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Fellini's Language of Dreams
The Italian filmmaker talks about his magical medium
May 10, 1984
BY JONATHAN COTT

ONE SUNNY MORNING, WHEN HE WAS nine years old, filmmaker Federico Fellini ran away from his religious boarding school in Fano, Italy. Next to the market in the town square was a small circus. And, as Fellini recounts it in a memoir, he went into an empty tent, breathed in the odor of sawdust, noticed the hanging trapezes and caught sight of “a fat girl with beautiful plump bare legs who was sewing spangles on a tutu." Then, hearing a moan, the young Federico followed the sound to another tent. “And I saw before me a scene from the Nativity," Fellini writes. "A zebra was stretched out on the ground. And around the zebra was, first, an old man, wearing the great collar of the clown, whose face bore the marks of deepest despair; then there was an old lady who was whimpering, and three or four children...all in a state of suspense and tender solicitude toward the animal. While I was standing there, fascinated by the sight, I felt myself violently shoved aside, and I saw a man enter carrying a valise, who was revealed to be the veterinarian."

The veterinarian discovered that the zebra had eaten a chocolate bar that had made it sick, and he asked that someone bring a pail of water to the ailing animal. Federico quickly did so, and the zebra eventually revived. "Finally, two hours later," Fellini recalls, I found myself sitting in their caravan; they fed me, gave me a slice of sausage, and nobody asked me who I was. At twilight, they began to play music; they put on their costumes. I saw the girl with the beautiful thick legs; she had put on a skintight costume that had a lot of feathers… I felt I had come home at last. But then, just as the performance was about to begin, the old clown, who was called Pierino, said to me: 'But what are you doing here? Who are you?' So I said to him, 'Me, I'm the one who went to get water for the zebra” and he answered, 'Ah, yes, that's right, that's right and he kept me beside him, like a father.


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Then I saw him go into the ring to perform his number; he made me laugh and cry a lot…I was truly exalted. Nobody asked me anything.”

Ever since making such extraordinary films as I Vitelloni La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 and Amarcord, Federico Fellini has been habitually asked questions about the meanings of the characters and images in his work, the seeds of which of which are easily discovered in the director's early memory of his deeply dreamlike encounter with the circus in Fano.

Fellini, now sixty‑four, has always insisted that we observe the images in his films, not with cultural preconceptions and theoretical biases, but with the innocent eyes of children. And, as he once said, "It is necessary to understand childhood as the possibility of maintaining an equilibrium between the unconscious and the conscious, between “real” life and the life of memory.” It is in this light that one recalls the images of the deserted piazza at night in I Vitelloni, the sea at dawn at the end of La Dolce Vita, the holy Fool in La Strada grieving over his broken watch, the heroine of Nights of Cabiria wandering alone through the forest and the peacock in Amarcord opening out its wings in falling snow. and one is reminded of psychologist James Hillman's remark that "Dreams call from the imagination to the imagination and can be answered only by the imagination."

And the Ship Sails On is Fellini's nineteenth film, and it is his most beautiful and imaginative since Amarcord. It takes place in 1914 on the eve of World War I, as opera singers, impresarios, aristocratic guests, a group of Serbian refugees and a lovesick rhinoceros (perhaps an unconscious remembrance of the sick circus zebra of Fellini's childhood) find themselves together on a luxury liner that sets out to fulfill the last wish of a world‑renowned diva to have her ashes scattered over the Adriatic. Opening with haunting black‑and-white silent‑movie images that are slowly transformed into sepia and dreamlike colors, And the Ship Sails On was filmed entirely at Cinecittà ‑the famous Roman film studios that are veritable dream factory ‑ in which Fellini has created a magical “unreal" world (the sea is made of cellophane and the moon of paper) that seems more real than reality itself.

The following interview took place last February in the director's office in Rome. Hanging on the walls were a Mobius strip, Indian paintings, a photograph of Carl Jung and three tarot cards (Strength, the Stars, the Fool). And in one corner of the room, resting on a small table, were a small Buddha and a marionette ‑ a microcosm of Fellini's world.

In thinking about your first encounter with the circus, I was moved and struck by the sense you had of “coming home at last."

