Il maestro leaves a legacy of iconoclastic classics

By Steve Daly
Updated November 12, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Like Hitchcock, Welles, Scorsese, Hawks, and Ford, Federico Fellini produced a body of work that demands to be seen as a whole. Here are some watershed movies in his richly interconnected 23-film oeuvre, all available on video in subtitled versions.

* I Vitelloni (1953, B&W, Applause) Like those teen-to-twentysomething touchstones Diner and American Graffiti, Fellini’s portrait of five aimless small-town pals is a bittersweet slice of sociology. The keenly observed arcana of their postwar, seaside-burg culture play today like relics from a faraway planet. But by the final nighttime montage, where one character pictures his friends still asleep as he leaves home for good, the regret and exhilaration feel universal. A

* La Strada (1954, B&W, Embassy/Nelson) A fable of love and brutality that haunts. A simpleminded girl, Gelsomina (played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina), is sold by her mother to a loutish, thoughtless traveling strongman, Zampano (Anthony Quinn). He makes her part of his act, but his callous infidelity eventually breaks her spirit—and, unexpectedly, his own mealy heart. A+

* Nights of Cabiria (1957, B&W, Video Yesteryear) When Broadway and Hollywood musicalized it as Sweet Charity in the ’60s, all the grit disappeared from this tale of a prostitute perpetually betrayed—by pimps, by customers, by religion, and finally by the mild, handsome man who says he wants to marry her. Fellini takes obvious pleasure in the libertine atmosphere but doesn’t flinch from the ugliness. Masina radiates plucky grace as the Teflon protagonist, and Nino Rota never wrote a more jauntily indelible score. A

* La Dolce Vita (1960, B&W, Republic; Image wide-screen laserdisc) Tracking a tabloid journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) on a bender through hedonistic modern-day Rome, this three-hour bacchanal made Fellini the Madonna of his day: All at once he was infamously naughty, decried by the Vatican, ubiquitous in the press, and immensely popular. The callow, celebrity-mad mind-set it skewers seems just as ripe a target today, and even with the wide-screen choreography cropped almost in half on tape, the showpiece scenes—a sham religious visitation, a nightclub romp with an actress (Anita Ekberg)—remain dazzlers. A-

* 8 1/2 (1963, B&W, MPI; Criterion wide-screen laserdisc) A film about a director who can’t make a film? Fellini’s sublime diary of a nervous breakdown exploded the possibilities for personal expression in movies, and has been cribbed by directors from Paul Mazursky (Alex in Wonderland) to Bob Fosse (All That Jazz) to Woody Allen (Stardust Memories). A+

* Juliet of the Spirits (1965, Connoisseur) Fellini broke with two longtime script collaborators and tried LSD on the way to shooting this showcase for Masina, which signaled a new, fantastical career phase. Following an unhappy housewife’s disjunctive, hyper-colorful reveries about sex and childhood, this flip side to 8 1/2 has a quaintly dated, groovy-’60s ambience. It’s all dreamy, image-driven flash and displays a dawning taste for carnival excess that the director would surrender to completely in Fellini Satyricon, Fellini’s Roma, Fellini’s Casanova, and City of Women. B

* Fellini Satyricon (1969, MGM/UA) Whether you love the freak-show images of a soulless, decadent, pre-Christian Rome or hate the shapeless, confused, ponderous pace, you’ll agree no director before or since has struck a pose quite so strikingly. A wide-screen transfer on tape and disc preserves every corner of Danilo Donati’s sublimely eerie set designs, among them a sprawling, shadowy brothel and a vast slave barge. B-

* Amarcord (1973, Warner) Zooming in on the quirky residents of a small, fictional 1930s seaside town, Fellini follows them through four romanticized seasons lovingly re-created on Rome’s Cinecitta soundstages. Nonactors dominate the huge cast, and Fellini’s reverential, found-object treatment of them defines his late-career style. A-

* Intervista (1987, Triboro) After strutting his faltering creative powers in ever-more meandering tone poems through the ’80s (City of Women, And the Ship Sails On, Ginger and Fred), Fellini embraces his own dissolution and makes art of it, fashioning one of cinema’s most moving elegies. Fellini films himself being filmed as a Japanese TV crew arrives for an interview, and from there multiple faux realities unfold. The most poignant shows the maestro cajoling old friend Mastroianni into visiting a now-enormous Ekberg at her country home. Beneath the cheery bustle of reunion, played against clips from La Dolce Vita, there’s a clear-eyed acknowledgment of mortality and faded glory. This is as naked as movies get. A-