Federico Fellini ranks amongst the filmmakers held in the highest of regards within the world of cinema. So much so, that adjectives like “Fellinian” and “Fellinieque” have been devised to describe certain characteristics closely associated with the Italian master, both in cinema as well as in art in general. He has won five Academy Awards throughout his career and holds the record for most Oscars for Best Foreign Film in the history of the Academy.
Fellini was born in the Italian coastal town of Rimini in 1920 and as a young man made a living drawing pictures and writing gags. The latter activity lead to a job on the editorial board of a magazine, which allowed him to make close connections with other artists as well as people from the film industry.
One of those, Aldo Fabrizi, a variety performer, liked him so much that he took Fellini on as a writer of his material. This partnership eventually lead to writing assignments for early comedies but it wasn’t until both men met Roberto Rossellini that Fellini got his first significant break when he became a collaborator on the script of Rome, Open City, the film that truly started Italian neorealism.
From there, he got promoted to assistant director for Rossellini’s next work, Paisan. A few years later, he made his directorial debut with 1950’s Variety Lights, which he co-directed, and two years after that he made his first film as a director on his own with The White Sheik, which received a lot of attention at the Venice Film Festival that year.
From there on in, the lid had been blown off and Fellini’s films steadily gained more critical acclaim as well as financial success. His next movie, I Vitelloni, won the Silver Lion at Venice the following year and gained him worldwide exposure by securing an international distribution deal.
One year later, his next film, La Strada, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and elevated Fellini to an instant darling of the worldwide art house crowd.
A highly personal and idiosyncratic filmmaker, Fellini’s films often combined the intimate and personal with baroque, flamboyant and even surreal imagery, usually with an underlying layer of absurdist humour. He would reign supreme for the next decade or so, delivering various highly influential pieces of cinema and leave an indelible mark on the history of film.
The next twenty-five years of his career had their ups and downs but once in a while there would be another film of pure genius. Below you’ll find twelve of Fellini’s absolute best films, all also written by the maestro himself.
12. Juliet of the Spirits (Giulietta degli Spiriti) (1965)
Quite frankly, I’m not a big fan of Juliet of the Spirits myself but it’s undeniably an important film in Fellini’s filmography and many people do not share my opinion on it.
The first of Fellini’s feature films to be shot in colour and marking the return of his wife, Giulietta Masina, in one of his films after nine years (it would take another twenty years for her to make her final appearance in one of her husband’s features), Juliet of the Spirits is an enigmatic fantasy comedy-drama, in which narrative suffers a bit under as it sidelines by the surreal and flamboyant visual imagery.
The film follows Juliet (Masina), a forty-something woman, on the eve of her 15th anniversary to her husband Giorgio (Mario Pisu). Juliet lives in constant fear that her husband is cheating on her and wants nothing more than to spend an inmate quiet night with him to celebrate the event. Giorgio, however, has completely disregarded these wishes and organised a big party, inviting all his eccentric friends.
In response, Juliet takes a trip to have a séance with a medium and meets up with her sexy and liberated neighbour, Suzy (Sandra Milo), in order to explore her own subconscious and to deal with her mundane life and cheating husband’s ways. In doing so, she is haunted by both visions from the spirit world as well as memories of her family and religious background. Ultimately, Juliet retreats by herself, either accepting independence or loneliness in doing so.
One of Fellini’s most abstract features, Juliet of the Spirits is a colourful visual spectacle, filled with bizarre imagery and eccentric characters. In fact, it might very well be the most virtuoso use of colour in Fellini’s entire filmography. In my opinion that doesn’t make up for the strains put on the narrative and the resulting inaccessibility but it does make it a unique film within the entire body of work by one of cinema’s greatest directors.
The film tends to be highly divisive as some consider this movie the point where Fellini’s decline began, whilst others consider it one of his greatest cinematic achievements. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Costume Design and Art Direction and won Best Foreign Feature awards at the Golden Globes, The National Board of Review as well as the New York Film Critics Circle.
11. Roma (1972)
Part autobiographical, part tribute to the eternal city, Roma is a poetic, loose and episodic film with no clear plot to speak of. The film’s only constant is of course Rome itself and it’s the city that’s the only character that can be seen as being somewhat developed by the screenplay.
