Fellini: I'm a Born Liar
review by Gregory Avery, 2 May 2003

The documentary Fellini: I'm a Born Liar is perhaps best enjoyed as a fabulous tale told by an expert and highly adept con man. Damian Pettigrew filmed Federico Fellini speaking, at length, about his life and career in 1992, one year before the director's death, and the results are dazzling and, sometimes, Laocoönian in their twists and turns: a filmmaker who professes never to look at his own films, and, when he does, wonders who other than himself could have made these; who says that, once he starts work on the set, someone else takes control and he must put himself at the service of this "mysterious stranger"; an artist who claims to wanting to be "authentic" in his work, yet finds artificial renditions of places and events hold more meaning to him than the actual things themselves.

Fellini says he strives to have a "harmonious" set that will facilitate inspiration and creative freedom, yet disdains "improvisation" -- even though his filmmaking collaborators say that his whole directoral style is "improvisatory". The contradictions are sometimes dazzling: Fellini speaks about how he "adores" actors one moment, than in the next refers to them as "puppets" (not the first time we hear this word in the documentary, and not from the same person). This apparently works fine with inexperienced actors such as Hiram Keller and Martin Potter, whom, in behind-the-scenes footage, we see being minutely choreographed, movement by movement, by the "maestro" while filming a scene for Satyricon (1969). Donald Sutherland, on the other hand. describes with complete lucidity how Fellini behaved on the set of Casanova (1976) -- a "martinet", a "Tartar", a "dictator", a "demon" -- and that the first five weeks of shooting were "hell on earth". (And Sutherland would be stuck working a total of 150 days on the film before it was completed. He was not Fellini's first choice for the role, and -- along with the fact that Fellini was forced to make the film in English, and using direct sound, neither of which he'd done before -- Sutherland suffered because of it). By contrast, Roberto Benigni, who starred in Fellini's last film, La Voce della Luna (1990), says the director was bounteously supportive and treated him like "a real actor". Terence Stamp, who appeared in Toby Dammit, the episode Fellini made for Spirits of the Dead (1968), describes how he showed up for the first day of filming -- the scene where Toby arrives at an airport in Rome -- and had to ask Fellini for at least a little direction to get going. Fellini provided it, describing, in detail, a sex-booze-and-drugs fueled party -- or, as Stamp says Fellini called it, a "h'orgy" -- Toby would have participated in back in London the night before. It worked: Stamp gives Toby the exact, perfect look of desiccation needed to set the tone of the film.

Avoiding a didactic approach, Pettigrew layers in the material that he has collected for the documentary -- an approach which allows him to include a comment by author Italo Calvino on how, from a psychological standpoint, lies are often more interesting than the truth -- and which includes interviews with many of Fellini's collaborators, associates, and friends, as well as film showing the director at work on Amarcord (1973), Casanova, directing Marcello Mastroianni in City of Women (1980), Alain Cuny in La Dolce Vita (1960), Giulietta Masina in Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and Edra Gale, who played the benevolent, voluptuous giantess Saraghina, in 8 1/2 (1963). Footage from the T.V. special A Director's Notebook (1969) shows one of the gigantic sets built for Fellini's big, unrealized project The Voyage of G. Mastorna, as well as Mastroianni costumed as the title character, a cellist who finds his passenger air flight re-routed to land in a locale that turns out to be increasingly unreal and strange. A sudden, near fatal, medical ailment forced Fellini to cancel making the film, but he continued trying to get it made -- even though, as Sutherland observes, making a film which is essentially a metaphor about death meant that Fellini, had he made it, would have emerged at the end a different person. (Pettigrew follows this with footage from a key scene in Juliet of the Spirits, in which the heroine is given an opportunity to experience new things, but declines, deciding she would rather stay the way she was.)

