A huge fan of Italian cinema, Scorsese has also listed Fellini's study of a gnawing creative crisis, 8½ (1963), as one of his all-time Top 10 films and its impact is evident in a range of pictures from Arthur Penn's Mickey One (1965), Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) and François Truffaut's Day For Night (1973) to Woody Allen's Stardust Memories (1980), Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion (1995) and Peter Greenaway 8½ Women (1999). Having already modelled Sweet Charity (1968) on Nights of Cabiria (1957), Bob Fosse also drew on 8½ for All That Jazz (1979) and Rob Marshall followed suit with Nine (2009).
Auteurs as different as Wojciech Has, Emir Kusturica, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and David Lynch have all acknowledge their debt to Fellini. But not everyone was a fan. Orson Welles cuttingly declared, 'his limitation - which is also the source of his charm - is that he's fundamentally very provincial. His films are a small-town boy's dream of the big city. His sophistication works because it is the creation of someone who doesn't have it. But he shows dangerous signs of being a superlative artist who has nothing to say.'
Rimini and Fumetti
So, how did the small-town boy make it to the big city? Born on 20 January 1920 to a travelling salesman and the wife with whom he had eloped as her bourgeois family had disapproved of their union, Federico Fellini was raised in the Adriatic resort of Rimini by Urbano and Ida along with his younger siblings Riccardo and Maddalena. At the age of seven, he ran away from his strict Catholic school to join a travelling circus. But he was quickly returned to his classroom, where he failed to excel at anything other than drawing. Although he enjoyed going to the pictures after seeing Guido Brignone's Maciste all'inferno (1926), the young Fellini was more interested in the American comic-strips published in Il Corriere dei Piccoli, a children's magazine that introduced him to cartoonists like Winsor McCay, George McManus and Frederick Burr Opper, who became his idols.
Having been forced to join the Fascist youth group, Avanguardista, Fellini was unimpressed by Benito Mussolini and spent much of the period between 1937-43 trying to avoid military service. On leaving school, he opened a portrait shop with Demos Bonini before relocating to Florence in 1938 after having had an article published in the 'Postcards to Our Readers' column in the Milanese paper, Domenica del Corriere. Shortly after placing his first cartoon with the humorous weekly, 420, Fellini enrolled at the law school in the University of Rome. But he made no effort to study and quickly quit his job as a cub reporter on Il Piccolo and Il Popolo di Roma to devote his time to sketching café patrons with his new friend, Rinaldo Geleng.
Fellini's fortunes changed in 1939, when he joined the staff of the popular satirical magazine, Marc'Aurelio, alongside such future film-makers as Cesare Zavattini and Ettore Scola. In addition to writing for the 'But Are You Listening?' column, he also started doing interviews for CineMagazzino. However, Fellini wasn't a particularly big film fan and preferred comedies starring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers to the earnest arthouse fare screened at the capital's cine-clubs. At the height of his fame, he would claim to admire DW Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Luis Buñuel, but he never considered training at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia and rather stumbled into movie-making after he befriended variety star Aldo Fabrizi.
An Auteur's Apprenticeship
Amused by Fellini's articles, Fabrizi invited him to write gags for his stage act and they embarked upon a cross-country tour that saw Fellini gain experience as a set designer, costume maker and part-time actor. He also obtained his first screen credit, as one of the writers of Mario Mattoli's The Pirate's Dream (1941), although he had a hair-raising experience in Libya while working on Osvaldo Valenti and Gino Talamo's Knights of the Desert (1942), as Tripoli fell to the British and Fellini had to flee to Sicily on a German troop plane. On returning to Rome, he started writing for the radio comedy show, Cico and Pallina, and married its leading lady, Giulietta Masina, in October 1943. He considered her 'the greatest influence in my life', while actor Alberto Sordi claimed, 'Federico remained a little boy. He arrived from Rimini, very provincial, and he found Giulietta. She took him to her home and gave life to that poor boy... He needed taking care of.'