That is, as much as there was a screenplay to speak of, as Fellini has stated that he has never improvised as much on set as during the filming of Roma. Apparently the duration of the shoot was mainly determined by how long the money would last for, which gives a very clear indication as to how loose structured this film was from the onset.
The film begins with with a group of young children, presumably including a young Fellini, visiting the capital and then shows a scene in their classroom. This part actually clearly foreshadows Amarcord, the film Fellini would make next, and could easily be mistaken for a scene from that movie.
Next up an inexperienced Fellini is shown arriving in the city as a young man and taking up residence in a tenement building, filled with colourful and eccentric characters. From there on in, the movie alters between past and present as scenes of a contemporary film crew making a movie in Rome are intercut with baroque and carnivalesque memories and surreal set pieces, one of the most memorable being a Catholic fashion show, attended only by clergymen, displaying the latest religious fashion garments.
Another divisive film, Roma was welcomed as a return to Fellini’s nostalgic side after having made Juliet of the Spirits and Satyricon in the years beforehand. Romans on the other hand didn’t respond very well to the film, which doesn’t surprise as me as much of what’s on display actually feels quite dark and unflattering (a long sequence on a rainy traffic filled highway featuring cow cadavers scattered over the road as the result of an accident comes to mind).
Noteworthy are cameos by Gore Vidal, referring to Rome as the city of illusions and the best place to await the possible apocalypse, and Anna Magnani (her last appearance in a movie), telling Fellini to stop bothering her and go to bed. Alberto Sordi and Marcello Mastroianni initially appeared in cameo performances as well but were cut out of the final film. Roma won the Technical Grand Prize at Cannes and was nominated for Best Foreign Feature at the Golden Globes.
10. Ginger & Fred (1986)
Ginger & Fred is pure nostalgia. Fellini of course always had a very strong nostalgic streak in him, but this late career film brought back two of his greatest stars: his wife, Giulietta Masina, and his favourite leading man, Marcello Mastroianni. On top of that they play an old music-hall team, who used to impersonate Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, as they get back together again for a final performance after having spent thirty years apart.
Amelia (Masina) and Pippo (Mastroianni) used to be a very popular variety act back in their day. Their dance routines, in which they recreated the acts of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, were once very popular, but they decided to break up and pursue their own individual lives and careers.
Now, thirty years later, they have agreed to come back for a for a vulgar TV variety show in the hope of recreating some of their former glory. And whilst they have grown older and particularly Pippo’s stamina isn’t what it used to be, they hope that they can still impress, especially in a world which has changed so much that they have truly become fish out of water.
A melancholic, sweet and nostalgic little gem which often gets overlooked, Ginger & Fred is all about the the two lead performances. Both Masina and Mastroianni shine and seem to have lots of fun playing their respective roles. Masina, despite her age, is as charming and cheerful as ever, whilst Mastroianni does a fantastic job at showing how the cheeky rascal in him has never been dampened despite his advanced age.
The film is also a harsh criticism of the shallow and vulgar experience that modern day television has become, contrasting with the pair, who hail from an era in which entertainment was held in higher regard. A must-see film for fans of Fellini, Masina and Mastroianni alike, Ginger & Fred was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the BAFTA as well as Golden Globe Awards and won many prizes in its native Italy, primarily for the two leads and its costume design.
9. The White Sheik (Lo Sceicco Bianco) (1952)
Fellini’s second film and the first one he directed as a solo directorial effort, The White Sheik is a comedy, starring Alberto Sordi, Leopoldo Trieste and Brunella Bovo.
Of note is that Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, also has a brief appearance in the movie as a prostitute named Cabiria, who would be granted her own film a few years later. The film was based on an initial treatment by Michelangelo Antonioni, who lost interest in the project after it was turned into a full-fledged script by Fellini and Tullio Pinelli.
The story revolves around a newly-wed couple, Ivan (Leopoldo Trieste) and Wanda (Brunella Bovo), as they travel to Rome for their honeymoon. Ivan wants the trip to go by the book as he has planned out a precise schedule to meet all of the family there and even have an audition with the pope.