Fellini could recreate the Adriatic in a studio, as production designer Dante Ferretti describes, when, going to see the actual thing, he decides it doesn't look the way he wants it to look in his film; or instruct an actor to pace back and forth before the camera, counting, and then just dub in the dialogue needed later in post-production. (I never really believed this to be true, until Pettigrew produces footage showing actors doing just that for Fellini on both Amarcord and Satyricon.) But, as painter Rinaldo Geleng, who befriended Fellini in Rome during the 1940s, tells Pettigrew, by practicing his art, Fellini was revealing himself. Fellini may tell Pettigrew that, in marrying Giuletta Masina, he found a true, companionable and "just" partner. But it is known that Masina, for whatever reason, walked away from her acting career when it was at its height to become Signora Fellini full-time. And, for 8 1/2, Fellini cast Anouk Aimée to play the wife of Mastroianni's character Guido, then cropped the actress' hair short and gave her an unflattering pair of horizontal spectacles to wear. In a scene from the film, she's seen cackling and telling Guido that she could never leave him -- not because it would make him look ridiculous, but because he was ridiculous, period.

However, Fellini's methods could also produce art, even poetry: the scene on the bridge in Toby Dammit; the moment when Claudia Cardinale first appears, smiling, radiant, rushing forward with hands outstretched, palms turned outward, in 8 1/2; the motorcyclists who roar through the nighttime streets at the conclusion of Roma (1972), to name just a few. What continues to make Fellini's best films exciting is the way he can take elements that may seem initially arbitrary and turn them into something that becomes ultimately meaningful to us, often in unexpected ways, such as how the promenade that concludes 8 1/2 ends on an inexplicable, yet moving, note. Pettigrew does not, fortunately, show us the T.V. commercial work Fellini had to do during some dry spells in the 1980s (the Campari ads are, trust me, not very good). While he embraced the counterculture movement of the 'Sixties and early 'Seventies, Fellini blamed the rise of "youth culture" as being part of the cause for his career downturn in the Eighties -- City of Women includes a scene showing young, pudgy-faced girls listening to rock music, twitching and moaning, like Regan in The Exorcist. In La Voce della Luna, Roberto Benigni plays a man who confuses the face of the moon with that of the woman he loves -- eventually, the two become one, up in the sky, forever unattainable. Benigni's character asks to, at least, be told what the secret to happiness on earth is. The woman replies, alright, she'll tell him, but, first, "Publicità!" (And now, a word from our sponsor....)

Pettigrew's documentary is, noticeably, short on the work Fellini did prior to La Dolce Vita in 1960 -- eight films, including two which made Giuletta Masina an internationally renowned star, as well as working as a co-screenwriter on several films for Roberto Rossellini. This may be due in part to the fact that Fellini doesn't mention them himself during the interviews with Pettigrew -- he mentions only the title of his great 1953 film I Vitteloni in passing -- and, probably, in part because of the effect "La Dolce Vita" had on both his professional and personal life. The film was hugely successful, both in Italy and abroad, and garnered the first of four Best Director Oscar nominations for Fellini. On the other hand, in the ultra-politicized Italy of the 1960s, it was actively condemned by the Catholic Church, the government, and, most cuttingly, in Fellini's own home town of Rimini.

"I often had a natural inclination to invent for myself a relationship to my family, to women, to life. I was always inventing," Fellini tells Pettigrew. "For me, the things that are most real are the ones I invent...."  So, using the "mathematical" precision of an artist who is both a "medium" and a "craftsman", Fellini recreates his home town in films such as "Amarcord", and the reconstruction becomes "much more of a part of my life than the real town of Rimini...."  That town vanishes, and the phantasmagoria -- the autostradas, the circus rings, the stadiums filled with women, the sunken airliners sending up "radioactive signals", the houses of painted plastics filled with distorted memories and grotesque hallucinations -- began to unfurl and take over from there on.

Directed by:
Damian Pettigrew

Written by:
Damian Pettigrew
Olivier Gal

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.







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