This is an excellent Optimum World/Studio Canal box set of three early films by possibly the most famous director name in world cinema, Federico Fellini. The transfers of all three are pristine with very good contrast in the b/w images and extremely clear soundtracks. The films come with a variety of extras including a 30 minute talk by Phil Kemp which ranges over all three films in revealing detail. Moreover, the set is absurdly cheap. I picked it up for ₤9, that's ₤3 per film! Even if you already have La Strada (1954) in your collection (as I did) this is still well worth buying. La Strada is an acknowledged classic and needs no introduction from me. It is one of Fellini's greatest achievements fit to set beside the later La dolce vita (1959) and 8½ (1963) and is mandatory viewing for all lovers of cinema. Nights of Cabiria (1957) is lesser known, but equally as good. Like La Strada, 8½ and Amarcord (1973) it won the Oscar for best foreign film and is an extraordinarily accomplished work. The rarity here is The White Sheik (1952), Fellini's first solo effort. It is a sophisticated comedy and much more than just the curiosity that many take it for. Woody Allen for one liked it enough to remake it in 2012 as To Rome with Love. He also made his own variation on La Strada in Sweet and Lowdown (1999). Before I get to the films themselves I want to start off with a few remarks about Fellini. Younger readers especially might wonder what the fuss about this director is all about.
The first thing to take on board is that Fellini was self taught. He never went to film school and never studied film. Everything he knew he learned hands on from the people that surrounded him on a daily basis. He started off in the late 1930s as a cartoonist, a gag writer for minor journals in his birthplace Rimini, Florence and then in Rome. He became a journalist eventually writing for the humor magazine Marc' Aurelio. There he met many people connected with the film industry and it was inevitable that his talent would lead him into script writing. Fellini's gregarious social skills helped him forge relationships and deep friendships with people which would remain (in many cases) life-long. He met Giulietta Masina and married her in 1943. She would perform in many of his films (including all three included in this set) up until Ginger and Fred (1985). He also met fellow writers Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano who would co-script all his films up until Juliet of the Spirits (1965). Pinelli returned to co-script Ginger and Fred and even worked on his final film, The Voice of the Moon (1990). At Lux Film Studios he met producers Dino De Laurentiis, Carlo Ponti and Luigi Rovere who were all instrumental in shaping his career. Then there were contacts with Riccardo Gualino and Guido Gatti, the first founded the studio and the second was the studio's artistic director who introduced Fellini to composer Nino Rota. Rota wrote 17 scores for Fellini, virtually everything from The White Sheik through to Orchestra Rehearsal (1979).
For an excellent study of the director I recommend Peter Bondanella's superb book, The Cinema of Federico Fellini (1992, Princeton University Press). Not only is it an incisive biography and a penetrating critical analysis of the films, but it also contains an impressive bibliography listing all the material you could ever hope to need to understand the subject. A personal friend of Fellini, he oversees the Lilly Collection (now housed at Indiana University) of original Fellini material - everything from odd cartoon doodles to full-blown original scripts. If it wasn't for Bondanella many important documents would have disappeared from view, the director having the unfortunate habit of throwing everything away as he worked. Bondanella appears in a short documentary here on the disc containing The White Sheik. In his book he stresses the decade Fellini spent as a script writer before he turned director with Variety Lights in 1950 as being an important formative period. Different from Hollywood, the scriptwriters in the Italian film industry were very closely involved in the creation of each film from the beginning right through to the end. The material was usually original (ie; not adapted from pre-existing texts) and subject to change on a daily basis. This meant Fellini worked closely with the directors and even on rare occasion took charge of individual shots himself. Directors he worked with during this period (1939-50) included Mario Mattoli, Mario Bonnard, Alfredo Guarini, Nicola Manzari, Goffredo Alessandrini, Gino Talamo, Jean de Limur, Riccardo Freda, Pietro Germi, Duilio Coletti, Eduardo De Filippo and (most importantly) Alberto Lattuada and Roberto Rossellini. He helped out on 23 features during this time, the most important being Rome Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and Francis, God's Jester (1950) for Rossellini. He eventually co-directed Variety Lights with Lattuada.
