Who is Fellini? In the book Fellini, Fellini says that, “Critics have accused him of being a charlatan, hypocrite, clown, and demon, and have hailed him as a magician, poet, genius and prophet” (Fellini, Back Cover). The film La Dolce Vita represents more than just a significant step in the evolution of Fellini’s cinematic style. It reminds us of films in America like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, or The Godfather. Why? Because La Dolce Vita “transcended its meaning as a work of art and came to be regarded as a landmark pointing to important changes in Italian society as well”(Bondanella, 65). It received the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Its commercial success represents the triumph of “the serious art film at the box office” (65). This film grossed over 2.2 billion lire in only a few years at a time when tickets in Italy cost only between five hundred and one thousand lire.
This article will explore Fellini’s influence on pop culture, Christianity’s influence on Fellini and how La Dolce Vita, maybe his greatest work, marked his own personal departure into darkness.
Fellini’s Influence on Filmmakers
There are many legendary filmmakers influenced by Fellini. Among the names are the following: Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Emir Kusturica, David Lynch, Girish Kasaravalli, David Cronenberg and of course Martin Scorsese. The latest examples are Lady Ga Ga’s short film Paparazzi and the feature film/musical Nine.
John Baxter, author of Fellini, points out how Woody Allen in his film Stardust Memories and Arthur Penn in his film Mickey One were influenced by Fellini’s consistent vacillating between reality and the dream world (Baxter, 195). Stardust Memories is considered to be one of Woody Allen’s best films. It is shot in black and white which is reminiscent of Fellini’s 8.5. The story parodies Fellini’s film in the sense that it’s about a famous filmmaker who is inundated with fans wanting him to make another hit like La Dolce Vita. Mickey One is a surrealistic film dealing with Kafkaesque paranoia which ultimately made this film into a cult classic. Like Fellini, director Author Penn ignored the usual conventions of narrative.
It’s about a stand-up comedian, named Mickey, who gets mixed up with the mob. Throughout the film, Mickey avoids his performances because he doesn’t want to be attacked by the mob. He finally decides to stop hiding and running. He does his act. All the while, a mute mime-like character known as The Artist continues to pop up everywhere. In the end The Artist releases a machine called “Yes.”
Before director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman went on to do Batman and a plethora of other award winning films, they did a little film called Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. At this point no one really knew Burton and Elfman. This story was about a man-child named Pee-wee on a nation wide search for his bicycle. In the midst of this 1985 comedy, Burton and Elfman decided to pay homage to Fellini by drawing musical inspiration from his composer Nino Rota. The score of the film was a critical element to the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
Burton went on to direct successful films like Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd and Batman. Elfman went on to compose music for films and shows like: The Simpsons, Desperate Housewives, and Batman. Burton and Elfman continue to work together and draw inspiration from Fellini. Interestingly enough, Fellini has admitted to drawing inspiration from faith.
Christianity’s Influence on Fellini
We can see the Christian influence on Fellini in La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 and all his prior films. For example in 8 ½ Guido represents a character that mirrors Fellini’s own confusion. This film was his response to the success of La Dolce Vita. Guido’s search for a kind of personal liberation was similar to his own. He was attempting to throw off his double minded upbringing. Although Fellini grew up in a Christian environment, the Christians represented the corruption in society. This contributed to his confusion. While Christians represented corruption, atheistic Communist represented the people trying to liberate their country.
Alpert, author of Fellini, drew more parallels between Fellini and the Guido character in 8 ½. Like Fellini, Guido “was a victim of medieval Catholicism which tends to humiliate a man rather than restore him to his divine greatness” (Alpert, 178). The only time Fellini felt the spiritual grace mentioned in the Bible was when he was making a movie. He said that on a film set “he feels reborn” (Alpert, 178).
Fellini was known for exploring Christianity in his films. Before La Dolce Vita, Fellini designed what Bondanella, author of Italian Cinema, called a trilogy on conversion. This trilogy consisted of: La Strada, The Swindle, and Nights of Cabiria (Bondanella, 231). With La Dolce Vita, Fellini uses the city of Rome as a metaphor for Western culture. This is “viewed from a double perspective – before the advent of Christianity” (232). Most people do not know that the original title for La Dolce Vita was 2000 Years after Jesus Christ. But they settled on the ironic title “the sweet life” showing that this life is not sweet at all.
The theme of La Dolce Vita is that this way of life is a façade and a masquerade. This theme was codified in a remark made by a female impersonator. After an all-night romp that is quite Felliniesque, the impersonator says, “I was all made up but now I look ghastly” (Bondanella, 233). This cultural confusion finds its visual parallel in the most famous of images in the film – the opening shot. This shot of shows a helicopter carrying the statue of Christ with its “benediction over the ruins of an ancient Roman aqueduct” (233).