Federico Fellini loved to tell this story: When he was a kid in the northern Italian coastal town of Rimini, he did what most people only dream of—he ran away and joined the circus. The daring little boy was quickly found and escorted back home by the police, he said, but the escapade inspired a life’s worth of imagination. In fact, the tale itself may have been a fanciful invention by a master storyteller. No matter. By the time Fellini died of complications from a stroke Oct. 30 at 73, the sprawling circus of his mind had left its mark on image makers around the world—just look at MTV—and established him as one of the authentic giants of the screen.
Mention the name Fellini and the circus magically appears. Freaks, grotesques, outcasts: He displayed and loved them all. La Strada, the story of a brutish circus strongman and a simpleminded waif in a tatty touring sideshow, created his international reputation in 1954. Even greater acclaim—and much notoriety—came in 1960 with La Dolce Vita, in which a whole carnival of gaudy misfits and decadents parades through Rome. Facing a creative block after the success of that controversial movie, Fellini escaped to the circus inside his head and in 1963 released 8 1/2, the story of a successful director facing a midlife career crisis. That phantasmagoria of sexual fantasies, childhood memories, and naked autobiography, in which Marcello Mastroianni played his alter ego, was a dramatic high-wire act the likes of which few have dared to attempt and is one of the screen’s enduring masterpieces.
A visionary with the most colorfully personal of dreams at his command, Fellini was the first European director whose name entered our language. Felliniesque will be forever synonymous with the bizarre, misty dreamscapes, pan-erotic fantasies, scathingly profane humor, and rushing rivers of consciousness. He was the Casanova of the cinema, and no director has so repeatedly and triumphantly seduced the public consciousness.
What’s less well remembered is that Fellini—who with Roberto Rossellini cowrote Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946)—also played a part in creating the first critically acclaimed movement in Italian film, neorealism. And his script for Rossellini’s The Miracle (1950) was a turning point in film censorship. In the movie, Fellini himself plays a mute tramp who seduces an ingenuous shepherdess (Anna Magnani) who mistakes him for Saint Joseph. Catholics were so enraged when The Miracle opened in Manhattan that the film was banned from any further exhibition in New York. After a year-and-a-half-long battle, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the movie, opening the floodgates for the personal and daring in film.
Fellini’s private life was free of such controversy. He was a young screenwriter of comedies when he heard actress Giulietta Masina’s voice on the radio. He sent flowers and a note asking her to dine with him. She accepted, and they were married four months later, on Oct. 30, 1943. Over the course of their life together, Masina was Fellini’s star in La Strada, Nights of Cabiria (1957), Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and Ginger and Fred (1986). When he died—on their golden anniversary—she was still at his side.
Though Fellini’s films had taken four Academy Awards (and he himself, nominated 12 times as Best Director, had received a special Oscar last March), they had gone unrewarded, and largely unseen, in the last two decades. His career seemed to fade after his Oscar-winning memoir, Amarcord, in 1973. Critics found his films repetitive and self-indulgent. He had trouble raising money. But he paraded on and in 1990 made his last film, Voices of the Moon. The tale of a gentle lunatic and an old man who refuses to accept death, it will have its belated American premiere at New York City’s Film Forum Dec. 19, as part of a complete retrospective of his work.
Fellini had been overlooked in recent years, but the time for dismissal is over. His eerie, riveting contributions to the art of moviemaking will stand outside the vagaries of changing taste for as long as people dream of joining the circus, for as long as bearded ladies, scuttling clowns, and tightrope walkers retain their strange power to tell us about ourselves.