Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Road to Fellini's Realism

Note: For anyone who has followed this blog from the beginning or even just glaced at my profile picture, will know that La Dolce Vita is my favourite movie and Federico Fellini my favourite filmmaker. Over the summer the TIFF Bell Lightbox has been hosting a retrospective of Fellini's work as well as presenting a gallery of images dedicated to him. This coming Sunday I will be seeing Nights of Cabiria on the big screen as well as La Dolce Vita come the end of August. I'm sure I'll have something to say about both when the time comes but until then I publish this essay in anticipation.

The road is a metaphor that could very well describe the entire career of Federico Fellini, whose films, in one way or another, all revolved around a journey of self discovery. So it is ironic that his film, in which respected film critic Roger Ebert called the first “that can be called entirely "Felliniesque"(1994), would be called The Road. In a way it’s a starting point from which Fellini himself would take a journey of self-discovery, establishing the very images, motifs and themes that all of his later work would revolve around. Some of which would be the tone that Fellini’s films created by a rejection of the typical characters found in the neo-realism genre which Fellini was born from as discussed by Peter Bondanella in his book The Films of Federico Fellini. There is also the constant contrast between the circus and religion as discussed by Edward Murray in his book Fellini the Arstist, and finally the constant quest of self discovery that Fellini’s characters take in which they often find themselves trapped somewhere between heaven and earth as discussed by Donald P. Costello in his book Fellini’s Road.

In his book The Films of Federico Fellini, Peter Bondanella talks of Fellini’s departure from his roots as a maker of Italian Neorealist films. Having started in this genre as a writer for Roberto Rossili, Fellini soon abandoned his roots on his third film La Strada, by presenting characters and a plot that surpassed what was found within the neorealist genre. According to Bondanella, “Perhaps his departure from neorealist practice in rejecting the idea of film character as social type is the most important divergence from neorealist practice; but equally important is the fact that the plot and visuals of La Strada reject easy classification as a realistic story of social exploitation” (51-51). If neorealism was thought to have moved cinema away from the Hollywood “dream factory” (43) and into the streets of war torn Europe (43), then Fellini was taking it back into a dream world. According to Bondanella, “Fellini agreed with both Rossellini and Antonioni that Italian cinema needed to pass beyond a dogmatic, Marxist approach to social reality, dealing poetically with other equally compelling personal or emotional problems”(53). Hence, La Strada was born. More so then any of Fellini’s previous films, it was a parable about childlike innocence; about finding the purpose that God put you on earth to fulfill. La Strada therefore gave birth to an even newer realism; Fellini’s realism.

It was easy to see that Fellini’s films, particularly his characters, did not so much offer depictions of realism. Instead they acted as a part within Fellini’s fables. In neorealism it was believed that films should “stress social context” (Bondanella, 43). Fellini rejected this idea; his films were more like a process of working out their maker’s own spiritual life journey through the use of allegory and fable. As Bondanella writes, “More than a story, La Strada is a fable about symbolic figures, and its plot structures this origin in the fable or fairy tale” (52). The way Fellini’s films are structured, La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, and La Dolce Vita in particular, is that they both begin and end at the sea; they come full circle back to their beginnings. For Fellini, especially as a Roman Catholic, this book ending represented a new beginning for his characters, a chance for spiritual redemption. Bondanella offers this explanation: “Rather than viewing the world from the perspective of class struggle or class conflict, La Strada embodies a profoundly Christian emphasis upon the individual and the loneliness of the human condition” (54). In using the image of the sea, Fellini is showing the viewers that his films are not about the underpinnings of a Marxist society, but rather the choices of an individual journey; the journey away from the birthplace and back, in an attempt to find, not a place within society, but a place within the spiritual universe. In Fellini’s reality, faith takes precedence over class.

Besides the road, there are two other images that constantly appear throughout Fellini’s body of work, usually appearing in conflict with one another. One of these images is that of the circus: a place of spontaneity and life, a place where it is the norm to think the unthinkable, to believe the unimaginable. To Fellini, the circus was a place of great imagination and invention. Edward Murray in his book Fellini the Artist states that “Where the circus…appears directly in his pictures, it stands as a metaphor, a device for revealing life as a funny- sad experience with cosmic significance” (232). Indeed, to Fellini, a man who liked to create his own reality, whether it was derived from his own life, or a life he had made up, the circus was a place of unending imagination.

The circus however was not the only part of Fellini’s realism. Fellini was a director who was constantly trying to work out the dual nature of reality, trying to blur the lines between the “real and the ideal” (Murray,234). Thus Fellini’s films present a reality that was not the same one that the neorealists dealt with. Rather it was one that was Fellini’s itself, a world in which imagination and performance were held in the highest regard, and thus the circus was always in constant conflict with the church. In reality, the church reined supreme in Rome, and this is why it was under constant comparison to the circus. As Murray helps us understand, Fellini was constantly trying to show us life’s poles, that every road has two paths, more importantly, “life as it is, and life as it ought to be” (234). Throughout his films Fellini constantly presents the audiences with two versions of life. The life that we have, which is one of banality, hurt and sorrow, and most importantly of displacement, and the life that we could have if we lived a little better, were a little more loving, and lived with a little more direction; a true dolce vita.

