6. Hard to be a God (Aleksei German, 2013)
While it would be drastic simplification to call Hard To Be A God a modern-day Satyricon, that statement at least gives potential viewers an idea of what they can expect. German’s film, like Fellini’s, is a long and often gruelling episodic journey through a world that is half-way between realistic history and full-blown fantasy.
Also like Fellini’s film, Hard To Be A God features many highly disturbing scenes of extreme human degradation and violence. As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has remarked, “If Hard To Be A God isn’t the filthiest, most fetid-looking movie ever made, it’s certainly in the top three.”
Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Hard To Be A God is based on a science-fiction story by the Strugatsky Brothers. With Stalker, Hard To Be A God shares a similarly filthy, ruined, dystopian aesthetic. Indeed, German had worked as Tarkovsky’s assistant director.
The plot isn’t all that easy to follow, especially for viewers unfamiliar with the novel it’s based on. The main character is a scientist, sent to a distant world that resembles some nightmarish re-imagining of feudal Europe.
The scientist seems to have lost track of what he’s there for, and takes up a privileged, god-like position among the natives, impressing them with his strength and intelligence. His task is supposedly to witness first-hand a cultural renaissance, but signs of any progress are hard to come by among all the horror and filth.
What’s more, the intellectuals are being culled, and Don Rumata, the scientist can’t do anything to stop it. The only modest signs of progress are brief bursts of music, but these are always drowned out by other, generally horrifying noises.
Hard To Be A God began filming in 2003, but wasn’t finished until ten years later. This isn’t too surprising for anyone who has seen the film. The sets alone look like they took years of planning. So too the remarkable use of camera movement.
The camera often moves as if filming a documentary. Characters can often be seen looking directly into the camera. But there is an obvious art to the surface spontaneity; one gets the impression that every move of the camera has been conceived in the filmed-maker’s imagination.
Indeed, like the best of Fellini, the most remarkable thing about Hard To Be A God is how the director (and his crew) manage to make something ordered out of something totally chaotic. German unfortunately died before he could see the finished work. His son had to complete the work on sound and editing before it was ready for release.
7. Stardust Memories (Woody Allen, 1980)
Stardust Memories is Woody Allen’s own take on Fellini’s 8 ½. While references to Fellini (and Allen’s other muse, Ingmar Bergman) pepper Allen’s entire oeuvre, Stardust Memories couldn’t be conceived without the prior existence of Fellini’s film.
Shot in black and white (like 8 ½), Stardust Memories is about a director who is trying his best to be taken more seriously as an artist. Throughout the film, he is told by people how they prefer his “earlier, funnier” films. The film is therefore highly self-referential. The director, Sandy Bates, is played by Allen himself, and anyone with even a vague knowledge of Allen’s work will be familiar with the claim that his “earlier, funnier” films were better.
There are also references in Stardust Memories to Allen’s earlier films, Annie Hall in particular. Just as 8 ½ marked a highly respected director’s self-reflexive effort to understand his position in relation to his work, Stardust Memories is a taking stock of where Allen and his work had found itself. Stardust Memories is no masterpiece, indeed it doesn’t try to be.
There is an immense sadness at its heart, the sadness of wanting to be a serious director worthy of Fellini or Bergman, but always being taken for a clown.
8. Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985)
While it hasn’t been remarked upon very often, Juzo Itami’s Tampopo has all the elements of a Felliniesque film. Released in 1985 to almost unanimous critical praise (Ebert gave it full marks), Tampopo is a film about food and sexuality. It begins like a pastiche of a spaghetti western – Itami even suggested that the film can be termed a “Ramen Western”.
Goro rides into town in his truck, searching – fruitlessly – for the perfect noodles. He meets Tampopo (meaning “dandelion seed”), a cook who is very far from making the perfect noodles. Nevertheless, Goro takes up the task of teaching her to make the best ramen in town.
That is the central plot line of Tampopo, but in fact it’s a very free-form film in structure. Like Fellini’s 8 ½ it floats quite freely between memory, fantasy, reality, past and present. The most memorable scenes are gently surreal vignettes about food.
A hotel sex scene involving fish, eggs, and a whole lot more is perhaps one of cinema’s great tributes to the sensuality of good food. And a scene where a hapless educator tries teaching a class of girls how to eat spaghetti in the proper European manner could have come right out of Amarcord-era Fellini.
9. Underground (Emir Kusturica, 1995)
“If Fellini had shot a war movie, it might resemble Underground”. This was how Variety’s Deborah Young reviewed Emir Kusturica’s Underground. Indeed, Kusturica is often termed “the Fellini of the Balkans”. Kusturica claims to have learned a lot about film-making from Fellini. “I’m proud of having discovered how Fellini made his films, and using the same little tricks, like a magician who sees a circus, and then goes in another to work.
There are three specific features: first, the excitement that comes from every character, second, the incredible architecture of the scenes, third, the dominant Mediterranean paganistic vision of life.” Unsurprisingly, Kusturica even named his production company after a Fellini film (Cabiria Films).
An important thing to pick up on in that statement is “the excitement that comes from every character”. Kusturica isn’t a director to pour all of his sympathy into one dominant protagonist. His films usually feature a huge variety of characters from many walks of life, and Underground is no exception.
10. Black Cat White Cat (Emir Kustirica, 1998)
The most influential of Fellini’s films for Kusturica is undoubtedly Amarcord. Though, oddly enough, he only fell in love with the film after his ninth attempt to watch it (the other eight times he fell asleep within fifteen minutes). Black Cat White Cat is one of Kusturica’s most Amarcordian of films.
The film features is something of a shaggy-dog story, featuring a large cast of somewhat cartoonish though sympathetic characters. It centres on the gypsies of former Yugoslavia. He had already made a film about gypsies with 1988’s Time of The Gypsies. For the most part, Kusturica uses actual gypsies to perform the roles.
Rather than the expected amateurishness, they bring a raucous sense of joie-de-vivre and chaos to the film that professionals probably couldn’t achieve with the same intensity. As with many a Kusturica film, the viewer gets the impression that a lot of fun was had on set, and this carries through to the film itself.
The plot is something of a shaggy-dog story. Perhaps the most apt term to describe the film is “carnivalesque” or indeed “Rabelaisian”. There is an emphasis on crowded scenes (weddings, parties, performances) and bodily functions. It’s a film that never seems to stop moving, and the pleasure of it is never knowing what direction it’s moving in.
Author Bio: Ciaran is originally from Dublin, Ireland, but currently lives in New York. He has passionate interest in European and Japanese cinema – the old stuff in particular. The directors who have left the deepest impression on him are Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Marco Ferreri.