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Criterion Collection: Essential Fellini

by on May 6, 2021
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There’s nothing like a pandemic to help you through a film box set.

One week after I completed Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman collection (reviewed here), the folks at Criterion released “Essential Fellini,” a 15-disc collection capturing the majority of Federico Fellini’s filmography. While the Bergman collection (30 discs!) took me over a year to complete, Fellini’s took me three months.

The majority of these films I first experienced in my post-college years. I have said many times on my show and when discussing art that the art doesn’t change, we do. For film fans of my generation, Fellini (along with Bergman, Kurasowa and number French auteurs) was must-watch cinema. While my twentysomething head didn’t “get” everything Fellini was trying to say, there’s nothing like life and cinema-watching experience to gain a better understanding as one gets older. Fellini, like many directors, presented a balance of fantasy and reality but the presentation of that balance changed as time went on.

This collection is presented in chronological order, unlike the Bergman collection which was curated based on themes and thank Sweden for that. Looking back, I couldn’t imagine going through Bergman’s work in chronological order. Fellini’s is a lot easier to swallow in order because we get Fellini in his different cinematic stages.

Early on Fellini was one of the pioneers of the Neorealism movement. The use of non-actors as characters and more than just extras. Plus shot on location until Fellini took his work to the famous Rome studio Cinecitta and never left. Heightened reality plus in Fellini’s case, the first of several peeks into show business. From big-budget cinema affairs to vaudeville, Fellini holds these performers in high regard, no matter who flawed they could be.

Starting with 1950’s “Variety Lights,” co-directed with Alberto Lattuada where a young female dancer (Carla Del Poggio) joins a traveling vaudeville troupe. The leader of the troupe (Peppino De Filippo) likes her and his mistress (Fellini muse Giulietta Masina) knows it. Life and art blur again in his second film “The White Sheik” (1952 and his solo directing debut), a newlywed (Brunella Bovo) runs out on her honeymoon to a movie set to find her cinema crush (Alberto Sordi) and becomes part of the production.

Note: From “The White Sheik” on, Nino Rota would be Fellini’s music composer. Gratze, Nino.

“I vitolenni” is about a group of young adult men clutching to boyhood. Fans of the films Diner and Swingers should check this out. There’s also a con-artist drama “Il bidone” (1955), starring Broderick Crawford (yes, him) and Richard Basehart, who also appeared in the film before this “La strada.” Crawford plays the aging ring-leader of the group and to quote my daughter when she first saw Hamlet at age six…”this isn’t going to end good.”

Fellini then had a stretch of films where two of his leads would become global cinema icons. Fellini’s female muse was his wife of almost 50 years, Giulietta Masina. Half of her filmography involved her husband.

She has supporting roles in “Variety Lights” and “The White Sheik” (as a character who would later be the subject of “Nights of Cabiria”), but Masina really shined with her wonderful performance in “La strada” (1954) where she plays the put-upon assistant/soon-wife of knuckle-dragging travelling strongman, played with great chest-bursting fun by Anthony Quinn. With her white clown stage make-up and red dot on her nose, Masina’s Gelsomina is the rare, non-unsettling clown. Simple exterior make-up, complicated emotional interior.
Her other triumph is in “Nights of Cabiria” (1957) as prostitute Cabiria, looking for true love in all the wrong places and all the wrong men.

Musical theater fans, this is the original story for “Sweet Charity.” A face of someone who has had a tough run at life. A woman with a tough exterior that wants simply to be loved. Masina pulled this off beautifully. Not to give away the ending of a 60+ year old film, but the heartbreaking final image of her walking is an all-timer in cinema. She died in 1994, five months after Fellini’s death. One of cinema’s best marriages, on screen.

His cinematic doppelganger was Marcello Mastroianni because…well, why wouldn’t you? It would be like if I directed Ryan Gosling. Masttroianni had a long and successful career, including three Academy Award nominations for “Divorce, Italian Style” (the first foreign language performance nominated in this category) in 1963, “A Special Day” in 1978 and “Dark Eyes” in 1987. It’s Marcello’s five collaborations with Fellini that is still talked about most. Two in particular.

Mastroianni plays society journalist (OK, gossip columnist) Marcello Rubini in “La dolce vita” (1960) where he glides from one part of Rome to the next and from one woman to the next in the span of a week. Almost three hours long (doesn’t feel it), “La Dolce Vita” has an episodic feel of Italian cool that would be copied to this day in look (dark suit, sunglasses, cold demeanor) and breezy, almost rambling storytelling (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”). Oh and the fountain scene involving Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg is always a favorite.

Fellini and Mastroianni would follow up “Dolce” with “8-1/2” (meaning the number of films Fellini had made at the time, including a part of an anthology), one of the best films about filmmaking and the artistic mental block. MM plays famous director Guido (hey, musical fans, this is the origins of Nine) working on his next big-budget cinematic affair. While the sets are being completed, a lot of money is being spent, Guido gets caught up in his thoughts on the film world, women, sex and life. What kind of film does he want to make anyway? Revisiting this film now that I’m in the age range as Guido (OK, older) have directed stage (not screen productions) the hill of creativity is still there, still steep and still a challenge to climb. Anyone with a creative streak will understand and love this film.

