Fangirling over Fellini

Not to sound too much like a college brochure, but one of the best things about being a Kenyon student is taking classes that inspire new interests and what I know will become life-long passions. One such class is Special Topics in Italian Cinema: Love, Lust and Loss, taught by Professor Richards. While I was already interested in foreign films and Italian culture, I only took the class after my boyfriend and a friend convinced me to. The biggest reason they were excited about the course was that a majority of the class covered films by Federico Fellini, an Italian director who wrote and directed movies from 1940 to 1950. Going into the course, I had never seen an Italian movie nor did I know anything about Fellini. Now, I have a much deeper appreciation of cinema, and I am a full-fledged Fellini fangirl (if such a thing exists).Fellini’s work is timeless in its ability to create fantastical worlds, evoke sympathy for complex characters and comment on the most repressive parts of our society. While the world is constantly changing, Fellini’s work is still relevant as it deals with the questions that anyone who has gone through an existential crisis has asked: Is destiny real? How much do I hold on to personal fantasies? Is there such a thing as objective reality? How important is social status? Can love last?

Apart from these deeper moral quandaries, Fellini’s films are visually stunning. From glamorous clubs to deserted nighttime streets, Fellini creates new worlds in each of his movies that, although they are based in reality, often have magical qualities to them— a tightrope walker performs above the streets of Rome, demonic visions plague a simple housewife in her quiet home, a model on a billboard comes to life. His characters are also incredibly endearing. Fellini can make anyone a sympathetic character, whether it’s a naive, peasant girl who becomes a clown or a womanizing reporter in Rome trying to understand his purpose in a superficial society. With that in mind, here are five Fellini films, in chronological order, that will hopefully inspire the same love that my Italian Cinema course fostered in me.

 

1. The White Sheik (1952)

What it’s about: Wanda and Ivan, a recently married couple, decide to go on their honeymoon in Rome. Ivan is a no-nonsense social climber who wants nothing more than his family’s and the Church’s approval while Wanda is a romantic dreamer who couldn’t care less about Ivan’s plans. She decides to sneak away from him to find the handsome actor in her favorite fotoromanzi (soap opera comic strip) who plays the White Sheik. This leads to all manner of humorous hijinx as Ivan chases Wanda around Rome and Wanda seeks out her dream man.

Why you should watch it: This was Fellini’s first film as the sole director, and it presents themes about love, society, and dreams that appear in much of his later films. It is also incredibly humorous with lots of Chaplin-esque physical comedy as well as ridiculous scenarios.  

 

2. La Strada (1954)

What it’s about: Gelsomina, a peasant girl, is hired to be the sidekick for a performer named Zampanò who is able to break an iron chain with the sheer power of his pecs. Gelsomina, who is sweet and simple, is often abused by the surly Zampanò, but remains loyal to him as they traverse the roads of Italy and meet a bizarre cast of characters along the way.

Why you should watch it: In terms of heartbreak and emotional power, La Strada (The Road) is the heavyweight champion of the world. While the plot doesn’t seem too exciting, every moment of this film gripped me. Watching Gelsomina (played by the dazzling Giulietta Masina) navigate a world fraught with lies, abandonment and more is both beautiful and tragic. This movie raises a lot of questions about how much of ourselves we willingly (and unwillingly) give away for the sake of love, as well as how important destiny is in determining our life choices.

 

3. Nights of Cabiria (1957)

What it’s about: Cabiria is a prostitute in Rome who is almost drowned in a river by her lover who steals her purse at the beginning of the movie. The movie then follows her journey as she seeks to find salvation and new love.

Why you should watch it: Once again, Giulietta Masina delivers a powerful performance that makes you deeply invested in everything that happens to Cabiria. You feel her anger, heartbreak, joy and triumph as she balances her life as a prostitute with the desire to be saved by a higher power. As in previous films, Fellini raises issues of faith, destiny, love and ultimately the power of the individual. Plus, the ending will make your mouth drop.

 

4. La Dolce Vita (1960)

What it’s about: A young reporter in Rome named Marcello lives a life of glamour as he follows high-profile socialites and celebrities throughout their wild lifestyles. However, the superficiality of his life begins to tinge his view of the world, and he becomes more disillusioned as the movie progresses.

Why you should watch it: Fellini’s most famous and critically acclaimed film, La Dolce Vita caused a lot of controversy upon its release. Critics and viewers were shocked by the sacrilege, moral looseness and unique directing style in the movie. Now, it is lauded by Roger Ebert as one of the ten greatest films of all time. Everything in the movie is so carefully crafted, from the stunning visuals to Marcello Mastroianni’s acting to the subtle symbolism that adds layers upon layers of meaning. This is definitely a film that should be watched multiple times, as each viewing gives you new ideas and insights that will blow your mind. Plus, Nico, known for singing on The Velvet Underground and Nico, plays herself in it!

 

5. Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

What it’s about: Juliet is a housewife whose husband, Giorgio, is clearly cheating on her. While Juliet tries to figure out what to do about this, she becomes fascinated with her eccentric neighbor, Suzy, who is not married and has sex with many men. After considering this type of lifestyle, Juliet becomes plagued with visions of demons as she must choose between a failing marriage and a life that goes against church teachings.

Why you should watch it: This was Fellini’s first full-length feature color film, and the director used this new visual element to its fullest extent. While the vivid colors in Juliet of the Spirits can be jarring, they certainly add to the sense of superficiality that Fellini exposes through Juliet’s story. Not only does this film have some of the most fantastical elements of any Fellini movie, but it also has many feminist qualities. Juliet’s navigation of societal expectations placed upon wives and women in general is so relatable and ultimately triumphant. If you’re in the mood to subvert the patriarchy (which we all should be), this is definitely the movie for you.

 

Fellini creates cinema that is at once accessible and thought-provoking, humorous and tragic, exciting and slow-paced, theatrical and raw. It’s an incredibly difficult balance, and it’s one you have to see to believe.

 

Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6