When you're a child, there's a possibility of foreseeing what your life will actually be, of recognizing an atmosphere and a dimension that, mysteriously, somehow seem very familiar to you. When I discovered that circus, I had the impression of something that seemed more familiar to me than school ‑ even than my own family. So now, when I think back on that moment, I see that it must have been some kind of announcement. It's very strange that a nine‑year‑old boy stepping into a circus should feel so protected and invaded by such a warmth. Circus people are never very surprised by things that happen to them. I was a child and they ‑ in particular, the clown Pierino, who was the boss of that circus ‑ simply accepted me. I really felt that I was in the center of a town that was my town. And it was the same feeling I had many years later when I went to Cinecittà.

Clowns and children seem to understand each other —fools to some, Fools to others.

A fool is someone who has lost his rationality, lost a part of himself. To be consciously a Fool, however ‑ that is the great challenge, the great realization. But I feel a little bit stupid saying things like that so I would prefer that we talked about movies. About my job.

“Roll away the reel world, the reel world, the reel world!"

Who wrote that?

James Joyce.

It's a very appropriate pun. Somebody once said that no one is more realistic than the person who has visions, because he intensifies the most profound reality, which is his reality. The expression of the visionary ‑ the painter or director ‑ is a translation of his vision. And the result of this operation is absolute reality.

Certain people have criticized you for having given up the neorealistic vision of 'La Strada' and 'Nights of Cabiria' is favor of the vision of artifice that one finds in your new film, 'And the Ship Sails On.’

This is a very silly accusation. First of all, I don't see the difference between neorealism and artifice. But even if one accepted these kinds of statements, it would be like accusing a person of having gone from the age of twenty to the age of forty. It's just a path that you have to follow. What people call artifice is the only way I can express my interior reality. It's like accusing a1 artist who paints a picture of a field of working with colors instead of using thee real grass.

Thoreau once said, “Our truest is when we are in dreams awake." 

Yes, in a certain sense, though ultimately I think I disagree with this. Because very often in a dream you're not really aware of what is happening. It would be more appropriate to be able to live as if you were watching yourself live ‑becoming more aware of what is going on. In the dream, however, this kind of awareness is lacking, even if it may be the intention of the dream to tell you through symbols what is happening to you, in order to get you to be a bit more detached from your emotions, while representing them to you as if you were watching a movie. Because it's true that talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams: Years can pass in a second, and you can hop from one place to another. It's a language made of image. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream.

And that's why television has killed movies‑ it has wounded the cinema in its most precious part. Because it uses the language of film, but in a different context, and it reduces its proportions. So you don't have the same impression of sleep that you get when you step into a movie theater ‑ that solemn, almost religious ritual of stepping into the realm of visions, as when you go to sleep and start to dream. Television, on the other hand, constantly projects images through that little box; and while watching TV, people chat, eat, et cetera. It's as if you were dreaming by being awake, but in such a way that you actually cannot pay attention to your dream because you're awake.

You once commented. "Going to the cinema is like returning to the womb. You sit there still and meditative in the darkness, waiting for life to appear on the screen. One should go to the cinema with the innocence of a fetus."

Maybe my mother, when I was a fetus, brought me to the cinema. I don't remember [laughing]. But what I meant is that I think an audience should see a picture without any kind of bombardment of advice or interpretation. When I speak of the innocence of the spectator, I'm thinking of someone who goes into the theater because he's attracted by the poster. He doesn't know who did the movie, he just looks ‑and here we are again ‑like a dreamer. If a dreamer were warned beforehand that what he was about to dream meant this or that ‑ the blue horse means this, the blood that ‑ he wouldn't go to bed because he wouldn't want to dream anymore. It often happens that the spectator is scared off by knowing that he has to see a movie by Bergman or Buñuel. And when he sits there, trying to figure out what they're trying to say, he doesn't see the film.

What was the first film that you remember seeing? The first that gave you the feeling you wanted to be a director?

The first film that I saw ‑ I was seven years old, and I didn't imagine it could concern me in any way‑ was called Masciste Inferno. Masciste was someone like Hercules ‑ a character taken from a poem by Gabriele D’Annunzio ‑ a very strong, almost naked man who was in hell. And I remember that the movie theater was very crowded and outside it was raining, so most of the people were standing up in wet coats. I remember smelling all that wet cloth. It was a silent movie, a little man was under the screen playing the piano, and I was on the arm of my father. It was the first time I saw these big shadows moving. The room was full of cigarette smoke that passed through the beam of light and I was much more interested in watching the smoke and the movement and all the curls that it made in the light than in the film itself. But I was affected and touched by a big woman ‑ it was Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, with big fat eyes, big breasts, and very made up like a singer. She made a sudden gesture, and suddenly there was a circle of flames all around Masciste. And probably this image of that strong, beautiful woman like a big, regal, royal whore ‑ must have struck me, because I put her into all my films after that.

