The 5 Best Federico Fellini Films According To Me

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(I wrote this in 2013 on an old film blog and thought it would be fun to repost it. Many of the details of my life have changed, but I think it’s still worth sharing!)

Federico Fellini has always been one of my favorite directors for two simple reasons: 1) even in his worst movies, he seems incapable of filming a dull scene; 2) in his best films, he has so much to say about a meaningful life in an increasingly discordant, consumerist world. Recently I watched almost the entire oeuvre of Fellini’s films and reviewed many of his films. Here is a list of 5 films that I think any newcomer to his films should see. 

1) I Vitelloni (1953)

Despite being it being his first film, Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” has been very influential to a number of great directors, including Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. It is the story of 5 young, aimless young men who live in a small Italian town and spend their nights drinking and carousing with women. It lacks the panache of Fellini’s later style but is still an interesting character study of the young searching for direction in post-war Italy. Here’s what I wrote about Moraldo, one of the main characters of the film on my old film blog:

Moraldo’s struggle is the same struggle that my friends and I went through post-college and seems to be a universal feeling among men in the modern world. We know what culture expects of us: a good job, a family, a house. But that future seems so suffocating and pre-ordained for many of us. But we know few other alternatives. And so we drift from bar to bar, woman to woman, drug to drug, because it is pleasurable and is the only thing that makes sense. It numbs us from what is expected, dulls the anxiety of being unable to live up to what is wanted of us by the world. Eventually most of us must accept that practicality of what is expected of us and make choices so we will not be alone. But there are few that make other choices and try to lead a different life despite the consequences.

2) La Strada (1954)

“La Strada” lacks the daring narrative structure of his later films but what lacks in structural complexity, it makes up for me in emotion, as it may be the most moving of Fellini’s movies. It tells a conventional, allegorical narrative about a tiny, simpleton woman, Gelsomina, (Giulietta Masina), who is sold by her mother for 10,000 lira to a physically imposing man named Zampano (Anthony Quinn). Here are some thoughts from my essay on the allegorical significance of the film:

The movie’s 3 main characters- Gelsomina, Zampano and The Fool– are allegorical, each representing 3 distinct parts of the human soul and how each of these parts copes with their basic human anxiety. Gelsomina personifies innocence, a gentle, clownish female Charlie Chaplin who treats people without guile. It says something that children are attracted to her Gelsomina and follow her wherever she goes. Gelsomina is the most similar character to myself. Instead of acting out, she internalizes her basic anxiety by suffering and brooding within. But it is rare she isn’t smiling and kind to others.

Even though Gelsomina is sold into servitude and beaten and raped by Zampano, she begins to love him. As the Fool tells her, everything has a purpose, even the tiniest pebble. Gelsomina’s purpose, she believes, is to love and care for Zampano. It is this loving and perhaps naive spirit that is crushed when Zampano murders the Fool in front of her. It causes her to go mad with grief. One of the more heartbreaking scenes in “La Strada” is Gelsomina whimpering after the murder, “The fool is hurt.” Those words are the intonations of not just lost idealism but of a soul that is forever lost and will never be the same again. In that way she is not so different from another gentle soul, Blanche DuBose, brutalized by another bestial man.

3) Nights of Cabiria (1957)

When I saw this initially many years ago, it was one my least favorite Fellini films. But after rewatching it again, I found myself profoundly moved by it, maybe more so than other Fellini movie. “Cabiria” tells the tale of a Roman prostitute desperately in search of love. This search for love allows her to trust men who are only trying steal from her, which leaves Cabiria perpetually heartbroken. Here are my own personal thoughts on Cabiria’s search for love from my review:

I don’t know what to say about the last 1/2 of the movie, except that it completely broke my heart and had me near tears throughout. In one transformative episode, Cabiria attends a magic show and is hypnotized by a magician into believing that she’s being courted by a handsome man named Oscar. After her trance finishes, she is laughed at by the men in the audience and feels humiliated. Without wanting to be, Cabiria is vulnerable and shows her true feelings. But outside a man stops her and says his name is Oscar and that he was so moved by Cabiria that he wants to take her out on a date. Cabiria is reluctant at first but slowly lets her guard down and soon she sells her home so she can move with Oscar to the countryside and get married.

Watching these scenes reminded me of my own defenses toward love and acceptance. Like Cabiria, in many ways being single is not the curse it is made out to be in most mainstream society. I find joy in my independence, in making my own choices without the need of another. But there is something that always lingers, a slight loneliness that hides behind the busyness of everyday living. This romantic, absurd notion of love seems to idle in my soul like a winter cold that just will not go away. And above where I talk about feeling something about a girl I barely know, it is really about that silly romantic notion that will never leave and the hope that maybe it will be fulfilled and I’ll meet someone who I can let my guard down and just be.

4) La Dolce Vita (1961)

For me, “La Dolce Vita” is the greatest of Fellini’s movies and one of the 20 greatest films ever made. It’s 3 hours long, yes, but single frames of the movie have more energy and life to them then entire films. It tells Marcello, a celebrity journalist in Rome. Marcello is a hedonist as he sleeps and parties with the rich. But there is something eating at Marcello inside. His life feels hollow and out of sorts, and he does not understand why. Here is what I wrote about Marcello’s search for meaning:

Our modern day consumer culture has done its job. We are bombarded by thousands of marketing messages a day. We are told over and over that none of us are good enough, that we will always need more and more to live a happy life. In order to buy more and more, we need make as money as we can.

But this creates a restlessness in many of us. We live in the age of the spiritually dead, zombies carrying out our tasks without awareness or meaning.  Our lives feel meaningless, full of dread and ennui. We were told we would be happy if we consumed. But it has just left us feeling empty and alone. But we keep on consuming whether its clothes or the latest electronics or alcohol because we need something, anything to fill up the emptiness.  (How many of us are able to sit by themselves for 5 minutes without doing anything?) And it seems no matter what we do, our childhoods fade farther and farther away. Rilke once said about childhood,

“And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.”

Fellini seems to similar sentiments in “La Dolce Vita.” There is no “good life” in the modern, capitalist world, not for Marcello, not for Steiner, because the “good life” is just another con sold to us driven by greed and consumption. A authentic “good life” requires something else.

Although he can’t hear her, Paola, the young waitress, is Marcello’s salvation. And like Marcello maybe our salvation is not desire and consumption, but in the innocence and simplicity of our childhood. But how do we get back there? Well that’s another question altogether. And maybe there is no real answer to that. But maybe it is a question we  need to ask ourselves from time to time.

5) 8 1/2 (1965)

“8 1/2” is generally considered Fellini’s masterpiece as the Sight & Sound 2012 critic’s poll voted it the tenth greatest movie of all time. I disagree with that assessment as I find “8 1/2” a bit too narcissistic and self-indulgent. However, there is much to like about it. It is after all maybe the most influential avant garde movie ever created. And it has one of the greatest scenes in any movie, the famous brothel scene. Here are my thoughts on that scene:

It’s a glorious, hilarious scene, filled with more life in one shot then whole movies by other directors.Nino Rota’s music creates a dizzying air, and instead of moving, all the characters feel like they are gracefully moving to the music as they are in a musical. (At some point, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” plays in the background although in a very different context than “Apocalypse Now.”) Even if one is not the biggest “8 1/2″ fan, and I am not, the movie is worth watching because of this scene alone.

Freud’s concept of personality influences the scene. It’s Freud mysterious Id run amuck. When we are born into this world, we think we can have whatever we desire. But as we grow older, the superego, that relegating agent of the human personality that has internalized cultural rules and morals, tells us sometimes, maybe most of the time, we cannot have whatever we desire.

Guido, Fellini’s alter ego in many respects, has regressed into an infantile state. Because he can no longer control nor handle his real life, he craves easy desires and safety. In his mind, a harem of all the woman he has slept with or ever has desired qualifies. It’s obvious part of this is about sex. But much of it is all about feeling secure and loved. He might rationally understand why is wife hates him as he has acted like an ass for their entire marriage. But he still wants her love and attention, wants her to tell him everything is going to be just fine. In his dream harem, she does, as the picture of above shows.

It’s a sentiment I certainly understand although I’ve never had quite the ambition to imagine a harem. When depression sinks in and anxiety overwhelms, it’s comforting to feel the unconditional love of a woman. In a world filled with feminism and identity politics, where men are socialized to think of women as equals, there are plenty of Guidos in the world looking for motherly acceptance when things have gone awry.

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