The Movie :
LA DOLCE VITA
BY ROGER EBERT (From http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/greatmovies/la_dolce_vita.html)
I have heard theories that Federico Fellini's ``La Dolce
Vita'' catalogs the seven deadly sins, takes place on the seven hills
of Rome, and involves seven nights and seven dawns, but I have never
looked into them, because that would reduce the movie to a crossword
puzzle. I prefer it as an allegory, a cautionary tale of a man without
Fellini shot the movie in 1959 on the Via Veneto, the Roman street of
nightclubs, sidewalk cafes and the parade of the night. His hero is
a gossip columnist, Marcello, who chronicles ``the sweet life'' of fading
aristocrats, second-rate movie stars, aging playboys and women of commerce.
The role was played by Marcello Mastroianni, and now that his life has
ended we can see that it was his most representative. The two Marcellos--character
and actor--flowed together into a handsome, weary, desperate man, who
dreams of someday doing something good, but is trapped in a life of
empty nights and lonely dawns.
The movie leaps from one visual extravaganza to another, following Marcello
as he chases down stories and women. He has a suicidal fiancee (Magali
Noel) at home. In a nightclub, he picks up a promiscuous society beauty
(Anouk Aimee), and together they visit the basement lair of a prostitute.
The episode ends not in decadence but in sleep; we can never be sure
that Marcello has had sex with anyone.
Another dawn. And we begin to understand the film's structure: A series
of nights and dawns, descents and ascents. Marcello goes down into subterranean
nightclubs, hospital parking lots, the hooker's hovel and an ancient
crypt. And he ascends St. Peter's dome, climbs to a choir loft, and
to the high-rise apartment of Steiner (Alain Cuny), the intellectual
who is his hero. He will even fly over Rome.
The famous opening scene, as a statue of Christ is carried above Rome
by a helicopter, is matched with the close, in which fisherman on the
beach find a sea monster in their nets. Two Christ symbols: the statue
``beautiful'' but false, the fish ``ugly'' but real. During both scenes
there are failures of communication. The helicopter circles as Marcello
tries to get the phone numbers of three sunbathing beauties. At the
end, across a beach, he sees the shy girl he met one day when he went
to the country in search of peace to write his novel. She makes typing
motions to remind him, but he does not remember, shrugs, and turns away.
If the opening and closing scenes are symmetrical, so are many others,
matching the sacred and profane and casting doubts on both. An early
sequence finds Marcello covering the arrival in Rome of an improbably
buxom movie star (Anita Ekberg), and consumed with desire. He follows
her to the top of St. Peters, into the bowels of a nightclub, and into
the Roman night, where wild dogs howl and she howls back. His pursuit
ends at dawn when she wades into the Trevi Fountain and he wades after
her, idealizing her into all women, into The Woman; she remains forever
just out of reach.
This sequence can be paired with a later one where children report a
vision of the Virgin. Marcello races to the site, which is surrounded
by TV cameras and a crowd of the devout. Again, we have an idealized
woman and the hope that she can solve every problem. But the children
lead the faithful on a chase, just as the Ekberg led Marcello around
Rome. They see the Virgin here, and then there, as the lame and the
blind hobble after them and their grandfather cadges for tips. Once
again everything collapses in an exhausted dawn.
The central episodes in ``La Dolce Vita'' involve Steiner, who represents
all that Marcello envies. Steiner lives in an apartment filled with
art. He presides over a salon of poets, folk singers, intellectuals.
He has a beautiful wife and two perfect children. When Marcello sees
him entering a church, they ascend to the organ loft and Steiner plays
Bach while urging Marcello to have more faith in himself, and finish
that book. Then follows the night of Steiner's party, and the moment
(more or less the exact center of the film) where Marcello takes his
typewriter to a country trattoria and tries to write. Then comes the
terrible second Steiner scene, when Marcello discovers that Steiner's
serenity was made from a tissue of lies.
To mention these scenes is to be reminded of how many other great moments
this rich film contains. The echo chamber. The Mass at dawn. The final
desperate orgy. And of course the touching sequence with Marcello's
father (Annibale Ninchi), a traveling salesman who joins Marcello on
a tour of the night. In a club they see a sad-faced clown (Poidor) lead
a lonely balloon out of the room with his trumpet. And Marcello's father,
filled with the courage of champagne, grows bold with a young woman
who owes Marcello a favor--only to fall ill and leave, gray and ashen,
again at dawn.
