November 1, 1993OBITUARY
Federico Fellini, Film Visionary, Is Dead at 73
By PETER B. FLINT
Federico Fellini, whose deeply personal films were vivid, sometimes bizarre portraits of the human condition, died yesterday at the Umberto I Hospital in Rome. He was 73.
The cause was cardiac arrest, the Reuters news agency reported, citing Dr. Maurizio Bufi, the chief of the hospital's intensive care unit. Mr. Fellini had suffered a stroke in August and had been in a coma since he had what has been variously described as a heart attack or heart failure on Oct. 17. Reuters said his condition deteriorated in the last hours before his death, and he developed a high fever and kidney problems.
Four of Mr. Fellini's movies won Oscars for best foreign-language film: 'La Strada' in 1956, 'The Nights of Cabiria' in 1957, '8 1/2' in 1963 and 'Amarcord' in 1974. In March, he received an honorary Oscar in recognition of his cinematic accomplishments as a director and screenwriter. Before his heart trouble laid him low this year, the director had reportedly been making plans to begin work on his 21st feature film next year, 'Block Notes of a Director: The Actor.'
Throughout his career, Mr. Fellini focused on his personal vision of society and his preoccupation with the relationships between men and women and between sex and love. An avowed anticleric, he was also deeply concerned with guilt and alienation.
Fellini films are spiced with artifice (masks, masquerades and circuses), startling faces, the rococo and the outlandish, the prisms through which he sometimes viewed life. But as Vincent Canby, the chief film critic of The New York Times, observed in 1985, 'What's important are not the prisms, though they are arresting, but the world he shows us: a place whose spectacularly grand, studio-built artificiality makes us see the interior truth of what is taken to be the 'real' world outside, which is a circus.'
The concepts of all Fellini movies originated in the mind of 'the Maestro,' as his associates and compatriots fondly called him, in his memories, dreams, fantasies and fancies. He was often the protagonist of his films, and his most celebrated alter ego was Marcello Mastroianni, in 'La Dolce Vita,' '8 1/2' and 'City of Women.'
Mr. Fellini wrote all his scripts, usually with two dialogue writers, and supervised every creative detail, including the final editing. He was a perfectionist who repeatedly reshot many scenes in a process that usually took two years. He kept producers away from his films until they were completed, explaining: 'I do not need a producer. I need only a good production manager. I need only a man who will give me money.'
Devoted to Movies, Not to Commerce
He studied his own movies many times but seldom saw other movies, saying that most of them reflected commerce rather than art. His devotion to movies over money was reflected in his uncommon willingness to surrender a large share of the potential profits from many of his films to their financial backers.
He likened his craft to applying a thermometer to a troubled world and finding a high fever. 'I'd like very much to make a confident picture,' he once told an interviewer. 'I would like to be as good as nature, which with a shower produces flowers and grass to cover the destruction. But we are surrounded by human fragmentation, by pessimism, and it is difficult to talk of other things.'
Mr. Fellini said he sought to liberate viewers from 'overidealized concepts of life.' In a lighter vein, he remarked, 'I make pictures to tell a story, to tell lies and to amuse.'
Over the decades, Fellini films became increasingly original and subjective, and consequently more controversial and less commercial. His style evolved from neo-realism to fanciful neo-realism to surrealism, in which he discarded narrative story lines for free-flowing, freewheeling memoirs. He described his approach in this way:
'When I start a picture, I always have a script, but I change it every day, I put in what occurs to me that day, out of my imagination. You start on a voyage; you know where you will end up, but not what will occur along the way. You want to be surprised.'
His life centered on film making. 'When I am not making movies,' he confided, 'I feel I am not alive.'
A Series of Scenes Difficult to Forget
Fellini movies have many unexpected and indelible sequences. 'La Dolce Vita' opens with a huge statue of Jesus, with arms outstretched, being towed inexplicably by a helicopter above the rooftops of Rome. The film '8 1/2' ends with a quixotic film director leading all his contentious associates, real and imagined, alive and dead, in a dance of joyful reconciliation.
'I Vitelloni' ('The Loafers'), the third feature he directed, is an autobiographical tragicomic tale of five provincial youths who punctuate their aimless street life with pranks.
'La Dolce Vita' is a sensational and sobering scan of the decadent 'sweet life' of Rome's cafe society, with its sexual promiscuity, search for exotic gratification and consuming boredom. The film shocked many Italians and was proscribed by the Roman Catholic Church, but it became a huge success in Italy and around the world.
