Federico Fellini: The Films by Tullio Kezich

Federico Fellini described his crisis to a friend as they walked along the Via Archimede towards Piazza Euclide.

“What should I do?” the filmmaker kept asking.”The inability to identify something you have imagined, to be unable to write it down, to keep having the feeling — true, incredibly true, I assure you — that you can’t do it anymore… Isn’t that what I’m experiencing right now?”

The project that troubled him would become one of his greatest film, 8 1/2, and apparently, this moment, “when Fellini changed gears”, is one that many have claimed to have witnessed.It appears that only one person can lay claim to “the prize” of actually having been there, which is nothing less than “the pride of having been a close friend of Fellini, the Maestro, during a period destined to become a classic moment in the history of cinema.”

“I don’t want to brag (or do I?),” writes Tullio Kezich in his massive new book Federico Fellini: The Films, a fascinating and engrossing monument not only to Fellini, but also to the book’s author, who died in August, 2009. Described in Vittorio Boarini’s introduction as Fellini’s “biographer par excellence” and “a grand protagonist of cinema”, Kezich writes with deep passion, insight and knowledge, and when he recalls that conversation from 1961, it’s easy to imagine Fellini’s physicality as he wrestled with his thoughts.

“At heart, and let’s be completely honest, I am Marcello (Mastroianni, the lead in 8 1/2),” he tells Kezich.”What if he represents me when faced with the relentless nightmare of a signed contract, a film that has to be made, risking showing up at the starting line empty-handed and with nothing more than an overwhelming desire to run away?” A few moments after that, Fellini ran away, ducking into a taxi to bounce his ideas off of his longtime writing collaborator Ennio Flainano.

Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of La Dolce Vita, Kezich’s book covers every Fellini film, one per chapter. Each opens with a marvelous quote from Fellini about the film in question, such as this one for La Strada, which seems to capture perfectly the Maestro’s combination of personal exploration, revelation and bombast: “This film is a complete catalogue of my entire mythological world, a dangerous representation of my identity that was undertaken with no precedent whatsoever.”

This is a overwhelmingly gorgeous production, similar to Peter Cowie’s excellent Akira Kurosawa, also published in March by Rizzoli. Kezich’s book brims with beautiful and surprising illustrations, including film stills, candids and posters, as well as Fellini’s sketches, storyboards and notes for each of his films.

Among the highlights are candid photos show Anita Ekberg preparing for her famous scene in La Dolce Vita where she stands in the Fontana di Trevi, except rather than wearing a sultry black dress, she’s wearing hip waders (the water was extremely cold). Fellini’s drawings are also revelatory. They have a comic book quality, which resonates with a description of his early life where Kezich writes, “[Fellini] wasn’t particularly interested in cinema; in fact, he preferred reading comics or spying the legs of local dancers.”

Judging from the illustrations and photos provided, it appears he managed to maintain those two interests throughout his life, and it recalls Roger Ebert’s description of 8 1/2 as a “portrait of a man desperately trying to weld together the carnal and spiritual sides of his nature; the mistress and the wife, the artistic and the commercial.”

As was the case with Cowie’s book, Kezich’s five-pound tome is absolutely stunning, visually and intellectually, but it is not pocket-friendly. At $75, it also sports a hefty price tag. For casual or hardcore Fellini-philes, if this book fits the budget, it is well-worth the price.

Kezich inspects every one of Fellini’s films, and begins by dividing his filmography into six sections:

  • Good-Byes covers the Maestro’s first films, from 1950-57.
  • The Turning Point examines his “grand, short-lived illusions” from 1960-64, and includes La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits.
  • Anguish discusses his work from 1967-69, when he experienced “a difficult and crucial moment in his career.”
  • A Reawakening looks at the films Fellini made when his “ability and willingness to have fun” came back.
  • Disenchantment focuses on his return to “existential disillusionment.”
  • Melancholy studies the films he made in the last phase of his life, which was “characterized by a powerful and desolate melancholy.”

By using each film as an entry point to discuss Fellini’s life, the book paints an interesting portrait. It isn’t a full-fledged personal or critical biography. Rather, it feels like attending a Fellini film-fest with a brilliant and impassioned friend.

As Kezich writes: “Taken as a whole, these twenty-five films … narrate the story of an artist’s life over a period of more than forty years, from Fellini’s youth to the final curtain call.”

RATING 8 / 10