Missing Fellini

An American fascination

by Marguerite WALLER

A film that will now never be made was going to fill in the story of the forty-eight hours during which Federico Fellini went missing in L.A. just before he received the Foreign Film Oscar for Nights of Cabiria in l958. Sadly, Henry Bromell, a New Yorker-turned-television writer (Northern Exposure, Homicide, I’ll Fly Away, Chicago Hope, Brotherhood, Rubicon, Homeland), died suddenly of a heart attack just as he was due to direct his own script, Fellini Black and White, in which Fellini encounters a Black jazz musician with whom he spends those two days exploring the counter cultures of late 50s Los Angeles. Bromell is among the most recent of a long line of American directors who have made no secret of their love of Fellini. Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, just to mention the most obvious, have found multiple ways to celebrate Fellini’s impact on their film language no less than on their metaphysical preoccupations. The renaissance of American filmmaking in the 1970s was a direct legacy of Fellini’s films of the 60s. That Bromell, an A-list cultural producer in 21st century Hollywood, felt that the capstone of his career should be a film conjuring up the mystery of Fellini’s own development suggests something more and other than a relation of influence as we usually think of it. The relationship between Fellini and his heirs seems not to be “Oedipal”; it’s not a fatherson rivalry, and, in fact, includes many women—not only Fellini’s own assistant director on 8 1/2, Lina Wertmüller, but also pioneers of British and American feminist cinema, Sally Potter and Sophia Coppola. Fellini’s cinema, as the French philosopher of film Gilles Deleuze realized in the mid 1980s, is a cinema not of mastery but of encounter. Fellini helped script Roberto Rosselini’s filmic exploration of the forced encounter between Italy and the U.S. in the closing months of World War II, and in many ways, Fellini’s films have never stopped amplifying the six episodes of Rossellini’s austerely baroque Paisan.

Fellini La Dolce Vita

The American fascination with Fellini, then, has to do not only with the seduction of the Italian director’s immensely powerful and complex cinematic language, but with the use of that fluency to make visible, audible and tactile the spaces created which incommensurable worlds, cultures, and consciousnesses collide—productively disorienting spaces that the Marcellos, Guidos, and Pippos in Fellini’s universe expend most of their time and effort trying to avoid. The often cited oneiric quality of Fellini’s films, their famous “Felliniesque” quality, has to do with their attempts to materialize on screen what can hardly be thought, let alone documented within ordinary consciousness. Like jazz, Fellini’s filmmaking strays out of familiar neighborhoods. His films include some of the first and the most profound cinematic treatments of difference—differences of gender, race, generation, religion, sexuality, and class (not just the immiserated but the affluent and the wealthy). Spectators often miss or misread these penetrating analyses because of Fellini’s empathy for even the most impermeable of his characters.

There is always hope in Fellini’s films, not because he was an optimist but because he was a realist. The transformative encounter that changes everything in the space of a moment can happen to anyone at any time. Guido’s conviction that his project is a failure just before the end of 8 ½ becomes the moment when he can finally begin the film. In the mockumentary fiction of Fellini’s penultimate film, Intervista, the moment when the “Fellini” within the film admits that his attempt to adapt Kafka’s Amerika to the screen has degenerated into kitsch, is the moment that impels him to leave the studio for the film’s climactic scene of encounter between past and present, east and west, in the secluded suburban living room of the no longer glamorous movie star, Anita Ekberg. Fellini’s abdication of mastery, his insistence on the richness of the encounter rather than the seduction of the intact and glamorous, continues to make him one of the most positive resources for U.S. filmmakers, particularly those seeking their own subterranean paths through and beyond the illusions of mastery.

Perhaps the most surprising and unusual route taken by Fellini’s films into the American cultural imaginary has been via the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Fellini’s film language is central to Deleuze’s landmark cinema theory books Cinema 1, The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Since these books were translated into English in the late 1980s, they have transformed cinema studies so that in courses taught across the country, thousands of students are now being challenged to imagine spatialities and temporalities other than those captured by their GPS systems and digital clocks and to think about how images can enable thought and signify multidimensionally.

Fellini’s films have by now become a lens through which transnational, postcolonial, and revolutionary filmmakers can very precisely chart their own passages among disparate conceptual, emotional, economic, and spiritual realities. To expand the frame beyond the U.S., Cuban director Tomás Guttierez Alea’s Up to a Certain Point (1983) features a “revolutionary” playwright who has to recapitulate several levels of the downward spiral of aspiring journalist Marcello in La dolce vita before he can begin to perceive his own, counterrevolutionary machismo. Hungarian director Ibolya Fekete’s Bolshe vita (1996) celebrates the creativity of the moment when Soviet occupation ceased and the hegemony of the neoliberal marketplace had not yet taken its place in Eastern Europe. This moment may have been over in a flash, as she says in the film, but its evanescence does not make the psychic and emotional experiences it allowed any the less “real” and revealing.

About the Author


Marguerite Waller is Chair of the Women’s Studies Department and Professor of Comparative Literature and Women’s Studies at U.C. Riverside. She has published extensively on Italian, transnational, and postcolonial cinema, and co-edited Federico Fellini: Contemporary Perspectives (University of Toronto, 2002), and Postcolonial Cinema Studies (Routledge, 2012). Her book Dialogue and Difference (Palgrave Macmillan 2005) explores the epistemological complexities of encounter.