“Don’t tell me what I’m doing; I don’t want to know.”― Federico Fellini
One of the greatest and most celebrated filmmakers in the history of cinema, the Italian maestro Federico Fellini once famously described his experience of the hallucinatory effects of LSD, which he had taken under the supervision of Emilio Servadio, his psychoanalyst during the 1954 production of La Strada.
“Objects and their functions no longer had any significance,” he once said. “All I perceived was perception itself, the hell of forms and figures devoid of human emotion and detached from the reality of my unreal environment. I was an instrument in a virtual world that constantly renewed its own meaningless image in a living world that was itself perceived outside of nature. And since the appearance of things was no longer definitive but limitless, this paradisiacal awareness freed me from the reality external to my self. The fire and the rose, as it were, became one.”
His films, which differed with the subject matter, style and narrative form extensively: from his initial days of neorealist Italia—The White Sheik and I Vitelloni—to beyond neorealism with La Strada, Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita, to his “art” films of the 1960s in the shape of 8½and Juliet of the Spirits and, of course, then onto his nostalgic recollections of his own memories growing up with Amarcord and Roma; Federico Fellini wielded his craft for more than four decades, making movies that were characteristic of his ‘Fellinian’ combination of memory, dreams, fantasy and desire.
“Synonymous with any kind of extravagant, fanciful, even baroque image in the cinema and art in general,” Fellini’s impact on the society can be felt even today, remarkably hundred years after he was born.
On the occasion of the master’s 27th death anniversary, we look back at ten of the finest Fellini films.
Federico Fellini’s Top 10 Films:
10. Ginger and Fred (1986)
Marked by the reunion of two of Fellini’s greatest collaborators: his on-stage alter-ego Marcello Mastroianni and his great love Giulietta Masina; Ginger and Fred was nominated for Best Foreign Film Awards in 1986 by the U.S. National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, as well as the 1987 Golden Globes and BAFTA.
A reference to the American dancing couple of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, this hysterically funny film followed the duo as two leads impersonating as the Italian variant of Astaire and Rogers, who reunite after thirty years of retirement for a vulgar and bizarre television extravaganza.
9. And the Ship Sails On (1983)
Another film from Fellini nearing the twilight of his career, And the Ship Sails On depicts the events on board a luxury liner filled with the friends of a deceased opera singer who have gathered to mourn her.
This masterful critique of European society that preceded the First World War was selected as the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 56th Academy Awards.
8. Juliet of the Spirits (1965)
Fellini’s hallucinatory insights were given full flower in his first colour feature Juliet of the Spirits, telling the story of a housewife who rightly suspects her husband’s infidelity and succumbs to the voices of spirits summoned during a séance at her home.
Complex and filled with psychological symbolism, the film is set to a jaunty score by Nino Rota. The film uses “caricatural types and dream situations to represent a psychic landscape.” Starring wife Giulietta Masina, Juliet of the Spirits won Fellini the 1966 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
7. Amarcord (1973)
Amarcord, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, was also nominated for two more Academy Awards in the shape of the coveted Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
This semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale centres on Titta, an adolescent boy growing up among an eccentric cast of characters in the village of Borgo San Giuliano (situated near the ancient walls of Rimini) in 1930s Fascist Italy.
Fellini shot the film over a period of six months between January and June 1973, loosely basing it on the director’s 1968 autobiographical essay My Rimini. Amarcord avoided plot and linear narrative, remarking: “I am trying to free my work from certain constrictions – a story with a beginning, a development, an ending. It should be more like a poem with metre and cadence.”
6. Roma (1972)
His heartfelt love letter to his adopted city of Rome, Roma depicts director Federico Fellini’s move from his native Rimini to Rome as a youth during the early Mussolini years. It is a homage to the city, shown in a series of loosely connected episodes set during both Rome’s past and present.
The plot is minimal, and the only ‘character; to develop significantly is Rome herself. Peter Gonzales plays the young Fellini, and the film features mainly newcomers in the cast.
The film’s opening scene anticipates Amarcord while its most surreal sequence involves an ecclesiastical fashion show in which nuns and priests roller skate past shipwrecks of cobwebbed skeletons.
5. Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and starring Giulietta Masina, the film took its inspiration from news reports of a woman’s severed head retrieved in a lake and stories by Wanda, a shantytown prostitute Fellini met on the set of Il Bidone.
The movie won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 30th Academy Awards and brought Masina the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her performance.
4. La Strada (1954)
Fellini has called La Strada “a complete catalogue of my entire mythological world, a dangerous representation of my identity that was undertaken with no precedent whatsoever.”
The film tells the story of Gelsomina, a simple-minded young woman (Giulietta Masina) bought from her mother by Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), a brutish strongman who takes her with him on the road.
It won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1957 and was placed fourth in the 1992 British Film Institute directors’ list of cinema’s top 10 films.
3. I Vitelloni (1953)
When the American magazine Cinema asked Stanley Kubrick in 1963 to name his ten favourite films, he ranked I Vitelloni number one.
His first commercial and critical success, I Vitelloni starred Franco Fabrizi and Franco Interlenghi in a story of five young Italian men at crucial turning points in their small town lives. Recognised as a pivotal work in the director’s artistic evolution, the film has distinct autobiographical elements that mirror important societal changes in 1950s Italy.
Winning the Silver Lion Award in Venice, it secured Fellini his first international distributor, and is his most imitated him: inspiring other European directors Juan Antonio Bardem, Marco Ferreri, and Lina Wertmüller, and influenced Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, George Lucas’s American Graffiti, and Joel Schumacher’s St. Elmo’s Fire, among many others.
2. La Dolce Vita (1960)
One of the greatest films from Federico Fellini, the artistically indulgent La Dolce Vita follows Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a journalist writing for gossip magazines, over seven days and nights on his journey through the “sweet life” of Rome in a fruitless search for love and happiness.
It won the Palme d’Or at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and the Oscar for Best Costumes. The film was also a worldwide box-office success and a critical success, and is now frequently regarded as one of the greatest films in world cinema.
1. 8½ (1963)
Undoubtedly his magnum opus, Fellini first outlined his film ideas about a man suffering creative block: “Well then – a guy (a writer? any kind of professional man? a theatrical producer?) has to interrupt the usual rhythm of his life for two weeks because of a not-too-serious disease. It’s a warning bell: something is blocking up his system.”
After himself struggling to get going with the project, Fellini’s creative crisis came to a head in April when, sitting in his Cinecittà office, he began a letter confessing he had “lost his film” and had to abandon the project. Interrupted by the chief machinist requesting he celebrate the launch of 8½ Fellini put aside the letter and went on the set. Raising a toast to the crew, he “felt overwhelmed by shame… I was in a no exit situation.”
He added: “I was a director who wanted to make a film he no longer remembers. And lo and behold, at that very moment everything fell into place. I got straight to the heart of the film. I would narrate everything that had been happening to me. I would make a film telling the story of a director who no longer knows what film he wanted to make”.
The self-mirroring structure makes that the entire film is inseparable from its reflecting construction.