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Monday, January 4, 2016

Federico Fellini's Impact on Woody Allen

A scene from Woody Allen's Stardust Memories
 
Tonight I watched the film, Woody Allen: A Documentary. I was not expecting a connection to Italian cinema but since one usually ends up presenting itself, tonight was no different.

A scene from Federico Fellini's 8 1/2
The documentary brought up the similarities between Allen’s Stardust Memories and Federico Fellini’s 8 ½. These are films that I saw 20+ years ago when I was young and exploring the masters of cinema. I found both films fascinating but I believe that I was too young to understand the complexities of them. My memory recalls their visual aspects- the zany characters and faces and a strong sense of the surreal. In Woody Allen: A Documentary, Allen himself talks about the impact that Fellini had on his career. Even though Allen is my favorite American filmmaker, I didn’t realize how strongly Fellini influenced his work. After watching this film, and yesterday by coincidence, Ettore Scola’s 2013 How Strange to Be Named Federico, I can see similarities not only in their work but also in their unique personalities, their curiosities about life and mortality and their undeniable comic genius that catapulted each of them to success.
 
Ettore Scola directs Tommaso Lazotti as a young Fellini
“Fellini loved driving and he treated his insomnia by taking his friends out in turns for midnight drives: true and tried kidnappings. He’d pick up drunks, compulsive liars, dethroned princes, even a few streetwalkers.. out of curiosity, out of an uncontrollable love for life. And with him, that car became a confessional booth. Life was a party, he loved to say, so why not live each moment as one?”  I really enjoyed this line in How Strange to be Named Federico. Many of the scenes take place in a car driving around Rome. Through the windows, you can see the landmarks, the fountains, the piazzas and of course, the Romans. Rome was to Fellini what New York City is to Allen- a metropolitan muse. Speaking to that muse, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was Allen’s Manhattan just like Fellini’s 8 ½ was Allen’s Stardust Memories. Furthermore, Scola says The White Sheik plotline inspired Allen's 2012, To Rome With Love .


Woody Allen: A Documentary
The qualities I feel are the strongest between the two filmmakers are taking an average character and putting him into a completely surreal fantasy world, the diversity of stories ranging from comedy to love to tragedy and the strong presence of the muse in their work- For Fellini, it was Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina- his wife of 50 years, the city of Rome and the Romans. For Allen it was (in the 70's and 80's) Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow- with whom he had relationships, the island of Manhattan and New Yorkers. It is noted in Scola’s documentary that “Fellini adopted Mastroianni as an ideal alter-ego in his main films. In fact, he took better care of him than he did himself: forcing physical exercise and diets on him that he himself never did”. In Allen’s documentary, he talks about his closeness with Keaton and how her friendship gave him the ability to see life from a woman’s perspective.
The biggest difference I see in their work is how uncomfortable Fellini felt in front of the camera whereas Allen is a total ham and comes alive. Scola recalls how “it took many car rides and convincing to get Fellini to play himself in Scola's 1974 ensemble masterpiece, C'eravamo tanto amati (We all loved each other so much). When he did finally accept the offer, it was on the condition that he wouldn’t be filmed from behind, “so no one sees my bald spot”.
Another aspect of these masters’ films that I appreciate is their way with music and how it's a protagonist of its own- for me most notably in Allen’s opening scene of "Manhattan" with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue...  
 
... and Fellini’s closing scene of 8 ½ with Nino Rota’s La passerella..
 
On that note, Ettore Scola, also a master screenwriter and director, beautifully ended How Strange to Be Named Federico with Rota’s signature circus-like melody in a collage of powerful images from his films with Alberto Sordi and Mastroianni. It reminded me of the equally beautiful scene from John Huston's 1952 Moulin Rouge in the very final moments of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's life when that signature can can music plays with the images of his friends and muses. (at 13:20 in the clip below)
 
With each of these scenes, I was struck by an explosion of nostalgia which made me ponder the great question of Woody Allen and reoccurring theme of his films, why can’t life be eternal? Surely we are not eternal, but one thing is for sure.. the magic of cinema.
Woody Allen: A Documentary and How Strange to Be Named Federico are available on Netflix.


A note about Ettore Scola
 

Ettore Scola and Federico Fellini
Born in 1931 in the southern region of Campania, Ettore Scola launched his filmmaking career in the early 50’s creating iconic films like Un Americano a Roma starring Alberto Sordi and “Il Sorpassso” starring Vittorio Gassman. However, he began writing long before. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, friend and colleague, Federico Fellini, Scola got his start writing for the Rome-based satire newspaper, Marc'Aurelio. He grew up reading the paper to his blind grandfather, with many of those sketches and jokes written by a very young Fellini. Scola joined the staff of the paper after Fellini moved on, but the two met through mutual colleagues and grew to be close friends.

During his career as a writer and director, Scola won six David di Donatello’s (the Italian equivalent to the Oscar) and was nominated four times for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. He has dozens upon dozens of titles to his credit, but a few of the most popular are the 1974 ensemble masterpiece, C'eravamo tanto amati (We all loved each other so much), the 1965 Io la conoscevo bene (I Knew Her Well) directed by Antonio Pietrangeli, starring Stefania Sandrelli and the 1977 Academy Award-nominated Una giornata particolare (A Special Day) starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.

I recently saw Ettore Scola in person at Rome’s Festa del Cinema, where he attended the premiere of his daughters’ documentary about him- Ridendo e Scherzando, featuring Pierfrancesco Diliberto (PIF). Scola is just what you’d expect from a filmmaker from the Golden Age of Italian cinema- a distinguished, elegant man with a gentle manner. One thing I really admire about the young Italian filmmakers is the great amount of respect they have for their predecessors. They adored the filmmakers we recently lost, like Michelangelo Antonioni, Mario Monicelli and Francesco Rosi, and they continue to pay homage to the greats that are still with us like Claudia Cardinale, Flavio Bucci and Scola.

Many of Scola’s films are available through Amazon, but make sure that you read the reviews before purchasing them because the dubbed copies are not always the highest quality. However, How Strange to Be Named Federico is available to stream through Neflix. I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it.
 

 

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