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One hundred years of Fellini

Light and darkness in the films of the great Italian director

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Published: 11 May 2020
2020 is Fellini year, as Federico Fellini was born on the 20th January 1920 in Rimini, Italy. This centenary has become a kind of Italy-wide party that will be celebrated for the entire year with numerous events and festivals. It even has a name, “Fellini 100” (click here to view the official website listing all the celebrations). Who knows what Federico Fellini would think of it, as when asked what he thought of his surname being turned into the neologism, Fellinian, he replied: «I had always dreamed of becoming an adjective when I grew up. And I’m very proud of it.»

We have decided to celebrate this anniversary by looking at how the great director uses light and shadow to shape his stories. Fellini believed that light was the first element needed to construct a film. In his book, “Making a film” (Contra Mundum Press), he writes that «light is ideology, feeling, colour, tone, depth, atmosphere, and story. Light creates miracles, adds, cancels, diminishes, enriches, softens, highlights, alludes; it makes the fantastic and the oneiric acceptable and believable and, on the contrary, can suggest transparency, vibrations, mimicking the grayest, most banal reality.» He then adds that «A film is written with light, and style is expressed with light.» In short, light is to a director what ink is to a writer.

If light, then, is a kind of technical instrument that is just as indispensable as the film camera, exploring the dichotomy the director creates between night and day may reveal hidden symbols and meanings. Fellini’s nocturnal world, in fact, has a mysterious, fairy-tale quality. In his films, the action that moves the plot forwards, and is more realistic, usually takes place in the daytime, whereas at night, dreams and desires take over, creating a version of reality that runs parallel to normal life. In Fellini’s night-time world, everything is plausible, but also rarefied, enigmatic and suspended. Here are some examples from three of his most famous films:


1. La Dolce Vita (1960)

Once you have seen La Dolce Vita it is difficult to picture Rome without your imagination being influenced by the image of the city portrayed in the film. You can’t help but see its deserted streets in black and white immersed in the haze of a hot summer night. And who can picture the Trevi Fountain without thinking of Anita Ekberg taking her nocturnal dip? At the start of those four unforgettable minutes, Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) wears a white fur wrap which acts like a spotlight that illuminates her and creates an intense contrast with the silent stillness of the Roman night that surrounds her with empty streets and the dark shadows of towering palazzos. Sylvia is an emblem of magnetic female sensuality, and as such, she emanates her own light.

Then, out of nowhere, the Trevi Fountain appears in the frame, lit as if it were a stage set. Sylvia wades into the pool and lets the water from the fountain cascade over her, and when Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) follows her, the closeness of their bodies creates a level of tension that makes their attraction almost palpable. Marcello’s hands hover over her body, first her cheeks, then her shoulders and finally her blonde hair. They draw even closer and are about to kiss when suddenly the fountain is switched off and the frame widens. The dream has gone, and a passer-by on a bicycle stops by the railing on the pavement to look at them. The night has disappeared. And as dawn breaks, a shaft of light shines through the darkness, destroying the scene’s sensual and oneiric mood.

If light is a kind of technical instrument that is just as indispensable as the film camera, exploring the dichotomy the director creates between night and day may reveal hidden symbols and meanings. Fellini’s nocturnal world, in fact, has a mysterious, fairy-tale quality. In his films, the action that moves the plot forwards, and is more realistic, usually takes place in the daytime, whereas at night, dreams and desires take over.
2. 8 ½ (1963)

With 8 ½ Fellini’s reputation was established beyond all doubt. It was his seventh film and it came after six full-length films and “three halves” (Variety Lights, co- credited with Alberto Lattuada, an episode called Marriage Agency in Love in the City, and an episode called Le tentazioni del dottor Antonio (The Temptation of Dr Antonio) in Boccaccio '70. This is where the title 8 ½ came from. It is perhaps his most enigmatic, complex, stratified and perfect film, and it won two Oscars, for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design.

Fellini himself defined the film as somewhere between a ramshackle psychoanalytical session and a haphazard soul-search. Set in a well-known spa, it tells the story of Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), a famous director who is suffering from “director’s block”. The cast and the crew are ready to shoot, but there is no screenplay. In this location with its healthcare, rest and general do-nothing focus, Guido feels paralysed and restless and his mind produces a continuous range of memories and fantasies. Past and present are closely interconnected and the two dimensions are so fluid and mixed there is no clear border between them.

In one night scene, the oneiric element is central. During a party in the grounds of the spa, a magician arrives who says he can telepathically transmit the thoughts of the people present to his blindfolded assistant. Guido joins in the game and thinks of the phrase “asa nisi masa”, which is a kind of secret spell he used as a child. The magician’s trick therefore becomes a portal that takes him back to a far-off world of memories. Like a dream within a dream.

3. Amarcord (1973)

Amarcord (Romagnolo dialect “a m'arcôrd” for I remember) is a portrayal of life in the San Giuliano district of Rimini, in 1933. Full of autobiographical elements, the film is a journey through the director’s childhood in his hometown. The film’s narrative is structured around a succession of scenes and anecdotes with characters who live in the town, such as the young Titta Biondi (Bruno Zanin) and his family.

One of the first scenes in the film is the lighting of the traditional bonfire in the town square to mark the beginning of spring. Everyone seems to be gripped by the euphoria of the scene, with children running around and adults dancing. The night is young and the entire community has come to celebrate, and the viewer feels like they are watching the screening of a memory with the actors playing the part of dancing spectres. There is nothing disturbing, but the atmosphere is distinctly rarefied, as if Fellini had decided to stage one of his own memories. Later on in the film, there is another evocative night sequence. The scene begins in front of the house where the Biondi family lives. It is still night-time and there is a thick fog. Titta’s confused grandfather wanders around, without realizing he is in front of his own gate (which the viewer can just see). Afraid that he may have died, he says: «Where am I? I don’t seem to be anywhere. If death is like this, I don’t think much of it.» At a certain point someone he knows drives past and shakes him out of his nightmare by telling him he is outside his own house, and a moment later his grandson, Titta’s younger brother, comes out of the gate on his way to school. This is another oneiric night in which the character gets lost. The fog is a symbol of the confusion of memory and how difficult it is to recall certain things.

For anyone wishing to take advantage of this anniversary to find out more about Federico Fellini’s films, there is an infinite range of criticism that examines the multiple meanings and interpretations of his work. The cinema sections of bookshops and libraries are also full of books, articles, biographies and conversations about or with the director. But you certainly don’t have to be a film critic or student to enjoy his work. These films are funny, enthralling works of art to be watched and savoured. They never grow old and they will never become dusty reminders of yesteryear. On the contrary, Fellini has crystallised time by presenting us with a parade of the twentieth century that sings, dances, dreams, weeps and is, above all, alive.