His distinctive cinematic style was shaped by a childhood escapade. The young Fellini had been sent to boarding school by his parents, and in an archetypal act of rebellion, he ran away to join the circus. As with many a juvenile adventure, Fellini’s time in the circus was short-lived, but it would inform his most characteristic films.
Fellini’s entry into the arts began before World War II in the theatre, but by the early 1940s, he was working in radio and as a scriptwriter. Although he was fit for military service, a mix-up in his records kept him out of the war. His work as a scriptwriter brought him into contact with the great Italian director Roberto Rossellini. He was one of the writers on Rossellini’s masterpiece Rome: Open City (1945).
Most of Fellini’s films during the 1950s were marked by realist sensibilities (following the influence of his mentor Rossellini). But the turning point came in 1960 with his seminal La Dolce Vita. While it still retained elements of the realist style, it pinpoints the beginning of the second period of Fellini’s career. It also marked the beginning of his long-time association with Marcello Mastroianni.
La Dolce Vita is one of those comparatively rare films that has actually changed the vocabulary. In the film, a bored photo-journalist named Paparazzo chases celebrities to get their pictures. The character spawned the word paparazzi, referring to the rapacious snappers who hound news-worthy people.
He followed that with another Oscar winner, and his first truly “Felliniesque” film, 8 ½. The film, often regarded as being biographical, saw Mastroianni cast as a film director struggling to get his project going. It was marked by an extensive use of fantasy sequences, albeit mixed with realism. His characters were as bold and dramatic as any he had encountered in the circus. He continued that with Juliet of the Spirits (1965), in which a bored housewife is opened to a fantastic inner world. It was his first film in colour, and continued his run of successes.
It would however be four years before he directed another feature, and 1969’s Fellini Satyricon (that dealt with the excesses of ancient Rome) was not greeted with the same enthusiasm as his other films from the ‘60s. There followed a series of films that caused some to accuse the director of, at best, losing his passion; and at worst, indulging in self-parody. These included Fellini’s Roma (1972), and Fellini’s Casanova (1976). They were however punctuated by Amarcord (1974), a box office success that also saw the director win his fourth Oscar.
In the 1980s, Fellini’s output declined, although he did make And the Ship Sails On… (1984), a film that seemed to hark back to his glory days. His films became less frequent, and 1990 saw his last film The Voice of the Moon. During this period too, Fellini’s health, both physical and mental, was deteriorating. It’s reputed that he attempted suicide seven times during his life.
Fellini was awarded an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. He died on October 31, 1993, ironically from the comparatively prosaic cause of a heart attack..
Together with his tutor Rossellini, Fellini is rightly regarded as one of the giants of both Italian and world cinema. His distinct vision and courage made him a defining master of the art form. Despite the decline in his later career, many of his films remain compelling and relevant today. The boy who ran away to join the circus had become the ringmaster of an extraordinary life in the cinema.