Despite becoming a familiar face at the Cinecittà studios, Fellini celebrated the Liberation of Rome in June 1944 by opening the Funny Face Shop with Enrico De Seta to provide caricatures and photographic souvenirs for the American GIs based in the Eternal City. It was while he was working here, however, that he was approached by Roberto Rossellini in the hope that he would persuade Fabrizi to star in his next film, Rome, Open City (1945). He also invited Fellini to team with Sergio Amidei on the screenplay, which was inspired by the martyrdom of Fr Giuseppe Morosini at the hands of the SS in April 1944. The pair would receive an Oscar nomination for their efforts and they repeated the trick with Rossellini's second neo-realist outing, Paisà (1946), which chronicled six encounters between American troops and the Italian population they were delivering from dictatorship. Fellini was also entrusted with directing the Sicilian sequences and was rewarded with a reunion with Rossellini on 'The Miracle' episode of L'amore (1948), in which he played the mute vagabond who impregnates Anna Magnani in a controversial story that would transform censorship laws across the globe.
Fellini would work with Rossellini again on Francis, God's Jester (1950), by which time he had forged a new writing relationship with Alberto Lattuada on Without Pity (1948) and The Mill on the Po (1949). Yet, while he continued to adhere to the neo-realist tradition, Fellini was intent on 'looking at reality with an honest eye - but any kind of reality; not just social reality, but also spiritual reality, metaphysical reality, anything man has inside him'. Lattuada gave him the chance to express himself on his own terms as the co-director of Variety Lights (1950), which drew on Fellini's experiences on tour with Fabrizi for a tale of travelling players that teamed Masina with Lattuada's wife, Carla del Poggio. The film was poorly received, however, and the co-directors were saddled with debts that would take a decade to clear.
The Neo-Kid on the Block
Despite being involved in the pre-production of Rossellini's Europa '51 (1952), which paired Masina with Ingrid Bergman, Fellini withdrew to make his full directorial debut with The White Sheik (1952). Producer Carlo Ponti had hired Fellini and Tullio Pinelli to develop a story conceived by Michelangelo Antonioni about a couple honeymooning in Rome. But, when Antonioni rejected their efforts, Ponti offered the job to Fellini, who enlisted the help of Ennio Flaiano to polish the script and cast Leopoldo Trieste and Brunella Bovo as the newlyweds who fall out over her crush on a fotoromanzi model, Alberto Sordi. The picture premiered at the Venice Film Festival, but the reaction was far from positive, with one critic avowing that Fellini had 'not the slightest aptitude for cinema direction'.
Attitudes changed the following year, however, when Fellini won the Silver Lion for Best Director for I Vitelloni (1953), a study of disaffected youth that was based on his own adolescence in Rimini. The film also earned Fellini his third Oscar nomination and he added a fourth for La Strada (1954), the picaresque story of a strongman and his put-upon assistant that boasted exceptional performances Masina and Anthony Quinn and brought Fellini the first of his four triumphs in the Best Foreign Film category. He returned to the open road in Il Bidone (1955), which followed the misadventures of con artists Broderick Crawford, Richard Basehart and Franco Fabrizi. Fellini had hoped to persuade Humphrey Bogart to take the lead, but he was too ill to travel and he plumped for Crawford after seeing his face on a poster for Robert Rossen's All the King's Men (1949), which had brought the Philadelphian the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Having failed to raise the funds to adapt The Free Women of Magliano, Mario Tobino's novel about a women's mental hospital, Fellini returned to the character that his wife had played in The White Sheik and Nights of Cabiria not only earned Masina the Best Actress prize at Cannes but also snared a second Oscar for Best Foreign Film. He followed this by co-scripting Eduardo De Filippo's Fortunella (1958) for Masina, but he was unable to find a backer for Journey With Anita, even though Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck had been lined up for a story that had been inspired by Fellini's return to Rimini for his father's funeral with his mistress.
