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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Maestro Fellini

Last light I viewed on DVD the documentary film Fellini: I'm a Born Liar (2002) by Frenchman Damian Pettigrew.

The movie is based on candid interviews that Pettigrew conducted with Federico Fellini in Rome during the two years before the iconic movie directors death in 1993.

Having grown up seeing Fellini's movies, I've long been fascinated by his work and have always wondered how it came into being. This documentary provides valuable insight into the often chaotic collaborative process of making a film, and a backstage view into the interaction of ideas, images, and people who were involved as the ultimate story-telling participants.

Fellini's observations about himself and the cinematic art form are rather well conceived, lead directly to the point, and are surprisingly honest. He speaks with objectivity and lack of pretense about his work, explaining his motivations along the way. For example he said that artist needs both "fear" and something to rebel against.

Fellini considered himself lucky to have had the career he did, having made the right friends at the right time. He explained that he would take an advance to make a movie and then spend it. As a result , he was then obligated to fulfill the contract and make the movie - otherwise it would never have been created. Fellini compared this to working within the walls of constraints, since in his view artists would probably never produce anything if they were given complete freedom from restrictions.

Maestro Fellini viewed the oeuvre of his movies not so much in the context of change, but with himself as a stationary creator who playfully manipulates reality around him over the course time. For him, movie making was a form of self-therapy and analysis.

By manipulating reality, Fellini is distorting the truth - hence the title of the documentary. Fellini calls this distortion "telling lies." He confesses that his cinematic version of his home town in Italy has very little to do with the reality of that small village on the Adriatic coast.

Over time actors went from being puppets and mannequins under his complete dictatorial command to improvisatory players who participated in the thematic direction of the film. Not liking the term "improvisation" he went on to explain that an artist needs to be prepared and ready to receive the creative idea, as if it were a gift. He viewed himself as a puppet who was following the orders of a higher power directing him.

"I'm a Born Liar" has some interviews with his co-creators, screenwriters, lighting designers, and actors. A very insightful and thoughtful Donald Sutherland describes what it was like making the movie Casanova. There is even a discussion and view of a deleted scene from the movie Casanova where Sutherland wears a $700 purple shirt made from an expensive fabric that Fellini had insisted on.

Actors Terence Stamp and Roberto Benigni are also very frank (and very funny) about their encounters with Fellini, and how stark raving mad the director could be at times. Fellini had experimented with LSD, and his on-set and off-set behaviors were often bizarre and highly irrational.

Pettigrew's "I'm a born liar" is more than just a collage of interviews, since it contains numerous flashbacks of clips from Fellini's classic films. Pettigrew re-visits Fellini's language of light, shadows, and images by demonstrating how they are associated across his various films. Certain scenes, people, and sets reoccur as if they were symbols from a dream that Fellini obsessively has to share with us. In fact, Fellini describes a reoccurring dream involving Pablo Picasso and an omelet prepared by the abstract painter using a dozen scrambled eggs.

We get audio sample of the musical themes from Nino Rota's soundtracks (La dolce vita, 8 1/2, Amarcord, and Casanova). Luis Bacalov's music for City of Women is also heard. However, I wish more discussion about the musical scores were addressed in the documentary. Music is an integral part of the Fellini experience.

"I'm a Born Liar" is probably a film for Fellini-aficionados, since you need to have a little background in his work to appreciate it. But as a document of cultural history, I found it extraordinarily insightful. Using an old Roman system of objective criticism, I give the movie a solid "thumbs up."