Asanisimasa is a seeming nonsense word that creeps up early in Fellini’s 8½. Later on you find out that it isn’t nonsense at all, but a real word expressed in a children’s code, like one of the language games Mozart played with his sister. Simpler even than pig Latin, the code works by inserting an ‘s’ after each vowel and then repeating the vowel before moving onto the next consonant. Take out the padding and asanisimasa contracts to anima, the Italian for ‘soul’. At the heart of Fellini’s greatest film, one of the greatest works of art of the century, is a single word.
To get it, though, you have to do more than crack a childishly simple code. You have to follow the director down a long corridor in an old-fashioned luxury hotel. It is late at night. Along the corridor comes Marcello Mastroianni in the role of Guido Anselmi, a renowned Italian director buckling under the strain of starting work on his latest, make-or-break film before the script is really finished. Guido is wearing a black hat with its sides curled up, he has hangdog bags under his eyes, and his overcoat is draped over his forearm. Surely this is the studied sartorial insouciance of Fellini himself – a clear confession that the director is his own hero. We know who this is. We know what must be going on in his head: anguish, remorse, panic. But without breaking step in his forlorn march he suddenly twists and flicks one foot sidewise while it is in midair, as if he were momentarily attacked by the memory of a dance. Why does he do that?
I first asked myself this question in Florence, in 1963, when 8½ came out. Even in the delighted shock of that first viewing, it was clear that 8½ had dozens of such apparently self-contained moments, enigmatic yet instantly memorable: the squeaky crackle of Guido lying back with languorous angst on a bed heaped with the eight-by-ten glossies of actresses from whom he has to choose the supporting cast; the sheeting that shrouds the scaffolding of the uncompleted rocket ship flapping in the sea wind at night; Guido’s father going down into his hole in the ground; the ancient cardinal’s face inhaling the steam in the sauna at the spa; Sandra Milo, Guido’s airhead mistress, trying to walk in two different directions at once when she spots Anouk Aimée, the terrifyingly poised wife; Guido slumped in the preview theatre in front of the intellectualizing screenwriter who has nagged him beyond endurance and who, in the beleaguered director’s imagination, has just allowed himself to be hanged. If you could have stopped the film from moment to moment, it might have looked like any film in which a visually gifted director lights fireworks that will illuminate the darkness of an unilluminating script. But the film established its coherence in the first few minutes and unfolded inevitably. It was a film about an unfinished film – about a film that never even started – and yet it looked and sounded more finished than any film you had ever seen. About a director who didn’t know what to do next, it always knew exactly what to do next. It was a cosmic joke.
That much I got, though I couldn’t understand all the dialogue. At the time, I knew barely enough Italian to follow the story. My future wife, who spoke Italian fluently, was sitting beside me: she disliked having her concentration broken but provided whispered explanations when asked, filling in the details about the lying, cheating husband, who is insufficiently consumed by guilt for having granted himself romantic privileges on the strength of his creative gift, while his classy wife faces yet another crisis in the endless process of deciding whether to put up with him or walk away. The film should have functioned as a pre-emptive counselling session – an advertisement for the advisability of filling out the divorce papers before signing the marriage register. But the aesthetic thrill overwhelmed everything. Long before the lights went up on the stunned audience, everyone in it knew that this was a work to grow old with – one that, as T. S. Eliot once said about Dante’s poetry, you could hope to appreciate fully only at the end of your life. You couldn’t expect, then, to tease out the meaning of the film’s single moments. First, you had to absorb the impact of its initial impression, as authoritative and disabling as that created by the two great wide-screen Botticellis in the Uffizi – only a few hundred yards away from the cinema where 8½ was playing in prima visione – which slowed your step and kept you at a distance while you strove to refocus your brain along with your eyes.
In the subsequent three decades, growing older if not wiser, I have seen 8½ every time it was re-released. Now there is a video of it: not a perfect way for a newcomer to see the film but, for anyone who knows it well, a handy aide-mémoire to the order of its events – an order that, though precisely calculated, is inherently bewildering, because the chronology of the immediate narrative sometimes includes scene-long figments of Guido’s self-serving imagination and is continually intersected by divergent ripples spun out from his underlying memory. On the whole, ‘personal’ films are to be distrusted, if by personal it is meant that they are personal to their authors. (After the auteur theory took hold, no director could make a film bad enough to be dismissed: a kludge on the scale of John Ford’s Seven Women was discovered to be personal instead of lousy.) But 8½ is that kind of film that becomes personal to its viewer. Whether 8½ is really about Fellini is a question raised by the film itself – a question answered, in part, by the uncomfortable certitude of any married man who watches it that it is really about him. Men, we’re all in this together. Fellini has us figured out.
Until almost the eve of the start of production on 8½ the Guido Anselmi character wasn’t a film director. We know this because Deena Boyer, a journalist born in America but raised in France, was trusted enough by Fellini to be given unprecedented access to the preparation of this film about the preparation of a film. Even the best movie books are usually more entertaining than indispensable; hers breaks the rule. It was first published in French, as Les 200 Jours de 8½, but I have never seen it except in German, as a tatty secondhand Rowohlt paperback called Die 200 Tage von 8½. There is no point in trying to be omniscient about a work of art whose stature depends upon its knowing more about life than you do, but Boyer’s supply of first-hand information is handy for dispelling illusions, and the illusion that Fellini set out to make a film about a film director is a crucial one to have dispelled. Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, in part a copycat of 8½, could hardly work if it were not about an artist in a crisis. But Fellini’s ur-hero was l’homme moyen sensuel in a crisis. At first, he was ‘just anyone’, or, as Fellini told Boyer, ‘a man who goes to a watering place and starts thinking about his life’.