For Fellini the circus offered direction where the church did not. The church to Fellini “(S)tands for an inauthentic way of life, since it tends to thwart man’s expansive capacities” (Murray,30). The reality of the church was that it presented a strict way of life, a doctrine that was to be accepted and lived by. To Fellini the church undermined an individual’s imagination. The church was not concerned with poles. In Fellini’s eyes, the church only saw one way to live; their way, which Murray helps to illustrate in pointing out that “(H)is attitude towards the Church is a rebellious one” (31). Murray goes on to state that this is because “(T)he polarities that distinguish the Fellinian universe guarantee the director a sufficiently rich assortment of themes with which to capture the interest of the intelligent viewer, who invariably likes to be shown the different sides of every experience”(31). Alas, the church and the circus need each other. If the church only shows us one side of what life should be, Fellini needed the circus to show us the other.

Although Gesulmina in La Strada never comes into such direct conflict with the church as Fellini’s later characters such as Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957) or Marcello (La Dolce Vita, 1960) would, we are still able to get a glimpse of how the circus functioned in Fellini’s realism. The poles in this film revolve around the circus and the world outside which in a way, mimics the reality of neorealism; life in a working class society. We see that Gesilmina is unhappy to hear of her sister’s passing and that she will have to take her place alongside Zampano and his traveling circus-like act. Yet it is when she is performing that reality slips away and for a brief moment, she is happy. The circus is able to strip reality away and offer hope when all seems hopeless. That’s the brilliance of Fellini’s realism, when life seemed to be going bad, there were fantasy places like the circus, or on a larger, more metaphorical scale, Fellini’s films themselves, to escape to in order to find comfort and happiness.

Coming back to the metaphor of the road, in his book Fellini’s Road, Donald P. Costello states that “Throughout all his films, Fellini is concerned with the road of life” (5). There is no doubt that one of the main themes throughout all of Fellini’s films is that of a spiritual journey, of a character who is caught between Heaven and Earth, who must journey down this road in order to find their placement in life. To reinforce this idea, Costello states: “Both thematically and formally, a Fellini film is a journey toward discovery of the essential self” (5). In the director’s own words: “(E)ach time I am telling the story of characters in quest of themselves, in search of a more authentic source of life, of conduct, of behavior, that will more closely relate to the true roots of their individually” (Fellini in Costello, 2). This journey usually must be taken, as Fellini’s characters often find themselves trapped between the earth and the sky. In La Strada, The Fool represents the sky and Zampano the Earth. Similarly 8 ½ finds it’s main character Guido being held to earth only by a rope around his foot, and in La Dolce Vita, Marcello is caught between a flying statue of Jesus and a monster from the sea.

In a similar sense, Costello breaks down the three characters of La Strada into a trinity which involves The Child of the Sea (Geselmina), the Spirit of the Sky (The Fool) and the Man of Earth (Zampano) ( 23, 18 and 27 respectively). These three elements, in one form or another, come to represent the spiritual journey that Geselmina, Cabiria, Marcello, Guido, etc, will all have to take along their road to spiritual fulfillment. It is important to note that each of these journeys end with their character’s finding their way back to be offered the possibility of redemption at their place of origin: the sea. For Fellini the sea represented several things. It represented the innocence of youth, the feminine and most importantly, the beginning of life (Costello, 6). It is at the sea in La Strada where Geselmina, although dead, can complete the purpose of her spiritual journey, which was to help Zampano to understand his loss and find redemption on the beach. In a way, although tragic on the surface, the final scene in which Zampano cries on the beach is a baptism for this man, a rebirth which offers a way to start over on a new path of life. This is ultimately the possibility that Fellini presents all of his characters with at the end of his films, some of whom accept it (Cabiria) and some who don’t (Marcello).

Fellini’s films constantly presented a spiritual journey down the road of life. Through three specific texts based on the director’s work, we can see that this journey stood in constant contrast with the Italian Neorealism movement, which presented characters trying to find their place within a Marxist society. We also see that Fellini was constantly contrasting the church with the circus to show us how he viewed the importance of life and imagination. His films also constantly showed the struggle of a character who was stuck somewhere between Heaven and Earth. Through all of these themes and ideas, Fellini was able to create a realism that was not the one that was shared by his audience but one that existed all to himself: a Fellini realism.


  1. Great article! I'm just getting into Fellini, I felt La Dolce Vita was pretty similar to the theme of lack of responsibility and infidelity in I Vitelloni (1953). Flirting is clearly something Fellini is interested in depicting, is it based on his own personal experiences?

    I'm not sure I understand how La Dolce Vita begins and ends at sea; you say they come full circle back to their beginnings. But don't we grow and become wiser and a different person? Surely they have learnt something.
    I understand the possibility of rebirth which offers a way to start over on a new path.
    For me, returning to your origins is the opposite of the road methaphor, which is always moving forward into the distance and evolving.

    I am yet to see Fellini's The Road, and even more eager to do so after reading the above ( :

  2. Movies - I think flirting is based on any Italian man's personal expereince ;)

    Although elements of I Vitelloni creep into La Dolce Vita I feel it is probably closer to Nights of Cabiria or even Antionioni's L'Aventura which is often called La Dolce Vita in reverse.

    The movie's don't need to begin at sea per say although a lot of them do. That's about right as Marcello, but that point in the movie, has drifted so far away from his homeplace that to begin there wouldn't be right. I think this is Fellini's most tragic character (other than Casanova) in that Marcello is given redemption and gives it up. He is too old and too far gone for that, and even fails to understand the young girl as she calls out to him and then, on the beach, when he finally finds something real, it is some hidious sea monster.

    I disagree about the road metaphor as the road will always lead back home if you decide to take it that way and you'll get that once seeing La Strada.