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Interview with Federico Fellini

ROME - Not far away, the big jets were landing at Rome airport. They came in low over a Roman galleon that rocked in the surf of the Mediterranean. Scattered on the beach next to the galleon were packing crates, dozens of them, and stretched on top of one crate was a dead body wrapped in gauze.

A dozen strange people stood looking at the body. Their faces were pink, green, yellow or purple. They were here for the reading of a will.

One of the men stepped forward and read from a parchment: "You can't have a cent until you fulfill my condition. None of you is smart enough to spend my money until you nourish your stupid minds on my body. Eat me first, then divide my treasure."

"Do you know," Federico Fellini said, "this is like a scene from a Fellini movie." He grinned from underneath his flat black hat, the one he always wears when he makes a film, the same hat Marcello Mastroianni wore in "8 1/2."

"We haven't yet decided whether there will be an actual scene of cannibalism or not," Fellini said. "Some days I think yes. Some days I think no."

The scene was finished, and the actors drifted about making arrangements for lunch. One old man had a long, birdlike neck. There were noses too large, ears that flapped in the breeze, eyes set too close together. Not a single actor looked "normal," whatever that means, and as they milled about together they seemed embarrassed to find so many other peculiar characters here.

"People ask, where did you find these faces?" Fellini said. "None of them are professional actors; these faces come from my private dreams. I opened a little office in Rome and asked funny-looking people to come in. Did you know Nero had a hang-up on freaks? He surrounded himself with them."

And Fellini has done the same for "Fellini Satyricon," his first film since "Juliet of the Spirits" (1965). He stepped aside for a conference with his cameraman, and in a peculiar way he seemed to step into his own film. His costume (boots, blue pants, a leather coat with a sheepskin collar, the trademark Spanish hat) contrasted with the togas of his actors, but in the same way that a ringmaster's costume rules the circus that surrounds it.

Eileen Hughes, an American who is writing a book on Fellini, stood contemplating him. "All day Saturday," she said, "we waited for the sun to go behind a cloud. Most directors wait for sunlight; Fellini waits for shadows."

Fellini finished his conference, turned and embraced Miss Hughes. "Mon amore!" he exclaimed, exaggerating his lines, playing a burlesque of an Italian.

"Do you know what you are?" she said. "You're a teddy bear. You're a great big teddy bear."

"What is this?" Fellini said. "What is a teddy bear?" A translator explained to him in Italian, and a look of wonder spread across his face. "Yes," he said, "exactly! A teddy bear! Come, mon amore, we eat."

A little parade followed Fellini toward his trailer on the "Satyricon" set, like the little parades that are constantly following the autobiographical characters in his films. It was a struggle not to fall into step. Fellini seated his guests and introduced what he described as "a poor Franciscan meal": tomatoes, cheese, eggs, ravioli, peas, potatoes, cucumbers, veal cutlet, bread and wine.

"When are you going to finish?" a publicity man asked.

"This cheese?" Fellini said.

"No, this movie."

"After we finish this cheese," Fellini said.

He cut a piece of bread in two and stuffed onions, tomatoes and cheese between the halves. He was a fast, competitive eater: perhaps a child from a large family. The point was never cleared up, because he started talking about "Satyricon."

"This picture," he said, "will be science fiction. You are astonished? But science fiction can be in the past as well as the future. This picture is a trip back to Nero's time, and that means it is a trip into an unknown dimension. What do we know about the Romans? This has made problems for me. My other pictures have all been autobiographical to one degree or another, especially 'La Dolce Vita' and '8 1/2'. And 'Juliet of the Spirits' too. But now I must become detached, and that has been very hard work.

"First I have to invent this world of Nero. Then I must see it from a very narrow point of view, so it will appear foreign and unknown. I am examining ancient Rome as if this were a documentary about the customs and habits of the Martians. To be detached from your own creation is unnatural - I must look on my son as a stranger.

"Because the film is so detached, the sex in it will not be erotic. Everyone says Fellini is making a dirty movie. But everything will be abstract, detached. The sex in 'Satyricon' will be like those ancient Indian statues on the positions of love. Even as you see a woman kissing a monster, it means nothing, because it is so old, so far away, from another civilization."

He punctuated his argument with a mouthful of wine, and then leaned forward to underline it.

"If you see with innocent eyes," he said, "everything is divine."

Then the picture will not be autobiographical?

"No. Not at all.'

Will it be..."

Don't ask," Fellini said. "All artists are equal when they are themselves. All great directors make the same movie. But critics have to say something because they must use words instead of a camera, and so they are forced to define and categorize things. Say instead that Fellini is creating Fellini again."

You have said, however, that you become deeply involved in the sort of life you portray on the screen. And Marcello Mastroianni says that when you made "La Dolce Vita" with him, he moved away from his wife and moved into your home and together you lived la dolce vita.

Fellini roared with laughter. "Marcello and I - roommates?" he said. "What will they think of us? It is true Marcello moved in with me, but because he had trouble with his wife. At the time one of those Italian scandal sheets printed a story - every word was a lie - that they said was written by his wife - another lie. It was titled, 'I Live with a Son of a Bitch,' by Flora Mastroianni. It was a terrific article!"

He made a gesture of futility with his hands. "But after the film was finished, Marcello went back home and now they are happy again. But I see what you mean. Yes, when we made 'La Dolce Vita' and '8 1/2' Mastroianni and I were very close together. We had to be, because in a way he was playing me. And when I made 'Juliet,' I was naturally very close to the star - she was my wife, after all.

"But now, for 'Satyricon' I am close to no one. Fellini is detached. He is nobody. No, that is wrong. He is everybody. I am the corpse, the sea, the sun, the moon, the stars, the hermaphrodite (who will be played by an albino Neapolitan, but I am the hermaphrodite all the same). All things! Terrific!" An assistant director knocked on the door of Fellini's trailer with the news that it was time to begin shooting again.

"Why bother?" Fellini said, grinning mischievously. "At first we stayed very close to the schedule, so we wouldn't waste money. But that was long ago. Now we have no problem with money, because we have spent all the money. Now we are serene."

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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