Film aficionados throughout the world are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Italian director Federico Fellini’s birth this year. His hometown of Rimini will be hosting the Fellini 100: Immortal Genius exhibit, the BFI just released a stunning trailer promoting a film series of his work throughout the UK [see below] and even I have gotten into the spirit of things by launching Fellini 2020, a yearlong celebration of his life and work.
But here’s the thing, the majority of people that I share this wonderful news with have no idea what the fuss is all about. My friends are genuinely interested, but only because it’s important to me. They’ll indulge me as I explain how “8 ½’ is arguably the greatest film of all time but then even I lose steam trying to recreate in my own words the brilliance of that film. You can’t describe a Fellini film…you need see it (preferably several times) and revel in the story, the costumes, the score, the cinematography and the casting. But good luck trying to get even your closest friend to sit through a two- and half-hour foreign film with subtitles (in black and white no less).
I do find that most people my age have a vague idea of his name. That’s possibly because he’s been name checked by some of the greatest filmmakers of our time like Hitchcock, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and Woody Allen. It could also be the name itself. It rolls off the tongue so easily it makes you feel Italian just saying it out loud. Both his name and the phrase “La Dolce Vita” made popular by his movie of the same name have become the archetype of Italian culture. The imagery of Fellini's movies and music is so embedded in everyday advertising, marketing and fashion that he’s entered our subconscious in ways we aren’t even aware of.
“E Poi” (and then) I had a thought…maybe if more people knew the ways in which his films were a significant influence of things they already know and love; they’ll truly appreciate what a special anniversary this is.
Let’s start with the fact that the word “paparazzi" was originated by Fellini in his ironically titled 1960 film “La Dolce Vita”. The movie follows celebrity journalist Marcello Rubin (Marcello Mastroianni) through seven vignettes that take place over the course of one week in Rome. Marcello is trailed throughout the film by a pack of photographers who have no ethics when it comes to capturing photos of celebrities and real-life people in tragic situations (sound familiar TMZ?). These days we would call them paparazzi but remember that word did not exist before that film. The etymology of the word paparazzi as we now know it came from Fellini naming one of the photographers, Paparazzo (played by Walter Santesso). He chose that word because it’s Italian for the annoying buzz that mosquitos make. After the movie came out, the name quickly entered into the mainstream to represent the swarm of photographers trailing celebrities. And if you love the Beatles (and who doesn’t) you can thank Fellini for The Beatles using the word in the lyric of their beautifully nonsensical song from Abbey Road’s “Here Comes the Sun King”
“Mundo paparazzi mi amore chicka ferdy parasol”
Lady Gaga had a huge hit with a song titled “Paparazzi”.
And speaking of word origins, there are not many people in the arts whose work is so well defined that they are bestowed with the honor of having the suffix “esque” added to their name. Fellini-esque is up there with Beatle-esque for shorthand when describing like-minded artists.
Here’s a great definition of Fellini-esque from Europe Since 1945: An Encyclopedia Volume 1;
"Fellini-esque" has come to mean a certain Italian sophistication yet earthiness, a fascination with the bizarre yet a love of simplicity all wrapped in a flamboyant Mediterranean approach to life and art. These films also contain magic moments that transcended realism, and they introduced the world to a certain flamboyant lyricism we now label Fellini-esque.
The music video for REM's ‘Everybody Hurts’ is directly influenced by the opening sequence of "8 1/2"
Wes Anderson film short Castello Cavalcanti is chock full of homages to Fellini’s body of work.
Curb Your Enthusiasm owes a nice little debt to Fellini. For starters, the circus like theme of the show is directly influenced by Fellini’s longtime collaborator Nino Rota who scored most of Fellini’s films. Many of the scores featured circus music themes (Fellini was fascinated by circus clowns). Also, Rota’s theme from Amarcord was featured in two episodes of the show; “The End” in the scene when Larry goes to heaven and “The Therapist” during Larry’s flashback of special moments with Cheryl.
The “Pulp Fiction” dance sequence between John Travolta and Uma Thurman owes a great debt to the same dance in sequence from “8 1/2” between Mario Pisu and Barbara Steele.
Lady Gaga’s music video for “Judas” is heavily influence by the runway scene in Fellini’s "Roma".
