Sunday 28 January 2024

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema 1960-2020 - Bruce Hodsdon continues his remarkable series of essays - 6 (22) - Italy Part 5 Post-neorealism (ii): Fellini, Olmi

Editor's Note: This is the 28th essay in Bruce Hodsdon's series chronicling what he has called International Art Cinema. The series started in March 2022 and at the foot of this entry on Italian masters Fellini and Olmi  there are links to the previous 21 posts. The series will continue throughout 2024.

Federico Fellini

Fellini biographer John Baxter makes clear that there was certainly no love lost between Federico and Luchino Visconti. “It is hard to think of two men with less in common than Fellini and Visconti 
[…] For all his success Fellini never earned the respect Visconti accepted as his right. Although always courteous, even deferential to Visconti in public, in private Fellini was scornful (57-8). Roberto Rossellini’s background could also not have been more different but “he was the first man Fellini fell in love with. The relationship wasn’t physical but the attachment was passionate… Rossellini’s charm and glamour swept the naive Frederico into his circle. ‘Rossellini was the father he never had’ says one friend of the time. (69-70)” 

Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini

For Federico Fellini (1920-93) Italian neo-realism entailed a commitment primarily to artistic honesty rather than to a particular style or content” (Bondanella 229). Fellini saw La Dolce Vita as a “development rather than a closing’’ of neo-realism which he identified with Rossellini.

Fellini moved permanently from his home town to Rome in 1939 where he enrolled in the University of Rome although there is no record that he ever attended classes. As a freelance journalist he had the flair of a natural “for maximising the profit from a good idea” (Baxter 49). He supplemented his income from journalism by selling caricatures for publication. Working as a writer for radio gave him the experience in writing dialogue. He persuaded the owner-editor of a magazine to let him write about film and theatre stars. It was a small step from interviewing stars to thinking about a career in film. He found plenty of work as a film journalist and increasingly as a gag writer for movies achieving his first writing credit in 1943 for a film starring Anna Magnani. “His script work made him new and influential friends” including Benito Mussolini’s film-struck son Vittorio. Like every young Italian male Fellini became preoccupied with evading the draft (ibid). 

Fellini’s first contact was an approach by Rossellini about co-writing a scenario with Sergio Amedei for a tragi-comedy based on the life of a priest executed by the Nazis, the embryo of Rome Open City. Fellini’s final contribution to Open City is visible in only one scene - the priest’s encounter with a nude statue (ibid). It was working with Rossellini on Paisà and The Miracle that Fellini first experienced the exhilaration of filmmaking.

I Vitelloni

I vitelloni (1953) is a portrait based on memories of his hometown group in his birthplace, the provincial town of Rimini. His early films form “a trilogy of character” with Luci dei varietà/ Variety Lights, co-directed with Alberto Lattuada (1950 ), and Lo sceicco bianco/ The White Sheik (1951) “devoted to the clash of illusion and convention, social mask and authentic personality” (Bondanella 130). In his breakthrough international art house success starring his wife Giulietta Masina, La Strada (1954), Fellini here and in his two following films Il bidone/The Swindle (1955) and Le notte di Cabiria/The Nights of Cabiria (1956), moves “beyond his concerns with characters to a new dimension, one motivated by a personal vision and particular Fellinian mythology [exploiting] the already existing mythology of Christianity ” -  a trilogy on the theme of “spiritual poverty and inquiry into the nature of growth and salvation […]  outside a proper Catholic context” (ibid)

Fellini came to realise, as the years passed, that the script from his story “Moraldo in the City” was no longer viable because Rome was no longer the city he knew when he first arrived there” (Liehm 174).  La Dolce Vita (1959) was born from the nights he spent in Via Veneto in the company of a crowd he was never attracted to: the paparazzi congregated to make and take scandalous photos to sell to the yellow press. Out of it Fellini created an episodic fresco on the widescreen held together by two picaresque ‘heroes’, a journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) and his photographer. “Fellini danced his way through the hell and purgatory of modern life wearing a sardonic grin sometimes compared to that of Dante in the ‘Divine Comedy’ “(Liehm 221).