Wanda, however, is far more interested in Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), who plays “The White Sheik” in the photo comic strip she adores. Eventually she manages to sneak off and find her hero on the set of his latest adventure, only to find out that he’s a vain and stuck-up egocentric in real life. Meanwhile Ivan needs to keep coming up with excuses to his family as to why his bride has gone missing on their honeymoon as they are scheduled to meet the Pope.
One of Fellini’s lighter and least consequential works, The White Sheik is a small romantic satire, which nonetheless is a must-see for fans of the director. The main attractions here are Alberto Sordi as the titular sheik, Giulietta Masina as an early incarnation of Cabiria and the funny and playful screenplay, which would later serve as the basis of both Gene Wilder’s The World’s Greatest Lover and more recently as one of the plot lines in Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love.
It’s also the first Fellini film to be scored by Nino Rota, a partnership that would last for many decades as Rota scored the majority of all of Fellini’s features. The film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 1953 Venice Film Festival.
8. Il Bidone (1955)
Il Bidone is an interesting work in Fellini’s filmography that often goes overlooked. It’s as if he took a step backward after his international breakthrough with La Strada, in the sense that he made a more grounded film; almost completely doing away with the magic realism which had brought him fame beforehand and his typical themes and iconography, which would go into overdrive in the films following this 1955 feature.
The film once again stars his wife, Giulietta Masina, as well as American actors Broderick Crawford and Richard Basehart. Despite that fact and Fellini’s Best Foreign Feature Academy Award win the year before, Il Bidone was not released in the United States until nine years after it was made.
The film revolves around a trio of swindlers, Picasso (Basehart), a family man who really wants to be an artist, Roberto (Franco Fabrizi), who wants to be the Italian version of singer Johnny Ray, and their aging leader Augusto (Crawford), who is married to Iris (Masina).
The film follows the men in an episodic fashion as some of their cons are shown, amongst them dressing up as clergymen to cheat elderly peasant sisters out of their life savings or ripping of the poor and destitute by impersonating government workers. But when Augusto, who is already starting to be weary of his line of work, comes across his full grown daughter, who he barely ever sees, he is inspired to help her out, which will lead to both his downfall as well as his redemption.
A socially conscious film and a bit of a throwback to Fellini’s roots in neorealism, Il Bidone is a stark examination of a hollow and wasted existence. Interestingly, Fellini had originally envisioned the role of Augusto to go to Humphrey Bogart. It would have been extremely interesting what he would have done with a role with so much existential angst.
Whilst not amongst Fellini’s top works, Il Bidone deserves far more fame than it is often granted and should be seen by all Fellini enthusiasts. The film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival.
7. And The Ship Sails On (E la Nave Va) (1983)
Arguably Fellini’s last truly great film, And The Ship Goes is another episodic feature in which the director tackles the moral bankruptcy of European society prior to the outbreak of World War I. A surreal feast with lush and obviously intentional artificial sets, And The Ship Goes might very well be the maestro’s most under-appreciated work, featuring some truly lush visuals, beautiful music and a genuine poetic touch.
The film is set on a luxury cruise ship, which is filled with aristocrats, musicians, politicians as well as friends and fans of world-famous opera singer Edmea Tetua, who has recently passed away and whose ashes are on board to be scattered out at sea near the island where she was born.
The viewer is guided throughout the movie by Orlando, an Italian journalist, who constantly provides background information directly to the viewer by breaking the fourth wall on what’s happening on board the ship as well as on its passengers, who all are depicted as caricatures.
Three days into the journey however, a group of Serbian refugees, the first victims of the rapidly approaching war on the continent, is brought on board by the captain, causing plenty of commotion with the existing passengers and ultimately disaster for the ocean liner.
As pure a Fellini film as it gets, And The Ship Sails On is filled with bizarre characters and situations, set against a baroque background and told in episodic manner, where narrative clearly takes the back-seat. Another divisive film in Fellini’s oeuvre, some have called this movie one of his worst, whilst other tend to view it as a late career masterpiece.
The film received a fifteen-minute standing ovation after its screening at the Venice Film festival, has been called “Fellini’s best” by Michelangelo Antonioni and walked away with many prizes at various award ceremonies and festivals in Italy. Your mileage on this film will probably depend on your enthusiasm for Fellini films in general but for those who admire his work and are well acquainted with it, this is a real gem.