Federico Fellini defined Italian cinema. His immense body of work – which includes La Dolce Vita, Rome, Open City, and Amarcord – continues to cast a looming shadow over the country’s cinematic landscape. He was of a generation for whom cinema was still an essential art form, for whom the medium was able to capture something that music or literature simply could not. Fellini was arguably one of the most important directors of this period. His name alone came to represent a certain style and atmosphere and, today, his influence can be felt in the very DNA of cinema. For Martin Scorcese especially, Fellini was one of the true “masters” of film.
The American director had heard tell of Fellini from his cinephile peers but didn’t have the opportunity to see anything for himself until La Dolce Vita opened in a Broadway cinema in 1960. In a recent essay, Scorcese describes how “the maestro” changed everything. For the young director, Fellini was more than a filmmaker, he was an artist, a pioneer and a rebel. During the 1960s, Fellini – like Chaplin, Picasso and The Beatles – became “much bigger than his own art. At a certain point, it was no longer a matter of this or that film but all the films combined as one grand gesture written across the galaxy. Going to see a Fellini film was like going to hear Callas sing or Olivier act or Nureyev dance. His films even started to incorporate his name—Fellini Satyricon, Fellini’s Casanova. The only comparable example in film was Hitchcock, but that was something else: a brand, a genre in and of itself. Fellini was the cinema’s virtuoso.”
In the eyes of the impressionable Scorcese, Fellini was working at a unique level. Combining the baroque and the mundane, the director was able to conjure up dreamlike atmospheres with effortless grace. He seemed to possess god-like control over the technical aspects of film and exploited its innate artificiality to magnificent effect. As Scorcese points out, Italian cinema has a long tradition of non-synced sound that began under Mussolini, who ordered that every foreign film be over-dubbed in Italian. For some directors, this posed a significant challenge and there are many Italian films that feel very disorienting as a result. For Fellini, however, Mussolini’s stipulation acted as an excuse to play with the cinematic form: “Fellini knew how to use that disorientation as an expressive tool,” Scorcese begins, “The sounds and the images in his pictures playoff and enhance one another in such a way that the entire cinematic experience moves like music, or like a great unfurling scroll. Nowadays, people are dazzled by the latest technological tools and what they can do. But lighter digital cameras and postproduction techniques such as digital stitching and morphing don’t make the movie for you: it’s about the choices you make in the creation of the whole picture.”
Scorcese clearly looks back on Fellini’s mastery of the form with fondness. His nostalgia for that golden age of European cinema is unsurprising when you consider Scorcese was just coming of age when directors like Fellini, Varda, and Godard were some of the biggest names in the film world, an era when “Fellini was developing and blossoming as an artist” just as Scorcese was realising his directorial ambitions. For Scorcese and countless other directors of his generation, Fellini represented the infinite possibilities of the visual narrative, with films like La Strada and La Dolce Vita coming to signify the dawn of a new cinematic age.