The film clocks in at almost 140 minutes. Even with this and the “La Dolce Vita” length, I am less patient with binge-watchers of streaming shows (especially during the pandemic) complaining about a film’s length. If one can plop down and plow through and entire series season, then two films like these should be a breeze.

If one were to go on social media with the post naming a director three best films made in a row “Nights of Cabiria,” “La dolce vita” and “8-1/2″ would be in the conversation.

Fellini’s follow-up to” 8-1/2″ is the 1965 fantasy-comedy “Juliet of the Spirits” (Fellini’s first film in color) is the gateway to Fellini’s next stage of his career where his films have an equal balance of beautiful of grotesque, fantasy and reality. Masina has another starring role as a wife who suspects her husband is having an affair when he whispers another woman’s name in his sleep. Flashbacks, visions, a séance and a slew of theatrical realism (look, a circus sequence!) is about as close to a rom-com as Fellini will ever make. A date-night double feature with “La strada.”

Fellini then goes back in time to show how period pieces can also indicate the more things change…

Starting with 1969’s Fellini’s “Satyricon,” an all-male love triangle and journey through first-century Rome (looks great and not as a fun ramble as “La dolce vita”). Fellini’s “Roma” (1972), the history of the city through autobiographical eyes but delivered in a blender, story-wise, although the Catholic Church fashion show still hits a nerve almost 50 years later. Old and new hits a highpoint with “Amarcord,” Fellini’s last great film from 1973. A sweet and funny vignette-filled look back at a small Italian coastal town in the 1930s. While Roma felt like random puzzle pieces thrown together, Amarcord is handled with great care by comparison.

Since we live in a list based world, here are the top five Fellini film to start your cinematic journey. “Amacord,” “La dolce vita,” “8-1/2,” “La strada” and “Nights of Cabiria.”

After the wonder of “Amarcord,” the collection dips a bit with “And the Ship Sails On” (1983), which feels like Fellini’s “Ship of Fools” mixed with the class stories fans of “Snowpiercer” will enjoy. At least it wasn’t “The Love Boat.”

The final film in this collection is the Fellini’s Greatest Hits known as “Intervesta.” A Japanese TV news crew visits Fellini on the Cincecitta studio (where he shot all his non-location films) and as the film goes on, the line between reality and the movies blur. The film is Fellini’s valentine to the famous film studio, but if there was a theme park ride for Fellini storylines and characters, this is it. There’s a reunion between Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg that’s more Ginger and Fred than “La Dolce Vita.”

A few years after the comedic “documentary” “Spinal Tap” and Albert Brooks’ “Real Life” blurred the lines even better, “Intervista” was probably a bigger deal in the early stages of the fictional documentary style of filmmaking. Now it’s the norm. It also doesn’t personally help that I recently revisited the film The Stunt Man (because of the death of writer/director Richard Rush) which also blurred moviemaking and real life much better.

The collection is called Essential Fellini, not The Complete Fellini. Sixteen of his 24 films are in this collection. Sorry, fans of Fellini’s “Casanova,” Ginger and Fred or his segment from “Boccaccio ’70.” The collection does have his film Toby Dammit from the 1968 cinematic compilation “Spirits of the Dead.” Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim contribute a short film each based on the work of Edgar Allen Poe. Toby Dammit does contain an amusing over-the-top performance from Terrance Stamp as a burnt-out, alcoholic movie star shooting a film in Rome. That’s really about it with the film. Roger Corman would be proud of Stamp’s performance. Coincidentally, the English language release of the film contains narration by… Vincent Price.

Most of the discs in this collection have your commentary tracks and special features (some films more than others). After a dip in quality with “And the Ship Sails On” and “Intervista,” the collection ends with the 1997 documentary “Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember,” a three-hour plus look at the man’s life and career. A cinematic one-man show complete with long clips of Marcello talking and long clips from his films, Fellini or otherwise. Over three hours long and I wanted more.

I’m thankful that I’ve reached a stage in life where the films of Federico Fellini is more than just cocktail party fodder on whose films you must see. Essential Fellini is not a perfect collection of quality and quantity, but I don’t think there will be a topper when it comes to a collection of the man’s work. Hop in the cinematic fountain and enjoy.

p.s. Dear Criterion, since you added “Local “to your collection last year (thanks!) and some other titles I’d love have been released elsewhere, here’s my Criterion Wish List 2021…

1. “Big Night”
2. “‘Round Midnight”
3. “Fandango”
4. Your AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa on Blu-Ray

Matthew Socey is host of the podcast Film Soceyology for WFYI 90.1 FM in Indianapolis.

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