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Making the Best of It

Federico Fellini's 'Intervista'

Federico Fellini can be called the most naked genius in the history of film. In 1963 he made 8 1/2, a quasi-confessional comedy-drama about the modern artist's torment: he or she is bursting with talent and can find nothing to expend it on. Out of this crisis Fellini made a masterpiece; since then, that same crisis has been often more evident than acknowledged in his work. Then in 1987 he faced it again, without pretense, and made a film although he had no film to make. He simply poured forth his virtuosity for 108 minutes, like a master pianist-composer improvising.

At last, after five years, that improvisation (so to speak) reaches the United States. Intervista (Castle Hill) is the context of 8 1/2 without its center. The title means "Interview." In it Fellini discloses--though obliquely, gorgeously, wittily--that he is desperate. (In 1969 he made a t.v. film called Fellini: A Director's Notebook; I haven't seen it, but according to accounts it's a much more conventional interview, not an implicit confession.)

In Intervista the framework is a visit to Cinecitta, the large film studio complex outside Rome, by some Japanese t.v. people who have come to interview Fellini as he prepares a picture based on Kafka's Amerika. Peter Bondanella tells us in his book on the director that Fellini had at one time contemplated making such a film, "but by the time he made Intervista, this project had already been discarded." Nevertheless, out of this already-shelved project and the Japanese interviewing, Fellini concocted a script that at least allowed him to film.

For the sake of the t.v. people, Fellini re-creates the beginning of his career--his first visit to Cinecitta in 1940, by tram, a young journalist sent to interview a reigning film beauty. His recreation of this episode, like the entire film, is not presented "straight"; it is intercut with the present, with Fellini's comments, with diversions, and enrichments. For instance, for the tram trip, Fellini presses into service the producer of Intervista, who puts on a Fascist uniform and becomes one of the passengers. The tram takes the young Fellini on excursions that were quite impossible, ending with shots of American Indians and elephants, which announce that they are nearing Cinecitta.

Bondanella quotes Fellini on Intervista:

     This pleasant chat among friends represents the ultimate 
     result of my way of making cinema: where there is no 
     longer a story or a script, and not even a feeling, 
     unless it is the feeling, precisely, of being inside a 
     kind of creativity that refuses every preconceived order.

That's putting a bold face on it. His creativity hasn't refused orders: it seems to be seeking orders and, not finding any, pours forth anyway. Out of some of the most banal "backstage" studio cliches, Fellini makes enchantment, wistfulness, fun. The familiar mixture of tap dancers, harem girls, assorted uniforms of various centuries, the melange of different sets are used here for something more than satire. Fellini never mocks any of it, though he sees the joke. He very obviously loves it all, for at least two reasons. This is where his gifts flourish (as a painter loves the smell of paint); and this fast-moving, irrational melange embodies profundities.

"What is reality?" "What is `now'?" These trite though trenchant questions Fellini doesn't need to ask: he knows the answers about as well as is possible. What moves us at Cinecitta, why it is so powerfully mysterious to see a tower of arc lights beam into life against the dark, why the immense space of an empty studio seems to echo even when it is silent, is because here occurs an argument with mortality. The mere fact that film can fix the moment implies that time is rushing by even while the moment is being fixed. Film, with all its fakeries, understands death. This is why nostalgia flourishes so easily in the film world, why the reminders of past Fellini films, which he includes here, seem like antiquity though they are only a few decades gone.

Fellini capitalizes specifically on that truth in a long sequence with Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg. Mastroianni suddenly makes an appearance outside Fellini's office window, elevated by a crane, in heavy makeup and a magician's outfit that he is wearing for a t.v. commercial he is making on the lot. Fellini, who calls him Marcellino, whisks him and others off in several cars to pay a long-postponed visit to Ekberg in her guarded villa outside Rome. The once-incredible Ekberg, now huge as well as tall, welcomes them all, including the Japanese t.v. people. While she is serving roasted chestnuts and wine, Mastroianni, as magician, conjures up a screen and projects a couple of segments from La Dolce Vita with himself and Ekberg--in 1959--including the Fontana di Trevi scene.

Intercut with these glimpses of two of the most beautiful faces ever filmed, we glimpse those faces today, watching their faces then. When the film segments are finished, Mastroianni says to her softly, "Anita, I have so many questions to ask you." We prepare to revel in rue. He continues softly: "Like--do you have any schnapps?" She laughs and goes for the drink, and the joke makes the moment even more rueful. All through the film, Fellini undercuts sentiment with humor, knowing in his wizardly way that this makes the poignancy more poignant.

Ekberg's presence raises the subject of Fellini's view of women, here and elsewhere. It was never as empathic a view as Antonioni's, whose moral protagonists are often women. Even when Fellini uses a female protagonist, as in La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, Juliet of the Spirits, she is a woman who accepts her life as determined by men. Fellini's women are figures, often secondary ones, in a man's world. This may in time date him; but it cannot affect his magic as a portrayer of that world.

Intervista affords one more example of a paradox in Fellini. He has never, to my knowledge, directed in the theater, yet many of his films, including this one, contain theatrical elements--in lighting or view or the idea of entrances and exits. Bergman, who has spent much more time in the theater than in film, has fewer theater elements in his films. Fellini, distant from the theater yet clearly fascinated by its unique properties, has blended them into his ultracinematic style. Possibly this theater fascination is connected with his histrionic self. He has appeared in several of his pictures, and in Intervista he is the center, amiable yet enjoying his performance.

He is not the only "self" in the film. We also get glimpses of the marvelous cinematographer, Tonino delli Colli, and the no less marvelous designer, Danilo Donati. This is part of Fellini's impulse to make his film be about itself.

A last note of first importance: as always in Fellini, the music matters. The score by Nicola Piovani acknowledges its debt to the late Nino Rota's scores for previous films; and it touches Intervista throughout with music-hall brio or with the peculiar grip of sentimental tunes--Fellini's cunning awareness that most of our most serious moments these days are bound up with pop tunes.

Stanley Kaufmann is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann