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  • Ravi Swami

Three Fellini's, Dir Federico Fellini, 1954-1967

It's possibly a bit unfair to combine 3 films of Federico Fellini, spanning a period of 14 years, into a single post and in the process risk skimming over the finer points of each film, but these are all films that I watched over the summer during the middle of lockdown, having initially dipped my feet in his later classic films, starting with "La Dolce Vita" and followed by "81/2", both the subjects of early reviews and where the draw may have possibly been curiosity about a particular actress or actor rather than any interest in the subject.

The three films, "La Strada", "Nights of Cabiria" and "Juliet of the Spirits" gauge the gradual move from social realism to semi-autobiographical whimsy in Fellini's films and a unifying aspect of all three is the presence of the actress, and later wife of Fellini, Giulietta Masina.

They are all regarded as some of his finest films, as evidenced in the repetitive use of the word "masterpiece" in the film posters shown above, and although I certainly knew about all three I was viewing them for the first time, either via BFI Player or Mubi/Apple TV.

Out of sequence to the order that I watched them, it's perhaps appropriate to start with "La Strada", which really introduced audiences to Giulietta Masina before her long association with Fellini via marriage and in his films. An actress who didn't fit the convention of the object of male desire in films, Giulietta's role as "Gelsomina" could have come across as mildly irritating since she plays a rather plain and ditzy young woman whose poverty stricken mother literally "sells" to Anthony Quinn's "Zampano", a circus strongman who happens to be passing through, because it's clear that she is of low intelligence and therefore a burden to her.

Attitudes to disabilities have changed since the time that Fellini made the film and in retrospect far from being "ditzy", Gelsomina would be classified now as being "special needs" with a borderline disability and her mother's appalling act was simply a way of giving her some sort of future, taking into consideration her only natural talent, which is to turn her childlike nature to clowning.

The plot charts Gelsomina and Zampano's tempestuous relationship as they cross country in search of fairs and carnivals in order to scrape a living, encountering on the way "Il Matto", a charming clown played by a young Richard Basehart, whose interest in Gelsomina, - who reciprocates to escape Quinn's drunken bully Zampano - drives a wedge between her and Zampano that ultimately leads to tragedy.

It's a touching and at times deeply moving tale of people thrown together by a need to survive in difficult circumstances and all three leads give standout performances with a terrific debut by Masina, a revelatory one by Quinn, showing a range that rarely found expression in his other films, something that could be applied equally to Basehart whose later career never really scaled the same heights as this early role.

Keeping firmly to the social realist track, "Night of Cabiria" chooses to focus again on marginalized members of society, in this case prostitutes who ply their trade in Rome and where Masina plays "Cabiria", one of the prostitutes.

The film opens with the theft of Cabiria's purse by her boyfriend / pimp and where she is saved from drowning after he pushes her into a river, an act that consolidates in her mind the desire to escape her wretched life on the streets. A series of misadventures follow that culminate in an encounter with a seemingly well-intentioned man she meets after wandering into a performance by a stage hypnotist who convinces her that there is a better life waiting for her.

She then embarks on a relationship with the man, who promises to take her away from her life as a prostitute, but his promises soon prove to be hollow when he robs her of her money, but stopping short of murdering her by pushing her over a cliff, leaving her begging him to end her life.

The films ends on a triumphant note with Cabiria gathering up her courage and resolve to stay alive whatever the cost as she walks away accompanied by a troupe of street performers.

There's something almost Buddhist about the circular nature of the plot that references ideas like the wheel of Karma that all living beings are chained to either by choice or force of circumstance and the conclusion suggests that detachment from worldly concerns and desires offers a route out of suffering, here through the use of a neat metaphor of the carefree street performers who dance around Cabiria.

In "Juliet of the Spirits" - Fellini's first film in colour - Masina plays "Giulietta", the wife of a wealthy man who she suspects is having an affair and the plot is made of a series of fantastical sequences that may or may not represent a depiction of Juliet's internal dialogue as she struggles to hold on to a life that is gradually falling apart at the seams - it may even be that the title alludes to a past life and that Juliet is actually dead, hence the title of the film, something that is suggested in the closing scenes where she steps out of her house to be faced with the decaying ruins of a garden previously filled with a parade of colourful and oddball friends - the "spirits" of the title.

Critics dispute the meaning of the film and as with "I Vitelloni" any autobiographical element is buried, helped by the fact that the focus of the story is Giulietta - furthermore, an interesting detail is a scene where she seeks the council of an "Indian" guru, depicted as an androgynous woman, and that hints at the influence of Eastern philosophy and ideas about the afterlife, certainly amongst the educated, in the 1960's when the film was made.

I'd highly recommend all three films, especially if, like me, you thought his work was defined by controversial later films like "The Satyricon", "Amarcord" or "Casanova".


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