Guido graduated from being just anybody after Fellini decided to give him a career, so that the audience could get a handle on what his immediate crisis was about. Guido graduated from being just anybody to being a writer, Boyer records. If 8½ had actually been made on that basis, it would have provided an interesting parallel to Antonioni’s masterpiece of two years earlier, La Notte: same leading man, same professional anguish, same lustrous camerawork by Gianni Di Venanzo. But, as the start of production drew near, Fellini, with Mastroianni already cast, opted for the calling whose nuts and bolts he and his star could most easily show. Thus, very late in the game, 8½ acquired the solid-seeming foreground that snares your initial attention while the psychological background sends out tendrils through its interstices to gather you in. All the fascination, all the fun of the Italian film world, the mondo del cinema, is right up front working its charm: the randy production manager getting off with bimbo bit players, the producer carrying on like a prima donna, the prima donna melting down like a maniac, the deals, the double deals, the chaos, the creativity.
Above all, the creativity. It’s getting hard for younger generations to grasp, as time goes by, but in the nineteen fifties and sixties Italy was the true centre of the film world. Before the auteur theories promoted by Cahiers du Cinéma in France, by the magazine Movie in Britain, and by critics such as Andrew Sarris in America forced the movie-mad intelligentsia all over the globe to reassess the Hollywood heritage instead of just enjoying it – a vital preparatory step in the development of the Planet Hollywood we all so uneasily inhabit now – the lesser nations produced the films that seemed to matter most, and of the lesser nations Italy led the pack, ahead of France, Sweden, Poland, India and Japan. It was as if Italy had risen reinvigorated out of the ashes of the war, a phoenix with a body by Farina and the Klaxon voice of Giuseppe Di Stefano: sexy, strident, attention-getting, bung-full of tradition yet terrifically up-to-date. Italian movies were a worldwide art-house attraction even before La Dolce Vita came out, in 1960. After that, they were a sensation. Fellini, with his big hat and loosely slung coat, was in all the photo magazines. Apparently, he lived at a table in the Via Veneto, looking tolerant but reserved while being mobbed by students and paparazzi. (Actually, he never went there or anywhere else in public except to be photographed, and he put up with it only so that his face could pull in money with which to make movies – but we couldn’t tell that from looking.) He wasn’t alone. Film artists of impeccable intellectual credentials lived in coronas of personal publicity. Everybody had just worked with everybody else or was about to. The general effect was to make Italy look like an updated opera, with props and costumes shipped in from the future: Cavalleria Rusticana with a Ferrari onstage instead of a horse, Tosca on a Vespa. The effect, in short, was magnetic.
Australians of my generation on their way to Britain stopped off in Italy to absorb an atmosphere they had correctly divined to be a magic compound of culture and hedonism. Those of us who stuck around long enough to pick up the language found that the film world was even more effervescent than we had guessed. In Florence there was an unending supply of American Fulbright scholars who were supposed to be studying Mannerist painting but still found time to keep up with all the gossip of the Rome-based industry, as if Pasolini were as important as Pontormo, Bolognini as Bronzino. They didn’t have to haunt the library to get the facts. It was all in the papers. Producers, directors, cameramen and actors were getting married, divorced, sued, betrayed, killed, buried and born again in a pattern constant only in its unrelenting turbulence. Everyone was a star.
Essentially, each Italian film was a collaboration, usually involving three or more writers, two or more of whom would be directors next week and one or more of whom was a producer last week, but the money ran out. All those egos, however, were born to clash: hence the fizz, and hence the air of dedication, detectable in comedies and serious films alike. It is unfair to Antonioni to read his career backward – from the disaster of Zabriskie Point, through the awful, wilful obfuscations of Blow-Up to the brain-curdling deterministic lethargy of Red Desert and The Eclipse – and to decide that the spaced-out pacing of his high-impact central movies La Notte and L’Avventura was a bogus claim to seriousness. You didn’t have to be mad about Monica Vitti (and we all were, even the women) to decide that those films were definitive treatises on the loss of love, all the more convincing for moving no faster than a snail’s funeral. They retain their integrity when seen now, if we can suppress our awareness of how the director himself fell to pieces. Seen at the time, they looked monumental, but they didn’t stand alone: bustling at their feet was a metropolis of the imagination.
On the subject of the mature Italian male’s sexual dilemma, the comedies of Pietro Germi looked at least as thoughtful as any dirge by Antonioni, and packed in a lot more incident. (In Germi’s L’Immorale, Ugo Tognazzi runs around frantically to keep three fully fleshed female characters happily out of touch with one another until he finally conks out – not from guilt but from an overtaxed heart.) Watching the comedies of Germi, Salce, Comencini, Monicelli and a half-dozen others as they appeared, we got an education in just how comprehensive and satisfying a popular art form could be without ceasing to be either popular or artistic. The entire national life was up there on the screen, with an interval for drinks.
Over and above the comedies, there was the straight stuff. Postwar neo-realism had evolved into something even better: realism, with a fact-based imaginative scope that could take in anything, even the deep-seated, dangerously retaliatory corruption of the country that had given rise to it. In 1963, Francesco Rosi’s Le Mani Sulla Città (Hands Over the City) helped to light a fuse under the Italian political system which finally burned its way to the dynamite more than two decades later. In 1966, Gillo Pontecorvo made The Battle of Algiers. A radical film of such power that it remains compulsory viewing even for conservatives, it put the dazzling first features of Bertolucci and Bellocchio into sober perspective, making them look childishly hipped on their own anger. In short, the Italian cinema of those years was a lush field for someone to stand out from. Fellini did, head and shoulders.