The movie is made with boundless energy. Fellini stood here at the dividing
point between the neorealism of his earlier films (like ``La Strada'')
and the carnival visuals of his extravagant later ones (``Juliet of
the Spirits,'' ``Amarcord''). His autobiographical ``8 1/2,'' made three
years after ``La Dolce Vita,'' is a companion-piece, but more knowing:
There the hero is already a filmmaker, but here he is a young newspaperman
on the make.
The music by Nino Rota is of a perfect piece with the material. It is
sometimes quasi-liturgical, sometimes jazz, sometimes rock; lurking
beneath is the irreverence of tuba and accordions, and snatches of pop
songs (``Stormy Weather'' and even ``Jingle Bells''). The characters
are forever in motion, and Rota gives them music for their processions
The casting is all typecasting. Anita Ekberg might not have been much
of an actress, but she was the only person who could play herself. Lex
Barker, a onetime movie Tarzan, was droll as her alcoholic boyfriend.
Alain Cuny's severe self-confidence as Steiner is convincing, which
is why his end is a shock. And remember Anouk Aimee, her dark glasses
concealing a black eye; the practical, commonsensical Adriana Moneta
as the streetwalker; Alain Dijon as the satanic ringleader at the nightclub;
and always Mastroianni, his eyes squinting against a headache or a deeper
ache of the soul. He was always a passive actor, and here that quality
is needed: Seeking happiness but unable to take the steps to find it,
he spends his nights in endless aimless searching, trying to please
everyone, the juggler with more balls than skills.
Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw ``La Dolce Vita''
in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom ``the sweet life'' represented
everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance
of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was
living in a version of Marcello's world; Chicago's North Avenue was
not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful,
and I was about Marcello's age.
When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was
10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model
but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could
never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame
at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still,
and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and
loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I
thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and
made it immortal. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But
it is necessary to find that out for yourself.
La Dolce Vita
Marcello Rubini: Marcello Mastroianni
Sylvia: Anita Ekberg
Maddalena: Anouk Aimee
Emma: Yvonne Furneaus
Fanny: Megali Noel
Robert: Lex Barker
Steiner: Alain Cuny
Riccardo: Riccardo Garrone
Marcello's father: Annibale Ninchi
Directed by Federico Fellini; written by Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio
Pinelli and Brunello Rondi. Produced by Giuseppe Amato, Franco Magli
and Angelo Rizzoli. Running time: 167 minutes. No MPAA classification.
(Adult sexual and thematic material.)
Copyright © Chicago Sun-Times Inc.
The Director :
INTERVIEW BY TONI MARAINI
Translated by A. K. Bierman (from: http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/26/fellini1.html)
Federico Fellini's fantasy world, which has become more
dreamlike over the years, shows us the spectacle of life. Yet, paradoxically,
the most surreal of Italian directors invites us to reflect on reality.
What is this reality, which contains everything that happens? Where
is it? In us? Outside of us? In our memory, which turns into myth? In
the real events that seem like dreams or in dreams that materialize
in an immense farce wherein existence is the tragicomic appearance?
Like Pirandello before him, Fellini meditates on the ease with which
we cross the borders that supposedly mark the difference between reality
As in the short film The Interview, which he made for Italian television,
Fellini identities a film director with the demiurge of a Great Spectacle.
"My films are not for understanding. They are for seeing,"
Fellini reminds anyone who persists in undervaluing the aim of his aesthetic
I talked about this and other things with Fellini in his Rome studio
sometime after his last film, La Voce della Luna (The Voice of the Moon).
Courteous, cordial, gifted with a good sense of humor, Fellini, who
is mistrustful of journalists - and who loves paradox and ambiguity
- kindly tried not to talk about this mistrust. "Really, we should
chat about other things," he told me.
-You don't like to give interviews and it's difficult for a journalist
to get one. You should know I'm more a poet than a journalist.
-Here's something that will amuse you. Because of the anxiety I had
about doing this interview, I woke up voiceless this morning, unable
to make a sound!
Perfect. I love journalists who don't talk much.
I'm reluctant to give interviews because I believe we should avoid them
and I'm trying to hold to this sane decision. But in certain cases I
end up by accepting, because there are friends who insist I do interviews.
