The many faces of Federico Fellini – part one: the neorealist

The gleefully idiosyncratic Italian director emerged out of the neorealist tradition to create a series of extravagant, freewheeling films marked by a dream-like intensity. As the BFI launches a major retrospective to celebrate the centenary of his birth, we explore some of the themes that made Fellini’s work such a dazzling highpoint in 20th-century art cinema.

☞ See also part two: the Fellini-esquepart three: Federico by Fellini and part four: la famiglia Fellini


Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina in La Strada (1954)

Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina in La Strada (1954)

Federico Fellini’s roots as a filmmaker lay deep in Italian neorealism. He began in the cinema in the early 1940s as a screenwriter, working on the scripts of such films as Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisà (1946), and on work by such neorealists as Pietro Germi and Alberto Lattuada; and it was Lattuada with whom he collaborated on his first directorial venture, Lights of Variety (1950).

Fellini’s first five films as sole director (The White Sheik, 1952; I vitelloni, 1953; La strada, 1954; Il bidone, 1955; Nights of Cabiria, 1957) all drew on the neorealist tradition, although the elements of fantasy that would increasingly colour his work from La dolce vita (1960) onwards were already beginning to infiltrate these early features. For it’s also worth remembering that before he arrived in Rome from his hometown of Rimini, Fellini had started out as a comic-strip cartoonist – and would later write the Italian-language dialogue for the Flash Gordon strip. The title character of The White Sheik, played by Alberto Sordi, is the star of one of the then hugely popular fumetti (comic-strips that used still photographs instead of drawings).

The White Sheik (1952)

The White Sheik (1952)

Still, the Italy depicted in Fellini’s early films repeatedly draws on the downbeat angle favoured by the neorealists: a land far from the tourist picture of romantic old churches and ancient ruins, lively teeming streets and plates of pasta piled high. The Italy of these films is often strikingly unscenic. Windswept beaches feature a lot, as do deserted nocturnal piazzas strewn with windblown litter that recall the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, and stretches of flat scrubby land on the outskirts of towns.

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

In Nights of Cabiria (starring Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina in the title role), the heroine’s much-prized house is an ugly little square box made of breeze-blocks, situated in just such a dispiriting wasteland. A similarly jerry-built structure figures in the opening shot of The White Sheik.

Another feature that Fellini’s early films share with the neorealists is the vital role given to pre-rational or non-rational characters – children, clowns, simpletons like Gelsomina (Masina again) in La strada. In the final scene of I vitelloni, Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) rejects the juvenile provincialism of Rimini and heads for Rome, much as Fellini himself had done 15 years earlier; but the film’s closing shot goes to the young lad with whom Moraldo has been chatting at the station.

I vitelloni (1953)

I vitelloni (1953)

The last person we see in (1963) is the boy who plays the younger self of Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni playing another Fellini-figure) leading us into the encircling darkness with his flute and white cape; while the final sequence of La dolce vita features Paola, the sweet-faced Umbrian girl, trying to convey some message to the hero Marcello (also Mastroianni) that he can’t hear over the crashing waves on the beach.

Gelsomina, with her naive, credulous nature and instant mood switches from happy to sad and back again, is essentially a child, and Cabiria, the hapless Roman prostitute, is scarcely more savvy. Cheated, abused, betrayed, sunk in the depths of despair (“Kill me! I don’t want to live any more!”), she can turn all smiles a few moments later at the sight of a band of street musicians.

Ultimately, all these irrational figures are perhaps surrogates for Fellini himself – or what he may have liked to be. “I don’t believe that rational understanding is an essential element in the reception of any work of art,” he once remarked, talking specifically about 8½. “If you are moved by it, you don’t need to have it explained to you.”

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