Even more than La Dolce Vita, 8½ is a clear demonstration of how Fellini became Italy’s national director and its ambassador to the world – the ambassador who never left home. The totality of his films is more than the sum of its parts, but all his films are contained, at some degree of compression, in 8½:they all lead up to it or lead on from it. Rich even by his standards, his supreme masterpiece first conveys its wealth through its sumptuous visual texture. Since Nights of Cabiria, for which the designer Piero Gherardi joined his entourage, Fellini had already put more of his country’s visual excitement into his movies than any other director except perhaps Kurosawa. In 8½, with Di Venanzo lighting Gheradi’s sets, Fellini excelled even his own previous efforts at pulling his tumultuous homeland into shape.
The lustre isn’t just the look of Italy; it’s the look of Fellini. Compared with him, the world’s other great national directors hardly cared about what the camera could do. Buñuel never moved the camera unless he had to. Renoir called for a bravura setup only if there was no other way to make a narrative point: that much-studied, Ophuls-like long exterior tracking shot in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is there just so you can see exactly how far the hero has to run along corridors and down flights of stairs. And you can’t imagine Bergman actually enjoying what in his case you feel inclined to call the physical side of it. But Fellini, even in his maturity, is like Orson Welles playing with the toy train set for the first time. In 8½, through sets built by Gherardi to look real and real locations lit by Di Venanzo to look like sets, the camera sails and swoops weightlessly yet without a flutter, as if following grooves in space. As Boyer’s book reveals, there was no question of Fellini’s standing aside and letting Di Venanzo make all this happen. Fellini was with him behind the camera: the instructions given to the operator, Pasquale de Santis, were their joint work, with Fellini always in the ascendant, specifying every aspect of a black-and-white mise en scène gorgeous enough to make colour look famished. Fellini was so sure of getting what he wanted that it didn’t bother him if he was unable to check his work. He almost never looked at rushes, although for much of the shooting of 8½ he couldn’t have even if he had wanted to: the laboratories were on strike.
Not only were there hardly any dailies, there were practically no scripts. Only two complete copies of the script existed anywhere near the production. Fellini had the picture in his head. To a large extent, it happened the way you feel it happened: like a marvellous, fluent improvisation, with a freedom of expression which extended to the actors – even to those who were amateurs and needed dozens of takes to get a tricky scene right. According to Fellini’s usual practice, the players, whether professional or amateur, were cast for their faces. For Fellini, la faccia was everything. In a little book of 1980, Fare un Film, Fellini said that he would have preferred not to decide on his cast until he had seen every face in the world. Fellini had always taken delight in casting untrained faces and getting precise performances out of them, but until La Dolce Vita he mainly confined them to the lower ranks of the cast. In 8½ they are up among the leading figures. The role of Guido’s increasingly apoplectic producer (clearly modelled on Fellini’s real-life bagman, Angelo Rizzoli) is played by an industrialist, Guido Alberti. Physically ideal in his pampered rotundity, he uncorks a performance that a trained actor would be proud of. (Alberti went semi-pro afterwards: he’d got the bug.) Similarly, the screenwriter is played by a real screenwriter, Jean Rougeul. Possessing a face that begs to be slapped, he, too, is physically ideal, but it is remarkable how good he is at the lines, or how good Fellini makes him. Contrary to legend, in Italy it does matter if an actor can’t say the lines properly: though Italian films are post-synched, the lips have to match the words in anything except a long shot. Rougeul, a Frenchman, had to work hard. He does an amazing job of being repellent. When he gets strung up, the audience laughs.
In a TV interview given by the late Alexander Mackendrick to Stephen Frears, Mackendrick said he had always found mixing untrained actors with trained ones doubly fruitful, because the untrained caught discipline and the trained caught naturalness. This effect can be seen working at a high pitch in 8½. The principal players have no star mannerisms: they are just people. Mastroianni and Anouk Aimée, playing Guido’s wife, Luisa, aren’t on-screen together for much more than fifteen minutes, but the way they connect across distance burns at the centre of the film: these are the embers of a long love, too spent to keep either party warm yet still too hot to handle. As his mistress Carla, Sandra Milo pulls off the impossible trick of being a nitwit angel that a smart man might like to know almost as much as he would like to lay. To fatten her up for the role, Fellini made her eat until she groaned. In Fare un Film he calls the character a culone, which more or less means that her brain is in her behind. Milo convinces you that it’s a good brain anyway. Purely physical, ecstatically devoted to her exciting lover – he is the White Sheik from one of Fellini’s early films, but in a black hat – she is not to be blamed that he is bored with her almost as soon as she steps off the train. It isn’t her fault: it’s his. This is about something deeper than adultery. If it was just the story of a man caught between wife and mistress and satisfied with neither, it would be La Dolce Vita. But 8½ isn’t about the melodrama in the life of its protagonist, it’s about the psychodrama in his mind.