Then there's the curiosity of meeting somebody new. Also it's flattering;
so out of an indecent vanity and a shameless desire to prattle about
myself, I consent.
I've given a lot of interviews; so, I don't trust what I say. I repeat
myself. I try to remember what I've already said and what I still haven't
said. For fear of repeating something I've already said, I invent other
-You mistrust yourself, then?
Yes, that's right. I mistrust myself, not the journalist, even if for
fifty years I've had the feeling that journalists asked me stupid questions.
An interview is a halfway point between a psychoanalytical sitting and
a competitive examination. So, I experience a slight uneasiness about
all the interviews I've given. I try to rethink myself rather than repeat
myself. And besides, I have some embarrassing limits. Sometimes I don't
-Your answers are already in your films, by having created them.
That's right. The author's most important answer is the work itself,
and in my work people have found the few things I tried to say. Despite
that, the author generally is the least suited to talk about his work.
-Those who see the film want to ask questions, and, after all, this
need is stimulated by creation. In order to try to understand your last
film, for example, I reread some paragraphs from Krishnamurti, whom
you know as a thinker.
Yes, yes. In which book did you find these paragraphs? I'd like to see
Nevertheless, I don't think that an author, when he creates, poses "others"
problems. Really, when I'm working, I don't think of others. Certainly,
the author is conscious of the, as we say, "craft" side of
his own creation, of the how to express what he wants to say. But I
don't think he worries too much about the problem of why and who to
-Yet, even if you don't tell it "to others," like every creator
you tell it to yourself. In this self-telling, doesn't reevaluation
go on, a gradual, revelatory consciousness of self?
As in life generally, the experience of working brings a greater mastery
at the technical level, and, therefore, better reasoning about choices
and how to carry them out. But in the deeper sense of knowing to which
you alluded, the idea that through my work I may have a greater knowledge
of myself, I will tell you I don't think there has been an evolution.
On my last birthday, a friend asked me what it meant for me to be seventy,
and my spontaneous response was, "Seventy? It seems to me I've
always been seventy!"
So you see, my answer reflects my true feeling. For me, at seventy,
I'm not much different from what I was at forty, thirty-five, twenty-five,
or even earlier.
-This doesn't so much mean you've always had the feeling of being seventy,
but rather - if I understand you - that reaching this age and looking
back you have the feeling of always having had the same age from youth
Yes, the adolescent age. Exactly. It's totally an adolescent age. Whoever
has created knows this state that I would call "motionless time."
-But it's precisely this state of pure consciousness and spontaneity
that anyone who creates tries to conquer or rather to safeguard.
You're referring still to our Krishnamurti!
-Yes, and to the importance of existential time, so typical of your
film creations, in contrast with time understood as a historical, straight,
linear sequence in which facts, chronologies, and so forth pile up.
It's true. Unfortunately, because of our goal-oriented training, we
Westerners have a vision of ourselves living through a continuous time
line that requires steps, changes, conclusions, and a goal one must
-I'd like to ask you something. Some say that all your films are the
same. Furthermore, you seem to agree that your fantasies have this circular
repetitive motion. Yet to me, over the course of years, this movement
travels in a spiral, as if each time a new element shifts the problem
to a higher level.
In your last film, The Voice of the Moon, the ingredients are as always
the world as a stage for visions and appearances, fragmentation, the
reality/dream conflict, but the questions posed in the course of the
film seem to me to announce a final, symbolic, almost whispered reconciliation
with death, nature's energy, women and love, the generational conflict.
Maybe. I haven't been able to see the difference in this film. I always
seem to make the same film.
-This was the most exhausting one, you said.
I get exhausted when I'm trying any way I can to put off starting a
film. It's an honest to goodness matter of a "starting neurosis,"
this attitude of total aversion, like someone who puts off the moment
when he'll have to look at himself in the mirror, an image he wants
to disown. It's worsened in these last years.
I have a tendency to hold off starting a film until I feel myself forced
to begin in order to see where I want to go, where I will take myself.
I wrote about this in my book Making a Film (Fare un film), about La
Strada. At the beginning I had only a confused feeling, a kind of tone
that lurked, which made me melancholy and gave me a diffused sense of
guilt, like a shadow hanging over me. This feeling suggested two people
who stay together, although it will be fatal, and they don't know why.
