Master of Illusions

Director Federico Fellini on the set of Satyricon (1969); Photo by Mary Ellen Mark.

“Fellini’s work is like a treasure chest. You open it up and there, right in front of your eyes, a world of wonders springs up – ancient wonders, new ones, provincial wonders and universal ones, real wonders and fantastic ones.” – Martin Scorsese

The Oscar nominated director of Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990) is just one of the usual suspects (along with Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky) rounded up to pay homage to the great Italian director in The Magic of Fellini (2002), a 56-minute documentary written and directed by Carmen Piccini.

While there have been several films on Fellini’s art over the years – including Scorsese’s own tribute in his acclaimed film essay, My Voyage to Italy – there has yet to be a definitive documentary on Italy’s most internationally famous filmmaker. Most of them have been anecdotal like the recent Fellini: I’m a Born Liar or biased (Paquito del Bosco’s Federico Fellini’s Autobiography) or promotional (the director’s own Fellini: A Director’s Notebook). And this recent addition to the collection is more like a scrapbook juxtaposing photographs, home movie and behind the scenes footage, sketches, talking head interviews and film clips.

Federico Fellini checks out a camera angle on a film set.

Like the subject, The Magic of Fellini does not follow a traditional, chronological approach to the director’s career but hops around in time, focusing mainly on Fellini’s creative process. Despite a tendency to dwell on the familiar – music from Nino Rota’s distinctive scores and too many scenes from 8 1/2 (1963) – Piccini’s documentary also includes fascinating snippets of rare on-the-set footage from La Dolce Vita (1960) among others, and personal observations from insiders like Marcello Mastroianni and set designer/costumer Piero Gherardi, making this a must for anyone interested in the director’s art.

The most striking thing that emerges in this portrait is how Fellini alternately intimidated and seduced his cast and crew through his unconventional working methods. Actors rarely received completed scripts or any insight into their characters or parts. Fellini expected them to enter into his imagination and see his vision. To provide them with specific character clues was to break the creative bond of their collaboration. For some, working in this manner was obviously a frustrating, maddening experience.

Donald Sutherland in Fellini’s Casanova (1976).

Donald Sutherland, who starred in Fellini’s Casanova (1976), admitted that he was rarely given dialogue since all of it would be looped in post-production anyway. Instead, he would often count to a hundred in Italian while the cameras rolled. Fiammetta Profili, Fellini’s personal assistant on E la Nava va (And the Ship Sails On) (1983), recalls how the English actors on that film were afraid to approach the director about not having a script or any specific direction. As a result, Fellini noted to his assistant, “Look how professional the English actors are. They never ask any questions. Not like the Italians who always bother me.” But that assumption changed when one of the English actors finally complained in person to the maestro. Regardless, he continued to operate in this freeform, unpredictable fashion and his casting methods were equally unorthodox.

Always looking for actors with faces and bodies that were out of the ordinary, Fellini gravitated toward extremes and was often criticized for exploiting the bizarre (sideshow performers, circus freaks, etc.), an aspect of his art that was often parodied. Obviously, he found it amusing himself as evidenced by a rare black and white interview clip of Fellini at Cannes during one of the film festivals. He says, “This morning I met a woman with a golden nose. She was riding in a Cadillac with a monkey in her arms. Her driver stopped and she asked me, “Are you, Fellini?” With this metallic voice, she continued, “Why is it that in your movies, there’s not even one normal person?”

Marcello Mastroianni plays Fellini’s alter ego in the 1963 masterpiece, 8 1/2, the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.

Of course, there was Marcello Mastroianni, who functioned as Fellini’s alter ego in so many of his films and his own wife, Giulietta Masina, who starred in some of his greatest triumphs (Nights of Cabiria, 1957, La Strada, 1954). But other than the abovementioned, it’s true Fellini rarely relied on well-established Italian actors for parts in his films, except as extras. Acclaimed actor and director Nino Manfredi (Bread and Chocolate, 1973) complains in one interview of how he pleaded with Fellini for a part in a film, even offering to do it for free but Fellini refused because Manfredi “had too much personality.”

Giulietta Masina, the wife of Federico Fellini, stars in the 1957 Italian film Nights of Cabiria.

There are other candid and amusing tidbits sprinkled throughout the documentary that cover other aspects of Fellini’s life: Rinaldo Geleng, painter and lifelong friend of the director, meeting Giulietta Masina for the first time; Anita Ekberg discussing the Trevi fountain scene in La Dolce Vita; Charlotte Chandler, author of I, Fellini, describing Fellini’s wardrobe for his wife in Nights of Cabiria; Producer Dino De Laurentiis touting his successful release strategy for La Strada. The last is particularly revealing for it shows that Fellini was not yet recognized as a major moviemaker within his own film industry in 1954.

Despite winning an Oscar (Best Foreign Language Film) for Nights of Cabiria, Italian critics were still skeptical of his talents. That’s why De Laurentiis decided to premiere La Strada at Cannes instead of in his own country and of course, the gamble paid off. The international press proclaimed the film a masterpiece and helped launch Fellini’s career.

Among the other notable people interviewed or showcased in archival clips in The Magic of Fellini are actors Anthony Quinn, Claudia Cardinale, and Roberto Benigni, directors Lina Wertmuller and Ettore Scola, composers Nino Rota and Nicola Piovani and cinematographer Giuseppe Tornatore.

Director Federico Fellini, Cuban singer Wanani (Valeria Ferran) and composter Nino Rota recording the theme song for Juliet of the Spirits in 1965. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

The Magic of Fellini was released on DVD in January 2004 by Image Entertainment and is still available from online sellers. It is a fun introduction to the maestro for beginners but also an entertaining ride for die hard fans.

*This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Other links of interest:


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