‘Didn’t you know the devil is Saraghina?’ The question that rings through 8½ rang through Fellini’s life. In 8½ the young Guido, making an appearance in the mature Guido’s memory, hears that question from the priests and doesn’t know how to answer. Saraghina is an enormous, blowsy, barefoot madwoman who lives on the beach and dances and exposes herself for Guido and his fellow inmates of a church school. After a flagrant exhibition by Saraghina, the young Guido gets caught, led off by the ear, and made to kneel on dried peas while the priests put him to the question. In real life, Fellini never made a secret of Saraghina. Fellini commonly told interviewers anything that would get rid of them, but on the subject of Saraghina he either always told the same lie or else it was a fact. In Fare un Film – cobbled together from a baker’s dozen interviews and articles by other people, but reprocessed by Fellini and bearing his signature – the Saraghina story is given neat. He says that while he was at the church school in Fano, the only period in his childhood when he spent much time away from his native town of Rimini, he visited Saraghina often and paid the price for inciting her to her revelatory routine. (She was cheap: her name meant ‘sardines’ and she would do her number for a few of them as payment.) Refusing to believe that Saraghina was the devil was obviously the essential early decision of Fellini’s emotional life. He preferred to believe that she was an angel.
Whether or not the Saraghina episode ever happened to Fellini, or merely something like it – or, still more merely, numerous and diverse episodes scarcely at all like it but he synthesized them later in the way that artists do - for 8½ Saraghina is one of the elements that help to dramatize Guido’s memory as a convincing determinant of his imagination. The memory of Saraghina is the gross, unfrocked and irrepressible guarantee that Guido’s imagination can’t be a thing of refinement: the most he can hope for is to make refined things from it, but his imagination itself must remain primitive, shaped incorrigibly by the initial impact of her uncorseted oomph. Guido is unsettled by the knowledge that his memory should dominate his imagination in such a way. He still half regrets that he can never give the priests a satisfactory answer, still hopes that the cardinal in the steam can show him the true path. But Fellini himself, judging from the sum of his films, seems to have been glad enough, if not exactly grateful, to have a story in his mind that would help him to script and shoot the male sexual imagination as a divine comedy.
The mind is the house of the Lord, and in the house of the Lord there are many mansions, and one of them is a honky-tonk. Fellini’s central boldness is to embrace that fact and body it forth without shame, but without any knowing pride either – just the embarrassment necessarily involved in being consciously human. Self-revealing without being self-exculpatory, he is not offering carte blanche for adultery, a concrete act that needs excusing at the very least and is often a crime. Besides, there are married men who have never committed adultery, and one or two of them have even reached the White House. But there is no married man who has not, like President Carter, committed adultery in his heart – meaning, of course, in his imagination, which grows out of his memory, and has been with him always.
This interior imbroglio is 8½’s real subject. In real life Guido is merely entangled. In his mental life he is tied to time: the rope that threatens to drag him by the leg from the sky back down to the beach is a doubly exact metaphor, because the beach is where Fellini’s imagination began its life. Saraghina was as meaty, beaty, big and bouncy as all the world’s women rolled into one and that’s what Guido has wanted ever since – all the women in the world. Not every woman he wants is an uncomplicated culone like the one played by Sandra Milo. There is also the young, vital ideal of fructive beauty, played in 8½ by Claudia Cardinale, whose looks and personality made a unique contribution to Italian movies in the early sixties before she went international later in the decade and rather dissipated the effect. Silvana Mangano, Sophia Loren and Monica Vitti could all act better. Even Virna Lisi could act better, although few ever appreciated her as an actress because she was so beautiful. But Cardinale wasn’t just beautiful, she had the knack of incarnating a dream type, the aristocratic peasant. Visconti used her for that quality, twice and at length, in Vaghe stelle dell’Orsa (hardly seen outside Italy, it had a title from Leopardi – Beautiful Stars of the Bear – and a plot from hell, but she looked unputdownably scrumptious) and his much-mangled international blockbuster The Leopard (she was the gorgeous up-market earth girl that Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon both cherished as the personification of authenticity, a judgement which received ironic reinforcement from the film as a whole, camped as it was somewhere between Sicily and the abstract outworld we have since come to recognize as Planet Hollywood). In 8½ Fellini got the same charge out of her as a glorified walk-on, a bit-part with billing. Practically all she does is turn up. But she triggers Guido’s mixed vision of carnal purity and we believe it. Dante’s Beatrice on the cover of Vogue. Petrarch’s Laura with an agent, an unblemished spirit in perfect flesh, she is infinitely desirable: we know he’ll be longing for her on the day he dies, if only because he has never touched her. As a token of her power to stir his imagination, even her appearance in the actual now has a tinge of the altered, heightened pseudo-reality of the hero’s wish world, whose bridal candour, we come to realize, doubles as white mourning. When she and Guido are for a little while alone together, in the empty piazza in Filacciano, the authentic architecture around them, built long ago by other hands than Gherardi’s, is the only setting in the film that looks artificial, and the breeze that stirs Cardinale’s black feather boa blows only for her, rather in the way that the envoys from the beyond in Cocteau’s Orphée are contained in their own micro-climate. Cardinale is Guido’s dream walking, but when she realizes that he is idealizing her she laughs, and he realizes that she is right.
Another version of breathtaking unavailability is played by Caterina Boratto, as the guest at the spa who does nothing but descend the staircase of the grand hotel and cross the lobby. Statuesque in a personal cloud of white chiffon, she is a poised blast from the past of the Italian cinema. Boratto was a diva of those escapist movies, made at Cinecittà in Fascism’s heyday, in which the protagonists indicated their luxurious lives (Vivere! was the title of her big hit of 1936: To Live!) by talking into white telephones. To present a white telephone star as a womanly ideal is Fellini’s indication that in Guido’s sexual imagination even the ideals of subtlety and refinement have something cartoon-like about them. The women in his brain are all caricatures. He knows they are, but he’s stuck with it. His mind is in poor taste.
