Federico Fellini was the most excessive Italian director of the twentieth century. In films packed with dreams, fantasy, surrealism, artifice and a sort of circus rococo, he created some of cinema’s most luxuriant images, the apogee Anita Ekberg’s dance in the Trevi fountain. Born into a middle-class family in Rimini, a town on the Adriatic coast that has since named its airport after him, Fellini poured an early infatuation with Grand Guignol and Dante into caricatures he drew and jokes he wrote for the satirical magazine Marc’Aurelio; at 19 he toured Italy with a vaudeville troupe, a year he considered the most important of his life. Conscripted into the Avanguardista (a compulsory fascist group for young men), the apolitical Fellini managed to evade the military draft with a gift for deceit he would sharpen over the decades.
In 1945, Fellini broke through as a scriptwriter for neorealist master Roberto Rossellini on Rome, Open City, which Martin Scorsese has since called “the most precious moment of film history” (Jean-Luc Godard also quipped “all roads lead to Rome, Open City”). His screenplay was nominated for an Oscar (he eventually won five), but Fellini would lapse from neorealism, as ambivalent to Italian cinema’s accepted house style as he was to national politics, football and Catholicism. One biography suggests he wanted to give Paisà, his next collaboration with Rossellini, “the feel of a de Chirico landscape”. Gore Vidal thought him “essentially a painter rather than a narrative artist”, a theory borne out by Fellini’s own touchstones. “We must make a film like a Picasso sculpture”, he told fellow writer Tullio Pinelli. “Break the story into pieces, then put it back together according to our whim.”
A solipsistic perfectionist, he wrote all of his own scripts and claimed he didn’t need producers: “I need only a man who will give me money.” He obsessively rewatched his own films many times and rarely those of other directors (though he openly admired Buñuel, Bergman and Kurosawa). “Even if I set out to make a film about a fillet of sole”, he claimed, “it would be about me”. Though these days his canon is critically revered, at the time each new Fellini release met splutters of outrage, particularly in Italy. His producer on I Vitelloni (1953) called him a “sadist, and you like ugliness”. In La strada (1954), for which he won his first of five Oscars, he cast American actor Anthony Quinn as a strongman and his own wife, Giuletta Massina, as a little clown. He grew disenchanted with their social symbolism: previously clowns were the “caricature of a well-established, ordered, peaceful society. But today all is temporary, disordered, grotesque. Who can still laugh at clowns? All the world plays a clown now.” (Goodness knows what he’d make of the current spate of creepy clown sightings…)