Federico Fellini was a true trailblazer in the world of cinema. His artistic vision, blending reality and fantasy in a way that was both distinct and unique, earned him a reputation as one of the most celebrated and influential filmmakers of the 20th century. With his largely autobiographical style, Fellini challenged the traditional boundaries of filmmaking and created a cinematic world that was entirely his own. This Italian film director and scriptwriter, who lived from 1920 to 1993, left behind a legacy that will be remembered for generations to come.
Frank Burke is a true connoisseur of Italian cinema and a Professor Emeritus at Queen’s University in Canada. He has dedicated his career to exploring the work of the legendary Federico Fellini and has published five books on the subject, including the highly acclaimed A Companion to Federico Fellini. In addition, he provided audio commentary for the Criterion Collection’s release of three of Fellini’s most iconic films, Amarcord, Roma, and Il Bidone. But his expertise extends beyond just Fellini, as he has also edited A Companion to Italian Cinema and published on a diverse range of film subjects, from the Italian peplum to Canadian cinema. With a wealth of knowledge and passion for the art of filmmaking, Frank Burke is a true treasure trove of movie magic.
Simply Charly: In your book, you discuss how Fellini’s films often blend reality and fantasy. Can you give some specific examples of how this is achieved in his films?
Frank Burke: Federico Fellini’s relationship with reality was anything but conventional. He infused what we might call “reality” with his own subjectivity, creating a world that was both childlike and heavily influenced by his unconscious. For Fellini, every encounter was a creative opportunity. For example, he never gave the same account twice of events in his past, preferring to change things up to meet the demands and mood of the moment.
Early in his career, Fellini viewed his characters as flawed because they lived in illusions rather than engaging with reality. This was a response to the false reality imposed by Fascism, and his early films, from Variety Lights (1950) to Il Bidone (1955), were rooted in the Neorealist tradition from which he emerged as a screenwriter for Roberto Rossellini. But by the time he made Nights of Cabiria (1957), his characters had the ability to transform reality, finding psychological and imaginative fulfillment through their imaginations and creative relationship to the unconscious.
In Fellini Satyricon (1969), Fellini’s creative relationship to the real was more evident than ever, and it recurred in his depictions of Rome in “Roma” (1972) and the Rimini of his youth in Amarcord (1973). Many of his later films, such as Fellini’s Casanova (1976), City of Women (1980), and And the Ship Sails On (1983), were more dreamscapes than accurate portraits of reality. In his final film, The Voice of the Moon (1990), the principal figures were recently released insane asylum patients whose realities set them apart from the conventional world.
SC: How does Fellini’s background as a cartoonist and graphic artist influence his filmmaking style?
FB: I see two sides to Federico Fellini’s work, rooted in his beginnings as a cartoonist and his early film career as a screenwriter. His earliest films, influenced by his screenwriting for Roberto Rossellini and Pietro Germi, exhibit a structured approach, even when the structure operates on a symbolic or metaphorical level rather than plot. The great success of La Strada and The Nights of Cabiria boosted Fellini’s confidence to be more experimental and return to his roots as a cartoonist, leading to an increasingly episodic style in films like La Dolce Vita, Fellini Satyricon, Roma, and Amarcord.
His tendency toward the episodic was enhanced by his fascination with dreams, fueled by his relationship with Jungian psychoanalyst Ernst Bernhard in the early 1960s. Ultimately, his films are more dream-like than cartoonish, though the cartoon aspect of his work is reflected in his love for caricature, which informs the sketches he always drew for the characters he was developing. Likewise, his illustrations for his Book of Dreams, reveal the comedic excess and exaggeration that are a hallmark of Fellini’s on-screen creations.
SC: In what ways did Fellini’s films challenge traditional narrative structures and conventions?
FB: Fellini’s films were notable for their self-reflexivity and experimentation with film language. In The Nights of Cabiria, he broke the “fourth wall” and established a personal relationship between the film and its audience, which he further developed in the short film “The Temptations of Dr. Antonio.” Fellini enjoyed incorporating various audiovisual forms into his films, including silent films, documentaries, and commercials. In 8½, he introduced new ways of representing subjectivity, such as altering visual scales and framing, and creating unique relationships between sound and image.
