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.