Let’s talk about the Oscars. Fellini’s films were nominated for sixteen Academy Awards. He won four times in the category of Best Foreign Language Film; "La Strada" ['56], "Nights Of Cabiria" ['57], "8 1/2" ['63] and "Amarcord" ['74] the most for any director in the history of the Academy. He also received his fifth Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1993. But the most impressive take away is that that many of his Oscar winning films had a direct influence on other movies with many of those winning Oscars themselves. It’s all so very meta, just like the plot of “8 ½”.
Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” which is basically his version of “8 ½” won four Oscars. When asked about the similarities between the two movies in a Rolling Stone interview, Fosse said;
BOB FOSSE; “When I steal, I steal from the best,”
Woody Allen, who has often cited his debt to Fellini, received two Oscar nominations for “Radio Days” (his tribute to “Amarcord”). Allen’s “Stardust Memories”, one of his most talked about movies, is his version of 8 ½. In a NY Times interview, Allen said;
WOODY ALLEN; “I loved “The White Sheik” and “I Vitelloni” and “La Strada,” and of course “8 ½.” But “Amarcord” is one, for me, that I could see every year. He so clearly recreates his childhood in Rimini, and you’re there in that world, with his mother and his father, with his relatives, with local people, with the local stores, the local rituals of marching around the town square and things that everybody’s done: looking at strangers and seeing that they look like movie stars, and hanging out at the cinema, and ogling particular women who are the heartthrobs of the neighborhood.”
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, which won four Oscars was also heavily influenced by 8 ½. From a reddit discussion at the time;
“Both films are about an aging artist trying to recapture their days of glory. Both feature images of paparazzi camera flashes plaguing the protagonist, flying sequences, imagery of a marching band, beach imagery with waves crashing on rocks.”
Barry Levinson’s “Diner” is a movie about a circle of male friends, in their early twenties at crucial turning points in their small town lives. That also happens to be the plot of Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” to which it owes a great debt. Levinson was nominated for an Oscar for his “Diner” screenplay.
Martin Scorsese has stated many times that “Mean Streets” was influenced by “I Vitelloni”. The iconic opening sequence of “Goodfellas” pays homage to the introductions of the main characters in the beginning of “I Vitelloni”. Here’s Scorsese on “8 ½”;
MARTIN SCORSESE; "The picture has inspired many movies over the years (including Alex in Wonderland, Stardust Memories, and All That Jazz), and we’ve seen the dilemma of Guido, the hero played by Marcello Mastroianni, repeated many times over in reality—look at the life of Bob Dylan during the period we covered in No Direction Home, to take just one example. Like with The Red Shoes, I look at it again every year or so, and it’s always a different experience.”
Critically acclaimed Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film “Pain and Glory” is about a film director in his decline who has a series of reunions. Some of these reunions play out in real time, others are recalled through flashbacks. This is also a great description of “8 ½”. And just like Fellini’s use of Marcello Mastroianni as his alter ego in many of his movies, Almodóvar does the same with Antonio Banderas who along with Almodóvar (Director) is nominated for Best Actor this year.
The 2013 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, Italy’s “La Ggrande Bellezza” (“The Great Beauty”) is essentially a modern day update of "La Dolce Vita".
The classic scores for “The Godfather” and “Romeo and Juliet” are very much Fellini-esque thanks to having been scored by Fellini’s long-time film composer Nino Rota.
Fellini’s influence extends to the great white way. The musical “Nine” which was based on “8 ½” won five Tony Awards in 1982. It won another two when it was revived in 2003. The less said about the 2009 movie version “Nine” the better!
Bob Fosse’s “Sweet Charity” was based on Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” and won a total of six Tony Awards (one in ’66 and five in the ’86 revival.) It was turned into a hit film, also directed by Bob Fosse, in 1969 starring Shirley MacLaine in the role that was so beautifully originated by Fellini’s wife; Giulietta Masina.
Fellini's influence on film, music, fashion and pop culture cannot be overstated… in my opinion he is the Beatles of cinema. With that, I will give John Lennon the final word as he uses Fellini’s Satyricon to make a point about his own life in the Beatles…and of course you will have to watch the movie to understand it!
JOHN LENNON; “The Beatles’ tours were like Fellini’s Satyricon, I mean, we had that image, but man, our tours were likes something else. If you could get on our tours, you were in. Just Satyricon. Just think of Satyricon with four musicians going through it.”
Happy Birthday Federico…Cent’anni!