Federico Fellini, master of the surreal, dies at 73 Italian director had been in coma

November 01, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Federico Fellini, the great Italian film director, was so unique an artist that his death yesterday should have been likewise unique. But it wasn't.

Instead, the 73-year-old man passed quietly in a coma after suffering a heart attack a month ago and going on a life-support system in a Rome hospital.

It was an ironically commonplace end for a man who, loved or loathed, lionized or ignored over his long career, was never commonplace.

In fact, so unique was Fellini's vision and accomplishment as a film director that no existing word could quite describe it; one had to be invented. Thus "Fellini-esque" entered the language, used just as commonly by people who had never seen any of his 22 films as by those who had seen and loved them all. It came to mean, after a while, a kind of kaleidoscopic surrealism.

The word was drawn from Fellini's visual style, his ability to look upon the banal and infuse it with lyrical intensity. Indeed, his films are full of imagery so vivid it has taken root in the popular imagination. "La Dolce Vita" alone, that corrosive damnation of the modern world, provided at least three. What more crushing image of the secularization of our age than its great opening shot of a portable statue of Christ dangling from a helicopter as it's transferred to new quarters? What more vivid image of the debauchery that was concomitant to the death of religion in that same movie than Marcello Mastroianni, a drunken journalist, riding atop Anita Ekberg at the end of a night's revels? What more pungent evocation of the paganism that runs through the civilized world than that vision of Ekberg herself, soaking in the Trevi Fountain like a great Roman goddess, her breasts bulging from a cocktail dress, her hair back, her face lost in bliss?

The most "Fellini-esque" of the director's films came in 1963, his famous and influential "8 1/2 ," an amalgam of frank autobiography and surrealism. Starring Mastroianni, it chronicled the dissolute life of a character much like Fellini himself as he tried to find in his scattered personality and wandering erotic impulses the discipline to make the very movie we were watching.

Its discordant narrative structures and jangled sense of time changed moviemaking and perhaps storytelling for all time. Its greatest image found the Mastroianni/Fellini character snapping a bullwhip at a group of women in a dream sequence that summed up the director's tortured relationship with the opposite sex, whom he clearly loved and feared with equal passion.

"Our dreams are our real life," he said, and his films certainly expressed that point eloquently.

Yet it's important to recall that the "Fellini-esque" qualities of Fellini weren't all there was to his work. He was instead a secret moralist, grappling with themes of lust and guilt, haunted by the possibility of redemption. He seemed to see himself as a man strong enough to recognize sin, moral enough to be depressed by its presence in the world, yet weak enough to yield to its temptations.

It's a further shock to recall that he reached the world stage as a director through another style of Italian cinema, one rooted in the banal.

This was the Italian neo-realism that shocked the world in the immediate post-war years when such directors as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica invented an Italian cinema that faced the problems of "small" people in a way that the movies, which had up to then largely imitated the glossy Hollywood model, never had before.

And who was a key figure in this renaissance? Fellini himself.

Fellini got into the movie business almost incidentally: He wasn't one of those earnest students of the cinema yearning to direct. His past is somewhat shrouded in mystery, most of it his own invention, as he discarded details he found boring and invented those that he preferred.

Most authorities agree that he was born on Jan. 20, 1920, in Rimini, Italy, to the son of a traveling candy and coffee salesman who expected the boy to become a lawyer. But young Federico's only talent was for drawing. For years, he claimed that at age 7, he ran away with the circus; later he confessed he'd made the story up. Instead, he confessed he'd been taken by the movies at Rimini's primitive movie house.

After failing at law school and failing at journalism and cartooning during the early years of World War II (he succeeded at draft dodging, however) he found himself in Rome immediately before the liberation. In that fabled time of artistic creativity, he came to know Rossellini, the first of the great neo-realists, and he collaborated with him on "Open City," the first of the neo-realist masterpieces, actually shot in the city as the Germans were withdrawing and the Allies approaching.

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