Fellini Forever!

in 20th Haifa International Film Festival

by Phillip Bergson

An unquestioned highlight at Haifa this year was the mini-retrospective devoted to Federico Fellini, with an exhibition of his sketches gracing the foyer of the modern cultural centre that is this festival’s busy, beating heart, and five early features, immaculately restored as part of the globally touring Mediaset Cinema Forever package, filling the adjacent miniplexes during this nine-day miracle of film festival, sandwiched between Jewish religious festivals and Israeli security alerts.

This is a wonderful way for young, new audiences to experience classics of the Seventh Art as they should be seen — not on reductive DVDs or late-night cable TV channels, but on cinema screens with enthusiastic, paying audiences. Haifa offered cinephiles the chance to see several films by the Maestro on successive days, and in chronological order, so as quickly to sense the visual and thematic echoes that inform and enliven his developing work. It is also a marvellous way for the more experienced, perhaps slightly jaded, critic, dreading another competitive entry from a ‘developing cinematography’ to begin his day more congenially in the colourful company of Juliet of the Spirits (Giulietta degli spiriti), gorgeously restored, its flights of fantasy not at all démodé, the 132 minutes of running time gloriously reconfirming his belief in the magic of cinema.

A fascinating companion-piece to Fellini’s timeless oeuvre is the 52-minute documentary by Mario Sesti entitled The Last Ending (L’ultima sequenza) which I first saw this year in Karlovy Vary. For once, a film about the making of a film functions as a useful piece of cinematic archaeology. For it uses the work of critic-cineaste Gideon Bachmann, who took some 3,000 photographs during the shooting of 8-1/2 (Otto e mezzo) and recorded hours of interviews with Fellini, both in Italian and surprisingly lucid English. From this mosaic of reminiscences, verbal and visual, as well as with newly-made interviews with such ageless protagonists as Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée and members of the crew of the film, this documentary evokes the famous suppressed ending of Fellini’s Oscar-winning meditation on film-making.

The sequence was evidently set in an Orient Express-type luxury restaurant wagon, with all the characters of 8-1/2 re-assembled, glamorously garbed in white, as if on an elegant journey to who-knows-where?

But as Lina Wertmuller sagely notes, Fellini abandoned this expensively-shot sequence as he felt it imparted a funereal air to the finale of his film. He subsequently used the exuberant circus passerelle, which had actually been shot as a trailer for the film. This sequence to Nino Rota’s carnival tune forever underscores Fellini’s more optimistic vision of life — “E una festa la vita” — inviting the audience to join the feast, the celebration of living. This speaks volumes about his work, his philosophy, and the man himself behind the caricaturist’s camera.

Curiously, Woody Allen, a noted Fellinian himself, seems to have been inspired by this never-seen ending for the opening of his own film-about-film-making, Stardust Memories , with its nightmare presentation of twin trains, one an Eastern European misery, the other peopled with Great Gatsby-type hedonists. This seems further evidence of the genius of the humanist humourist from Rimini, who in reflecting and refracting his society and personal obsessions, succeeded in creating a unique new world, that we have come to know, and some of us to love, thankfully, happily, hopefully, as ‘Felliniesque’

Phillip Bergson