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Director's Films Were His Life

His wife, Giulietta Masina, must have known how ill he was, when Federico Fellini was given his honorary Academy Award last March.

She was in tears as her husband strode to the podium to be embraced by old friends Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. He ordered her to stop crying, and then he looked at the Oscar, and he said: "I did not expect it . . . or, perhaps, I did." That afterthought was the clown in Fellini, coming through.

He came out of the grim school of postwar Italian neorealism, but there was not a neorealist bone in his body, and his films celebrated one thing above all: Fellini.

He was the most autobiographical of directors. "The Clowns" (1970) opens with a little boy who goes to his bedroom window early in the morning and sees a wondrous sight: In the vacant lot across from his house, the circus has come to town. The little boy was Fellini, and almost all of his films had a scene where the characters paraded to music from one place to another, bowing, waving, seeing themselves in the center ring.

Fellini was the ringmaster. In the famous fantasy scene in "8 1/2" where Mastroianni played a Felliniesque movie director, all of the women of the hero's life were gathered together in one room, all happy together, all loving him, until they began to rebel. He produced a ringmaster's whip to keep them in line. Of course he failed. So many of his films were about a man trying to hold the pieces together, trying to encourage everyone to smile and be happy, and failing.

His greatest film was "La Dolce Vita" (1959), starring Mastroianni again, as a Roman gossip columnist, trapped in the moment, mired in the "sweet life" of parties and depravity, envious of the intellectual life of his best friend, but lacking the courage to copy it. That one ended in a parade, too, down to the Adriatic in the cold morning light, where Marcello saw a young girl - his muse, perhaps? - who tried to remind him of his dream of writing a novel. Fellini was born in Rimini, on the Adriatic coast, and set many of his movies there, including "Amarcord," which means "I remember." In it, he remembered his school days and his unruly family, and his stubborn grandfather who climbed into a tree and refused to come down, shouting "I want a woman!" And in it he found his most beautiful and inexplicable image, of a peacock spreading its tail feathers in the snow. "What does that mean?" I asked him one day in New York. "Nothing," he said. "One of the causes of our unhappiness is that we cannot accept things as they are."

He was the most famous and the most popular of the trinity of great European directors that emerged in the 1950s. In Sweden, there was Bergman. And in Italy, Antonioni and Fellini. His style was so distinctive you could identity it after a single scene: First, the music, often by Nino Rota, with a nostalgic accordion segueing into circus music and pop standards. Then, the characters, often led by Mastroianni, wearing the black hat Fellini made his trademark.

Often there was Masina, elfin and clownlike, and a parade of bold, buxom showgirl types. Then, the grotesques and the oddballs: Like a sideshow impresario, he loved people who looked odd.

"These faces come from my dreams," Fellini said, on the "Fellini Satyricon" set in 1969, surrounded by strange-looking characters. "I opened a little office in Rome and asked funny-looking people to come in." In Fellini's next-to-last film, "Intervista," which premiered at Cannes in 1987, Mastroianni turns up unexpectedly, and Fellini sweeps him up and announces they will all pay a visit on Ekberg. A parade of cars races through the city's suburbs, just like in "La Dolce Vita," and pulls up before the house of the startled Swedish actress, grown at last too lush, clothed only in a Turkish towel. Fellini orders a sheet to be stretched in her living room, and on it he projects the fountain scene from "La Dolce Vita" where Ekberg and Mastroianni almost, but never quite, kiss. There is a shot of the co-stars looking at themselves when they were young, and of Fellini looking at them. We sense with a terrible poignancy the passage of time.

But we see also that Fellini is content, because he has gathered a crowd, and is putting on a show.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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