La Dolce Vita

He creates an idiosyncratic world of images and dream fantasies abandoning traditional cinematic realism. His obsession was already with the problems of the artist with its mix of modernity, recollection and reflexivity. 

Otto e mezzo/ 8 1/2 (1963) is the representative film. “In all its essentials, the film’s action grew out of Fellini’s life” (Baxter 180). A successful filmmaker is with his entourage in a remote spa to complete the script for his new film. Far from relaxing, Guido is racked by dreams in which “the vision of childhood is spacious and welcoming.” Baxter relates that Fellini’s  discovery of the work of Gustav Jung in the late 50s “made the process of refining his ideas for a new film even more tortuous” while encouraging him to further abandon realism. He had a confused desire to make a film about a day in a man’s life. “Convinced by his reading of Jung that he need no longer apologise for his imagination, Fellini intended to celebrate it in a film dedicated to the concept of the director as creator” (ibid 172). A film “entirely based on his own personality” was assembled into parades and processions marching to Nino Rota's obsessive music broadening its appeal to again attract the more general ‘La Dolce Vita audience’. 

8 1/2

At the same time, 8 1/2  has a special place “for the remarkable influence it had on the development of modern cinema.” While Kovács sees Last Year at Marienbad (1961) as marking “the closure of the romantic period, 8 1/2  represented the new consolidated status of modern cinema” (316). He also sees it as “the first film to focus entirely on the modern conception of ‘authorship' in the cinema. In Kovacs’ view, Fellini’s film emerged “at a crucial time in the context of the cultural debates over art and modern culture, “engaging with Ingmar Bergman’s doubts about the capability of cinema to express deep philosophical concerns about human existence that Bergman first personified in the characters in his 1949 film Fangelser/ Prison (1948) (ibid).

With Satyricon (1969), Kovács notes that, like Pasolini, Fellini “feels free not to reconstruct Petronius’s fragmentary “original” self-contained world of antiquity in ancient Rome but to construct his own visual and narrative mythology outside of time. From fragments originating from here and there, from antiquity, from modernity, history of art, and from his fantasy Fellini makes “an everlasting metaphysical structure of decadence salient in the midst of this pile of cultural debris and mythical fragments” (187), creating “a mythos, not merely a plot”  (Bernard Dick quote in Kovács).  Kovacs identifies this “mythical ornamentalism” is for Fellini, “a way of conceptualising, in an allegorical way, the actual reality around him,” an alternative to modern minimalism. This is something, as Kovács points out, that Tarkovsky also “takes up most seriously” (ibid).

Wider concerns are also at times admitted by Fellini such as those of women in a repressive society (Juliet of the Spirits 1965) which Fellini acknowledged  was “inspired by Giulietta and based on her.” He wanted her to play a character different from Gelsomina (in La Strada) and Cabiria. In Amacord (1974) it was the freedom of the individual in an era of social and political conformity.  

Mira Liehm describes Roma (1972) as “a stream of apparitions from Fellini's life” (298).  He was “the author of an oeuvre that holds together as a unit… The modes and times changed as he changed […] as society and the world changed, but his films continued and developed the same essential themes and ideas.” (Morando Morandini essay 587 Nowell-Smith “World Cinema’ ed.)

“Fellini, Fellini, what have you done with your youth? He is almost the only one who can answer without telling a lie: ’I’ve told everything about it.’ ”  - Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, foreword, ‘Amarcord’


