Film

Fellini: I'm a Born Liar (2003)

Jonathan Kiefer

The right way to make a documentary on Fellini is to fantasize a little about the persona, rather than to seek the 'truth' of the man.


Fellini: I'm a Born Liar

Director: Damien Pettigrew
Cast: Federico Fellini, Donald Sutherland, Terence Stamp
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: First Look Pictures
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-04-11 (Limited release)

It is easy to revere Federico Fellini, who died 10 years ago and will be accordingly lionized with a huge retrospective at Cannes this year. The event should also demonstrate that it is easy to watch his films, which flow like dreams, with their own internal logic.

The right way to make a documentary on Fellini, therefore, is to fantasize a little about the persona, rather than to seek the "truth" of the man. A well-proportioned mixture of "truth" and "fantasy" occurs in Fellini's films, so much so that it soon becomes obvious that a documentary can't contain him, or entirely capture him, considering Fellini's own resistance to "truths" about himself. Damien Pettigrew was wise not to try; with Fellini: I'm a Born Liar, he delivers an attentive appreciation of the old ringmaster, whom he's perfectly willing to remain opaque.

Pettigrew dutifully collects comments from people who knew and worked with the director, and returns to a few of his films' most iconic locations for a then-and-now comparison -- rather a clever technique, as it passes off a romantic pilgrimage in the guise of clinical examination. As accent, Pettigrew adds sensual close-ups of film stock being manipulated, an exhibition of stunning and iconic images from Fellini's finished works, and just the appropriate aural flourishes: a gust of wind and a few bars of inimitable music by Nino Rota, Fellini's longtime composer.

But Pettigrew's approach seems to proceed from the theory that it would have been a shame not to build something from the long interview Fellini granted him shortly before the maestro died. Pettigrew places this interview at the core of his documentary, with the understanding that any Fellini interview is at best a web of yarns. The director's digressions about his background and techniques, while vivid and loquacious, are notoriously unreliable.

Fellini: I'm a Born Liar is lyrical and visceral; it serves the lore of Fellini, not the scholarly research. It glimpses his soul and style. Fellini was as famous for his leg pulling as he was for his filmmaking, and this tendency gave life and joy to his best work, which, as he describes it, is "a quest for the most authentic part of oneself." Part of what made the director a genius and a bane to his usually jealous dissenters was his rare gift for making movies that were both interesting and entirely about himself. Many read like stylishly narrated memories, deeply lived in, embellished at will, cherished.

Regardless of his cinematic skill, this capacity for relentless self-exploration alone qualifies Fellini for inclusion in the canon of great modern artists. So it's no surprise when, with a strangely plausible hybrid of humility and vanity, he recounts the story of a dream in which Picasso made him an omelet. What a great image -- the abstract artwork of food preparation, the nourishment, and service, taken from the master. Portent and iconic and amusingly weird, it lodges itself in your imagination so firmly that the fact of having been dreamed doesn't make it any less authentic.

Pettigrew assumes an audience of people who would similarly dream of brunching with Fellini. On our behalf, he assumes more than familiarity with the films. Clips are neither identified nor, in several cases, given any context. The result, almost certainly not intended as a survey or a deconstruction, is a kind of internal dialogue of a movie, which poses a series of affectionately rhetorical questions for those already in the know. Like: "Remember the dreamed opening of 8 1/2 -- the cutting, the selection of shots, the precise balance of clarity and mystery -- could it be more perfect?"

That film, about the impotent agony a movie director endures while conceiving and birthing his film, covers some of the same ground as Pettigrew's project, and its inclusion here only reinforces the vital relationship between memory and creativity. "You come into this life with the unique goal of narrating it to others," Fellini intones. For many that would seem like an audacious claim, but Fellini put it into recurrent practice.

For all the headiness, of course, it helps to include some of the humdrum. So what of Fellini's specific work habits? Famously, the maestro was often a cranky taskmaster with actors. "Puppets are happy to be puppets if the puppeteer is good," he says, not at all defensively. For perspective on this, Pettigrew supplies liberal doses of interviews with Donald Sutherland and Terrence Stamp; Sutherland, who played the title role in Fellini's Casanova, displays by turns admiration for and hostility toward the director's methods. And he delivers his comments with perfect, actorly diction. It's such an eerily exaggerated tone -- the extemporaneous thoughts so carefully enunciated -- that it evokes listening to the dubbed dialogue in Fellini's films: a controlled, unreal reality, a "truth" apart from facts.

When he gets rolling, Stamp is a marvelous raconteur in his own right -- particularly when recalling the English stage actor's first foray into Fellini's rather ribald world. It's hard to know how much Stamp exaggerates, but it's easy to see that exaggeration is the real fun of his story, and that seems like the central lesson learned from the director himself.

Given this emergent portrait, it doesn't seem so hard to believe that Fellini was, as he says, "unable to cope with what they call a normal existence," or that he knew he'd never be a doctor or a cardinal. To a certain breed of young artist, that must seem as reassuring as having Picasso make you an omelet.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum
Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Music

Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.

Music

Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.