You know you’re dealing with an iconic filmmaker when a new adjective has to be coined just to sum up their style. The world of the ‘Fellinesque’ is proof enough of Federico Fellini’s era-defining talent. With his blend of the earthly and the divine, the baroque and the brutalist, the neorealist director helped usher in a golden age of Italian cinema, setting an example without which the landscape of cinema would look very different indeed. It’s possible to argue that without Fellini, there would have been no French New Wave, no Polish film school, and no Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom regarded the director’s filmography as the very zenith of cinematic achievement.
That sentiment is shared by another great American director: Spike Lee, who listed three of Fellini’s films on his essential film List. Despite releasing his immortal debut She’s Gotta Have It back in 1986, Spike Lee won his first Oscar in 2015, when he was given the Academy Honorary Award for his contributions to filmmaking. Four years later, in 2019, he recieved no less than six Oscars for his film Blackkklansman. With that kind of reputation, it’s no wonder Lee has taught at some of the most prestigious film schools in America. Far from burdening his students with excess reading material, Lee’s teaching method emphasises developing a critical eye for cinema. This central tenant led to him providing his students with a comprehensive list of 95 films essential for aspiring filmmakers.
As well as movies by the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Jim Jarmusch, Francois Truffaut and Roman Polanski, Lee includes three of Fellini’s greatest works: La Strada (1954), La Dolce Vita (1960), and 8½ (1963). While La Dolce Vita is undoubtedly his most famous undertaking, it was La Strada that put Fellini’s name on the map. The first winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, this affecting road movie also made a star of Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, who plays Gelsomina, a simple-minded young woman bought from her mother by Zampanò, a brutish strongman who forces her to travel around the Italian countryside performing with him.
8½, meanwhile, deals with much more insular subject matter. Starring Fellini’s famed leading man Marcello Mastroianni, this surreal swirl of a film follows a struggling director as he attempts to fend off creative stasis and get his new film off the ground. As he retreats deeper into his own thoughts, fantasy and reality become incredibly difficult to distinguish. This strange indivisibility between the dreamlike and the real defines La Dolce Vita too, and arguably underpins that which we describe as Felliniesque. Plunging them into a cinematic world where even the most mundane actions carry immense symbolic weight, Fellini asks his audience to inspect their world in its full complexity.