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Fellini’s films mingle piety with paganism

Fellini’s films captured Rome’s character, says Ian Thomson

Fellini’s Eternal Rome
By Alessandro Carrera
Bloomsbury, 186pp, £65/$80

No film conjured so memorably the flashbulb glitz and moral darkness of Italy’s post-war “economic miracle” as Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. A box-office triumph in 1960, it launched Marcello Mastroianni as the world-weary matinee idol, and Anita Ekberg as a Swedish diva-in-furs.

Beneath the roseate flush of Italy’s newfound consumer idyll, all was not well. The miracolo italiano had failed to extend to the south, the “other Italy”, where there was real poverty. The Holy See, on the eve of its reformation under the Second Vatican Council, objected to the scene where Mastroianni frolicks in the waters of the Trevi Fountain with Ekberg, and tried to have the film banned. Thanks in part to that provoking scene, Sixties Rome became a fantasy of the erotic dolce vita – “sweet life”.

Fellini was not a Roman (he was born in Rimini in 1920). He viewed Rome as an enormous concretion of human glory and human error, where centuries of murky history confront the visitor. Little has changed. Each year an estimated three million tourists descend on the Colosseum alone. Many of them are moved by stories of martyred Christians, only to be hustled for money by Felliniesque wideboys dressed as Roman centurions. From the Emperor Augustus up to the present, Rome has always combined an air of grandiloquence with tawdry dereliction.

Fellini’s great mid-period film, Roma (1972), lingers adoringly over a half-destroyed Roman aqueduct, as well as a hideous ecclesiastical fashion show (all those powdered cardinals) and a snow-flecked statue of Julius Caesar. Much of the Baroque Rome that appears in La Dolce Vita had been laid out in the 16th century by Pope Sixtus V, whose urban regeneration schemes made dramatic use of the obelisks plundered from Pharaonic Egypt during the Imperial Age. For aeons these pagan-era pillars had laid broken amid weeds, until Sixtus ordered them to be made upright.

Almost all these obelisks appear in Fellini’s cinema, among them the mighty Vatican needle, which had no sooner been hoisted into place in 1586 than another was put up in front of the Basilica of St John Lateran. (The basilica was and remains the cathedral of Rome – not St Peter’s, as many tourists believe).

In Fellini’s vast filmography, images of paganism are poetically allied to images of Catholicism. Rome, for Fellini, was a giant, lasagna-like palimpsest of histories and archaeologies waiting to be filmed. In this scholarly study, subtitled Paganism and Christianity in the Films of Fellini, Carrera considers Fellini as a Catholic-minded artist who glorified Rome as an accumulation of pagan and Christian pasts.

“Paganism” is, of course, a Christian notion. Fellini was born a Catholic and died a Catholic. (His funeral in 1993 was held in Rome’s Michelangelo-designed basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri.) He co-wrote the script for Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 film about St Francis of Assisi, The Flowers of St Francis, and was known to keep a copy of St Augustine’s Confessions by his bedside.

Though Fellini was scarcely known for his piety (far from it), towards the end of his life he was engaged in filming Dante’s Inferno for Italian television. Fellini was not the first Italian director to take on the work of the great Florentine poet. In the early 1970s, Franco Zeffirelli had asked Dustin Hoffman to star as Dante in his own version of the Inferno. Nothing came of either Zeffirelli’s or Fellini’s Inferno. For both directors, however, Dante was the pre-eminent writer of pre-Reformation Europe, whose three-part journey through hell, purgatory and paradise, The Divine Comedy, combined a Christian vision of redemption with classical Latin erudition.

Alessandro Carrera, a Texas-based professor of Italian studies, discusses in great detail the clamorous “miracle scene” in La Dolce Vita, where journalists hurry to cover news of a Marian apparition on the Roman outskirts. In Italy at that time the recurrence of religious mysteries – sorrowing Virgins, weeping Madonnas – gave the lie to claims that materialist science was carrying all before it. Fellini, who eschewed the gritty actuality of Italian neorealism for the stylised fantasies of Hollywood, was susceptible to stories of mystery and grace. Marian devotion is portrayed in La Dolce Vita with a degree of sympathy, as well as satire.

Fellini’s early cinema glows with allusions to Tinseltown bombshells such as Mae West and Rita Hayworth; other film directors have tried to imitate his celluloid fantasies of mink and vixen women (most recently, Paolo Sorrentino) but, as Carrera concludes, “Fellinism never measures up to Fellini”. In the justly famous finale of Fellini’s modernist masterwork 8½ (1963), Nina Rota’s swirling big-top score helps to create an extraordinary sense of uplift and reconciliation that might almost be termed religious.

Professor Carrera is to be congratulated on this diverting and informative study of the life and work of the pagan-Catholic King of Cinecittà.