April 19, 2006

Italian film critic puts Fellini in spotlight

By Gregory McNamee

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Anita Ekberg, the
Swedish bombshell, so admired Federico Fellini that upon
arriving in Rome to work on "La Dolce Vita," one of the famed
director's associates reported, "she greeted him lying naked on
her bed, ready to do the deed."

Fellini was no stranger to backstage romances. Still, the
associate continued, he was so flustered that he faked an
attack of appendicitis, which he acted out so well that an
ambulance took him away and doctors actually operated on him.

None of this is true, writes Corriere della Sera film
critic Tullio Kezich, in Federico Fellini: His Life and Work,
who first met Fellini at the Venice Film Festival in 1952 and
kept in touch until Fellini's death in 1993. In real life,
Ekberg didn't want to do the film, accepting the role only
after her agents bullied her into it, and she was not the kind
to play such games offscreen. Kezich guesses that the story was
Fellini's own invention, a typical feint in which doubt about
his prowess confused his reputation in the Italian film
community as a Casanova. Neither was true, but the important
thing was to keep people talking and guessing and off balance,
the same puzzling effects that such films as "Satyricon" and "8
1/2" would have.

Fellini told plenty of stories about himself, though
putatively autobiographical films like the wondrous "Amarcord"
(1973) are unreliable keys to his life and experiences. One
story that he did not tell, though, is one of the many
surprises in Kezich's account -- namely, that Fellini, the
world-renowned director, really did not want to be a director
at all.

Instead, he started off as a cartoonist, then as a
humorist, journalist and newspaper columnist who managed not to
get himself imprisoned in Mussolini's Italy. After spending his
youth in the quiet Adriatic coastal city of Rimini, where in a
single school year he chalked up 67 absences, "almost a
record," Fellini moved to Rome in 1939, at the age of 19. After
apprenticing at a satirical boys' magazine, he began to write
surreal radio stories that barely made it through the censors
-- but that delighted audiences.

It was a natural progression from radio scripts to
screenplays. Now married to his beloved Giulietta Masina, who
would be immortalized in his 1965 film "Juliet of the Spirits,"
Fellini set up shop with a lawyer named Tullio Pinelli and
churned out dozens of screenplays, collaborating with such film
luminaries as Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis. The work was
steady, and he gained a solid reputation for his writing;
Kezich recalls that the newspapers credited his treatment of
the "Odyssey" to "Fellini, Homer and Pinelli." He also became
rich, Kezich notes, and added 45 pounds to his once-slender

It was an accident that he started directing, merely
filling in for another director who was fired from a project.
But he soon discovered, Kezich writes, that he liked the
"traveling party that is putting together a movie," liked the
fact that directors were allowed to avoid social and familial
obligations, "like cutting school."

He didn't mind the headaches, odd hours and logistical
nightmares of the job. He liked the money and the perks.
Apparently, he even liked the infighting, in which he and his
sometime producer De Laurentiis were constantly engaged.
Fellini, it seems, usually won.

Kezich's tale is full of unlikely events and misadventures:
Fellini's work with the bibulous Broderick Crawford; the
strange way Sweet Charity evolved from Nights of Cabiria; the
religious furor that erupted over several of his films; the
bitter argument between De Laurentiis and Fellini over who
would play opposite Ekberg, the producer insisting that it be
Paul Newman, the director that it be Marcello Mastroianni.
(Fellini won.) Moreover, Kezich ventures some interesting
interpretations of the director's work, suggesting, for
instance, that the character of Gelsomina in La Strada
represents not Giulietta, as the standard reading has it, but
Fellini himself -- and so do Zampano and Il Matto, too.

Federico Fellini told many stories, some of them true.
Kezich separates the facts from the legends that Fellini
carefully cultivated, and fans of Fellini's now-classic films
will enjoy this sometimes gossipy but always careful look
behind the scenes.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter