Fellini fascination

Helmer's carnivalesque films join the circus of Cannes

A brass band playing the unforgettable film tunes of Nino Rota and Nicola Piovani will ring in Cannes’ Federico Fellini retrospective. Fellini, who won a Palme d’Or in 1960 for “La dolce vita,” died ten years ago on Oct. 31, 1993.

The Cinema de la Plage, where nightly beachfront screenings will be held, is an appropriate venue for a director whose films from “La strada” to “Amarcord” often included scenes set on a beach.

Fellini’s beaches, though, are usually desolate wintry ones taken from childhood memories of his hometown Rimini, a popular resort town on the Adriatic. It was there that his early 1953 “I vitelloni” is set; and on a related beach that his alter ego, played by Marcello Mastroianni, ends up at the close of his decadent adventures in “La dolce vita.”

“There’s no place more suitable to imagine the (ship) Rex of ‘Amarcord’ setting sail” than Cannes, says Pupi Avati, president of Cinecitta Studios. The studio has always been closely identified with Fellini; almost all his films were shot in Teatro 5, its largest soundstage. Fittingly, Cinecitta coordinated the restoration work on 20-plus of the maestro’s films, in association with Mediaset-Cinema Forever, the Italian National School of Cinema-National Film Archives and other sources.

One of the main problems in putting the retro together, per Avati, was obtaining copyright permission from the films’ scattered owners. “Over the years the rights have passed from hand to hand, and it’s very hard to find out who has what.”

Known for his extravagant imagery and carnivalesque fantasies, Fellini developed an intensely personal style of filmmaking blending lived experience with autobiographical memories and poignantly human characters. As a young provincial coming to Rome in 1939, he started working as a gagwriter for magazines and radio. Fellini began scriptwriting after the war, most famously for Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist classics “Rome, Open City” and “Paisa.” Alberto Lattuada gave him co-directing credit on “Lights of Variety” in 1950, the first of his films to evidence a love of vaudeville glitz and tackiness.

It was a trilogy of films starring his wife, Giulietta Masina, that made Fellini famous. “La strada” (1954) and “Nights of Cabiria” (1957) both won Academy Awards for best foreign film; “Juliet of the Spirits” completed the series in 1965 about women struggling to transcend the constraints of everyday life.

His complex depiction of the filmmaker as artist in “8 ½” (1963) and of his boyhood in Rimini in “Amarcord” (1973) won Fellini his third and fourth best foreign film Oscars.

Flagging commercial results contributed to the difficulty Fellini experienced in getting financing for his final films. By then Cinecitta had become surrounded by tall buildings, and he shifted operations to the former Dinocitta studios on the Pontina road for his last film, “The Voice of the Moon” (1990.) Starring a very lunar Roberto Benigni, it recapped his personal and artistic obsessions of a lifetime. It was never released in the U.S.

“Fellini’s importance is that he was a truly independent director,” asserts Eckhart Schmidt, who made the feature documentary “Federico Fellini — Through the Eyes of the Others,” which will be screened at Cannes. “He always felt free to do what he wanted, and he didn’t make compromises. Some producers knew they would lose money by producing a Fellini film, but they didn’t care: they were proud to have it on their resumes.”

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