Every summer, a handful of tourists in Rome — sometimes naked and usually drunk — take a dip in the shallow waters of the Trevi Fountain. Because the Baroque landmark is guarded constantly by Roman police officers, the misguided swimmers are often caught and fined (400 euros and up).
Whether or not they are aware of it, their illicit bathing is an homage to Anita Ekberg’s iconic swim in Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita. Her character Sylvia, a bodacious actress, wades into the fountain at night, swaying underneath the waterfall issuing from the giant Oceanus statue in the center. She beckons Marcello, a tabloid journalist, to join her before baptizing him in the water. Soon, he awakens behind the wheel of his Triumph TR3.
Such dreamlike scenes are customary in the films of Italian director Federico Fellini. Throughout his career, spanning postwar Italy to the 1980s, Fellini became one of the most famous movie makers in the world with his expressionist romps that explored fame, fidelity, and the human subconscious. Today is the 100th anniversary of his birth.
In the 1960s, Fellini was gaining momentum with one blockbuster success after another. Although his films were making a fortune, the director wasn’t seeing much of the money due to some poor financial decisions. In 1966, the Post published a profile of the Italian auteur called “Fantasy, Flesh, and Fellini.” The story paints Fellini as a larger-than-life artist, claiming he worked ungodly hours and followed a rigorous casting regimen, meeting thousands of everyday Italians before choosing the faces to put in his movies.
Fellini had a reputation, corroborated by the Post’s profile, for being extremely eccentric, bordering on narcissistic, and all for the sake of uncompromising artistic vision. Just as his fans may have imagined, writer Thomas Meehan claimed he pored over characters and scenarios for months before improvising entire film shoots, and he manipulated actors with his charm and punishment to elicit perfect performances.
His films were largely autobiographical, with his wife Giulietta Masina often playing a lead role (and sometimes portraying herself). Their rocky marriage, and his womanizing inclinations, were on display in his back-to-back films 8 ½ and Juliet of the Spirits. Amid the fantastical and supernatural happenings in both movies are two separate stories of the inner strife and sexuality of Fellini and Masina, told, respectively, from each point of view.
“I set about creating films perhaps in the way that Marco Polo sailed for the Orient,” Fellini told Meehan, “not knowing really what may happen along the journey or where the end may lie — on a voyage of discovery.” It isn’t beyond belief that Fellini would direct this way, to watch his films. Scenes from films like Roma, La Dolce Vita, and City of Women often feel as guided by large-scale contrivances as they are by natural improvisation.
Although Fellini won four Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, he never took home the award for Best Director.
His meditations on honesty, infidelity, sensuality, and — especially — the vacuousness of fame were novel in the 1960s and ’70s, but they remain as relevant as ever. Regardless of whether or not Fellini would actually act out each scene in full for his performers before shooting or work himself into a violent rage over an unsatisfying performance, his movies speak for themselves.
At the Trevi Fountain, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, with its portrayal of people in a vapid race for fame and fortune, resounds during the daytime as sunhatted tourists battle for the perfect selfie spot. After midnight, when the crowd has thinned and the sound of Oceanus’s waterfall echoes around the cobblestone streets, Fellini’s dreams seem a little closer to reality.
My Top Ten Fellini Films:
- Juliet of the Spirits
- La Strada
- La Dolce Vita
- I Vitelloni
- 8 ½
- Nights of Cabiria
- City of Women
Featured image: Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Rizzoli Film
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