Will You Listen to What I Have to Say?
I think that if you talk about what you know and talk about yourself, and your family, your hometown . . . when you talk honestly about the things in life . . . I think it’s possible for everyone to understand what you’re saying and then make it their own.
— Federico Fellini
At nineteen years old, Federico Fellini began writing a column for the Italian newspaper Marc’Aurelio. A bawdy, simplistic comedy dominated his first articles, but before long, the column housed anecdotal tales of variety shows with acrobats, and fictional confrontations between reunited former classmates. But no matter the subject, the column always closed the same—“will you listen to what I have to say?”
Fellini believed his films were pictorial, not necessarily literary, and that the image mattered the most. He strove to create a film that would act like a painting, where the viewer could absorb the entire work at once. But for Fellini, image was more than sight. It was sound, evidenced by his frequent collaboration with composer Nina Rota, and it was understanding, evidenced by his artful dialogue. He created moving, speaking images that could be absorbed, heard, understood by the viewer. Our eyes listen along with our ears. Absorbing. At once.
When I first listened to what Fellini had to say, I wasn’t much older than he had been when he began writing for Marc’Aurelio. The film was 8½, awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1964. I liked the film from its traffic jam beginning. But as Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni, turns to Rossella at the spaceship, exasperated, drowning in confusion, and confesses, “I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same,” liking the film was no longer enough, I fell in love with it. Fellini captures honesty and contradiction in that moment. It is hyperrealism at its finest—the director speaking to his audience through the director character. Fellini is saying so much, but in the floundering, grating process of creation, at that point in the screenplay with no resolution, it is nothing. And though I loved the film at that point, it was during the film’s last act that I realized it was the greatest film I’d ever seen. As the critic praises Guido’s choice to stifle his creative voice, to say nothing because so much had already been said, Guido realizes it’s the confusion in his life, the contradictions in his likes and dislikes, the sum of his experiences that make up his creative voice, that make his creative voice different from others, and therefore, worthy to be shared. 8½ is the image of an every-person, coming to understand one’s own contradictions, learning to accept one’s self. A brave, respectable image. One that garnered Fellini Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay. It’s still the best film I’ve ever seen.
Fellini understood how to draw from his own contradictions in order to create. He spent most of his childhood in Rimini, a city on the Adriatic shore. But, during the summers, he spent time with his grandmother in rural Gambettola where his imagination was nourished by the lushness of nature and the complexities of the people he met. It’s in these places of his youth where Fellini began to dream of being a journalist. He moved to Rome at eighteen, his mother’s city, carrying cartoons and articles he’d done in the hopes that they would impress someone at Marc’Aurelio. Eventually, the quality of his work got him a job at the paper, and he wrote for it until 1942. By then, he’d begun writing for radio and the screen. It was in a radio station that he met his future wife, actress Giulietta Masina. Fellini’s writing during this period consisted mostly of films for the famous comedian Fabrizi. And though, he’d been dodging the draft for years, the war still managed to rob him of his new career, albeit temporarily. In the interim, Fellini opened several stores where he and others drew caricatures of soldiers for three dollars and made voice recordings for soldiers to send home. Determined to revive Italian cinema after the liberation, Roberto Rossellini started looking for Fellini, hoping to get his help with the screenplay for Roma, città aperta. He found Fellini in one of his Funny Face Shops, drawing an American soldier. His work in the shops was the last deviation in his career. From that point on, Fellini focused on cinema.
After the financial and critical success of the neorealistic Roma, città aperta, Rossellini and Fellini decided to work together again on a film titled Paisà. The film consists of multiple vignettes about the Allied invasion. When Rossellini got sick during shooting, Fellini stepped in to direct until Rossellini was well. It was a short-lived glimpse at his future. Rossellini and Fellini went on to collaborate on several other films. But, eventually, after years of screenwriting, that glimpse at having the authority to mold a film into his vision was too much for Fellini to deny. He wanted more. Remarkably, even after his directorial debut film, Luci del varietà failed at the box office, Fellini continued to pursue his directing career despite the fact that he was already a successful screenwriter.
But writing the script was not enough for Fellini. He needed to be in control of the image, and who has more control over the image than the eye? As director, Fellini had control over the camera and the actual action inside the camera’s gaze—with his control over the story as screenwriter, this combination made him an auteur. Each film he directed and wrote became an image, a work of art to be observed, absorbed, listened to by his audience. Fellini directed three films and a segment for another before he shot La Strada. The influences of Italian neorealism are prevalent, but even here, Fellini’s choice of occupations for his characters reveals this director and writer is heading somewhere fantastical. The film centers on an abusive entertainer, played by Anthony Quinn, who puts on strong man acts wherever he stops. When the woman he traveled with dies, the woman’s sister—played brilliantly by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina—takes her sister’s place in his show. She expects fame. She expects love. She gets none of those things thanks to her companion, who isn’t a strong man at all. La Strada is a film laced with regret. A film that reminds us to take the time to care, not to harm. The message resonated with Academy voters who awarded La Strada Best Foreign Language Film in 1957.