Fellini's apprenticeship in the movie business underlines several important things that we should bear in mind. First of all, his origins lie in script writing, not in shooting pictures. This means his films are concerned with telling stories bedded within the characters involved. All his films before La dolce vita illustrate a supreme ability to shape narratives which reflect precisely the world of audiences at this stage of post-war Italian history. This world was the world of real working class people. On one hand he learned how to craft 'feel-good' entertainment through a succession of comic gags which various directors learned to expect from him, while on the other hand he learned through neo-realism how to reflect the plight of the common man by essentially seeing characters as determined by the environment that surrounded them. Rome Open City and Paisan are two of the most famous neo-realist classics and cutting his teeth for Rossellini was an experience he would always remain grateful for, even when later the great man grew jealous of his protégé's rising fame as his own critical reputation waned.
Fellini's origins as an earthy cartoonist/gag man feeds into the subject matter of all his early films which focus on eccentric counter-culture types surviving mainly in working class environments. Great stress is laid on showmanship, life as a circus with its teeming concoction of conflicting emotions. Fellini's worldview wasn't loftily intellectual at all at this stage. While Luchino Visconti was in the 40s/50s already pursuing his historical/political/literary obsessions and Michelangelo Antonioni was doing radical things with his use of the camera, Fellini remained conservative, making films of and for the people, films which celebrate the timeless cycle of life and death and championed the hopes and dreams of the under-privileged. All his films prior to La dolce vita are readily accessible to anyone with an ounce of human sympathy in them as they document (albeit theatrically) life as it then stood for most people in the audience. Fellini lost his innocence when he came across the psychoanalytical ideas of C. G. Jung at the time of La dolce vita. 8½ marked the early peak of his change in style, and after that his cinema became increasingly fanciful and intellectual as he adapted dreams from his own notebooks which categorized his unique take on Jung's collective unconscious. Critics argue to this day about the merits of these later films. For every critic who sees 'genius' there is another who sees only 'self-indulgence'. I feel these films (Roma, Amarcord, Casanova and City of Women among them) are inconsistent, but even his worst work (perhaps Orchestra Rehearsal and The Voice of the Moon) isn't totally devoid of interest. Interestingly, he would return to his origins by putting on screen little jokes and fantasies that we can imagine him outlining for Marc ' Aurelio at the beginning of his career. A director famed for his sense of fantasy and exuberant creativity, it is as well to remind ourselves that he started off unpretentiously as a simple gag man.
Bondanella has really established the template for how we should examine Fellini's films. He divides the first six into two trilogies. The first he calls 'the trilogy of character' and includes Variety Lights, The White Sheik and I Vitelloni. These films focus on willfully eccentric characters and the clash between the public role (the 'face') they have to maintain to get along in society and their more authentic real selves as expressed through fantasies, ideals, dreams and instincts. The second he calls 'the trilogy of salvation or grace' and is comprised of La Strada, Il Bidone and Nights of Cabiria. These films focus on characters that undergo a huge cyclical journey through life where they end up where they started having learned something important on the way. The use of the word 'salvation' or `grace' implies some kind of religious program and Fellini is on record as saying Jesus Christ was "the greatest person in the history of the human race" and that "he continues to live on in anyone who sacrifices himself for his neighbor." Indeed he saw all his early films turn on this idea, especially the ones involving his wife Giulietta Masina - "a little creature who wants to love and who lives for love." However, we should also note Fellini's life-long ambivalence towards organized religion. The Catholic Church sought to censor many of his films especially Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita. Ultimately Fellini cannot really be described as a `religious' director. The salvation his characters receive may be read as either sacred or secular and like so much else in the man's films, meaning remains marvelously open-ended. This goes for politics and other intellectual belief systems as well. Fellini has no program to push, no axe to grind. He simply depicts the human circus of life as he finds it and lets audiences make up their own minds. He accepts people will see what they choose to see and refuses to interfere. At his best the results are pure and remarkably moving.
NB: What follows are thematic reviews which consequently contain spoilers.