All the caricatures get together in one of the film’s most elaborate sequences. When he hears the word Asanisimasa pronounced by his old friend the vaudeville mindreader, Guido is propelled back in his memory to a favourite place of his childhood, the barn fitted out as a small wine-factory – a fattoria – where he was teased, tucked up, looked after and generally spoiled by older women. Guido goes back to the same fattoria in his imagination, to stage a wish-fulfilment scene in which all the women in his life, along with all the women whom he would like to be in his life, live together in harmony: united, instead of divided, by their common desire for him. They all take their tune from the old peasant woman who teased him and tucked him up. Their only role is to spoil him. They compete in nothing except subservience. His wife is there, smiling in acquiescence: she understands his needs. Every woman he has even fleetingly noticed in the course of the film’s real-time story turns up as a worshipper. Women we have never seen before are there too: this place has been in business for a long time. A black girl dances through, flashing an open-mouthed white smile before snapping it shut. (I can still remember, from the first time I saw the movie, how a single American male groan outsoared the collective Italian male whimper in an audience whose females has already audibly made it obvious that they found the whole scene a sciocchezza – a foolishness.)
But this isn’t just the place where Guido’s dreams come true. It is also where they go sour. An early love, an exuberant soubrette, has outlived her desirability. Desperately she tries to interest him again but she stands revealed as just a not very good singer and dancer. Guido is ruthless with her: she has to go upstairs, where he consigns the women he no longer wants. (In real life, Fellini might have been ruthless with the actress who plays her: Boyer reports that the actress sang and danced too well, so he made her repeat the number until she was exhausted and in tears. However it happened, pathos certainly got into the scene.) Guido is suddenly recast as a monster. His dream women rebel, having realized that the same thing might happen to them. He has to get his whip out and drive them like animals. It is a clear confession, on Guido’s part, that his sexual imagination is an unrealizable, incurably adolescent fantasy of banal variety and impotent control.
Just as clearly, it is Fellini’s confession too. This is really why he made Guido a film director: not just to give him a believable role, but to show him cracking his whip over his tumultuous desires – to show him marshalling fantasies. Fellini is assuming that in this respect a film director is just everyman writ large, or at any rate writ more obvious. It is a big assumption, which will provide ammunition to condemn him if it is rejected as a excuse. Fellini’s real-life wife, the distinguished actress Giulietta Masina, was on the set to witness the filming of 8½’s key scene. It was her dubious privilege to watch her husband’s surrogate setting about his harem with a whip to bring them back into line. Masina had no doubt long before been made aware of Fellini’s belief that what goes on in a man’s mind he can’t help, so he had better be judged on his conduct. What she thought of that belief is one of the many secrets of their long marriage. What Fellini thought of his wife is brought out explicitly in Fare un Film, where he ascribes their marriage to a decision of fate and would obviously, had he been a believer, have ascribed it to a decision of God. But you don’t need to read his book to know what she meant to him. All you have to do is look at the films, which from La Strada onwards are about their marriage even when she is not in them. Sometimes, indeed, they are at their strongest on that subject when she isn’t there. In 8½ Anouk’s face, la faccia, is enough to establish that this wife is no willing victim but a strong, independent woman with as much class and style as her famous husband, if not more.
Anouk’s incandescent performance shows why a director needs his prestige. Able to persuade her that she was participating in a serious project, Fellini talked her into acting against her charm and in line with her magnificent bone structure. Fully exposed by a boyish hairstyle, those knife-edged facial planes that kept her beautiful for decades could take on overtones of a hatchet when she was angry, and Fellini made sure that anger was almost the only emotion she was allowed to register. We are obliged to conclude that if this is a long-suffering wife, it isn’t because she’s a patsy. The film’s moral edifice pivots on this point, because if it isn’t accepted then the whole thing looks self-serving. The plot provides Luisa with a young, handsome, adoring admirer. She can’t get interested in him. Is Fellini saying that she forgoes more devotion because her faithless husband is more fascinating? Most feminists would say yes. They would have half a point, but only by hindsight. Fellini was a feminist avant la lettre: he had already proved that much with his early films, all of which feature, and some of which focus on, men’s manipulation of women.
God knows he had enough to go on. In the early sixties Italy was still in the grip of a chest-beating male supremacy stretching back to the Borgias, among whom Lucrezia probably took up poisoning just to get some attention at the dinner table. The first week I was in Rome, the papers were running editorials about a young Italian male whose Dutch girlfriend had told him she wanted to break off their affair because her real boyfriend was about to arrive from Holland. The Italian boy stabbed her sixteen times with a carving knife. The editorials daringly suggested that this sort of thing was giving Italy a bad image abroad. It was still a bold innovation to suggest that the crime of honour was unforgivable. From Sicily as far north as Naples, if a girl refused a man’s hand in marriage he could still get her by raping her, because then no other man would want her. (Scandal arose only when he didn’t want her either, on account of her being no longer a virgin.) As for men pestering young women in the streets, there was no north and south: Milan was as bad as Messina. Foreign women suffered most. They were assumed to be whores just for being there. In Florence I used to get so angry at what I saw that it would spoil the visit. After the Florence flood in 1966 there was a startling change, which hit the other big cities not long after. Suddenly the women’s magazines, which had previously been almost exclusively preoccupied with the mysteries of the trousseau, started carrying articles about how to divorce a sadistic husband without getting killed. Women’s rights got a look in at last.
