Most directors are content to Xerox the world. Federico Fellini created his own world on film, and it has taken the rest of us a lifetime to appreciate the acuity of his vision.
In La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963), Amarcord (1974) and 20 other films, overripe images spilled out of his cornucopia: clowns and courtesans, prelates and zealots, overripe creatures from a fantast's bestiary. At first they looked like outrageous cartoons of sensuality and sacrilege. But long before his death last week at 73, from complications after a stroke, it was clear they were previews of a moral system spun wildly off its axis. For 30 years and more, the word Felliniesque has defined not just the director's work but a style at the peacock end of film, photography, fashion, advertising, high life and street life.
The times are surreal enough now; we can appreciate Fellini as a prophet and documentarian of every cultural excess of the late 20th century. There's no question that Fellini was in part satirizing his milieu. But because he was incapable of a stillborn frame of film, his pictures celebrate what they criticize; they amount to a cautionary blueprint for survival in the atomic age. If you've been very lucky or very naughty, then life for you is like a Fellini movie.
His work and his world were bigger than life, from the days when young Federico came from Rimini to Rome, sketching caricatures on Via Veneto tablecloths. And so in his later films, faces are pressed against the window of the camera lens; people talk too loud or too much; makeup is applied with a trowel; actors are encouraged to go over the top, to skywrite their emotions on the screen.
As a boy Fellini really did run away to join a traveling circus. He was sent home within a few days, but his heart stayed there. In a Fellini film, life is a circus without surcease. Come inside, children of all ages, where (in Amarcord) the snowflakes are as fat as pancakes, where (in The Nights of Cabiria, 1957) streetwalkers dance like schoolgirls and (in Juliet of the Spirits (1965), God may be waiting for you in the attic.
Fellini once played God: he was the vagabond whom a peasant (Anna Magnani) mistakes for Jesus in Roberto Rossellini's The Miracle (1948). For Fellini, however, God was a goddess and woman was the world -- everything in the world that excites and frightens, forbids and enchants. To Marcello in La Dolce Vita, woman is "mother, sister, daughter, lover, angel, home." How small and sad and funny men are in comparison! At one end of the spectrum they are like the midget bluenose in Boccaccio 70 (1962) overwhelmed by Anita Ekberg as a sexual giantess -- it's the attack of the 50-ft. libido. At the other end they are like Guido in 8 1/2 cracking the whip in a vain attempt to tame his harem menagerie.
In some of his later extravaganzas, Fellini's Casanova (1976) and City of Women (1979), woman was a dream flowering into nightmare, and unfortunate man was Phallus in Wonderland. Fellini was not the sort of artist to mature as he grew older; he was emotionally a child, an avid teenager, like all the overage boys in his movies. And so, in some of the late ones, he tilted from parody to self-parody. It was inevitable, perhaps, that he would find it difficult to distinguish between being Fellini and doing Fellini.