6. The Road (La Strada) (1954)
La Strada is the film that became Fellini’s true international breakthrough. Whilst he was already successful in Italy and known in Europe, La Strada announced Fellini to the world when it won the first Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1956. It is often considered his first real masterpiece as well as the first film to fully embody the term “Felliniesque”.
Whilst production was extremely difficult and the film wasn’t immediately beloved by all, it soon turned into a worldwide sensation after Fellini won his second consecutive Silver Lion at Venice and is nowadays considered as one of the best and most influential films ever made.
Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is a girl from a very poor background, who is basically sold to brutish strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) by her mother, after her sister died whilst being on the road with him before. Even though she is a gentle, naïve and credulous young woman, Zampano treats Gelsomina with disrespect and acts violently and even cruel towards her.
Gelsomina is initially complacent but, after some time, she runs off to a town where she sees Il Matto (Richard Basehart), a highwire artist, perform. Zampano finds her and takes her back, but later on the two join the travelling circus Il Matto already works for. Seeing how Zampano treats Gelsomina, Il Matto suggests they run off together but she’s too obedient to do so. When Zampano later kills Il Matto in a fit of rage, Gelsomina’s spirit is finally broken.
Seen as Fellini’s definitive break from neorealism, the movement he had been associated with early in his career, La Strada marked the moment where Fellini became a master filmmaker and true auteur. All the elements are here: the romantic realism, the circus, the blending of fantasy and baroque with realism, a wonderful score by Nino Rota, a lead role by Giulietta Masina and an extremely personal vision.
As the production was troubled, dealing with budget restraints, casting issues, filming disruptions due to severe weather and injuries on set, Fellini actually suffered a nervous breakdown just before completing the movie. In the end, it all seemed to have been worth it as La Strada became a worldwide hit and turned Fellini into an internationally acclaimed director.
5. I Vitelloni (1953)
A very important film in Fellini’s filmography, I Vitelloni is the movie were the director came of of age. Although The White Sheik had marked his debut as a director on his own, it had been a much lighter affair and also not very successful.
I Vitelloni , however, was a highly autobiographical film and displayed many more of the themes, which would come to define Fellini’s work, whilst also becoming a sizeable hit in Italy. Just like in the White Sheik, the film again starred Alberto Sordi, who broke through with his performance here to become one of Italy’s greatest comedy stars for the next few decades.
The film is set in the coastal town of Rimini, where it follows five friends, the titular Vitelloni, which means something along the lines of “big calves” (and has become part of Italian vernacular as a result of this movie), as they are stuck in adolescence, do nothing much and try to make their lives in the boring town a bit more eventful by fooling around and causing mischief.
The film focuses on Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), the leader of the group, who, although having recently married his sweetheart at a shotgun wedding, remains a womaniser, Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste), who wants to be a playwright and foolish Alberto (Alberto Sordi), who still lives at home with his mother and sister.
The group is completed by Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini) and Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), the latter a stand-in for a young Fellini himself. In the end, it’s only Moraldo who decides to leave small town life behind and go to Rome in search of bigger and better things.
A beautiful film about young men refusing to grow up and being stuck in a rut, I Vitelloni can be considered Fellini’s first minor masterpiece. An intimate and personal film, the movie is at once dramatic and comedic and has a permeating sense of warm nostalgia about it. Many of Fellini’s later trademarks can be found here, like his obsession with the circus and an absurd sense of humour.
A grand masquerade ball and an impromptu mambo scene on the streets of Rimini are stand-out sequences that clearly foreshadow similar moments found in later Fellini films. I Vitelloni went on to win the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and set Fellini on course for a decade, in which he simply could do no wrong.
4. Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria) (1957)
La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 seem to often be in the spotlight but Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria is amongst the director’s greatest works and many of the stylistic elements, which those aforementioned movies are renowned for, were clearly already developing here.
The film tells the story of a Roman prostitute with a heart of gold, who, time after time, gets beaten down and humiliated but always keeps optimistic and hopeful in her quest for true love. Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) seems have nothing but bad luck in this life.
She gets dumped and nearly drowned by her boyfriend, who also steals her purse and money, locked up in a bathroom with a dog for an entire night by a famous actor, who takes her home but has to hide her when his girlfriend shows up, is humiliated on stage by a hypnotist and ultimately deceived by a man she think truly loves her and wants to marry her, after having sold her house and having handed him all the money. But despite all this, Cabiria somehow ultimately still manages to smile as she won’t let life beat her down.
A wonderful tragicomic and truly Felliniesque film, Nights of Cabiria is filled with fantastical and slightly surreal moments. The mambo dance scene in a night club stands out as particularly joyous and Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, possibly gives her best performance ever in one of her husband’s films. Her portrayal of the naïve and optimistic to a fault Cabiria is the stuff of silver screen legend.
