Federico Fellini, the Italian writer-director whose visionary and surreal film images were so distinctive that they inspired a word in his honor –”Felliniesque”– died Sunday morning in Rome. He was 73.

He had suffered a stroke in August, and had been in a coma at Rome’s Polyclinic Hospital since suffering a heart attack and developing respiratory problems Oct. 17.

The ANSA news agency reported that his wife, actress Giulietta Masina, learned of his death from TV; she had been too emotional to remain by his bedside and visited only a few times while he was in a coma. Saturday was their 50th wedding anniversary.

His fantasy-laden films, often slyly satirizing sexual and religious mores, were notable for his witty and heartfelt observations as well as for his striking visuals.

Fellini won four Oscars for best foreign-language film — for “La Strada, “”Nights of Cabiria,””81/2″ and “Amarcord”– and received eight nominations for screenplay and three as best director.

In 1993, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences bestowed him an honorary Oscar for his lifetime of achievement.

Numerous directors have acknowledged their artistic debt to the filmmaker, who had the rare ability to make viewers see the world in his own, distinctive way.

In film, he began as a scriptwriter; after making the transition to helmer with 1950′s “Variety Lights” (co-directing with Alberto Lattuada), he continued to write or co-write all of his films.

As a young boy growing up in the Adriatic resort town of Rimini, Fellini escaped the restrictions of his private Catholic school education by running away to join the circus at the age of 12. Or maybe he didn’t. Throughout his career, Fellini has admitted that little of what he has told interviewers and biographers has been true. “If I ever go to hell,” he once said, “it will be because of lies. I tell lies all the time, even when I don’t have to.”

What seems to be verifiable is that he was born Jan. 20, 1920, to Urbano Fellini, a traveling salesman, and Ida Barbiana Fellini and had a brother, Riccardo, and a sister, Maddalena.

After moving to Rome, he worked as a writer for the magazine Marc Aurelio and drifted toward radio (including the serial “Cico and Pallina,” where he met Masina, his future wife).

His first screenwriting credit was the comedy “Avanti C’e Posto,” and he co-wrote Roberto Rossellini’s “Open City” with Sergio Amidei.

That neo-realist masterpiece revitalized the Italian film industry, as did the next Fellini/Rossellini collaboration, “Paisan.”

In the late ’40s, Fellini was in demand, contributing to the scripts of Alberto Lattuada’s “Without Pity” and Pietro Germi’s “In the Name of the Law.”

Even at this early stage in his career, Fellini courted controversy with his screenplay for Rossellini’s “The Miracle,” starring Anna Magnani and Fellini himself. The short film was a satiric parable of the Immaculate Conception and was banned in its initial American release.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the ban in 1951, a year after “Variety Lights.” His first solo flight as director was “The White Sheik” (co-written by Michelangelo Antonioni).

Both films were commercial flops but Fellini’s directing career took off with the drama “I Vitelloni,” which many critics considered the best of his early films.

Unlike fellow Italian directors like Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci, Fellini eschewed intellectual matters in his films in favor of more theatrical, titillating and often sentimental treatment of subjects. His reputation was solidified by the international success of two dramas, “La Strada” and “The Nights of Cabiria,” both of which starred Masina, whom he had married in 1943.

His early pics as director showed the influence of the post-war Italian neo-realist movement. However, 1960′s “La Dolce Vita” marked a new style for the director, with films that were more earthy and dreamlike, and with scripts that were more anecdotal than straightforward narratives.

“Vita,” his greatest worldwide success, was a controversial drama about the amorality of contemporary Italian life. The title (literally, the sweet life) came to define the first adult generation of the postwar years.

Their boredom and amorality were further explored by other Italian directors, most prominently Antonioni, as well as French New Wave helmers such as Claude Chabrol and Jacques Demy.

Astor Pictures paid $ 500,000 for the domestic rights to “La Dolce Vita,” at that time the highest price ever accorded a foreign-language film, and it broke records in major U.S. cities to become the highest-grossing subtitled film at that time.

Fellini’s next film, the autobiographical comedy “81/2,” was an even more dramatic shift away from neo-realism. Like “La Dolce Vita,” it starred Fellini’s screen alter-ego, Marcello Mastroianni, as a director creatively frustrated by success who drifts off into fantasy.

Though his early films were international successes, most filmgoers associate the “Felliniesque” style with his later films. While maintaining his intelligence and emotion of the earlier works, the post-’60s pics contained striking images of sensuality (Anita Ekberg in strapless evening gown wading in Rome’s Trevi Fountain), of charming absurdity (the hefty prostitute of “81/2″ dancing on the beach with little boys), and of exceptional beauty (a stray peacock opening its feathers in the middle of an “Amarcord” snow flurry).

He frequently peopled his films with actors so homely that they became attractive. “To me faces are more important than anything else … even more than acting ability,” said Fellini, who boasted he had “more faces on file than the FBI.”

Unlike many fellow European directors, the Maestro, as he was nicknamed, declined offers to make films in the U.S.

“81/2″ won Fellini a third foreign-language Oscar and was followed by his first full-length color film, “Juliet of the Spirits,” starring Masina. The woman’s humdrum life are punctuated by eye-popping dreamlike fantasies, this time from a female perspective.

By 1969 Fellini’s name had achieved such international prominence that, starting with his adaptation of the ancient Roman comedy “Satyricon,” his name became part of the title of his films (e.g., “Fellini’s Roma” and “Fellini’s Casanova”).

Vincent Canby in the New York Times wrote that “Fellini’s Satyricon” has “the quality of a drug-induced hallucination.” Other critics disagreed, calling the film grotesque and self-indulgent. Those criticisms continued with such excessive fabulist tales as “Casanova,””Roma” and “City of Women.”

His later years were notwithout success, however, particularly his sentimental documentary “The Clowns,” an homage to his lifelong fascination with the circus, and “Amarcord,” his reminiscences about a year in the life of a small Italian town.

But by the 1980s, his commercial viability (combined with sometimes unrealistic asking prices for the domestic rights to his films) had eroded; films such as “Orchestra Rehearsal,””Fred and Ginger” (with the irresistible teaming of Masina and Mastroianni) and “Intervista” were released only sporadically in the U.S. His last film, “The Voice of the Moon,” made in 1990, still has not opened domestically.

His other films as director include 1955′s “Il Bidone,” 1983′s “E La Nave Va” (And the Ship Sails On) and the 1969 made-for-TV “Block-notes di un Regista” (Fellini: A Directors Notebook). He also did segments in three anthology films: “Love in the City” (1953), “Boccaccio ’70″ (1962) and “Spirits of the Dead” ( 1968).

His vision always continued to be original but the circuslike parade of grotesques who appeared in his films and the surreal sensibility were beginning to appear shopworn. But his decline in popularity was not a solo phenomenon; rather, it afflicted many of his contemporaries.

Late in his career he bemoaned what he perceived as a general decline in the filmgoing experience, saying, “People no longer have the same kind of friendship with the cinema … It was a wonderful rapport; in seems to me that this kind of rapport has gone.”

Fellini is survived by his wife. They had no children.

The wake will be held at the Cinecitta film studio outside Rome and the funeral will be Wednesday at St. Mary of the Angels church in Rome, followed by burial at the family tomb in Rimini.

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