Federico Fellini The Book of Dreams by Federico Fellini

“Dreams are fairy tales that we tell ourselves. They are the small and big myths that help people to understand. Of course, you shouldn’t ask your dreams for instant or constant help in changing your daily behavior. And you shouldn’t completely abandon yourself to the pleasure of this night spectacle. The insensitive dreamer risks spending his days doing nothing, surrounded by brittle, evanescent things. Sometimes people are so immersed in that reality they dream only at night — but by then it’s too late for images.”

— Federico Fellini from a 1964 interview

“I’m a big liar.”

— Federico Fellini in the documentary Fellini: I’m A Born Liar

Federico Fellini wrote the first entry in his dream book on 30 November 1960, between the making of La dolce vita and 8 ½. He starts by describing himself with accompanying drawings: “In my dreams I almost always see myself from behind. I have hair and I’m thinner, just like I was 20 or 30 years ago. Here, this is how I see myself and that’s how I’ll draw myself in the dreams I write down in this book. But this is how I should draw myself.”

According to an essay by biographer Tullio Kezich included with the recent release of Federico Fellini: The Book of Dreams, he started it as part of his Jungian psychotherapy. He would write down his memories of his dreams as soon as he awoke. The idea was to free the psyche through the charting of these subconscious thoughts. The entries were garnished with pen and marker sketches and watercolor paintings. (Fellini was a skilled cartoonist.)

The director eventually filled up two notebooks. The first lasts from November 1960 to 2 August 1968 and the second covers February 1973 to 1982 and includes some loose pages from 1990. After his death in 1993, the two books were stored in a vault in Rome, until the Federico Fellini Cultural Association was able to purchase them through a complex process that involved his six legal heirs and an arcane legal process that, related by Association director Vittorio Boarini in an additional essay, played like an ancient Masonic ritual.

Rizzoli has now released these journals in an almost ridiculously lavish package. It’s sized at a hefty 9 7/16″ x 13″, the size of the first notebook, with top-grade paper tinted to approximate the aged hues of the originals. The pages are scanned and reproduced to include every smudge and ink stain showing through pages. This is a mighty rich research tool.

Anyone who has seen a Fellini film knows the importance dreams played in his artistic landscape. It is no coincidence that these film dreams became more prominent at the same time he started keeping the notebook.

As in 8 ½, there are frequent appearances by his artistic collaborators: actors Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, composer Nino Rota, costume designer Danilo Donati, his secretary Liliana Betti, art director Piero Gherardi, and producer Dino de Laurentiis. He obsesses over his devotion to wife Giulietta Massina and her anger towards his mistresses, perceived and actual. The same feral prostitute from his seaside hometown of Rimini who also inspired Volpina in Amarcord shows up. A majority of the drawings contain sketches of giant bulbous naked women inviting and hugely dominant, most of them prostitutes and actresses referred to by initials.

But there is no order or structure to the dreams; they come as they may. Other recurring themes are Giulietta sick or dying (or otherwise acting a symbol of innocence and loyal love), Fellini going blind or having his eyes poked out, eating excrement, and trains and train tracks. He runs into generational cohorts like Roberto Rossellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni and Carl Jung, and his psychoanalyst Ernst Bernhard.

Like anyone else’s dreams there are traces of the occult, Freudian nonsense, and the mysterious and ridiculous ephemera and jetsam of the mind. The drawings can be broadly comic and surreal, and tend to become more detailed and realistic (as possible) in the later years. His written voice is familiar from the narration of his movies: conversational, precocious, sentimental, and relentlessly analytical.

The first notebook covers a period where this obsession became a greater part of his movies. When, as Kezich says in his biography Federico Fellini: His Life and Work: “His vision has transcended those theories [of neorealism] and teachings and entered a broader, evanescent, and intangible dimension. From this point on we can say that for Fellini, life is but a dream.”

A key turning point in the permanent dream state of his movies was Juliet of the Spirits from 1965, about a housewife who gains independence after a spiritual journey through her subconscious. It is mentioned several times in the journal and acquires new nuances as an explication of Bernhard’s psychoanalytical theories in tandem with Fellini’s personal explorations. This wasn’t an entirely successful approach and his films would subsequently become unmoored from a psychologically engaging reality as they were overpowered by these dream worlds.

On 5 February 1965, upon completion of Juliet, he dreamt of a blind old elephant that is publicly executed at a circus. Anxieties about his status as an internationally renowned director continually crop up. But the deliberateness and obviousness of the symbols leads one to wonder, was Fellini sometimes inventing in his dream journal as he did in real life? In copying his dreams down after waking up, how often were they shifted to fit conscious desires for meaning and structure?

Too often, the imagery conforms to the fashionable Freudianism of the time. On 19 October 1962 he writes, “My mother (or Giulietta) is giving me a bike ride home …” He dreams of having sex with his father. A cross hovers over Rome as in La Dolce Vita.

In reprinting the journals directly without commentary it is left to the reader to interpret the dreams as they desire, as is inevitable. Which is a blessing, given the overly hagiographic tone of the introductory and concluding essays, where Fellini is referred to as “Maestro”.

Kezich irritatingly instructs the reader that “The Book of Dreams is a proposal for the circumnavigation of the mystery, an immense store of finds, surreal hypotheses, unrealizable fantasies, and precognitions. It is a privilege to be allowed to contemplate the inner world of such a great artist; and it would be unbecoming to take advantage by adventuring too indiscreetly into this forest, dark or otherwise, and even using his confessions against him.”

There is nothing discreet about these journals. He published some of the pages in magazines and frequently writes as if addressing an audience. Their original point was to be used in analysis. If not to gain some insight into his personality, why else should we look at them?

What Kezich is touching on is that the only real fault of this book is the perplexing problem of dreams and our insistence in their profundity. How much are they are a part of us? How much is actually remembered? What do they mean? When is a cigar just a cigar? Did Fellini dream more extravagantly, with better art direction and more fluid crane shots than you or I?

Fellini has said that there isn’t a clear line between past, present, future, memory, truth, and fact. This can be an excuse for deliberate obfuscation or for a more fluid and open approach to life. The Book of Dreams is unlikely to alter anyone’s opinion as to which side Fellini’s work falls on. It is as profound and pompous as his movies, a strangely predictable yet endlessly fascinating storehouse of his imagination.

RATING 8 / 10