But once this feeling crystallized, the story came easily, as if it
had been there waiting to be found.
NEXT: The most precious gift an actor can have
-What crystallized your feeling?
Giuletta [Masina]. I'd wanted for some time to make a film for her.
She's singularly able to express astonishment, dismay, frenetic happiness,
the comic somberness of a clown. For me a clownesque talent in an actor
is the most precious gift she can have. Giuletta's the kind of actress
who's very congenial with what I want to do, with my taste.
My slowness in starting a film is certainly unacceptable in a profession
that requires planning, but I confess to needing this climate in order
to begin a film. When I've begun, I try to find a lighthearted mood,
that unfathomable poise of story telling, that pleasure I experienced
in filming The Interview.
That short movie was filmed day by day while making it up. I'm aiming
more and more toward this kind of film. So, for La Voce della Luna,
my latest film, I tried to do the same thing, to do like the circus
people do: create a scene, a spectacle for nothing. I need to construct
the scenario from life - with buildings, lights, situations, seasons
- as a premise in order to see how things are going.
For this film, I designed and created everything, from buildings to
the publicity. Then every once in a while I visited the set, saw it
empty, saw the dust invading, some windows shattered by the wind, and
I asked myself, "What's happening?" At the risk of appearing
romantic, I'll tell you that something in me said, "You'll see,
the piazza will come alive, the sacristan will appear at the church's
portico, someone will go into a store to buy something.. ."
And so it was. As if by necessity, the set came alive. I let the film
happen; important things were tossed off as banalities, and casual things
seemed important. I wanted to achieve the naturalness of The Interview.
-The Interview is autobiographical. We see a young Fellini, an adolescent
journalist, who one day in 1941 visits Cinecitta. He is seduced by the
Spectacle, by its imaginary games, and by the almost supernatural power
of the director who constructs and deconstructs the story of life.
When, as a young man, I went to Cinecitta and saw the directors filming,
I admired their power - to shout, scream, make beautiful actresses weep
- I remember in particular having seen Blasetti make the very beautiful
and very famous Isa Pola cry - but I also found them boorish, overbearing,
I tried to catch this picture of the tyrant director in The Interview.
He was a figure that seduced me despite everything. But at that time
I never thought I'd be a director; I lacked the temperament, the voice,
the authority, the arrogance.... I thought that I would be a writer
or a painter, or, better, a "special correspondent." But it
turns out that I had all those defects! Because I became a director
... for a kind of pleasure. Out of an entomologist's curiosity. My films
are films of expression.
I agreed to direct The Interview in order to keep a contract. I see
in myself an artist of the 1400s, one who needed a client, which at
that time was often the church. In its deep understanding of the human
soul, the need for being lured and at the same time threatened, the
church understood the adolescent nature of the artist. But today this
aspect is no longer taken into consideration. Yet I, for example, need
For The Interview, I had a commitment to TV, a contract for a Special.
Since I had an upbringing that respects the rules of a pledge, I wanted
to keep it. So, this TV film came about in this way, by itself, without
traumas, because it offered the freedom of lightheartedness, the seductive
aspect of something that doesn't build up expectations.
Making a film is an adventurous journey, above all for producers. Looking
back, I can't say I complain. Every film has its troubles, its delays,
but the obstacles on a journey represent part of the journey itself.
The trip is enriched by difficulties that reveal mysterious, even providential
expressions of friendship. For The Interview, I didn't have these problems
of getting started, of setting off on the film's journey. But for my
last film, The Voice from the Moon, yes.
I covered this last film with insults, I tried to kick it away like
one does with an illness you don't want to catch. In order not to catch
pneumonia, what do you do? You try to defend yourself.
-You declared once, long ago, in 1969, that "a film is like an
illness that is expelled from the body."
No doubt there's a connection between pathology and creation, we can't
deny it. Yet I view with pleasure the work of film professionals I love,
such as Bunuel, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Bergman.
I'm perhaps a special type of spectator. I experience pleasure when
I find myself in front of something that is the absolute truth, not
because it resembles life, but because it's true as an image for itself,
as a gesture. And therefore vital. It's the vitality that makes me appreciate
and feel that the action succeeded. I think the expression of an artist's
work finds consensus when, whoever enjoys it feels as if they're receiving
a charge of energy, like a growing plant does, of something pulsing,
mysterious, vibrant with life.