Ermanno Olmi

The national heritage of socially committed neo-realism exemplified by the early films of De Sica, Rossellini and Visconti, was the starting point for a style of naturalism or ‘post neo-realism’ for a modern generation of directors in the early 60s such as Pasolini, Bertolucci, Rosi and Ermanno Olmi (1931 - 2018).  Formal characteristics of post-neo-realism include a greater focus on individual personality and psychological factors which frequently meant the casting of professional actors. Another important difference from early neo-realism is the selective use of modern narrative techniques such as parallel narratives and memory flashbacks initially by Bertolucci and Olmi. The more complex formal objective/subjective interplay in post neo-realism had a substantial impact on the Czech new wave and other filmmakers in Eastern Europe struggling to free themselves from the dictates of socialist realism. Although the tone of his work is different, Milos Forman acknowledged Olmi’s influence in formally freeing his approach to narrative.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Olmi was a devout Catholic brought up in a peasant family in Bergamo, Lombardy where he filmed his masterpiece, The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), a faithful portrayal of peasant life in the late 19th century, a “remembrance of things past” based on his grandmother’s recollections. Beginning as a documentary filmmaker Olmi subsequently moved into what was to be a sustained career, completing 20 feature films, 1959-2007, inventively over a wider generic range than for which he has generally been credited. He chose to remain based in the north rather than moving to the centre of the film industry in Rome, preferring to work in low budget artisanal mode. As writer-director and in most cases also as cinematographer and editor, he achieved a “refined clarity” on wide-ranging projects of his own choosing unified by his underlying sense of the sacred which has been compared to that of Rossellini.

From his first feature film starting more in the manner of De Sica and Zavattini, his commitment was to chronicle his characters’ lives in apparent observational style replacing the art cinema’s subjective alienation thematic with the need for a sense of belonging for his characters. The de-dramatised lives of ordinary men and women played by non-professional actors was filmed and edited in a mix of deeper focus images in longer takes using the zoom lens rather than camera movement and closer shots of faces only in important psychological moments. 

Il Posto

Olmi’s first feature, the aptly titled Time Stood Still (1959) which began as a documentary, is about the cementing of a relationship between an older and younger man working otherwise alone together in manning a hydro-electric dam in the Italian Alps. For his second and third features, Il Posto/The Job (1961) - originally probably ironically titled The Sound of Trumpets - and I fidanzati /The Fiancées (1963), Nowell- Smith’s descriptors of “laid back rhythm and innocently conservative political stance” as marks of Olmi’s approach (155 Making Waves), also seem apt.  Sitney claims Olmi as embodying ‘the opening to the left’ which characterised both religious and parliamentary politics in Italy from the early sixties. Olmi’s ambition, however, was to challenge, in his own way, the hegemony of the left in the Italian cinema with The Tree of Wooden Clogs as “an explicit response” to Bertolucci’s leftist interpretation of Italian history in 1900 released in 1976 (ibid ).  

I Fidanzati

Apparent in Il posto is “Olmi’s genius […] for expressively employing the simple and seemingly meaningless gestures, glances, and actions gathered from the daily routine of his rather insignificant characters” (Bondanella 174). Olmi made more than 40 short industrial films, 1952-9, from which he formed an insider’s perspective. From his first feature Sitney finds in Olmi an unlikely link in the displaying of cinematic originality comparable to that of Pasolini. Olmi concentrates on how the new conditions of Industrial labour in the years of the so-called Italian economic miracle of the late 50s and 60s “took hold of the lives of workers” (184). The general soul-destroying tedium and accompanying depression in the bureaucratic work environment is softened by Olmi’s sense of humour often in play in his films, together with the feeling for his characters’ predicaments. In I fidanzanti/ The Fiancés (1963) about a young couple who are unable to marry because of the enforced poverty of ill-paid jobs, Bondanella and Sitney both note that Olmi sought to replace the typically simple plot structure of the neo-realist model with a more modernist, abstract perspective in a montage-based free mixing of events out of their chronological order also deploying psychologically based memory triggers evoking loneliness in a looser plot structure. 

Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links


Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series


Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more


Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

6(12) France - Part Four - Godard:Visionary and Rebel

6 (13) France Part 5 Godard with Gorin, Miéville : Searching for an activist voice

6(14) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Bresson 

6 (15) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Jacques Tati

 6 (16) - Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Carl Th Dreyer

6 (17) - Italy and Luchino Visconti

6(18 - Italy and Roberto Rossellini - Part One

6(19) - Rossellini, INDIA and the new Historical realism

6(20) - Rossellini in Australia

6 (21) - Italy - Michelangelo Antonioni

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