You know an artist has left a serious mark on the world when they have their own adjective. Kafkaesque, Shakespearian, Beckettian, Lynchian, the list is rather exclusive. “Felliniesque” is a descriptor that gets thrown around a lot, but there is no exact definition of what it means, except of course, “like something out of Fellini”. There are a few key aspects to the Felliniesque that we can pick up on.
Firstly, Fellini was a master at transitioning from reality to fantasy, or present to past. The influence of modernist literature is obvious. The way that, say, James Joyce or William Faulkner handled memory finds its cinematic analogue in Fellini, particularly 8 ½. Fellini, like those modernist authors, doesn’t condescend to audiences by explaining each transition: they just happen, and they happen beautifully.
Something that makes these transitions particularly Felliniesque is the overwhelming sense of nostalgia: sadness coupled with warmth of feeling. One image from 8 ½ that seems to inscribe itself into the minds of viewers is when the protagonist, Guido, enters the warmth of his childhood home from the harsh winter outside. It’s a scene that has been seen as a key to Fellini’s aesthetic – the harshness of reality tempered by the warmth of memory.
Connected with this use of memory and nostalgia is Fellini’s sense of earthy humour. His characters are often coarse and raucous. Often there’s a Breugel-ish feel to his depictions of everyday life. People eat and drink greedily and un-self-consciously, they laugh their dirty laughs, they sing, dance and generally act the fool.
Another typically Felliniesque trait is a fondness for large casts of characters, and crowded, chaotic scenes where every character is busy with something or other. It’s no surprise that side-shows, carnivals, and circuses feature prominently in Fellini. Where some directors may quaver at the thought of organizing scenes so stuffed with human activity, Fellini seemed to relish it.
1. Radio Days (Woody Allen, 1987)
Woody Allen’s love of all things Fellini is well-established. Stardust Memories is seen as Allen’s own version of Fellini’s 8 ½, and Sweet and Lowdown has been viewed as Allen’s La Strada. Radio Days can be seen as his Amarcord, though ultimately it is really just Allen’s most Felliniesque film overall.
The film centres on Joe, a young boy with a love for radio, growing up in a crowded house in Brooklyn. The story is told through an adult Joe’s voice-over, voiced by Woody Allen himself, Like many a Fellini film, there is little plot.
The film is more like a series of vignettes culled from Joe’s memory or imagination. There is a huge cast of characters involved, many embodied by actors Allen had used in previous films (Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton, Julie Kavner, to name just a few). This adds to the nostalgic feel of the film – many of the characters already feel somewhat familiar.
As Roger Ebert perceptively remarked, the film plays loose with reality in a typically Felliniesque manner: “like radio, it jumps easily from one level of reality to another. There are autobiographical memories of relatives and school, neighbors and friends, and then there are the glittering radio legends that seeped into these ordinary lives.”
2. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
Paolo Sorrenttino came to international prominence with The Consequences of Love, a minimalistic though highly stylised psychological thriller (or black comedy, depending on your interpretation). Since then, his films have become increasingly baroque. Il Divo demonstrated the Italian director’s talent for complex plotting, and has come to be considered by many as one of the greatest political films of the last decade.
No less baroque than Il Divo, The Great Beauty is Sorrentino’s picaresque tribute to both Rome and and a director who is inextricably tied to that city – Fellini. In form, The Great Beauty is Felliniesque in it’s loose, slow and somewhat garrulous plotting.
It focuses on Jep Gambardella, played by one of Sorrentino’s regulars, Tony Servillo. Gambardella is an ageing journalist with one moderately successful novel to his name. With a constant demeanor of vague ennui, he passes through a variety of Rome ‘s elite circles, interviewing conceptual artists, drinking with withered socialites, that kind of thing.
The film doesn’t have any strong narrative backbone; it is rather a series of generally deadpan vignettes. This, for some viewers, makes the film’s 142 minute duration a little wearing. For other viewers, especially those already familiar with the work of Fellini, the film is a suitably chaotic, decadently beautiful journey through one of Europe’s defining capitals.
3. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975)
Still regarded as one of the most unwatchably grotesque films of all time, Salo is, for those who can stomach it, a powerful satire about power and sexuality. Pasolini cut his teeth in cinema working with Fellini on The Nights of Cabiria.