-Going back to the difficulty of starting your Voice ... film, from
documents it would seem that these difficulties started with shooting
the first scene in your first film as director The White Sheik. And
then there was that long business of completing The City of Women.
Yes, perhaps, but sometimes the problems aren't caused by me but by
producers. However, when I'm in the harrowing phase and feel restless,
it means I'm ready to start, that I must start, that I can begin the
film. And initially I need to observe, to meet people with simplicity,
as happens on a bus or a train; I need to sketch. I reflect, observe
some details, a tic, a gesture, a color, a face.
-An "entomologist's curiosity," you said. Also toward women?
Woman is a marvel; woman is a universe. This may be a tantric conception:
Woman is the alien part of man, but she is higher than he, because women
are born adults, ancient. You're born knowing everything. As mothers,
you're superior. For survival, an archetypal rebellion exists in women's
memory, because man has invented for himself an intellectual supremacy,
a violence he uses to dominate her. But the struggle is unequal.
You smile. You really don't seem to believe me! Or maybe you're asking
me how it was done, because I still haven't written a beautiful love
story for my films.
-But the story of Zampano and Gelsomina in La Strada is a love story,
even if unusual and terrible.
Yes, it was. But I, and I'm embarrassed to share this confidence, I
have to confess that I've never identified myself with excesses of passion
and love. I seem never to have been in love in that sense. I don't understand
the desperation of love as an irreparable loss.
-I'd like to ask you a question concerning the costumes you draw for
your films, which sometimes are particularly elegant, as if they were
from a different era than ours. What does this mean?
In certain films like Satyricon or Casanova, the costumes of the era
were necessary because the films were historical. That's obvious. I
have the habit of looking back to styles of the '20s and '30s, because
this unconscious reference goes back to an emotional reality when I
discovered and noticed things. Lights, colors, attitudes, moods, usages,
rhythms belong to this emotional reality.
In addition, there is another fact. A person's clothes make up part
of his character. I draw the character with his costume. I suggest it
to the stylists with my drawings; the drawings translate some of my
emotional impressions. For me elegance happens when there is a correspondence
between a person's personality and how she dresses herself Finally,
don't forget that costumes, like dreams, are symbolic communication.
Dreams teach us that a language for everything exists - for every object,
every color worn, every clothing detail. Hence, costumes provide an
aesthetic objectification that helps to tell the character's story.
-You talk about a certain "first impression," which is tied
to the play of memory and nostalgia. Is it perhaps a flight from the
Our times are extraordinary and marvelous; everything has happened and
continues to happen. After the Berlin Wall fell, the people on either
"side" were no longer enemies, and ideologies stopped being
barriers to truth. All of politics is up for rethinking.
But you know, I never managed to follow the route of neorealism, the
problems of the working class.
-Yet there are so many social critiques in your films.
Certainly! If metalworkers didn't dream, there would be only a hunk
-Tell me about a film you never started, the one about Carlos Castaneda.
It's a very complicated story.
I first looked for Castaneda through his publishers. I talked with the
publisher, who gave me the address of Castaneda's agent, a Ned Brown
in New York. The publisher told me it would be easy for Brown to give
me Castaneda's address. Once a year a Mexican boy brought the publisher
manuscripts. Ned Brown told me he had never met Castaneda.
Persisting in my search, I was told that Castaneda was in an insane
asylum, even that he was dead. Someone else said he'd met him and that
he was alive, that he had seen him at a lecture Castaneda gave. Then,
in Rome, there was a Mrs. Ioghi who put me in contact with him. And
I finally met Castaneda.
Castaneda's personality is quite different from what you might imagine.
He seemed like a Sicilian - a cordial, easygoing, smiling Sicilian host.
Brown skin, black eyes, a very white smile. He has the effusiveness
of a Latin, a Mediterranean. He's Peruvian, not Mexican.
-Are you sure it was really him?
What are you trying to say? Of course; he was surrounded by other people.
Mrs. Ioghi knew him.
This likable gentleman, who had seen all my films, told me that one
day with Don Juan, thirty or forty years ago, he had seen my film, La
Strada - which was made in 1952. Don Juan had told him, "You will
have to meet the director of this film." He said that Don Juan
had prophesied this meeting. That's what Castaneda told me. I told you
that he came to find me, here, in this living rom, seated right here.