But anyone interpreting Italy then from the vantage point of now should realize that feminism was starting from a long way behind. Looking at Fellini’s wide screens full of big breasts and accommodating thighs, it is easy to decide that he was part of the problem. The truth is that he was part of the solution. He was saying that men should be held responsible for what they did, not for how they felt. It was an especially important message for a country in which what men did could beggar belief. Trying to change the way a man felt who had just stabbed his girlfriend sixteen times, you might possibly persuade him to stab his next girlfriend only fifteen times. The trick was to call his outburst of passion by its proper name, murder. And to do that, you had to argue that passion was every man’s property, and the management of it his responsibility.
Feminism was one of Fellini’s touchstones of liberty. The anger he aroused in feminists later on was because of his other touchstones, one of them being the liberty to express the full squalor of the male mind. He did it with such bravura that it struck the censorious eye as a boast. It wasn’t, though: it was an abasement, and Anouk’s tight-lipped fury is there to prove it. ‘Vacca!’ is the word she spits at the culone, Carla. It means ‘cow’ and in Italy that is a harsh word for one woman to use about another – the last word, the fighting word. Luisa is insulted by the banality of her rival. For Guido to take a mistress might have been forgivable. But if this is what he dreams of, what sort of a man has she been living with?
If Fellini had not driven a wedge between how Guido thinks and how he acts, Guido would stand condemned, and Fellini along with him. But the wedge is there, in the beautiful form of Luisa. Guido once dreamed of her, too, and he is still involved with her even though she has become real – the best evidence that she must have been the most powerful dream of all. Luisa is what the German socialists used to call a Lebensgefährtin, a lifetime companion. Strong in her anguish, graceful even in despair, she is the true Felliniesque womanly icon. Anouk looked the part. Masina’s misfortune was that she didn’t. When it came to the crunch, she didn’t have the right face to play herself.
In La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, Masina played the waif. She could be funny, resilient and even tough, but with a face like a doll she just couldn’t transmit flint-like fury. You always wanted to pity her, and the point of Luisa is that she finds her husband pitiful, and hates him for it. Fellini followed 8½ with Juliet of the Spirits, the all-colour extravaganza which is nowadays the most neglected of his major films. This time Giulietta Masina plays the wife. With the inexorable proviso that her face is borrowed from a Cinderella who will never get to try on the shoe, the film is an opulent, radiant, unmanningly reverent tribute to her stature in Fellini’s life. This was the last film Fellini made with Gherardi and Di Venanzo. They both excelled themselves. The sets are a cumulative marvel from an unsung opera and the photography makes colour film look as if it were being invented all over again. Giulietta’s imagination and memory are explored like Guido’s in 8½. In addition, there are layers of Jungian analysis, parapsychology, voodoo and drug-induced hallucinations. Fellini subsequently told Cahiers du Cinéma that he didn’t need LSD to have visions, but there can be no doubt that he was willing to try anything in order to give his votive offering to his wife the depth, weight and splendour he felt she deserved. The inescapable problem was that it was all within his gift. The idea was to show her liberating herself from her psychological burden. But it was his idea, not hers. In Fare un Film, Fellini movingly looked forward to the day when women would give us their view of the world. There could be no question of his generosity. But that day hadn’t yet come, and for the meantime he was stuck with his own stuff.
He still had plenty more, but first he had a crisis to get through. Juliet of the Spirits tanked in a big way, he broke with Gherardi, lost Di Venanzo, swapped Rizzoli for Dino de Laurentiis, sailed straight into a real-life 8½ situation with a film he couldn’t start, and wound up suffering from what seemed like terminal depression. Most directors would have quit at that point and gone off to give lectures, but Fellini was on the verge of a string of films that are, at the very least, all interesting sidelights on 8½, and some of which, in one aspect or another, actually supersede it. Peter Bogdanovich once pointed out that Fellini’s first few movies, the ones we rarely see, would have been enough to establish him as an important director. It should also be said, but rarely is, that the films after Juliet of the Spirits would have been sufficient to work the same trick. A few weeks ago, on a plane between London and Bangkok, I watched videos of Fellini Satyricon and Fellini’s Roma. I still didn’t enjoy Satyricon very much: except for the scene where the patrician married couple commit suicide to get away from the moral squalor – a clear echo of Steiner’s unexpected yet inevitable exit from La Dolce Vita – it just doesn’t offer enough relief from its own all-consuming animality. The people in it behave like pigs, but not even pigs behave like pigs all the time; sometimes they just lie there. (Fellini was too decent to be any good at decadence, and even if he had been, decadence dates: this is the reason some parts of La Dolce Vita now look passé.) Roma, however, came up fresh as paint. The traffic-jam scene is a far more effective comment on modern barbarism and insanity than anything in Satyricon, which was supposed to reflect our own age but made it look good by comparison. In Roma, the threat of industrial society’s inhumanity is made real by the intensity of the humanity. The trattoria on the street, with the tram clanging past, looks like the way of life we all want but suspect that only the Italians have ever had. It was probably never quite that folksy in Rome: Fellini is remembering Rimini.