The influence of Fellini carried through to the films he directed, though Pasolini’s comedy (in case it needs to be said, most of his films are indeed comedies) has a much darker satirical bite. Pasolini, like Fellini (especially the later Fellini), favors large ensembles and loose, often episodic narratives.
It is set in 1944 fascist Italy. A group of seemingly idle aristocrats decide to round up their locality’s most eligible youths, in order to submit them to a series of extreme and increasingly bizarre physical and sexual degradations.
Salo is not at first sight a very Felliniesque film. It is almost entirely confined to one – albeit spacious – interior. Where Fellini’s films dreamily move from space to space, Pasolini’s film has an uncomfortably claustrophobic feel.
In a sense, Pasolini has taken certain Felliniesque elements and put them to his own rather twisted use. Fellini’s earthiness and intelligent deployment of low-brow humor gets pushed to an extreme point here. To take the most extreme example, the scenes of coprophagia in Salo are an obvious perversion of Fellini’s many gently vulgar scenes of domesticity.
Despite the undeniably terrible nature of the film’s content, Salo is perhaps Pasolini’s most beautifully shot film, and this only adds to the film’s unique unpleasantness. The camera luxuriates in the lush interiors of the mansion, and also – problematically – the young naked bodies that are submitted to such awful abuses.
4. Santa Sangre (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)
Alejandro Jodorowsky is most known for the psychedelic freak-outs that are Holy Mountain and El Topo. Santa Sangre (“Holy Blood”) comes much later in his career. It’s a much more mature and artful film, though it thankfully retains Jodorowsky’s unique eye for strangeness.
The influence of Fellini is writ large throughout Jodorowsky’s cinema, but Santa Sangre is the one most clearly marked by the Italian director, to the point where it seems an homage. It is formally and thematically a carnivalesque film in the most Felliniesque of ways. A huge cast of characters fill its loose plot: clowns, musicians, knife-wielding lotharios, child-magicians, and, yes, elephants too.
The main character is Fenix, a boy-magician working in his parents’ circus. He is left an orphan after his parents die in gruesome circumstances. After a grown-up Fenix escapres from a mental facility, he returns to performing, this time in a side-show, where he performs a pantomime with the ghost of his armless mother. Things only get stranger as the film progresses. But this isn’t weirdness for weirdness’ sake.
Weirdness is good of course, but it gets tiring if there’s no intelligence controlling it and making some kind of order with it. At its heart, Santa Sangre is a ghost-story about coping with loss. It can be seen as a horror movie, like Holy Mountain and El Topo, but the use of symbolism and precise imagery gives it an emotional resonance uncommon to the genre.
5. La grande bouffe (Marco Ferreri, 1973)
Marco Ferreri is one of the more underrated European directors of Fellini’s generation. While he started out in Spain, he moved to Italy very early in his career, and quickly became a key player in Italian cinema. Dillinger Is Dead is considered by many to be his masterpiece: an unusually minimalistic and controlled film compared to Ferreri’s other films.
Aesthetically and thematically he is somewhat similar to Pasolini. There is the same caustic satircal bite, and there is a similar critical intelligence at work, casting a troubled gaze at societal changes. As with Pasolini, many elements of Fellini can be seen in the films, but they undergo an often grotesque transformation when coupled with the director’s darker perspective. This is most obvious n La Grande Bouffe, perhaps Ferreri’s most notorious film.
La Grande Bouffe can be seen as a good companion piece to Salo, in that it revolves around a group of bored males who decide to occupy themselves with grotesque games of human degradation. La Grande Bouffe is as bitingly satirical as Salo, but it’s thankfully lighter in tone, and not so difficult to watch, even if there are plenty of repulsive images. The main characters, played by Marcello Mastroianni and several other familiar faces of European cinema, are very much Felliniesque males.
In fact, the film seems to depict a world where those males have lost the dominating women in their lives, mothers specifically. They’ve decided to eat until they die, because rampant consumption is what bold boys do when they have no mother to tell them to stop. This is indeed a food-porn film, but as porn it’s very much of the S&M genre.
There are long, carefully planned scenes of food-preparation. In the early stages of the film, it should make viewers hungry – the food really does look delicious. But as the nature of the men’s game becomes clear, the film becomes more and more uncomfortable. It is one of those rare films that makes viewers aware of their own bodies. As we watch, we cycle from almost salivating with hunger, to feeling an illusion of over-stuffedness.