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 a center.
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 and parades.
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.
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.)
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 and appearance.
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 orientation.
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 things.
-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 have answers.
-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 them.
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 tell.
-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 on.
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 reach.
-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, vulgar, arrogant.
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 a client.
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 present era?
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 of metal.
-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 ancient Toltecs.
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 as "irrational."
-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 happened there.
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 at Gambettola.
-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, more....
-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 poplar!
-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.
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-And your grandmother, what did she think of this fantasizing little boy?
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" or "wakefulness."]
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"? The cinema?
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 destroying it.
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 a week.
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 playbills.
-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 paradise.
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, without rhetoric.
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 failure.
-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.