When I got back to London, Amarcord, the film that actually does remember Rimini, was showing on television as part of a memorial season. I had always recalled it as a delight, but now it looks like a masterpiece. It hasn’t changed; perhaps I have. Amarcord (in the dialect of Rimini, the word means ‘I remember’) is like all the childhood flashbacks in 8½ condensed into one. Saraghina is there again: a nameless tobacco vendor this time, but with breasts bigger than ever. Our young hero, appropriately called Titta, gets his head caught between them, and this counts as a big adventure. Everything here is small-time: the cinema, the bar, the square. The cars of the ‘Mille Miglia’ automobile race howl through town, but they are going somewhere else. The big, lit-up liner sails away. The citizens remain, eating, drinking, having families, and occasionally dressing up as Fascists. It takes a while for the viewer to realize that this is a film about Fascism, and longer still to realize that this is the film about Fascism. Especially in the late sixties, Fellini was accused of having said nothing about politics. He defended himself by saying that he saw politics purely in terms of personal liberty, and in Fare un Film he explains that the life led in Amarcord was the soil from which Fascism grew and can always grow: a life of arrested adolescence, narrow horizons, mean dreams, easy solutions and – saturating everything – ignorance. The film bears out his analysis in every respect. He shows the disease with a clarity that defines the cure: Fascism is undisciplined nostalgia, a giving in to childish wishes, the cuddle continued, the tantrum in perpetuity.
Fellini’s Casanova is the film he should never have made. Artistically, it has some interest; strategically, it was a disaster. Some critics decided, on the strength of its weakness, that he had been an eroto-maniac all along. But Casanova is a dud precisely because Fellini was no pornographer. If he had been, his films would be running continuously on Eighth Avenue and making a lot of money. Casanova the seducer is the wrong hero for a man who wanted to submit to his women, not dominate them; Fellini craved their individuality, not their similarity. (So did Casanova, incidentally, but the statistics made it look otherwise.) Fellini had nothing but contempt for Casanova and wanted to prove it – a bad plan for an artist whose forte was his range of sympathy. The film was such an unequivocal stiff that you wept for Donald Sutherland, who must have felt honoured to be in it and devastated when it didn’t work out. (Sutherland had previously starred in Larry Tucker and Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland, a now forgotten but considerable homage to 8½, in which a young American director has trouble starting a movie.)
Casanova is in Fellini’s next big film and last masterpiece, La Città delle Donne (The City of Women, 1980) – only this time he is called Dottore Santo Katzone. (Since cazzo is the Italian word for ‘cock’ and –one is the enlarging suffix, the name means that he has a big one.) Katzone, like Casanova, is really just another version of Don Juan, and must suffer the same fate: to find his own endlessly repeated excitement an endless disappointment, to suffer the built-in letdown of the permanent hard-on. Katzone, though not on-screen long, is probably the best stab at Don Juan’s pitiable doom since Mozart’s. Bergman, in The Devil’s Eye, gave his Don Juan too much finesse: his punishment is to have the women disappear at the moment he embraces her, whereat he gently recoils with a polite sigh. Katzone gets what he wants, and it eats him up. He can feel himself coarsening even as he thickens, turning into one of the phallic sculptures that decorate his room, a petrified forest of dildos in which he is the only flexible component, and only just. Snaporaz, the film’s hero, has no desire to be Katzone. Played by none other than Marcello Mastroianni in full panic mode, Snaporaz (the name seems to be one of Fellini’s many code names for a liar) is, like Guido in 8½, a married man battling his sexual imagination, but this time it’s in colour, and the women of his desires come on in choruses, in kick lines, in cabarets with Las Vegas lighting effects: they slide down poles and go up in balloons. At the beginning, he gets off a train, and he spends the rest of the film trying to get back on. (It sounds like the same train scene that was cut from the end of 8½ when Fellini realized that the circus finale was the only possible wrap-up.) He is trying to hide out in his own fantasies, but the militant feminists are in there, too, and they want his guts for garters and his scrotum for a handbag.
Mastoianni’s brilliantly conveyed helplessness didn’t save the film’s reputation. An unflinching portrayal of a man at bay was widely condemned as a conscienceless parade of unreconstructed male chauvinism. By this time, Fellini was routinely being called sentimental, even by critics who conceded the historical importance of his central films. Sentimentality was supposed to be his weakness. His case wasn’t helped by E La Nave Va (And the Ship Sails On, 1983). The ship-of-fools format is a certain loser unless the ship makes landfall: we are given no tangible social life for comparison, so the artificial one on the ship has to refer to itself, with cramped results. But faces, as always with Fellini, stick in the memory: Pina Bausch playing a blind woman, staring straight out of the screen with eyes like those of the dead sunfish on the beach at the end of La Dolce Vita, when Mastroianni sees the girl who incarnates his lost innocence… Even at the end of Fellini’s career, there was something in each new movie to remind you of all the others – something to remind you that there was a man behind the film, and that he had a woman beside him to whom he felt bound to explain himself. The explanation was always about the difficulty of marriage and the emptiness of the alternatives. It was always about Fellini and Masina. Ginger and Fred was charming, but unworthy of them: the story of a couple of old hoofers who couldn’t really dance that well, it gave Masina and Mastroianni all too many opportunities to be cute. But Fellini and Masina could dance that well: they were people of majesty, not puppets of fate. Pathos was inappropriate.
I called some friends in the Czech Republic recently, who said they were looking forward to seeing 8½ the next evening on a satellite movie channel. Fellini distrusted television. In the later part of his life, when big movies were harder to finance, he made films for television, but he always disliked the restrictions: the TV screen didn’t have enough information in it; the shot could never go deep; the lighting had to be too even. Above all, he disliked the atomization of the audience – one, two, or, at most, a few people in front of the set, eating, drinking and talking. He thought that the movie house as he had known it for most of his life was the last church. He valued its sacred aspect. Well, TV screens will get bigger, and the resolution will get better. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to envisage a day when all you can see in the cinema you will be able to see at home, without some lout behind you laughing through his popcorn at all the wrong moments. Every movie of any consequence that has ever been made will be there in front of you at the touch of a button. But l’aspetto sacrale probably won’t be coming back. On the information highway, each of us is going to be alone in the middle of a hundred lanes of traffic. It will be a lot like trying to walk out of Los Angeles on the freeway system.