'La Strada' ('The Road'), is a poetic tragedy about a simple-minded waif who serves as the clown, cook and concubine for a boorish, brutish strongman.
'The Nights of Cabiria' deals with a sentimental, eternally hopeful prostitute who wistfully dreams of romance and respectability.
Mr. Fellini's most clearly autobiographical confession, '8 1/2,' is an innovative romantic satire-fantasy about an egomaniacal film maker's moral and creative midlife crisis, his malaise and inability to make a movie. He titled it '8 1/2' because it was his seventh directorial feature in addition to three short films. It was his favorite movie.
'Amarcord' ('I Remember') is a paean to youth and the memories of a year in the life of a provincial Italian town in the 1930's.
Many Movies, Even More Awards
In addition to Oscars, Fellini movies won hundreds of awards, including many top citations at international film festivals and five first prizes from the New York film critics.
His other movies, also with evocative scores by Nino Rota, include 'Juliet of the Spirits' (1965), his first color feature, which centers on a neglected wife obsessed by dreams and spirits; 'Fellini Satyricon' (1969), an epic of decadence and the wanderings of a homosexual youth in ancient Rome's disintegrating society; 'The Clowns'(1970), and 'Fellini's Roma' (1972).
Others were 'Fellini's Casanova' (1976), a spectacular but joyless saga of the 18th-century philanderer's conquests across Europe; 'Orchestra Rehearsal' (1979), the most political Fellini film, which uses an orchestra as a metaphor for a fragmenting society, and 'City of Women' (1979), a feminist fantasy in which the hero searches incorrigibly for the perfect woman.
Later films also include 'And the Ship Sails On' (1983), a flamboyant succession of mostly comic commentaries on art and self-absorbed artists; 'Ginger and Fred' (1986), whose central characters are an Italian dance couple who chose their names in honor of the American dance team and who are reunited on a television variety show, and 'Intervista' (1987), a mock documentary described by Mr. Canby in a review as 'a magical mixture of recollection, parody, memoir, satire, self-examination and joyous fantasy.'
'Tutto Fellini,' a retrospective of his films, started on Friday and is to continue through Dec. 21 at Film Forum in Greenwich Village.
Scoffed at Questions About Meaning
Mr. Fellini was impatient with interviewers who suggested that his films had been inspired by works he had not read and who pressed him with questions about the meanings of his imagery. 'Meaning, always meaning!' he scoffed. 'When someone asks, 'What do you mean in this picture?,' it shows he is a prisoner of intellectual, sentimental shackles. Without his meaning, he feels vulnerable.'
Admirers said Fellini films were resplendent and exhilarating, and reflected a deepening and an enhancement of his art. They also believed that his later movies showed maturing, self-critical insights.
After the mid-1960's, his films often stressed the bizarre, the garish and the grotesque. Detractors praised some sequences, but variously termed the works excessive, simplistic and self- obsessed. Nonetheless, the consensus was that he made brave and original movies about important issues.
Mr. Canby praised Mr. Fellini for a dazzling inventiveness and skill and an 'insatiable curiosity about and fondness for the human animal, especially those who maintain only the most tenuous holds on their dignity or sanity.' At his top form, he 'somehow brings out the best in us,' Mr. Canby wrote. 'We become more humane, less stuffy.' Hailing Mr. Fellini's 'very special, personal kind of cinema,' the critic concluded, 'one of Fellini's greatest gifts is his ability to communicate a sense of wonder, which has the effect of making us all feel much younger than we have any right to.'
Discovering Life Through Films
Federico Fellini was born on Jan. 20, 1920, in Rimini, an Adriatic port and resort in north-central Italy. His upbringing was provincial, religious and middle class. His father, Urbano, was a prosperous seller of coffee and other grocery specialties whose frequent travels left his wife, Ida, as the main parent for Federico, his brother, Riccardo, and his sister, Maddalena.
The film maker, fancifully recounting his youth, repeatedly told interviewers that he ran away from home at the age of 7 or 8 to join a circus, but later he smilingly acknowledged he had fabricated the brief episode 'to help journalists' explain his fascination for circuses.
The youth attended religious boarding schools, where his chief talent was drawing and his chief adversaries were the rigid friars who often punished him for breaking minor rules.
