individual liberation.”
Adding, “It’s the portrait of an Italian woman, conditioned by our modern society, yet a product of misshapen religious training and ancient dogmas—like the one about getting married and living happily ever alter. When she grows up and finds it hasn’t come true, she can neither face nor understand it; and so she escapes into a private world of remembered yesterdays and mythical tomorrows.”
7. Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Based on a story written by Fellini himself, Nights of Cabiria is a touching chronicle of a young woman’s miseries after she is robbed and left to drown by her boyfriend. Working as a prostitute, she tries to rise above the cynicism of the modern world but it becomes an overwhelmingly omnipresent truth.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Fellini’s second Oscar in a row after winning one for La Strada. For her powerful performance as Cabiria, Giulietta Masina won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival that year.
6. I Vitelloni (1953)
This was Fellini’s first critical and commercial hit and helped in rebuilding his reputation after the commercial failure of his previous film, The White Sheik. Film historians have noted that I Vitelloni marked an important phase in the development of Fellini’s filmmaking style. It is an insightful look at five men who are stuck in a coming-of-age dream even though they should have grown out of it a long time ago, dreaming of an escape from their small town existence.
The film captures the widespread social changes of 1950s Italy as well as autobiographical elements from the director’s life. I Vitelloni won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award as well.
5. Fellini Satyricon (1969)
One of Fellini’s most intriguing fantasy films, Satyricon is loosely based on Petronius’ eponymous work and launches a powerful examination of the Roman landscape while focusing on the depths of human depravity. It is a visual masterpiece which blends science fiction and history, creating an essential cinematic experience.
In a 1969 interview with Roger Ebert, Fellini explained, “This picture is a trip back to Nero’s time, and that means it is a trip into an unknown dimension…First I have to invent this world of Nero. Then I must see it from a very narrow point of view, so it will appear foreign and unknown. I am examining ancient Rome as if this were a documentary about the customs and habits of the Martians.
“The film is so detached, the sex in it will not be erotic. Everyone says Fellini is making a dirty movie. But everything will be abstract, detached. The sex in Satyricon will be like those ancient Indian statues on the positions of love. Even as you see a woman kissing a monster, it means nothing, because it is so old, so far away, from another civilisation.”
4. La Strada (1954)
La Strada is one of Fellini’s most well-known films and for good reason. It is a mythological work of art, Fellini’s attempt to make sense of his own identity through the cinematic medium. La Strada stars Giulietta Masina as a simple young woman who is sold by her poor mother to a circus strongman who takes her with him on the road and subjects her to all kinds of cruelty. The film won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1957.
Fellini recalled, “At the beginning I had only a confused feeling, a kind of tone that lurked, which made me melancholy and gave me a diffused sense of guilt, like a shadow hanging over me. This feeling suggested two people who stay together, although it will be fatal, and they don’t know why. But once this feeling crystallised, the story came easily, as if it had been there waiting to be found.”
3. Amarcord (1973)
Inspired by the director’s youth, Amarcord is set in the 1930s Italy under the fascist rule and explores the nature of life in a coastal town. We follow an adolescent boy named Titta as he grows up, learns about the world and interacts with his eccentric neighbours.
Amarcord was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning the coveted prize for Best Foreign Language Film. Considered to be Fellini’s last commercial success, the film experienced a resurgence when it was picked up by the Criterion Collection in 1998 and then re-issued later for the BluRay version.
2. La Dolce Vita (1960)
Arguably Fellini’s greatest filmmaking success, La Dolce Vita stars Marcello Mastroianni as a gossip columnist who embarks on a remarkable odyssey in search of fulfilment while navigating the pleasures that Rome has to offer. The film was one of the most widely seen and critically acclaimed European films of its time, winning an Academy Award out of four nominations as well as earning the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
“What I intended was to show the state of Rome’s soul, a way of being of a people,” the filmmaker said.” What it became was a scandalous report, a fresco of a street and a society. But I never go to Via Veneto—it isn’t my street. And I never attend festas of aristocrats—I don’t know any.
“The left-wing press played it up as headline reportage on Rome, but it didn’t have to be Rome: it could have been Bangkok or a thousand other cities. I intended it as a report on Sodom and Gomorrah, a trip into anguish and despair. I intended for it to be a document, not a documentary.”
1. 8½ (1963)
8½ is Fellini’s magnum opus, there can be no doubt about this. One of the finest examples of a film about a film, it has the most striking opening sequence in the history of cinema. The filmmaker builds up a grand skeleton of what a film is supposed to be and spends his time deconstructing that framework, creating art while questioning it. Brilliantly self-indulgent and visually stunning, 8½ is a spiritual journey through the landscape of cinema itself.
The film is a seminal cinematic work that inspired countless other works like Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). It won two Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design (black-and-white) while garnering three other nominations for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Art Direction (black-and-white). The New York Film Critics Circle also named 8 ½ the best foreign language film.
Fellini explained, “In 8½, society’s norms and rules imprisoned Guido in his boyhood with a sense of guilt and frustration. From childhood many of us are conditioned by a similar education. Then, growing up, we find ourselves in profound conflict—a conflict created by having been taught to idealise our lives, to pursue aesthetic and ethical ideals of absolute good or evil.
“This imposes impossible standards and unattainable aspirations that can only impede the spontaneous growth of a normal human being, and may conceivably destroy him. You must have experienced this yourself. There arrives a moment in life when you discover that what you’ve been told at home, in school or in church is simply not true. You discover that it binds your authentic self, your instinct, your true growth.”