Eventually, Mario Monicelli would make the film as Lovers and Liars (1979), with Goldie Hawn and Giancarlo Giannini. But this was far from the only project that was discussed around this period, with others including Casanova's Memories (with Orson Welles), Don Quixote (with Jacques Tati), The Decameron, A Martian in Rome and Barabbas, which was eventually made by Richard Fleischer in 1961, with Anthony Quinn in the title role. Another venture to stall was Moraldo in the City, which Fellini had been working on since 1954. But he revived it at decade's end as La Dolce Vita (1960) to examine the moral decline of postwar Italy and the impact on the country's culture of the 'Hollywood on the Tiber' phenomenon that had seen dozens of washed-up American actors seek to relaunch their careers by starring in sword-and-sandal productions made on the cheap to release frozen studio assets.
Casting Marcello Mastroianni as the cynical gossip columnist after producer Dino De Laurentiis had insisted upon Paul Newman, Fellini found an alter ego who would become as important to his canon as cinematographer Otello Martelli, production designer Piero Gherardi and composer Nino Rota. But, while the public flocked to see his cause de scandale, religious and political leaders denounced it and the Cannes audience hissed when jury president Georges Simenon insisted on awarding it the Palme d'Or.
But success brought pressure and Fellini struggled to come up with a suitable follow-up to a film that had seen him branded as 'a public sinner'. He exorcised a little of the guilt in 'The Temptations of Doctor Augustus', his contribution to the portmanteau picture, Boccaccio '70 (1962), which also included Mario Monicelli's 'Renzo e Luciana', Luchino Visconti's 'Il Lavoro' and Vittorio De Sica's 'La Riffa'. After much agonising and a failed bid to interest Laurence Olivier in his next project, Fellini underwent Jungian analysis and discovered a new means to channel his creative energies. The result was 8½ (1963), which took its title from the number of items in Fellini's filmography and centred on the travails of a film-maker suffering from artistic meltdown.
For the second feature running, Fellini was nominated for the Oscar for Best Director at a time when subtitled films were rarely considered for the category. He also shared a consecutive writing citation with Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi, and landed his third statuette for Best Foreign Film. Gherardi also emerged victorious for his costume design and such was Fellini's new status among the cinematic elite that, when he went on a tour of Disneyland, he was accompanied by none other than Walt Disney himself.
Hallucinating in Colour
Expanding horizons impacted upon Fellini's work as the 1960s started to swing. He took LSD and started attending séances, as he became intrigued by parapsychology. The results can be seen in the trippy odyssey that Masina's demure housewife goes on after discovering her husband's infidelity in Fellini's first colour feature, Juliet of the Spirits (1965), for which he tried to persuade Mae West to play the role of the ageing guru that was eventually taken by Valeska Gert, who had scarcely been seen on screen since appearing in GW Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) and The Threepenny Opera (1931).
Fresh from winning the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, Fellini continued in a supernatural vein with 'Toby Dammit', an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's story, 'Never Bet the Devil Your Heart', which featured alongside Roger Vadim's 'Metzengerstein' and Louis Malle's 'William Watson' in Spirits of the Dead (1968). Luchino Visconti, Claude Chabrol, Joseph Losey and Orson Welles had all been linked to the project at various points and Fellini was only recruited after Welles withdrew in 1967.
Having staved off bankruptcy after being hit with a whopping tax bill and having recovered from a lengthy illness, Fellini began working on a 16mm documentary for American television. A Director's Notebook, which coincided with Gideon Bachmann releasing his own study, Ciao Federico (both 1969). He also embarked upon an ambitious adaptation of Petronius's Menippean satire on life in Nero's Rome. As Gian Luigi Polidoro was working on an identical project, producer Alberto Grimaldi was forced to call his film Fellini Satyricon (1969), which saw the director attempt 'to eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination'. He ventured further into fantasy in cameoing as himself in Paul Mazursky's homage to 8½, Alex in Wonderland (1970), before guesting with Mastroianni to reprise the Trevi Fountain sequence from La Dolce Vita in Ettore Scola's dramedy, We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974).