THE WHITE SHEIK (Lo sceicco bianco)
(1952 / Italy / 84 min / B&W PAL / Aspect Ratio 4:3 / Mono 2.0)
Extras: Fellini's `White Sheik' and other stories: Documentary (15 min) / Fellini's Collection at Lilly Library / Giulietta's Secret Spaghetti Sauce Recipe / Photo Gallery / Filmographies
Michelangelo Antonioni was the unlikely original source for the material that became The White Sheik. When he saw what Fellini, Pinelli and Flaiano did with his soggetto (story) it's no surprise that he washed his hands of the project. A very un-Antonionian light social comedy, the film is the story of a couple from the provinces whose honeymoon in Rome turns into a complete disaster. Ivan (a superb wide-eyed comic turn from Leopold Trieste) is a minor civil servant, a stickler for social propriety who has his visit to the city planned down to the tiniest micro-second. He plans to exhibit his wife to his family, do the main tourist sights, take in an opera and pay a visit to the Pope at St. Peter's along with 200 other couples - all within 24 hours. Completely obsessed with maintaining 'face' in front of others he is a caricature of the petit bourgeois Italian type many in contemporary audiences would have been familiar with and is absurd to the extreme. His equally absurd wife Wanda (a beautifully observed study of air-head romantic delusion by Brunella Bovo) has her own secret agenda. Avid devourer of exotic fotoromanzi (novels consisting of photos of models acting out romantic stories) she plans to visit the office of Incanto Blu (Blue Romance) to see her favorite star Fernando Rivoli (an outrageously tacky Alberto Sordi) who plays the white sheik of the title, an ex-butcher's boy and cut-price Valentino wannabe. Her head in the clouds, Wanda allows herself to be swept up in the current photo shoot taking place miles away from Rome. The film proceeds as a clash between a man concerned with maintaining 'face' and a woman concerned with cashing in her `face' for exotic adventures which reflect her real desires. Both social attitudes lead to disaster as Fellini skillfully cuts between their parallel stories starting with their initial estrangement (Wanda taking flight almost immediately after checking in to their hotel) and finishing with their eventual reunion on the steps of St. Peter's.
Whether you find the exploits depicted here funny or irritating will depend on your sense of humor. Initially a box office flop, the film is now often celebrated by critics as a comic masterpiece. Though certainly amusing throughout, for me it falls somewhere in between, possibly because I find the main characters both annoying and unsympathetic. Wanda's adventures on the beach (her initial encounter with her sheik on a stylized swing, her dressing up as a harem sex slave for the brilliantly edited photo story shoot, a boat trip with Rivoli which has her fighting off his lecherous paws and the encounter with his enormous wife) are certainly more entertaining (and closer to the later Fellini style of La Dolce Vita) than Ivan's face-saving attempts at hiding his wife's flight from his family, though he does get a gem of a sequence where he reports her disappearance to the police in such a manner as to cause them to think he should be institutionalized.
More interesting than the story though is the bravura with which Fellini tells it. As Bondanella points out, the film consists of continually flicking back and forth between parallel narratives which comment ironically on each other in a sophisticated montage which (though brilliantly achieved) Fellini never used again. Good examples include cutting from Wanda at the Incanto Blu office saying she wants to meet her exotic hero to Ivan in the hotel meeting a negro (actually a white man blacked up) who speaks gibberish; from Wanda getting caught up in a procession of actors all dressed up in mufti to Ivan getting caught up in a procession of soldiers on the street as he looks for his wife; from Wanda playing the role of sex slave to Ivan playing the role of concerned husband telephoning his `sick' wife from a restaurant where he is entertaining his family; from Wanda stuck in the ocean on a boat with a lecherous Don Juan to (courtesy of a hilarious crack on Rivoli's head from the boom) Ivan stuck in the opera watching (you guessed it) Don Giovanni; and then from Wanda rejecting the advances of another man who drives her back to Rome to Ivan ironically accepting the advances of a prostitute. The film ostensibly sets out to portray the story of a moral man betrayed by his errant wife on their honeymoon, but ends up showing the `betrayed' being the betrayer, as he lies to his wife on the way to meeting the Pope with an angel `blessing' them ironically in the film's closing image. The White Sheik is a very clever film put together with considerable skill and is thoroughly worth seeing though of course Fellini went on to greater things. Check out Giulietta Masina playing one of the prostitutes Ivan meets. Named `Cabiria', the same character will be the main subject of Nights of Cabiria four Fellini films later and also included in this set.
