Sky Arts: Thursday 1 October, 9.30pm
Of all the undisputed giants of postwar European cinema, Federico Fellini was the most playful, closer in temperament to the warm humanism of compatriot Vittorio De Sica than to the ascetic intellectualism of Michelangelo Antonioni. Yet, unlike De Sica, Fellini never succumbed to sentimentality. He was a surrealistic dream weaver, returning time and again to recurring themes. Bread and circuses, love and sex, memory above all. Fellini followed his international hit La Dolce Vita with the gnomically titled 8 ½ (a reference to the number of films he’d directed to that point), the most dynamic portrait of inertia ever put on screen.
His handsome alter ego is film director Marcello Mastroianni who, unable to complete his latest project, retreats into fantasy. Harassed by hangers-on and by the producer, who’s stumping up the cash for this ill-defined project, Mastroianni’s creative mind shuts down. Is it writer’s block or the end of a bluffer who ran out of talent? “What are you dreaming up for us,” asks the doctor giving him a check-up at the spa, “another film on hopelessness?” His resentful wife Anouk Aimée is on the way, his demanding mistress Sandra Milo already installed at the Railroad Hotel. And still the questions keep coming. “He has nothing to say!” shrieks a member of the press corps, bellowing with laughter.
With music as fluid as the camerawork, this grand concerto of memory and regret is Fellini at his funniest. It’s his Sullivan’s Travels. Full of memorable sequences, and none more riveting than the first: the stifled Mastroianni panicking as smoke fills his car, stationary in nose-to-tail gridlock, watched by a variety of unsmiling faces but finally freed to float into the clouds before falling into the sea. It is, of course, a dream. A bravura and bold opening that’s been mimicked memorably in movies as disparate as Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down… The meaning of that title was a headscratcher, too, for Steptoe & Son. In a vintage episode, old man Albert infuriated his would-be intellectual son Harold by suggesting it’s Mastroianni’s hat size.