Fellini’s use of color was also revolutionary, as seen in Juliet of the Spirits, and he played with documentary form in films such as Fellini: A Director’s Notebook, The Clowns, and Roma. And the Ship Sails On opened with stunning visual history, moving from photography to silent cinema to montage, with a mobile camera, sound, and color. His penultimate film, Intervista, similarly played with cinematic and televisual language throughout the entire film.
SC: Can you talk about the recurring themes and motifs present in Fellini’s films, and how they reflect the filmmaker’s personal experiences and beliefs?
FB: In the early stages of Fellini’s career, he was preoccupied with the breakdown of communication and human interaction. This can be observed in films such as I Vitelloni (1953), La Strada, and La Dolce Vita. Around the time he made La Dolce Vita, Fellini met Ernst Bernhard and began to focus more on dreams, imagination, and the potential for psychological growth and integration. However, this emphasis began to wane after a near-death experience in the late 1960s. From then on, his work concentrated more on time, memory, the past, aging, and death. Nevertheless, the dreamworld and the creative unconscious continued to be essential themes in Fellini’s work.
Throughout his career, Fellini was intrigued by masculinity and women as projections of male desire. While the latter theme drew criticism during the rise of feminism, Fellini was consistently critical and self-critical about men’s inability to develop healthy relationships with women.
Fellini’s films also dealt with issues of power throughout his career. He rejected the authoritarianism he encountered in Catholicism and Fascism, as well as dogmatic forms of Marxism. In his later career, he criticized the damaging effects of television, which he saw as a new form of dictatorial control. Although his films seldom addressed political topics or issues, he consistently addressed issues of power on the micropolitical level of interpersonal relationships.
SC: How did Fellini’s films reflect and comment on the cultural and political climate of Italy in the postwar period?
FB: Fellini’s films from the 1950s and early 1960s can be interpreted as critiques of Fascism, not necessarily as a political system, but as a distortion of reality and a widespread diffusion of false beliefs. They also comment on the impact of the Italian Economic Miracle, which transformed society along American lines. His films from the 1960s, such as The Temptations of Dr. Antonio and Fellini Satyricon, reflect the psychedelic side of the decade and the emphasis on individual development in humanistic psychologies. La Dolce Vita and Juliet of the Spirits criticize the Italian bourgeoisie and reflect the growing internationalism of culture. The former anticipates the rise of celebrity culture and the society of the spectacle on a global scale.
In the 1970s, many Italian movies addressed political issues and the country’s Fascist past, including: The Spider’s Stratagem, The Conformist, The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, Love and Anarchy, We All Loved Each Other So Much, Seven Beauties, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Amarcord examines the ways in which Italians became complicit in and perpetuated Fascist attitudes. Although Casanova may not seem related to Fascism, Fellini described its protagonist as a proto-Fascist personality. Orchestra Rehearsal warns of the potential rise of neo-Fascism in a culture that has become destructively individualistic.
Fellini’s 1980s films reflect a trend in Italy known as “riflusso,” where people turned inward towards privacy and self-indulgence after the failure of collective action and critical revisionism in the 1970s. City of Women takes place almost entirely in the protagonist’s imagination, and his subsequent films focus on the examination of signification or sign play, in keeping with Italy’s move towards postmodernity.
And the Ship Sails On incorporates elements of history and terrorism from the 1970s, but ultimately emphasizes media and signifiers over any historical reality. Ginger and Fred explores the all-consuming spectacle created by a Christmas TV special, and Intervista is a cinematic invention paying homage to Cinecittà, the famous Italian film studio. The Voice of the Moon, Fellini’s sole film of the 1990s, critiques the colonization of Italian society and nature by television, with the transmission site of a TV commercial being the face and voice of the moon.
Fellini’s critique of television is linked to the rise of Silvio Berlusconi as a media magnate in the 1980s, who Fellini opposed due to the interruption of films by commercials on Berlusconi’s networks. In The Voice of the Moon, Berlusconi’s image is ridiculed by having him kicked in the bum by a waiter during a wedding reception.
Overall, Fellini’s films from the 1960s to 1990s represent a shift from promising dream life to a kind of nightmare, as television culture replaces the creative unconscious, resulting in a domain of endless repetition and contextless images.
SC: How did Fellini’s collaborations with his frequent leading lady, Giulietta Masina, contribute to the development of his cinematic vision?
FB: Fellini often referred to Giulietta Masina as his muse, and she played a key role in his rise to international fame by starring in his first two Oscar-winning films, La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. Masina embodied a childlike spontaneity, openness, and mobility of spirit, which was lacking in Fellini’s male characters. She was crucial to his portrayal of women’s victimization by men, a theme that is essential not only in the aforementioned films, but also in La Dolce Vita. However, this aspect of Fellini is often overlooked in criticisms of his representation of women.
Masina’s ability to stay connected to her emotions and unconscious mind, and to develop spiritually and psychologically, made her a significant figure in Fellini’s early films. However, as Fellini’s work moved away from focusing on individual development, she became less important to his filmmaking, at least as an actress. When she does appear in his later work, such as in Ginger and Fred, it is part of his “postmodern” meditation on aging and repetition.
SC: In your book, you discuss Fellini’s experimentation with film techniques such as dream sequences and nonlinear storytelling. How did these techniques enhance the themes and emotions of his films?
FB: I don’t think Fellini’s approach to filmmaking was about enhancing themes and emotions. Instead, it was more directly intuitive, stemming from his unique way of seeing and feeling reality and the worlds he was creating in his films. For example, in La Dolce Vita, he used telephoto cinematography to flatten the characters and emphasize their alienation and lack of depth. In 8½, he used extreme close-ups and disjointed editing to convey Guido’s anxieties, particularly in the nightmare and spa sequences, which were accompanied by silence and overpowering music, respectively. Fellini’s close relationship with his dreams and unconscious required the elliptical structure of his later works. For him, technique was the meeting point of his subjectivity and the material being represented.
SC: Can you discuss the role of music and sound design in Fellini’s films, and how it contributes to the overall atmosphere and tone of the films?
FB: One cannot talk of music in Fellini’s work without mentioning the composer Nino Rota, who provided the music for Fellini’s films until his death in 1979. However, people often refer to “Fellini music” or “Fellini’s music,” which overlooks the role of this exceptional artist. Rota was able to brilliantly blend classical and popular music with his own compositions (such as the theme for La Strada, which became an international hit).
According to sound theorist Antonella Sisto, music is part of a larger aurality in Fellini’s work, creating a “sonic continuum” that runs through the images, resulting in a rich sensory experience that complements the films’ visual and dramatic elements. Along with music, there is also dialogue, ambient sound (dubbed in post-production), and carefully crafted cacophony. Most importantly, many of his films are like a “camera dance” (Sisto) in which the camera movements embody a musical mobility.
Music can play different roles in Fellini’s films, including having sociological and cultural significance (as in La Dolce Vita), reflecting states of mind (as in 8½ and Juliet of the Spirits), providing glimpses into the past and historical context (as in Roma and Fellini’s Casanova), and having metaphorical political meaning (as in Orchestra Rehearsal).
Sound is a central theme in Fellini’s films, and it is linked to the idea of listening and deafness, representing both an attunement to one’s world and a radical alienation from it.
In addition to sound, wind is a recurrent presence in Fellini’s films. Although its function can vary, I believe its persistent presence is mainly a sign of spirit—representing the unseen sources of movement in the world. Despite losing a good deal of optimism later in his career, Fellini never gave up his quest for spiritual experience, even in a world that seemed increasingly intent on stifling it.
SC: How did Fellini’s films influence and pave the way for the development of postmodern cinema?
FB: In my view, Fellini’s films do not fit neatly into the category of postmodern cinema. Two hallmarks of postmodern film are pastiche and intertextuality, but Fellini doesn’t appropriate other filmmakers’ works or make many references to other cultural contexts. Instead, his ﬁlms are deeply self-reﬂexive and thus situated within a modernist tradition. (The hermeticism of his work is reﬂected in the term “felliniesque,” which emphasizes its distinctness.) However, sociologically speaking, Fellini’s ﬁlms depict a postmodern world of simulation, repetition, and signiﬁcation without a clear grounding in signiﬁcance. So, while his artistic strategy is not postmodern, his content is. It’s somewhat ironic that, because of his acute representations of an emerging and absurd postmodern world in the 1980s, Fellini’s later work, while remaining “felliniesque,” ends up being simultaneously “Neo-Neorealist.”