LA STRADA (La Strada)
(1954 / Italy / 103 min / B&W PAL / Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 / Mono 2.0)
Extras: The Power of a Smile: Documentary about Giulietta Masina / Audio commentary on selected scenes by Christopher Wiegand / Digitally restored and re-mastered
Many great films are also the simplest and La Strada (The Road) is a textbook example. A masterpiece as great as they come, the film is the deeply moving story of a journey made by two characters from one beach to another and what happens on the road in between. Zampanò (Anthony Quinn seizing the role of his lifetime) is a brutish street-performing strongman whose Neanderthal act consists of breaking an iron chain wrapped around him by flexing his chest muscles. He travels through run down backwater towns and villages on his motorbike cum trailer performing and squandering his measly earnings on booze and whores. Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina astounding the world in the role that made her) is the simple girl bought into slavery at the film's outset by Zampanò. What she lacks intellectually is made up for by special abilities. She knows how to talk to children, animals and even plain objects. She has an affinity with nature, knows when it's going to rain, listens to trees and seems especially at home on the beach. A cross between Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx and any one of the Franciscan monks depicted in Fellini's script by Roberto Rossellini in Francis, God's Jester and even photographed against a wall with a poster reading "Immaculate Madonna," she clearly represents `goodness' and `love' as opposed to Zampanò who represents `badness' and `hate'. The two are conduits for the human condition and as they travel and work together (she learning to beat a drum, play the trumpet and even dance a little for her dissolute master's ridiculous act) they profoundly affect one another.
At first there is a curious balance between the two, his brutality highlighted against her vulnerability and vice versa. There is even comedy as she adapts to her new life on the road, performing on streets, at a wedding, taking in a religious procession, a circus and an overnight stay in a convent. Things darken when they encounter a third character, the Fool (a beautiful role for Richard Basehart). He's presented as a combination of Gelsomina's Christian saintliness and Zampanò's brute atheism. First seen as a tightrope artist with angel wings performing above the street on a high wire, he relates an important parable to Gelsomina on the ultimate meaning of life which convinces her to stay with Zampanò. Picking up a stone he says, "I don't know what purpose this pebble serves, but it must serve some purpose. Because if it is useless, then everything is useless." Gelsomina is the pebble whose purpose in life is to support Zampanò. However, the 'angelic' Fool is just as much Lucifer as he is Gabriel. Deep down the resemblance to Zampanò is striking. Another circus performer with his own act, he spitefully insults Zampanò for no good reason and when he's pushed into a corner his answer is the same as Zampanò's: "I'm happy alone. I don't need anyone!" Both think they can survive without neighbors, without love. Towards the end of the film the whole narrative turns on Zampanò and Gelsomina's chance encounter with the Fool on an isolated mountain road. Instead of demonstrating Christian love for his neighbor by helping him fix his car, Zampanò takes revenge and accidentally kills him instead. The act also kills something in Gelsomina and she loses her sanity. Time passes and Zampanò loses patience with his now listless assistant. He abandons her on the roadside while she's asleep. Five years later he's back on the coast, possibly at the same beach resort where the film started. He overhears a woman singing the tune Gelsomina used to play on her trumpet and learns that his old assistant had been taken in by a kind family, but was mad and died soon after. Zampanò reacts to type by getting drunk. Finding himself alone on a deserted beach late at night he looks up at the stars and finally his feelings overtake him and he bursts into wretched tears as `Gelsomina's theme' overwhelms the soundtrack. For all his macho bluster, he needs someone after all, the film finishing on an extraordinary gush of emotion made even more compelling by the complete absence of any sentimentality.
As I have described the film here it might seem that the film is a religious polemic. Almost every key scene has a Christian element to it - the priest at the wedding, the religious procession Gelsomina witnesses and where she is labeled "Immaculate Madonna", the Fool as an angel reading her the sermon of the pebble, the overnight stay in the convent where the nuns invite Gelsomina to stay forever. We could say that she receives her spiritual vocation through the Fool's sermon and that Zampanò receives his `salvation' through the reception of `grace' which Gelsomina provides through her 'sacrifice'. However, to break the film down to one reading would be to rob it of its richness. Certainly a Christian reading is possible, but in the final scene on the beach it is unclear if Zampanò is saved or not and we must accept the film is open to numerous other interpretations. From a neo-realist angle we could accept the closing scene as simply an expression of his more prosaic guilty conscience having inflicted so much pain throughout the film. Remorse is there, but no certain promise that he will change as `redemption' implies. Much of the film does stay within the neo-realist remit. The film is about working class people set against harsh impoverished surroundings, features many amateurs playing in small roles (though none of the principals), stresses the importance of simply earning enough to eat and reflects Gelsomina's plight through the reactions of children (aka Rome Open City and Visconti's La terra trema). The film's intense poetry and obvious Christian themes however contradict any left-wing concern with the common man, and the film got Fellini into trouble at the Venice Film Festival for making poetry out of poverty and betraying the neo-realist's Marxist remit. La Strada may not be neorealist in total, but it certainly is as 'neo-realist' as it is 'Christian'.
