Federico Fellini's cinema is like reading a Latin-American novel — humane, dreamy and poetic

Baradwaj Rangan

Feb,05 2018 13:55 17 IST

I’m fascinated by other people’s lists, especially if they’re important people – and what could be more important than Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky drawing up a list of great directors? (See clip below, from Voyage in Time, the 1983 documentary that tracked Tarkvosky while he was working towards Nostalghia, his first film made outside the USSR). “If you had to talk to today’s and yesterday’s great directors,” the interviewer asks, “for what reasons would you thank each of them for what you feel they gave you?”

Tarkovsky begins with Alexander Dovzhenko, recalling the 1930 silent film, The Earth. He names Robert Bresson (“the only director in the world that has achieved absolute simplicity in cinema,” though I don’t really get the Tolstoy comparison that Tarkovsky makes), Michelangelo Antonioni (taking off from what Tarkovsky says, I grinned at the irony of Antonioni shouting “Action” for his languidly paced films), Jean Vigo (“the father of modern French cinema”), Sergei Parajanov (“paradoxical and poetic”) and Federico Fellini (“for his kindness, for his love of people... for his humanity”).

The things he says about Fellini – kindness, humanity – are encapsulated in all the director’s films, but especially so in this clip (below) from La Dolce Vita (1960), which follows a tabloid reporter (Marcello Mastroianni) in Rome. The scene is set in a nightclub, and it involves, as Fellini’s films so often do, a clown. There are thematic resonances to the director’s career – say, that this clown with his trumpet could be a spiritual cousin to the clown-like, trumpet-playing Gelsomina from La Strada (1954). But for now, just observe the humanity in the scene.

In Five Go Off in a Caravan (odd choice of book for this column, I know!), Enid Blyton wrote, “If you look at photographs of clowns when they’re just being ordinary men, they’ve got quite sad faces.” But despite the sadness of this clown’s face, the sentiment we feel isn’t banal pathos. The spotlight shines on him, as he shuffles in – and he’s so blank that it’s easy for us to project on him. He looks like he’s tired and would rather be home in bed if not for having to earn a living by making the customers laugh.

He plays a sad tune, punctuating it with Chaplinesque kicks. He looks up and locks eyes with the reporter, cementing the “bond’ between them. Mastroianni looks away, as though discomfited by this reminder. (Perhaps he is “empty” like the balloons. Perhaps, like them, he is swept along, dancing to the tunes of the rich and the famous.) The clown walks away, beckoning to his balloons – they’re all he’s left with. He’s meaningless without them; they’re useless without him. Read this way, this scene captures the reporter’s life in a nutshell. He needs the people he writes about just as they need him to be written about.

The words “clown” or “circus” are usually employed in the derogatory sense, but in Fellini's eyes, there isn’t a shred of judgement. “We can all pretend to be cynical and scheming,” goes a line in the director’s Nights of Cabiria. “But when we’re faced with purity and innocence, the cynical mask drops off, and all that is best in us reawakens.” That’s what happens in this scene. A metaphor that might have turned malicious in the hands of a Robert Altman (think of his acid-dripping Hollywood satire, The Player) becomes, in Fellini’s hands, wide-eyed and large-hearted. As Tarkovsky called it, human.

So human, in fact, that the humanity is enough – there’s no need for any of this analysis. It just needs to be felt. Martin Scorsese explained, quite beautifully, the appeal of Fellini (see clip above, the 0.30 mark). He spoke of 8 ½, which is about a filmmaker named Guido (Mastroianni again) in a creative rut: “the cutting back and forth between time and memory... and dreams. At first, we tried to study the film... we tried to figure out what was going on. And then you realise you don’t have to. Because it’s very simple, really...”

From the perspective of blurring the line between the real and unreal, watching a Fellini film is like reading a Latin-American novelist like Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel García Márquez. Fellini said, “Borges is particularly stimulating to a man who works in the cinema...  his writing is that it is like a dream, extraordinarily farsighted in calling up from the unconscious complete images in which the thing itself, and its meaning, coexist – exactly as happens in a film.” His films make sense in a primal way – like poetry. Consider this clip (below) from 8 ½.

This scene where Guido “meets” his dead parents is one of the many fragments in the film that give us an insight into his psyche – for instance, that he was largely self-absorbed, distant. But what strikes me is the gentleness of his father’s complaint about how low the ceiling of the tomb is, how accepting and non-judgmental his face is. A little later, there’s another gentle rebuke that Guido does not visit. “Sure, it’s a bit lonely here, but Mom comes here every day... She keeps me company.” But there’s no angst, just acceptance. That’s at least one definition of humanity.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Published Date: Feb 05, 2018 13:55 PM | Updated Date: Feb 06, 2018 11:48 AM