From the beginning I was fascinated by his book The Teachings of Don
Juan, a book about esoteric, parapsychological ventures. Then I was
fascinated by the overall idea: that of a scientific man, an anthropologist,
who starts with a speculative, scientific purpose, a man who keeps his
feet on the ground, watches where he's going and literally looks at
the ground, in fields, in vegetable gardens, in glades, toward the hills
- where mushrooms grow. This man of science then finds himself, after
initiation, following a path that brings him into contact with some
I like the route supplied by a scientific, rational curiosity, a route
that he took with a rational attention and which, at the same time,
led him toward the mysterious world, a world we define in a vague way
-This relation between science and a supernatural world seems especially
interesting. In this connection, you talked about your experience with
LSD, your belief in Jung's psychoanalysis, and your friendship with
Roll, the most famous Italian clairvoyant.
Yes, this seems to me the end point of true science. The more it advances,
protected by its parameters, its mode of inquiry, its certainties, and
its doubts, also its distrust, the closer it comes to something that
is "the mystery." And, therefore, it approaches a religious
vision of the phenomenon it's investigating.
The one thing that fascinated and also somewhat alienated me - an Italian,
a Latin, a Mediterranean, conditioned by a Catholic education - was
Castaneda's and Don Juan's particular vision of the world. I saw something
unhuman there. Independently of Don Juan, who is charming in a literary
way and whom we are made to see as an old sage, I couldn't help being
invaded at times by a feeling of strangeness. As if I were confronted
with a vision of a world dictated by a quartz! Or a green lizard!
What I found fascinating was that you felt transported to a point of
view never before imagined, never suspected, that truly had you breathing
outside yourself, outside of your humanity, and that for an instant
gave you an unfamiliar shiver of belonging to other elements, to elements
of the vegetable world, animal world, even the mineral world. A feeling,
that is, of silences, of extraterrestrial, extra-planetary colors. This
was what seduced my propensity for the fantastic, the visionary, the
unknown, the enigmatic.
In Don Juan's vision of the world, there was no comfort, nothing of
what so many other texts can give you or that other esoteric authors
like Rudolph Steiner or the Templars give. In short, Castaneda's stories,
unlike so many other esoteric or initiatory texts that try to tell you
about other dimensions, offered a vision lacking any psychological comfort.
This was what made them terrible and fascinating for me. Yet I seemed
to find myself in an asphyxiated world.
-You told me once that from the moment you arrived in Los Angeles, where
Castaneda was waiting for you, some strange events began.
Phenomena and wonders popped up. When he came to my hotel, he brought
along some women. I never saw him again, but after that I found strange
messages in my room and objects moved around. I think it was black magic.
His women, but not Castaneda, went with me to Tulun, and the same things
-You felt threatened, and Castaneda disappeared.
It's been some years - that was in 1986 - and I still haven't been able
to figure out what really happened. Maybe Castaneda was sorry to have
brought me there and worked out a series of phenomena that discouraged
me from making my film. Or maybe his associates didn't want me to make
a film and did these things. Anyway, it was all too strange, so I decided
not to make the film.
Castaneda's books brought back some feelings that I had experienced
as a boy.... It's difficult to define.... Maybe madness can resemble
this kind of astral, icy cold, solitary silence. I put one boyhood experience
in The Voice from the Moon, when Benigni tells his grandmother that
he became a poplar tree. It happened when I was a boy and spent the
summer with my grandmother, Francesca, my father's mother, in the country
-The name of this place, Gambettola, could come from a fable, some sort
of Pinocchio adventure....
Yes! It was also called "the forest," because there was a
large forest nearby. There, I had a few experiences that I remembered
only thirty or forty years later. They came back in a more hallucinatory
or more revivified way because I was reading some parapsychological
texts. In short, they were experiences of special feelings. First was
the episode of the poplar tree.
I was able to translate sounds into colors, an experience that happened
to me afterward. I could chromatize sounds. It's a faculty that can
surprise us, but which seems natural to me, given that life is a single
thing, a totality that we have learned to divide, file, separate, tying
different sensations together in different ways.
