The Force of Fellini 

Cinematheque pays tribute to the Italian auteur

Along with Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini (1920-1993) was one of two superstar directors to emerge from the international scene in the 1950s. Like Bergman, Italian maestro Fellini became a household name in North America. In fact, for a certain generation of American cinephiles, Fellini and Bergman were the alpha and omega of art-house cinema. That neither is as well known today as he should be is more a reflection of our media-saturated times than any expiration date attached to his work.

To help rectify the situation, the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque is hosting a partial Fellini retrospective dubbed "Nine by Fellini." The fact that Nine — the film version of the 1982 Broadway musical based on Fellini's 8 ½ (November 21-22) —is scheduled for December release has something to do with the timing. Love him or hate him, Fellini was as much force of nature as filmmaker. It's no accident he's one of the only directors to have an adjective ("Fellini-esque") named after him.

Fellini began his career in the late '40s, working as Roberto Rossellini's (Paisan, Open City) assistant director. And it was neo-realist architect Rossellini whose influence is strongest in seminal Fellini works like I Vitelloni (November 5 and 7), a coming-of-age saga that would inspire everything from American Graffiti to Diner; La Strada (November 8); and Nights of Cabiria (November 13-14), the first Fellini movie to inspire a Broadway musical (Sweet Charity). But 1959's La Dolce Vita (November 15) marked a turning point in Fellini's career.

In abandoning neo-realism for a more autobiographical type of cinema, Fellini lost many early fans. Yes, 8 ½ was (atrociously) dubbed into English, cut to ribbons and bracketed by interminable commercial breaks in the pre-TCM era. But it was also the most extraordinary thing imaginable. The story of a wildly successful film director (Fellini alter ego Marcello Mastroianni) in the throes of a nervous breakdown while prepping his latest project, Fellini's roman à clef felt shockingly grown-up and worldly.

While I could admire the linear storytelling of Fellini's pre-La Dolce Vita oeuvre and even respond emotionally to their sometimes egregious sentimentality, I've always preferred his visually entrancing middle (and twilight) phase. With its deliciously apt tagline ("Rome: Before Christ; After Fellini"), 1969's Satyricon (December 5-6) remains one of my Top 10 favorites of all time. Like everything else in the Fellini series, it demands to be seen on the big screen.

The Cinematheque's mini-retro kicks off (November 1 and 2) with another controversial Fellini phantasmagoria. Casanova, Fellini's sublimely decadent deconstruction of the legendary 18th-century Venetian rake (unforgettably played by Donald Sutherland), was dismissed by critics and rejected by audiences at the time of its 1977 U.S. release. Yet, like so many under-loved masterworks that were ahead of their time (Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut among them), Casanova has built up a fervent cult following over the years. Because it's still unavailable on DVD, this could be your only chance to see what is arguably Fellini's last great film.


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