Fellini’s next film to garner the Best Foreign Language Film award maintained the themes of La Strada, but this time deviated from neorealism, a new thematic note emerging—optimism. In Le notti di Cabiria, Giulietta Masina plays Cabiria, a prostitute whose enthusiasm about life in spite of her circumstances makes the entire film feel like a chess match between Cabiria and the destiny of her present circumstances. You want Cabiria to win at life. You want her to beat the odds, to rise above the abyss she’s destined to fall into. When she meets Oscar, you want him to be everything he says he is and to mean everything he says. You hope and dream with Cabiria even if your gut is telling you it’s all too good to be true. And when everything goes wrong, when she’s ready to give up, you hurt with her. But Fellini doesn’t end his film in despair. Instead, Fellini gives us a scene that reminds us all that for the positive dreamer, hope is never lost. It can be born again.
Giulietta Masina did not star in Fellini’s next Best Foreign Language Film winner, which also earned him a nomination for Best Director. Instead, his film La Dolce Vita marked the beginning of his cinematic relationship with Marcello Mastroianni. In a lot of the same ways that F. Scott Fitzgerald captured a post-war generation in The Great Gatsby, Fellini captured a time and place in Italy and the world. Fellini was inspired by the nightlife along the Via Veneto, and together with a group of screenwriters, he begins shaping and forming the work he wanted to present to the world. But, the funny thing about attempting to capture any era is that if you do it through character-rich story, the image is always recognizable to the viewer, no matter the space in time between the era captured in the story and the viewer’s own. That’s what Fellini accomplishes in La Dolce Vita. These are restless people. They are loud. They are lewd. They are lonely. Mastroianni’s character, Marcello, spends the entire run of the film going from vignette to vignette in a collection of smaller stories that are held together by his search for meaning, belonging, and acceptance. The themes are timeless. And after Marcello has shown his ugliness, he’s faced with the unfeeling, creature he’s become.
In many ways, La Dolce Vita became a monster in its own right for Fellini to overcome. He earned worldwide recognition for the film. The pressure of trying to top himself led to writer’s block on the film 8½. But it was this experience of being unable to say anything that led him to the story for 8½, which in the opinion of many, does top its predecessor.
Fellini made several films during the years that passed between 8½ and the next film he wrote and directed that earned Best Foreign Language Film, Amarcord. The film was a trip home for Fellini. After painting the city of Rome in La Dolce Vita, Fellini returned to Remini for Amarcord. The film is set in a coastal Italian town and consists of several vignettes that revolve around the people who begin and/or end their lives there. It also depicts Italy while it was under Fascist rule. The title is a word Fellini invented, derived from a m’arcord, meaning “I remember.” The film is filled with character variations of people you may have known growing up. Maybe you empathize with them. Maybe they remind you of people you can’t and couldn’t stand. Whatever the feeling, it’s sure to bring back a memory or two from your own life.
Fifty-three years after Fellini first asked his audience to listen, he was awarded an honorary Oscar for his cinematic achievements and his contribution to film. He was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, but he never actually won an individual Oscar. It’s a testament to Fellini’s brilliance and the respect that he received from the cinematic community that he was nominated so many times in writing and directing categories that were and are so often reserved for American filmmakers. Even though he never won an individual Oscar, four films directed by Fellini were awarded Best Foreign Language Film—a record that still stands today.
Complex films so often lead us to ask what the director is trying to convey. But, if the director gives us a complete image—as Fellini strove to do—one that we can view and dissect, then the key to the film is not what the director is trying to say. The key is what we hear him say. With Fellini’s best films, this image is complete. With each viewing come new revelations. All we need to do is listen. With our eyes. With our ears. Minds. Hearts.
Federico Fellini: His Life & Work by Tullio Kezich, trans. by Minna Proctor with Viviana Mazza
The Oxford History of World Cinema, editor Geoffrey Nowell-Smith
I’d like to dedicate this post to all college film professors. Without a wonderful professor who chose to share a Fellini film with her class, I wouldn’t be the cinema lover I am today.
Thanks for reading. Comments welcome! Many thanks to Kellee (@IrishJayhawk66) of Outspoken & Freckled, Paula (@Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen for hosting this amazing blogathon! And one last thank you to Aurora for sharing my post on her fabulous blog!