The film can also be read as a parable on the impossibility of communication in the modern world and in married life in particular. Some see it as an analysis of Fellini's own marriage to Masina. The director had a nervous breakdown and was in psychotherapy during the film's completion and perhaps Zampanò represents the beast that rages within which dominates his wife completely on some psychosexual level. This raises the possibility of a feminist reading which some have linked with the much later Juliet of the Spirits (1965). Masina herself intriguingly advanced the idea that the film's three main characters (the Fool, the simpleton and the brute) all represent different facets of her husband's psyche. I guess most people will accept the film more as an existential depiction of `man' and `woman' (the veritable `Beauty and the Beast') locked into marriage and embarked on a Homeric road of discovery which symbolizes life itself. Though it's underplayed in the film, Zampanò does rape Gelsomina (graphically described in the soggetto) and they do become a couple. The experiences they have, both good and bad, her running away, her return, then her commitment to support her husband can be boiled down to married life writ large. The man is depicted as a raging bull throughout the film and Martin Scorsese picked up on this when he made his boxing epic about Jake la Motta. We can perhaps parallel Quinn on the beach at the end with De Niro breaking down in his prison cell having blown everything through impotent macho rage which simply will not calm down. Perhaps La Strada's ambiguity is most apparent in the use of Nino Rota's music, especially the so-called 'Gelsomina theme'. Actually the theme doesn't belong to her. It is shared between all three main characters. We first hear it played on the violin by the Fool in the circus tent shortly before he reads Gelsomina the parable of the pebble. The theme is linked with the parable's point - an expression of Gelsomina's meaning in life embodied in staying with Zampanò. The theme stays with her until this meaning is broken with the Fool's murder. We next hear it sung by the woman and overheard by Zampanò and by the time it gets its full orchestral treatment on the beach in the final scene it has become 'Zampanò's theme'. This suggests that the music represents an emotion rather than a person, most obviously (though not only) the emotion of love - love for one's neighbor, one's master, one's husband and finally, one's wife. And of course this love is deeply ambiguous as music is the most ambiguous of all the arts. The love could be sacred or it could be secular, but the most important thing for the greatness of this film is that a precise meaning cannot be pinned down. Matters of theme apart, ultimately what really impresses (or at least what I take away from this film the most) are the deeply moving performances of Quinn and Masina and the extraordinary emotional charge which sears through the film with such power. Fellini went on to make a couple of films as good as this, but none better.
NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (Le notti di Cabiria)
(1957 / Italy / 113 min / B&W PAL / Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 / Mono 2.0)
Extras: Interview with Phil Kemp (30 min) / Trailer / New and improved English subtitles
Nights of Cabiria is a transitional work in Fellini's career. The last part of `the trilogy of salvation or grace' it features another picaresque tale of a character who goes on a cyclical emotional journey, arriving back at the point of departure having learned a lesson or two and achieving some kind of salvation or grace in the process. It also looks forward, anticipating much of La dolce vita in its party scenes and its visit to a religious sanctuary. We briefly met the Roman prostitute Cabiria towards the end of The White Sheik. Fellini combines her with another prostitute whom he met while shooting Il Bidone (1955) to make the Cabiria of this film. Cabiria is no clichéd `tart with a heart' victim of her environment pushed into her profession by her surroundings. Rather, she is a tough cookie who owns her own house, has a bank account and is fiercely proud of her independence. Unfortunately she has a soft heart and her weakness for love leaves her wide open for exploitation. But we know as hard as she falls, she will always be able to pick herself up and go again. It's a much more complex character than Gelsomina (and for me even more sympathetic), but Giulietta Masina captures all this in a wonderfully subtle performance, alternately vivacious and hard-nosed and then vulnerable and adorable to make for one of Fellini's most memorable characters. It is no exaggeration to say that she makes this film.
I have run out of space here. Please see the rest of my review at the Optimum Release page for Nights of Cabiria.