The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, which made it Fellini’s second one in a row as he had won the year previously with La Strada. Masina also took home the prize for Best Actress at Cannes. A real gem of a movie, which comes highly recommended to all interested in Fellini’s work, and a personal favourite.
3. La Dolce Vita (1960)
One of the most influential and financially successful European art movies of the 1960s, Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is the film for which the critics first coined the term “Felliniesque” to describe his distinct poetic and flamboyant style. It can be argued that this was the film that really opened the floodgates for European art cinema abroad and till this day the movie is often referenced in many works of other renowned directors.
The film consists of a prologue, seven episodes and an epilogue in which the viewer is taken on a journey through decadent and hedonistic Rome by way of tabloid journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he wonders around the eternal city amongst the international jet set and its aristocracy.
Filled with hallucinatory and poetic imagery, captured in glorious black and white widescreen photography, the film paints a picture of the “new” Rome as a profane, decadent and morally empty place, rebuilt on the poverty of the post-war period through the economic miracle of the late fifties. Marcello searches for meaning in this almost surreal landscape but ultimately doesn’t find it and seems to simply accept his and the city’s shallow lifestyle.
La Dolce Vita was a pivotal film in Fellini’s career. It greatly expanded on the poetic style and carnivalesque features which had already been present in his earlier works like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, and it also started a long and fruitful collaboration with Marcello Mastroianni, who would go on to star in another four of the director’s works.
The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1960 and was nominated for four Academy Awards, ultimately only winning one for Best Costume Design, Black & White. A towering achievement in Italian film history and world cinema, La Dolce Vita is a truly iconic film which has well worked its way into popular culture.
2. 8½ (1963)
Another of the most influential and commercially successful European art movies of the 1960s, Frederico Fellini’s 8½ deals with its real-life director’s writer’s block by making a movie about a director with writer’s block and turning the film into a meditation on the artistic process.
Director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is in the midst of a large scale production but has no idea how to proceed, as both professional and personal matters keep interfering and causing him to have trouble to find inspiration to finish the movie. The pressure makes him retreat into his own memories, dreams and fantasies which soon start mingling with reality until they are all interconnected and impossible to tell apart, thereby creating a rich tapestry of Guido’s psyche and his artistic process.
The title refers to this being Fellini’s 8½ film as a director, the half representing two shorts he directed. Arguably one of the best films ever made about filmmaking process itself and certainly one of the best about writer’s block, lack of inspiration and some of the hurdles encountered during the artistic process, 8½ is an unique film in which reality, memories and fantasy mingle until they become one virtually undistinguishable tapestry.
The film won two Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design, the Grand Prize at the Moscow Film Festival and seven prizes from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists, including Best Director and Screenplay. The film was also the clear inspiration for Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories as well as Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. A film unlike anything that came before it, 8½ is one of cinema’s all-time masterpieces.
1. Amarcord (1973)
Amarcord means “I remember” in Romagnol dialect, the dialect of the Emiliano-Romagnolo region in Italy, where Fellini grew up. Not surprisingly the film is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story and as Felliniesque and nostalgic as the director’s films get.
Presented as a collection of episodic anecdotes, Amarcord is made to look like a memory where fact and fantasy mix and nostalgia clouds the vision. The film centres around the family of Titta, an adolescent boy who is growing up in in the small village of Borgo San Giuliano in pre-war Italy as fascism is on the rise. We witness the boy’s days in school, his oddball teachers, his sexual awakening, town holidays, the influence of the Catholic church and other random events like his crazy uncle refusing to get out a tree during a family day out in the country.
Together these episodes create a rich tapestry, which represents the director’s memories. Greatly assisted by a wonderful screenplay by the director himself and Tonino Guerra, surreal art direction, a marvellous score by Nino Rota and inspired cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno, who manages to give most of the film an almost misty look to give it a memory-like feel, Amarcord is a hard film to describe and simply needs to be experienced.
Without a doubt it’s one of the best representations of personal nostalgia ever put to the screen, whilst at the same managing to paint a larger picture of the state of mind the country was in. Humorous and sentimental, extremely personal yet grand in ambition, Amarcord ranks amongst Fellini’s very best films and was the director’s last true masterpiece.
Amarcord was met with universal critical acclaim at the time of its release. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film whilst also being nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Additionally the film won many Best Film and Best Director awards at a variety of international festivals and award ceremonies.
Author Bio: Emilio has been a movie buff for as long as he can remember and holds a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Critical and eclectic in taste, he has been described to “love film but hate all movies”. For daily suggestions on what to watch, check out his Just Good Movies Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/goodmoviesuggestions.