In 1985, he told a New York audience that his love of film making originated in Rimini's primitive movie house, which, he said, had 200 seats and standing room for 500. Of 1930's American movies, he recalled, 'I discovered there existed another way of life, a country of wide-open spaces, of fantastic cities that were a cross between Babylon and Mars.' He was speaking at a gala Fellini tribute offered by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
At the age of 17 or 18, according to his varying accounts, he left home for Florence, where he worked for several months as a proofreader and cartoonist. He went on to Rome, enrolling at the University of Rome's law school, but he did not attend classes and used his student status to avoid conscription while he worked as a cartoonist and short-story writer for a satirical publication, Marc' Aurelio. He later used his cartooning talent to draw characters and scenes for his movies.
At 19, he joined a vaudeville troupe, traveling across Italy and working primarily as a gag writer while performing utility tasks. The year, he recalled, 'was perhaps the most important year of my life.'
'I was overwhelmed by the variety of the country's physical landscape and, too, by the variety of its human landscape,' he said. 'It was the kind of experience that few young men are fortunate enough to have: a chance to discover the character of one's country and, at the same time, to discover one's own identity.'
Back in Rome, he wrote radio scripts and started collaborating on film scripts. In 1943, after a four-month courtship, he married the actress Giulietta Masina, later the star of many Fellini films, including 'La Strada,' 'The Nights of Cabiria,' 'Juliet of the Spirits' and 'Ginger and Fred.' She was a major inspiration for his life and work, and is his only survivor.
His efforts to avoid the World War II draft appeared doomed in 1943 when he was ordered to undergo a medical examination. But according to Ephraim Katz's 'Film Encyclopedia,' his records were destroyed in a bombing. Later, by hiding in Rome's slums, he eluded German Occupation troops, who regularly searched the city for Italian men to replenish the armed forces or to toil in slave-labor camps.
Present at the Start Of a Renaissance
In 1944, soon after the Allies liberated Rome, he and several friends opened the Funny Face Shop, a highly prosperous arcade that provided Allied troops with caricatures, portraits, photos and voice recordings for their families. The film director Roberto Rossellini visited the shop and asked him to collaborate on a documentary about the Nazis' occupation of Rome. The venture evolved into 'Open City' (1945), a benchmark neo-realistic movie that ignited Italy's postwar film renaissance.
Mr. Fellini was the assistant director of 'Open City' and a co-writer and assistant director of Mr. Rossellini's second celebrated antiwar film, 'Paisan' (1946), and his controversial religious film, 'The Miracle' (1948), in which Mr. Fellini was co-star with Anna Magnani. He also became known as Mr. Rossellini's idea man.
After several stints as a co-writer or assistant director for Pietro Germi and Alberto Lattuada, Mr. Fellini made his directorial debut in 1951, collaborating with Mr. Lattuada on 'Variety Lights,' a comedy-drama about the ups and downs of a troupe of third-rate traveling vaudevillians. (It was not released in the United States until 1965.) His first solo directorial effort was the 1951 'White Sheik,' released here in 1956, a broad lampoon of Italy's adult comic-strip industry. Both movies were critical and commercial failures, but they were later re-released and praised.
Determined to direct films, Mr. Fellini struggled financially to complete his next project, 'I Vitelloni,' which became a major success in Italy and abroad. He consolidated his international prestige with 'La Strada.'
The film maker was an exuberant, articulate, bearlike man with an expressive face, a whimsical charm and a spontaneous, demonstrative manner. He often gestured with both hands, even while driving one of his favorite motor cars.
Tolerant Overseer Of Sets of Babel
On movie sets, he savored his power as the ringmaster of a Felliniesque world. Jauntily wearing a wide-brimmed, usually black hat, he dominated the scene, alternately improvising, quipping and clowning. Some directors insist on silence on the set, but he preferred a touch of chaos.
He liked to shoot scenes sequentially, but he usually did not care in what language performers spoke because he dubbed most dialogue, often using other actors to do so because he believed the voices of most people did not match their looks.
Over the years, he directed thousands of nonprofessional actors. He was very demanding of performers, usually cajoling them to get what he wanted, and he coaxed many professionals to give the best performances of their careers.
For decades, the Fellinis had a small apartment in Rome for convenience, but their principal home was a modest seaside house he built in 1965 in the suburb of Fregene.
He read widely in his youth but later concentrated on newspaper articles, which provided grist for his imagination. Asked once by a friend when he planned to take a vacation, he replied quickly: 'Making a movie is my vacation. All the rest, the traveling about to premieres, the interviews, the social life, the endless arguments with producers who don't understand me, that is the work.'
He is survived by his wife.
A POET WHO SANG A SONG OF HIMSELF
Federico Fellini was a poet of the cinema whose work, illuminated by unforgettable images, was intensely autobiographical. These are some of his films and when they were made, followed by the dates of release in the United States.