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Born 100 Years Ago, Filmmaker Federico Fellini Captured The Messiness Of Life

Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni and Swedish actor Anita Ekberg hold hands in a scene from Federico Fellini's 1960 film <em>La Dolce Vita.</em>
American International Pictures
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Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni and Swedish actor Anita Ekberg hold hands in a scene from Federico Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita.

The first foreign filmmaker I ever heard of was Federico Fellini. Back then, he was an international brand name, and aside from Hitchcock, probably the most famous director in the world.

La Strada, La Dolce Vita, , Roma, Amarcord — these weren't merely films that all serious filmgoers raced off to see. Their panache inspired generations of directors, from Martin Scorseseand Wong Kar-wai to Woody Allen and Guillermo del Toro. Lavishly Italianate in his earthiness, Fellini was cinema's great laureate of the id.

But over the years his reputation has dipped badly, especially among critics. His maximalist showmanship — nobody ever left a Fellini film grumbling about the small portions — has fallen out of fashion. His reputation now suffers from what the historian E.P. Thompson once termed the "enormous condescension of posterity." He's often treated as one of those artists that a less enlightened age than our own used to think a genius.

Born 100 years ago in the coastal city of Rimini, Fellini was a child of the provinces whose early films were anchored to the real world he knew. Indeed, he drew on his own life for his first, and often emulated masterpiece, 1953's I Vitelloni (which means something like The Lazy Calves). It's my favorite of his films — a smart, funny, sneakily touching portrait of five young men idling away their lives in a coastal town.

Fellini was hungrier than they were. He wanted to make it. And seven years later, his life changed forever with La Dolce Vita, a worldwide sensation about modern decadence in which a journalist, played by Fellini's alter-ego star, Marcello Mastroianni, splashes around in the Trevi Fountain with sexy Anita Ekbergbefore getting all alienated and bummed. At once glamorous and preachy, the film — which is still powerful — perfectly caught a 1960 zeitgeist torn between the embrace of booming post-war materialism and a sense of its hollowness.

Its success seemed to throw Fellini. His next film, , again stars Mastroianni, this time as Guido Anselmi, a Fellini-like filmmaker who can't think of a subject for his next film and spends his time juggling writers, producers, mistresses, his wife and his personal fantasies. Beloved by other directors who keep copying it — most recently by Pedro Almodóvar's Pain and Glory's gorgeous black-and-white images explode with the brio of a man who portrays his inner life as a circus.

Routinely ranked as one of the 10 greatest films of all time, marked Fellini's peak. It transformed him into the very embodiment of the movie director — countless filmmakers wanted to be him. Yet just like Guido, Fellini's success had cut him off from his roots in history and the everyday world. He had no ideas. And so his theme became himself — and his own creativity.

From then on, his films were ultimately about the imaginative genius of Fellini, whose name became a marketing tool, as in Fellini Satyricon and Fellini's Casanova, both of them pretty bad. At his best, he created visually dazzling set pieces as in the wonderful memory film Amarcord, with its breathtaking visions of a peacock in the snow and an ocean liner emerging in the night, and in Roma, with its unforgettable drive through Roman traffic in a downpour and its hilariously blasphemous Vatican fashion show, complete with priests on roller skates. You'd walk from the theater humming the music by Nino Rota.

Yet when the maestro's inspiration flagged, his work increasingly fell into Felliniesque self-parody — a bombastic world of clowns, buxom prostitutes, flatulent school children and retrograde sexual politics that looked worse with each passing year.

Still, to belabor such faults, especially in a centenary year, is to miss why people love him. I once criticized Fellini to a young director whose film had just won at Cannes, and he glared at me. "You critics and your good taste," he snarled. "You want everything to be well made and reasonable, and you'd rather die than see anything vulgar. Fellini's too big for your little worries."

Though I still have objections to many of the films, I understood what he was saying. For Fellini was more than a director. He was a force. He liked people and had a Roman acceptance of their failings. He understood the power of the body and didn't fear its unruliness. And at a time when the world felt ever more organized and rationalized, his teeming imagination drew on, and celebrated, the power of dreams. For all his faults — and maybe because of them — Fellini's best work achieves something most filmmakers never come close to. It captures the boisterous and beautiful messiness of life.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.