FELLINI’S ETERNAL ROME: Paganism and Christianity in the films of Federico Fellini

Alessandro Carrera

Bloomsbury (2019) h/b 186pp £75 (ISBN 9781474297615)

This is the opening volume for a new series, Classical Receptions in Twentieth-Century Writing. It is a daring subject with which to begin the series since Fellini is enigmatic, provocative and elusive: even his statement ‘I am a born liar’ depends on what he means by a lie. His playful puncturing of dramatic illusion is encapsulated in a moment from E la nave va (1983) where two mourners in black, their backs to the camera as they gaze out at a painted sunset backdrop and comment, ‘How marvellous! It seems almost false.’ Later in the film, an artist expresses a wish to paint the sky (‘I would like to do a painting like this, but how could I compete with the Great Craftsman’)!  Four years later in Intervista (1987), Fellini introduced two vulgar painters at work on a vast sky in Studio 5 at Cinecittà where Fellini often created his imaginary worlds or replicas of the real world such as the Via Veneto. 

That said, there is much of the real Rome and its environs in La Dolce Vita (1960), for even Fellini would have found it difficult to build a Trevi Fountain for that iconic scene with Anita Ekberg where the filming attracted a large audience. Though the district of EUR (Esposizione Universali di Roma) hardly features in Fellini (except in The Temptations of Doctor Antonio), C. cannot resist listing films of other directors in which this ‘metonymy’ of ‘a technocratic fascism to come’ appears. In Otto e mezzo (1963), Guido Anselmi inhabits two seemingly irreconcilable worlds, that of the fictional-real and that of his dreams, memories and imagination. Given Fellini’s repeated assertions that he has no ‘message’ to convey and that his films tease the audience, it is a brave critic to enter the world of Fellini’s dreams and illusions; from collapsing elephants and sick rhinoceros, to fading fresco and papal epiphany, Fellini’s make-believe is diverse and complex, but C. has a particular focus, a thread to create a path through the Fellini-labyrinth.

 C. tells us at the end of his preface that he intends ‘to demonstrate … that one of Fellini’s major concerns, if not the major concern, is the failure of institutionalised Christianity and the impossibility of finding a “pagan” alternative’.  C.’s book has a wide scope since it covers Fellini’s whole career rather than just the films with a more obvious concern with Rome (i.e. La Dolce Vita, Roma, Fellini-Satyricon).

La Dolce Vita opens with a telling sequence: a helicopter carries a huge statue of Christ, arms outstretched as if blessing the city as it passes, but it is pursued by another helicopter bearing paparazzi. Young women sunbathing (sun-worshipping?) on a roof top wave to the statue, but distract the reporters who tell the women they are taking it to the pope, then ask the women for their phone number. C. sees more in this sequence, pointing to the significance of the statue passing over an ancient Roman aqueduct and casting its shadow on one of the new buildings, many of which are under construction, thus linking old and new Rome with the blessing of the church. 

Later in the film Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) also arrives through the air like a divinity, but by plane and to a film-star welcome. During her excursions with Marcello (the character and the actor), she is dressed in black for a climb to the balcony of Saint Peter’s where the camera views her from behind looking over (a false) St Peter’s Square. She is no surrogate pope (her hat blows away) but perhaps a surrogate divinity of sorts, for, as C. observes, Sylvia’s name suits an Arcadian nymph and through her concern for dogs and cats and her distance from the men who admire her, she seems a ‘queen of beasts’, an Artemis-Diana. That is, until, slapped by her drunken husband, she enters their hotel and exits the film. 

Some images are given a religious interpretation by C. when a little less ingenuity might have been appropriate. At the end of La Dolce Vita party-goers walk down to the beach where a very strange dead fish lies. C. asserts, ‘The fish-thing, dead for three days, is a failed Christ.’ A Jesus-fish (Ichthys) that is a ‘repulsive source of anxiety’ contrasts with the innocent girl Paola whose gaze into the camera C. describes as the ‘beatific reverse of the gaze from the monstrous fish.’ Marcello responds to Paola’s greeting, but turns to re-join the others and the decadent world he appears to despise.

In Otto e mezzo the beach is the haunt of La Saraghina, the huge woman (‘Great Mother’) who performs the rhumba for young boys. She is reminiscent of both Volpina (the nymphomaniac) and the giant tobacconist woman in Amarcord (1973), Anita Ekberg, the giant from the milk advert in The Temptations of Doctor Antonio (1962), and the giant balloon woman of City of Women (1980). C. discusses Saraghina at length (‘a childish representation of a woman’) and the effect of such an image on Italian teenage psyche in particular, alongside the ‘pervasive maternal idolatry in Italian culture.’ When Encolpio regains his virility in Fellini-Satyricon, it is through sex with the huge, older Oenothea, ‘the purveyor of that eternal “animal” economy that knows no increment and no increase, no debt and no remainder’ (p.102). Earlier (p.59) C. associated Saraghina with Circe ‘who has the power to change good Catholic boys into pigs (sex-obsessed and infantile young males)’. When C. turns to father figures he chooses Hamlet: ‘Hamlet had three fathers’ he tells us, of whom Yorick was Hamlet’s real father, ‘the only one with whom he had an affective investment and remembered with fondness’.

C. has had a long and fruitful engagement with Fellini’s oeuvre and offers a complex and wide ranging discussion that has Rome as its backdrop with an undercurrent of satire, especially in Fellini’s treatment of the Catholic church and its influence. For readers not familiar with film theory, C. offers readings in a relatively jargon free style that allows those uninitiated in the literature of theory a way to appreciate the results of such a critical approach. 

There is much more that could be said: but when we look for ancient Rome, there is little that is not transfigured by Fellini’s imagination. Even the one film set in the world of ancient Rome (Fellini-Satyricon 1969) is said to be 70 or 80% Fellini and 20 or 30% Petronius: the film is aptly named. In Roma (1972) when an ancient house is discovered, its frescoes rapidly fade. Fellini himself, C. reports, said ‘Rome itself is an ancient broken vase, constantly being mended to hold it together, yet one that retains hints of its original secrets.’

There is an extensive bibliography, but no filmography, which may reflect an intended readership of Fellini aficionados.

Alan Beale

 

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