In any case, most of the entertainment that people all over the world touch their telephones to get will be manufactured somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. And I suppose a more horrible fate for the world can be imagined: American films at their most mindless have seldom been as toxic as any totalitarian country’s films at their most sophisticated. On the whole, back in the sixties, we were right to restate our enjoyment of the old Hollywood as admiration, to turn fandom into scholarship.
But this development had one lasting deleterious consequence. The attention that had been focused on the great national directors of other countries began to lapse. Renoir, Bergman, Ray, Wajda, Kurosawa, Ozu, Fellini: we had been preoccupied with then for a long time; we had grown bored with endorsing their obvious eminence; and, anyway, they could look after themselves. So we sort of let them go. Yet they had something that their successors didn’t always have – we could see that Truffaut might be another Renoir, but Godard obviously wasn’t anything of the kind – and that the American directors didn’t have at all. To begin with, the earlier masters were mainly true filmmakers, not just directors who were nothing without the right producer to bring them the right script. They developed a project from the beginning and got the whole of their country’s life into it, and they went on doing this until they were old and grey. In America, Orson Wells might have done that if his personality had been different. Peter Bogdanovich might have done it if his life had been different. But it has always been hard to avoid the conclusion that what really needed to be different was America itself.
Not that Hollywood lacked a sense of history. Contrary to what foreign intellectuals usually thought and had such fun expressing, Hollywood always expended huge energy on getting the historical details right, right down to the buttons on the costumes. Where history went missing was in the people. Even today, when some of the cleverest people in the world are writing and directing Hollywood films, the characters on the screen are usually present only in the present. They haven’t got a past, except as a series of plot points. They might say wise things, but not from experience. They are happily married until they love someone else, and then they leave the person they were with and go off to be happy with the other, as if love were some kind of moral imperative. And if one of the miracles of modern Hollywood is the energy that is lavished on these sleepwalking ciphers, another is how the people doing the creating often end up behaving like their creations.
Too many of the people busy with their careers in Planet Hollywood are just boys and girls, whereas a man like Frederico Fellini was a man. Called ‘sentimental’ by those for whom his emotions were too big and too pure, he was really the enemy of sentimentality, which he had correctly diagnosed as being only a step away from cynicism. The typical aria of sentimentality is from an operetta: it breathes the perfumed atmosphere of Leichtsinn, that dreadful Viennese word which makes the heart heavy the moment it is sung. In 8½, Mastroianni at first glance looks like a refugee from an updated production of Die Fledermaus. But there is no Leichtsinn here, no glibly wry tolerance of other people’s suffering, no easily borne betrayals. Instead, there is melancholy. It comes from the self-examination without which life is not worth living. Fellini’s is the tragic view of life, the gift of the old countries to the new ones where people think their life is over if they are not happy. It is the view of life formed in that aspect of the mind which, even when all the religions are dead, dying or preaching holy war, we still feel bound to call the soul. Anima: the word denotes a thing.
Fellini was by no means a perfect man. He was not an ideal man. He was a real one. His individuality resided in his being able to see what was universal about himself; he had a scope, within and without, that made him in postwar Italy what Verdi had been for the Risorgimento: the great cultural figure of Italy’s recuperation, and, beyond his own country, one of the great men of the modern world.
Fellini was even beyond the cinema as a specific art. Though he was the master of all its techniques, he pursued it not as one art form among others but as if it were art itself. The last scene of Les Enfants du Paradis is magnificent, but it is just cinema. Its director, Marcel Carné, would have been lost without Jacques Prévert’s screenplay, and Baptiste and Garance were only symbolically separated by the crowd flowing past the Théâtre des Funambules – they could have met again around the corner. The last scene of 8½ is often compared with Carné’s flag-waving finale, but the difference is the difference between substance and stylishness, between a revelation and mere flair. Fellini’s outburst of exuberance has a grief in it that leaves the children of paradise looking like the children they are – patronized by their parents, the makers of the film. Fellini patronizes no one. He knows himself too well. When Guido joins the circle with his wife and all the people he lives and works with, the spectacle is no pretty ring out of an Arcadia by Poussin. It is an acknowledgement of a truth that the most prodigious artists realize with their souls, even if they sometimes deny it with their mouths: that, despite their uniqueness, they are not alone, that they live and work for the people, of whom each of them is only one.
The evidence suggests that Fellini, for all his mighty ego, was a man with no vanity (except about his thinning hair), and that he experienced his talent as a responsibility to be lived up to as long as his life lasted, even when his best collaborators were gone, the money had run out, the young directors who had hoped to emulate him had given up or gone abroad, and Italy’s mondo del cinema, stripped of its atmosphere by the voracious gravity of Planet Hollywood, was reduced to a lifeless satellite. As long as the art prince Fellini was alive, the Italian film industry had a face.
But though la faccia is gone, l’anima yet lives. Fellini’s films are already popping up everywhere, even out of the armrests of airline seats, and at least one of them will be watched in awe when human beings live in spaceships and have at last grasped that the longest voyage is inside the mind. 8½ will transmit the distillation of a national culture to an international, homogenized future that might well be condemned to have no other source of such qualities except the past. It is the work of a man who could realize his gift because he realized what a gift is. A gift comes from Heaven, as an elation of the spirit. For its recipient not to enjoy it would be ungracious, despite the grief it might bring – which is why Fellini told Marcello, before he began his long, weary walk down the corridor, to flick that foot.
New Yorker, 21 May, 1994