Federico Fellini’s final feature never got distributed in the United States. That’s a heck of a fact to wrap one’s mind around, especially since it was popular in Italy. No American distributor thought the name Fellini was enough for art houses anymore, and certainly the response to his final string of heavily nostalgic, reflective movies was lukewarm at best. Such films as Ginger and Fred (1986), And the Ship Sails On (1983) and Intervista (1987) often raised a chorus of “been there, seen that” yawns, and the general consensus seemed to be that the old man was out of creative juices and content to recycle.
This may be the trap of anyone who makes personal, instantly recognizable movies that once struck everyone as something new and now are merely the same old thing. Now that Fellini’s 1990 swan song,
The Voice of the Moon (La voce della luna), has finally arrived in a lovingly assembled Blu-ray/DVD combo from Arrow Films, we can see it’s the kind of “old man’s movie” that doesn’t excite those who thirst for young blood and the shock of the new. Pasquale Iannone’s sympathetic liner notes quote John Baxter’s observation that it was “Fellini’s most assured film in years, and certainly his most personal, but the very recognisability of his concerns and the familiarity of the ingredients made it seem negligible.”
The film begins in a cemetery at night and functions as one long, languid exhalation over all things that pass and the doomed romanticism of lunatics who chase beauty and try momentarily to capture it, as artists do. This impulse is mixed with erotic desire, with women symbolizing the creative, the erotic, and the distant for (male) artists and dreamers.
Based on the 1987 novel
Il Poema dei Lunatici by Ermano Cavazzoni, the film follows two central characters who cross each other’s paths. Robert Benigni plays Ivo, who wanders at night hearing the moon’s voice and “mooning” over an inane beauty contestant (Nadia Ottaviani). Paolo Villagio, whose stocky elderly demeanour strongly resembles Fellini himself, plays Gonella, a retired judge who’s been put out to pasture and clings to his faded glory and trampled dignity.
In short, both characters play aspects of Fellini at different points in his career. Both actors were popular comedians in Italy, Villagio an established figure and Benigni an edgy upstart. When Gonella tells Ivo that he knows who he is because he’s been keeping an eye on him for a few years now, it feels like Fellini passing a torch — and rather acutely, since Benigni was several years away from picking up a bunch of Oscars for
Life Is Beautiful (1997). When we briefly see a woman’s face in the moon at the end, after that lunar body has been captured and freed by local farmers, I could swear it’s the face of Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and longtime muse, although I can find no confirmation of this online.
Roberto Benigni in Voice of the Moon (1990) (IMDB)
As so often with Fellini, this film is a rambling, dreamlike construction of setpieces and touchstones. According to the one-hour making-of included as a bonus, it was entirely improvised from a brief scenario, and Fellini told the players each day what was coming up. This hardly conduces a tight structure, and by this point it was clear that Fellini didn’t care for tight structure. He was interested in exploring the moment and the impulse while lavishing these impulses with the care and ingenuity of an excellent crew of artists at his command.
Thus, he’s still capable of stunning the viewer out of the blue in what’s basically a mercurial, protean single-setting extravaganza, such as when walls are pushed aside to reveal a rave to Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel”, and Gonella escorts a fantasy matron to Strauss’s “Blue Danube” as the punks look on, briefly hushed. Although Gonella lectures them that they shouldn’t dare to call what they do dancing, it’s clear (at least to this viewer) that Fellini’s split personality, with its equal debt to the young creative spirit represented by Benigni, also celebrates the youthful disco and Michael Jackson as much as the waltz of the superannuated.
While this movie is very, very Fellini in its circus parade of the contemporary world’s chaos and noise, it also seems faithful to at least the spirit and structure of Cavazzoni’s novel, as described by Iannone. He discusses the author’s interest in digression, similar to Cervantes’
Don Quixote (and that’s Fellini all over), and offers this quote from the book: “The days that followed were so eventful, so inscrutable and such a jamble that the best I can do here is to try and disentangle them…. My mind was in a state of continual flux.”
The Voice of the Moon did well in Italy with both viewers and critics, winning three Donatello Awards and having five more nominations. It didn’t do well elsewhere and didn’t even get out of the gate in America — until now. This release will reward those who admire Fellini and wish to revisit an old friend who still knew exactly what he was doing.