Like an unabashed love letter, Carmen Piccini’s “Fellini” hardly disguises its adoration of the late helmer and displays a strong determination to put the best light possible on a deeply contradictory artist. Pic joins a growing list of Italo film portraits that have recently appeared in homevid, including ones on Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti, Dario Argento and Mario Bava, which, combined with Martin Scorsese’s sprawling survey, “My Voyage to Italy,” indicates a sudden renaissance of interest in one of the richest of national film cultures. Though historically scattershot and lacking any genuine critical perspective, docu serves as a perfectly decent intro to the spirit behind the work and should find a sweet life in the homevid library.
Fellini’s well-known self-referential quote, “The visionary is the only true realist,” starts things off, though the statement’s deliberate link to the neo-realist movement in which he learned his craft is never explored here. Neither is his tutelage under neo-realist master Roberto Rossellini, nor the bitter controversy Fellini stirred when he subsequently broke with the neo-realist hardliners.
Although Piccini amusingly stresses how Fellini went out of his way to cast unknowns with extremely unusual features, her portrait spends a large share of time with such starry thesps as Anthony Quinn (“La Strada”), Donald Sutherland (“Casanova”), Claudia Cardinale (“8½”), Anita Ekberg (“La Dolce Vita”) and a disappointingly brief B&W archival clip of Marcello Mastroianni speaking vaguely. The common thread, from an actor’s standpoint, is of a director who worked instinctively, offering more verbal instruction than anything like a traditional script. Even the spoken word was of little importance, as Sutherland explains when he shows how he spoke his “lines” by way of counting one-through-10 in Italian, with everything dubbed in post-production.
Many Fellini collaborators show up, if only briefly, to offer many different sides of his personality, from lenser Giuseppe Rotunno’s account of how he was teased by Fellini for even keeping a copy of the script during filming to former Fellini a.d. Lina Wertmuller relating how her mentor urged her never to be intimidated by technicians (Fellini had little technical knowledge) and instead rely on her storytelling instincts.
The wide range of archival material here suggests a massive research job, and several brief snippets make one hunger for the fuller sources, such as a rare U.S. TV interview in which Fellini explains how he came up with the final group shots in “8½,” dynamic footage of the shooting of the Trevi Fountain scene in “La Dolce Vita” and a dance scene in his farewell pic, “The Voice of the Moon.”
Piccini’s disorganized approach may well convey some of the chaos of Fellini’s creative impulses, but it only makes her subject seem more puzzling than he seemed before. More curious are glitches such as mixing clips of “I Vitelloni” into discussion of “The White Sheik,” and the lack of any mention of or clips from such features as “Juliet of the Spirits,” “Il Bidone” and “Ginger and Fred,” the final vehicle for Fellini’s thesp-wife, Giulietta Masina and Mastroianni.