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The Cinema Magician

Federico Fellini's life in film.

Jun 12, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 37 • By JOHN SIMON
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Federico Fellini

His Life and Work

by Tullio Kezich

Faber & Faber, 464 pp., $35

TULLIO KEZICH'S Federico Fellini: His Life and Work is the first fully successful critical biography of the great artist. But at 464 pages, it is so ample in critical scope and brimful of irresistible information as to make one despair of doing it justice in a mere review.

Kezich is the film critic for the distinguished Corriere Della Sera, and was for over 40 years a close friend of Fellini's. Also a playwright and scenarist, he is no run-of-the-mill journalist: Though he knows in which restaurant and with whom Fellini ate what meal, he does not clobber you with unnecessary detail or allow friendship to cloud his judgment. He places the man and artist into the context of the annals of cinema, as well as of Italian politics and world history. His close-ups are as good as his panoramic shots, and except for there being no music by Nino Rota, reading the book feels very nearly like a Fellini film.

Indeed, it is hard to tell with Fellini whether his art imitated his life, or vice versa.

Fellini the director did not spring full-fledged from his youthful brow. Federico was born in 1920 in the sleepy little Adriatic town of Rimini. His provincial father, Urbano, had a wholesale business, mostly in coffee and cheese, and was handsome and gregarious. His mother, Ida, a city girl rejected by her family for marrying beneath her station, became pious and withdrawn. Despite their differences, they stayed together; to them, Federico may have owed his divided personality.

The youth, his somewhat younger brother, and their friends indulged in escapades worthy of the vitelloni that figure so prominently in Fellini's cinema. A vitellone is literally an overgrown calf; figuratively, a big baby or layabout. Curiously or not, Fellini was never to show interest in politics or soccer, the most traditional topics of Italian society. Nor did he ever don a swimsuit or take a still photograph. Even more oddly, growing up he rarely saw movies.

Too clever and talented to be long stuck in Rimini, and perhaps spurred on by a traveling circus (clowns were to be a lifelong passion), he duly went to Rome to be, as Kezich writes, "swallowed up as if by a starving, protective and dangerous mother." With his gift for drawing, particularly caricatures and comic strips, he landed a job with the comic magazine Marc'Aurelio, drawing and, later, writing comic sketches. This led to other journals and to the radio. Before very long, Federico was also a gag writer for others, including film directors. But at this time, he never dreamed of becoming one himself.

Kezich evokes vividly the young man's Roman adventures, one of them leading him toward a young actress who appeared in one of his radio sketches, Giulietta Masina. Living with her extraordinary aunt Giulia, Giulietta had experimented unsuccessfully with other arts until settling on acting. Her elfin charm and sound values attracted the young man "worn out by the carousel of furnished rooms and boarding houses." Marriage to Giulietta, beginning in her aunt's comfortable apartment, also meant dodging the wartime draft. It was to endure 50 years--until death--and though, Kezich observes, Federico "doesn't give up flirting with other women, he does it with the security that Giulietta is beside him."

Lured into screenwriting, Fellini worked on many important movies, such as Roberto Rossellini's Open City and Paisan, and films of the no-less-important Pietro Germi. He became coscenarist with such leading practitioners as Alberto Lattuada, Brunello Rondi, Ennio Flaiano--later on, Bernardino Zapponi and Tonino Guerra--and his steadiest partner-to-be, Tullio Pinelli. Lattuada, also a director, pushed him into directing a few scenes of his Variety Lights. Between reticence and self-contradiction, however, Fellini managed to obfuscate any clear identification with himself in his films.

And what a life he had! To cite but one incident, take Fellini's narrow escape from the Nazis. Forced onto a truck during a mass roundup, he spots a Wehrmacht officer and, madly shouting "Fritz! Fritz!" jumps off the truck to embrace him. Apologizing to the befuddled fellow with a hand gesture, he runs off to hide on a side street, collapsing on the curb very near the house where, coincidentally, he was to spend his last years.

To survive in the lean postwar era Fellini draws portraits of GIs in cafes. He is bribed by Rossellini to play the fake St. Joseph in The Miracle with a million-lire check, which Roberto takes back a half-hour later. But he buys Federico the first of his many fancy cars.