The title doesn’t work in English, but Fellini lovers won’t care. “How Strange to Be Named Federico: Scola Narrates Fellini” is Ettore Scola’s affectionate tribute to his friend, a magical trip through history and memory consisting of re-creations and clips that recount, in impressionistic scenes, the decades shared by these two deities of cinema. Scola distills the inventiveness of his beloved colleague, laying metaphorical flowers at Fellini’s exalted position in the grand pantheon of directors and bringing tears to the eyes of audiences happily in thrall to his imagination. Fests and ancillary should jump.
Those not familiar with Fellini’s legacy won’t be quite so captivated, which makes “How Strange” a perfect incentive for (and a welcome adjunct to) Fellini retrospectives. Cineastes conversant with “Amarcord” will recognize the model for Scola’s narrator (Vittorio Viviani), who sets the stage for the various episodes beginning in 1939, with a 19-year-old Fellini (Tommaso Lazotti) arriving from Rimini at the Rome offices of the satirical biweekly “Marc’Aurelio” with a portfolio of stories and illustrations. Eight years later, Scola (Giacomo Lazotti) walked through the same doors, a boy of 16 in knickerbockers with a portfolio of his own.
Re-creations warmly capture the creative energy of the editorial meetings with their bad jokes, anti-fascist swipes, and worship of the cartoons of Saul Steinberg (who’d been in Italy until 1941). Later, as young adults, Fellini and Scola form a triumvirate with scripter Ruggero Maccari (Emiliano De Martino), celebrating their triumphs together; though some parts of these staged early years sag a bit, they set the groundwork for a lifetime of friendship. Fellini’s insomnia would draw them together, his friends called out for night drives around Rome, with the car functioning as a sort of confessional for all and sundry. One of the best of these reconstructed scenes features prostitute Wanda (Antonella Attili, terrific), recounting how her b.f. stole all her dough.
In these sequences, Scola plays with color and black-and-white, happily calling attention to the artificiality of the projected backscreen. Amid discussion of the muselike qualities of Marcello Mastroianni for both helmers, there’s a marvelous fantasy moment in which Mastroianni’s mother (Gigliola Fantoni) berates Scola: “Why do you always make my son so ugly, while Fellini makes him so beautiful?,” leading to a clip from Scola’s “La nuit de Varennes” of the star as Casanova. Similar footage is lightly interwoven throughout, including hilarious screen tests of Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman and Ugo Tognazzi for “Fellini’s Casanova” (put together in the 1975 TV docu “E il Casanova di Fellini?”).
Scola wraps it all up beautifully with images from the three days of casket viewing in Cinecitta’s legendary Studio 5, followed by a picaresque dream sequence that would have delighted Fellini, who, he approvingly says, was never “a good little boy.” At the very end, there’s a throat-lumpy montage of clips from Fellini’s masterworks, beautifully edited and capturing the director’s patented sense of fantasy tied to a bottomless wellspring of love for humanity in all its foibles.
Post-production dubbing is occasionally unevenly synched, but otherwise tech credits are flawless. Staged sequences often reveal the sound stage around the edges, acting as a constant reminder of Cinecitta’s indebtedness to both maestros, and vice versa.