SC: Can you talk about the legacy of Fellini’s films, and their enduring influence on filmmakers and audiences today?
FB: The idea of a legacy for Fellini has become increasingly complicated. A few years ago, I retired from teaching, but returned last year to lead a course on Fellini. To my surprise, I had to introduce him to my students. Even one of my most literate fourth-year students this year had never heard of him. It seems that Fellini has lost some influence.
However, all Fellini’s films are still available on DVD or Blu-ray, and the Criterion Collection in the U.S. has done an admirable job of maintaining his relevance, particularly with their huge box set of his films released in honor of the centennial of his birth in 2020. But we must admit that we are dealing with a niche audience that may shrink with time.
One area where Fellini’s influence can still be seen is in high-brow cable television. Many TV series are culturally aware and self-referential, with creators who grew up in an era when cinema was still a significant force. Hints of Fellini can be found here and there.
Fellini remains a powerful influence on filmmakers, even younger ones, although the pool is dwindling. In the most recent Sight and Sound poll of directors (2022), Fellini was the only director to have three films in the top 40. Remarkably, 8 ½ still ranks sixth, only two positions lower than in the previous poll, ten years ago. Given that the film is about to celebrate its 60th birthday, its continued high ranking is impressive.
SC: How does Fellini’s use of satire and humor in his films differ from that of other filmmakers, and what purpose does it serve in his films?
FB: Attempting to compare Fellini’s use of satire and humor to that of other filmmakers would be a significant undertaking. Instead, I will limit my comments to his form of parody. From his earliest days, Fellini saw the human landscape as comical, much as did the teenagers in Amarcord‘s hilarious school scenes. It is no coincidence that he pursued a career as a cartoonist. His humor served as both a defense mechanism (as intimacy did not come easily to him) and a means of social commentary. Furthermore, Fellini’s use of caricature was not derisive, but rather affectionate. As he often stated, he loved all the characters in his films, as well as his friends, acquaintances, and the actors he sketched for his films.
Humor, caricature, and parody were Fellini’s methods of mediating his relationship with his world. His humor was often directed at himself, not only in films where he appeared, such as The Clowns, Roma, and Intervista (1987), but also in films where the protagonist was a clear alter ego, such as 8 ½ and City of Women. In fact, he often had characters wear his trademark clothing, such as a scarf and hat, to ensure that his caricatures ultimately reflected back on him.
SC: In your opinion, what is it about Fellini’s films that makes them so enduring and timeless?
FB: I believe the notion of timelessness may no longer be valid. In the past, Fellini’s films endured partly due to his celebrity status, which has since disappeared. Instead, the endurance of his films now relies on his place in the history of cinema and 20th-century cultural expression. However, history itself is in danger of disappearing in today’s culture of the ephemeral.
Despite this, films such as La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, among others, continue to startle and surprise with their diverse representation and cinematic brilliance. Students to whom I introduced Fellini’s work were nearly unanimous in their appreciation for his ﬁlms. Fellini’s emotional resonance and compassion still touch people, particularly in his earlier films with Masina and in I Vitelloni. His vision remains unique and powerful, and the term “felliniesque” still accurately describes it, even if it is less commonly used.
I hope that as time passes, Fellini’s later works will be re-evaluated. Often, people, especially critics, become saturated with an artist’s production and fail to recognize continued novelty. If And the Ship Sailed On had been, say, Fellini’s third film, I am convinced it would have been celebrated as a masterpiece instead of dismissed as just another Fellini film.
Unfortunately, Covid prevented the appropriate celebration, rediscovery, and revaluation of Fellini’s work during his 2020 centennial. However, I hope that the future will provide new opportunities to keep the “Fellini ship of dreams” sailing on with renewed relevance and new ports of entry.