This period saw Fellini reflect upon his past, as he completed an episodic triptych comprising I Clowns (1970), Fellini's Roma (1972) and Amarcord (1973) that revisited various aspects of his life. The first was a pseudo-documentary fantasy that asserted that the '`temporary, disordered, grotesque' modern world had more need of laughter than ever before, while the latter pair drew on Fellini's recollections of the capital and his childhood home. In dispensing with traditional linear narrative structures, he sought to free his work from convention and create cinema that had more in common with poetry than prose.
Heading Towards Port
Fellini was not present when Amarcord won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, as he was having problems in setting up Fellini's Casanova (1976), which starred Donald Sutherland as the infamous 18th-century lothario. The project had initially been sponsored by Dino De Laurentiis, who fell out with Fellini over his refusal to cast Robert Redford. When deals couldn't be struck with Jack Nicholson, Marcello Mastroianni, Alberto Sordi or Gian Maria Volontè, De Laurentiis baled and Fellini reteamed with Alberto Grimaldi. However, the production was held up when thieves broke into the Technicolor lab in Rome in August 1975 and stole 74 reels from Casanova, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom and Damiano Damiani's A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe (both 1975), a Spaghetti Western starring Bud Spencer and Terence Hill that was being produced by Sergio Leone.
Ultimately, the picture was released to mixed reviews, although Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi were nominated for their screenplay, while Danilo Donata won the Oscar for his eye-catching costumes. Following such a protracted shoot, Fellini opted to keep things simple with Orchestra Rehearsal (1979), a droll allegory that was filmed in just four weeks at Cinecittà. However, it proved to be his last collaboration with composer Nino Rota, who passed away on 10 April 1979, a week before Fellini began work on City of Women (1980), which was further marked by tragedy when actor Ettore Manni (who was playing a womaniser based on Simenon) died after shooting himself in the leg.
Fellini also broke his arm in a fall on the set and was further pained by the film's hostile reception at Cannes. Undaunted, he launched into a pitiless satire on opera and European politics in And the Ship Sails On (1983), which is set in July 1914 and follows the ill-fated funeral voyage of a beloved diva that culminates in a confrontation with the Austro-Hungarian navy over some Serbian refugees. Fellini proved equally scathing about television in Ginger and Fred (1985), which teamed Masina and Mastroianni as dancers who had impersonated Rogers and Astaire in the 1940s and are reunited for a nostalgic variety show.
He further examined the past in Intervista (1988), a typically bold blend of mock fiction and cod documentary that he dubbed a 'filmetto'. In addition to taking some Japanese journalists around Cinecittà, Fellini also conducts screen tests for an adaptation of Franz Kafka's Amerika and reunites Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg to see how much they have changed since they appeared together in La Dolce Vita.
Fellini was similarly reminded of the passage of time by the receipt of lifetime achievement awards at the 1985 Venice Film Festival and the 1993 Oscars. Moreover, he didn't work again after completing The Voice of the Moon (1990), an adaptation of Ermanno Cavazzoni's novel, The Lunatics' Poem, which had required production designer Dante Ferretti to build an entire town on a vacant lot at the old De Laurentiis studio outside Rome. Notwithstanding the lacklustre reviews, Roberto Benigni won a Donatello award for his performance as a dreamer released from a mental institution who encounters various eccentrics while trying to win the heart of 'Miss Flour' beauty queen, Nadia Ottaviani.
With much of the action being improvised, it proved a suitably elegiac and eclectic swan song. Fellini was under no illusions that he had spent his career analysing himself on screen, as he once claimed, 'If I were to make a film about the life of a flatfish, it would end up being about me.' Yet, as critic Gilbert Adair wrote after the director died on 31 October 1993, 'Fellini was the prime example of an artist capable of transforming himself into a work of art, a man who could, by some mysterious alchemical process, turn himself into a film.'