Here I was seated under that poplar at Gambettola, and I heard the ox
lowing in the stable. At the same time, I saw coming out of the stable's
wall something fibrillating, like an enormous tongue, a mat, a carpet,
a flying carpet moving slowly in the air.
I was sitting with my back to the stall, but I could see everything
around me and behind me, 360 degrees. And this wave dissolved, passing
through me, like a huge fan of very tiny, microscopic rubies that shimmered
in the sun. Then it disappeared.
This phenomenon of translating sounds into colors, the chromatic equivalent
of sound, stayed with me for many years. I could tell you about other
such episodes that happened when I was a child, and also when I was
twenty and had come to Rome.
But let's go back to what happened under the poplar. At a certain moment,
while I was playing, I seemed to see myself up above, very high, I seemed
to be swinging there, and to hear a light wind in my hair. Then I felt
- it's difficult for me to describe it - that I was solidly planted
in the ground. And that little boy I saw - which was me - now had his
legs sunk in the ground, so far that I felt I had roots. And the whole
body was covered by a kind of hot, thick blood that rose, rose, rose
up to the head because of the sound that I was making ("whooo")
while I was playing. I heard this sound with a different organ, magnificent,
-Like a mantra!
It was a mantra, yes, like "ommm." And then this feeling of
rapture, of lightness, of lightness and power, power in the roots and
lightness above in the branches shaking in the sky. I had become the
-These are the great intuitions and feelings, the great visionary wisdom
of childhood that one has to tell later as fantasies.
Let's say they need to assume the form of fables. The fable is always
the more human, and also the more faithful, way of recounting.
NEXT: Living on fantasy income
-And your grandmother, what did she think of this fantasizing little
My grandmother could have been a character in a fable herself. She was
an old peasant woman; she was capable of great tenderness. She was an
old, tall, thin woman with many petticoats.
I still live on the fantasy income from those summers spent with my
grandmother. Even La Strada lifted a little from memories of those summer
endings and autumn beginnings in the country, from that almost spiritual
contact with the animals, smells, places. I remember the first veglia
in the stable.
-What do you mean by "veglia"? [Literally, "waking"
Peasant men got together in the stable at night to drink, and eat bread
and cheese. It was a way for them to be together for some hours, even
up to eleven at night, which was late for them because they had to get
up at four in the morning.
Besides telling stories, they laughed, joked; they laughed talking about
women. The laughs were a way of exorcising, of defending themselves,
a form of nervousness. And I, still a young boy, didn't understand very
well why, when the men were talking about women, they poked each other
with their elbows and laughed. As if they were alluding to something
vaguely comic, but also indecent, something from which they defended
each other, protected each other, conspiring to create a solidarity.
-You told me in one of our conversations that you've always had a latent
envy for anyone who expresses, even in a primitive way, a conviction,
a creed, a dogma. You, who don't want to take refuge in any rigid system
of convictions or ideologies, what's your "center," your "pivot"?
Do you mean "when do I feel at home"?
You ask a question that's not so simple to answer. I think my pivot
point is finding myself in a nowhere in which I recognize myself. Said
that way, it can seem like romantic complacency, shamelessly poetic.
-No, no, I understand your answer very well. I've written about the
nowhere. It's a perception I know well precisely because I believe that
creative people are acquainted with it. That is, people who have refused
the comfort of certainties, of dogmatic, ideological constructions.
A less esoteric and less presumptuous center is my work, when I'm seized,
when I have an identity, am caught up by what I'm doing. As in driving
a nail, putting up a wall on a set, putting a wig on an actress's head,
seeing that the makeup is just right; when I'm on the go, obsessed in
filming in the midst of a group of people who look at me with the respect
due to age and, maybe, also with a little worry and amusement.
I lend my body, my common sense, or talent to something that is a stream,
a stream that invites me, obliges me, forces me to personify myself
in so many things, persons, thoughts, attitudes. And there, just at
the moment in which I'm not there - since I'm in so many places taken
up by so many details - is, I believe, my pivot point.
I believe that for me this is happiness - to lose one's memory, to forget
the self, the part you call yourself, which is really just a superstructure.
This is the part you forget in order to be inhabited by an energy that
borrows your body and your nervous system.
-There's a big contradiction between what the West maintains, driving
people to look for themselves, fortifying their own personality, and
what the East maintains, which encourages you to free yourself from
yourself. The problem seems to be that of liberating the self without
It's important to put yourself in a condition to be everlastingly born.
