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Exploring the dark side of Italian director Federico Fellini


There are few filmmakers that carry the same cinematic grandeur as Federico Fellini, standing beside the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky as one of the greatest of all time. The Italian auteur is responsible for such 20th-century classics as La Dolce Vita, La Strada and among many more, suffusing his enigmatic style into each and every one of his projects. 

Much like Hitchcock, Kubrick and many of his fellow creatives, however, Federico Fellini was known for his sharp tongue and rigid cinematic vision, often finding it hard to work and negotiate with others around him. An emotional and sensitive filmmaker, Fellini once opened up about his intimate insecurities noting, “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”. 

A deeply passionate filmmaker, Fellini was, in many ways, a typical Italian male, embodying the European character that cinema would have us believe — partaking in frequent love affairs before returning to his wife, Giulietta Masina, and despairing to his mother. Though, of course, such issues left a deep scar. Whilst Fellini’s large character and loving heart are often discussed in historical texts and interviews, his narcissism and sexist nature often boiled over into his film projects. 

In terms of female characters, Fellini, therefore, leaves a prickly legacy, as whilst he clearly held superficial love for the female form, from his personal life and filmography it is unclear whether he truly respected women. The truth is that many of the female characters in the films of Federico Fellini are either empty, idolised figures of desire or prostitutes, likely recalling the director’s own internal thoughts about the opposite sex. 

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Presenting women through his own lens of needs and desires, the female characters of Fellini are Gelsomina in La Strada, an abused naïve woman driven to despair, or Sylvia in La Dolce Vita, an empty woman given meaning through the eyes of male character Marcello. Further still, when Fellini attempts to give his female characters voice and purpose, such as in City of Women, they are merely presented as weak feminist figures. Even those who are supposedly sexually liberated are cast off and represented as ‘the other’.

Whilst Federico Fellini remains a great European filmmaker, the disdain for his own female characters is a tarnished mark on his otherwise polished legacy, stopping him from being considered as one of the true masters of cinema. Nonetheless, Fellini was certainly a visionary, with his films having a significant effect on the shape of 20th-century popular culture, with no better example of this being his coin of the phrase ‘paparazzi’ in the film La Dolce Vita. 

A conduit, reflecting his own dreams and deep ruminations, the films of Federico Fellini ushered in an expressive style of filmmaking that helped elevate Italian cinema post-WWII. Juxtaposing dreams, fantasy and the shadows of reality, helped to popularise an experimental European style, reaching across continents to inspire the likes of David Lynch, Martin Scorsese and many many more.