In any case, I consider myself particularly fortunate because of my
profession. Which isn't a profession, but only a path, a route for amusement,
for levity. It can lead you to have - in a free, nonschematic, nondogmatic
way - intuitions that others have had with more sacrifices and in a
more dramatic way. It's a game that puts you in touch with other territories,
intuitions of different possibilities. Perhaps these intuitions are
paler, less colorful than those earned more dramatically and knowingly,
with more sacrifices.
-You said that you love directors like Bergman, Bunuel, Kurosawa. Do
you go to the movies often?
I'm embarrassed to confess, no, I don't go to the movies much. I've
never gone much. As a boy in Rimini, they let me go to the movies once
No, no, it wasn't a matter of cost. Our family was petit bourgeois.
My father was a sales representative. My brother and I went to the movies
accompanied by Alfredo, a handyman who worked in my father's warehouse.
When I came to Rome, at eighteen, I began to go more often. There were
two cinemas on the street where I lived, San Giovanni. But I went most
of all because I was fascinated by the crude variety shows. First there
was the film and immediately after it the variety shows.
I was taken by those colored posters. The theater put photos of the
film outside and also the huge playbills for the variety shows that
had pictures of these beautiful fat women with naked thighs and piggish
faces. If I saw some films then, I owe it to the attraction of these
-What kind of films?
American. There were only American films then. The Italian films were
either about war or Romans; and there was always fascist propaganda
- these were the early forties. They weren't very seductive.
For my generation, born in the twenties, movies were essentially American
- a cinema supported by the most powerful press office that the history
of film may have ever had. Even today, the sympathy Americans enjoy
is due to their movies, movies that have always told us - and during
those times in Italy, this was perceived more yearningly and strikingly
than today - that there was another country, another dimension to life,
a dimension more fanciful than the Italian priests' Sunday sermons about
American movies were more effective, more seductive. They really showed
a paradise on earth, a paradise in a country they called America. For
our generation, this was an inexhaustible source of admiration for a
country, a people, movie personalities, for a nonchalant way of acting,
Even the Americans' military rhetoric was acceptable, because the heroes
were Gary Cooper, Clark Gable. They were cheerful guys who had nothing
to do with the obligatory sadness of our soldiers. In our films from
that time, our soldiers had to be mangled, starved, ragged. In order
to get people interested, the Italian soldier had to die or be seriously
wounded! Meanwhile, everything went swimmingly for the American soldier,
who got married, maybe to a beautiful actress like Myrna Loy.
However, I didn't go to movies much. But I loved them. I loved seeing
the variety show from the stalls like holds of pirate ships, seething
with spectators. Take Sunday afternoon, for example. It seemed like
going into a big, hot potbelly - a potbelly of rascally humanity - that
consummated a magic rite, which was to dream together.
In the little towns in winter, the movie theater was like a tiny galaxy,
a planet under a spell, a grand passion that seems forgotten today.
Or that no longer seems to have the same seductiveness it had when I
was young. Now the people stay home to watch television.
Until seven or eight years ago, we made around 100 to 150 pictures each
year. Today, it's a miracle if there are ten in production. That's really
okay, but it's always with or for television. And these are films made
under reduced, censored circumstances, a castrating way of dealing with
a fable that needs telling.
Almost all the studios, Elios, Incom, and so forth, have closed down.
Half of Cinecitta has been sold, turned into Cinecitta II, which is
a commercial center. Now it looks like they're also selling the other
half. The only place that's left is where I made my last film, at Pontina,
which was created by Dino De Laurentis in 1960. But it's having continued
-This leaves things more open to American competition.
Yes, of course. But it could also be stimulating for Italy, because
Americans often give us impeccable films, very well directed, with splendid
actors, with stories that tell about their own country. The whole American
show keeps something in mind that we, in our conceit as spoiled children,
look at almost with distaste. They keep in mind a Master of Ceremonies'
fundamental fact. He knows that to tell something to someone he has
to seduce his audience with entertainment. Journalists, writers, poets,
playwrights, directors are consistent in this sense.
November 1999 | Issue 26
Interview copyright © 1994, 1995, 1999 by Toni Maraini
Translation copyright © 1994, 1995, 1999 by A. K. Bierman