Watching movies, I never thought that I was going to be a director. I knew that I wasn't going to be a lawyer, an engineer or a doctor, as my mother would have liked. But I never imagined that I would become a director. I knew in a sort of vague and confused way that I would like to be an actor or a puppet master or a painter or a sculptor ‑ an artist of some sort. Because when I was in Rimini as a child, I saw that the artists, who were painters and sculptors on the whole, were looked upon with both diffidence ‑ a sort of moralistic judgment ‑ and envy. Anyway, they were considered different from everyone else, so I was particularly attracted to them. They dressed in a different way, they had big ties, they didn't go to school, they had models coming around, they ate at hours no one else did. They had this freedom of life, and they were always spending time together. My father, and especially my mother, used to speak very badly of them, and that, of course, made them very likable. These people with long hair and beards were more familiar to me than my own family; when I was with them, I felt the same way as I had felt at the circus. And from the age of ten or eleven, I began going into the artists' ateliers and played with colors and made little sculptures.

So when I finished school, I thought I'd be a journalist or a writer or an actor. And eventually, I managed to find my work, which united all these things. In my job, you can be a bit of a journalist, a bit of a painter, a bit of a pup­pet master, an actor ‑ you're a bit of everything. In fact I started as a screenplay writer, and sometimes I was called into the studio to correct or add some dialogue. But I always entered the studio with an uneasy feeling, because the crowd, the screaming, all that confusion made me very unhappy. So I never thought I could be a movie director.

But it happened, and in a very spontaneous way, without my thinking that that was to be my real life. I just started to help a friend of mine, for whom I wrote a screenplay called Closed Shutters. It was the first time that he had the job of director, and he had a breakdown; he couldn't work. He was overcome by anxiety and the anguish of being responsible for a hundred persons. The producer insisted that I try to give him some confidence. So I went to Turin, where he was supposed to be shooting, and saw that this poor man was totally impotent. I tried to help him and spent hours talking to him. Then we went together for the first day on the set and it was very difficult because my friend had to film a scene that I had written! ‑ in which someone had drowned in the river. There were all these people on the beach, and the police were arriving with their boats. And I saw that my friend was desperate on the set, so I took the loudspeaker and ordered the camera to move here and there. I was doing the job for someone else, so I was extremely relaxed and natural about it. And probably, at that moment, the spirit of the director emerged from inside me. I became a director by doing exactly all those things that used to bother me: I was arrogant, yelling, insulting, commanding, treating actors badly, having houses moved, telling the sun to move a little bit further down! And I directed until evening. The producer obviously wanted me to go on, but since I didn't want to hurt my friend, another director came and took his place. At that moment, however, I understood that I was able to direct. And maybe in a few years' time when I become completely incompetent, the producer will call another director to help me and then he will start directing, and the chain will go on. Maybe.

Aside from the circus and the artists Of Rimini, what else influenced you creatively as a child?

Fairy tales. My grandmother used to tell them to me. She was a farmer, a peasant, and her stories ‑ since she lived in the country and was surrounded by animals ‑ always concerned horses, cats, owls, bats. So we grew up to respect and be very curious about them. And still today, when I eat a chicken, I'm afraid that suddenly it will become a prince once it's inside me! [Laughing] I've always had ‑and still have‑ this feeling.

Also, when I was eight or nine, Pinocchio: The Story of a Puppet was an enormous influence. It isn't just a wonderful book, for me it's one of the great books ‑ equal to Homer's Odyssey and Kafka's The Trial. And for my generation, it was our first happy encounter with a book. When you're small, a book is something very strange that belongs to the world of adults ‑ something that has to do with school, something that takes away your freedom ‑ unless there are beautiful pictures inside. And mostly it was something you could throw at your brother when you were fighting [laughing). But ultimately, it was something that didn't belong to you. The encounter with Pinocchio was like coming upon a magical object ‑ it was a big bridge between life and culture ‑ so it had a special meaning, almost exorcistic.

Now the author, Carlo Collodi, lived in the nineteenth century, so he had to conclude the book in a certain moralistic way. It ends with the transformation of the puppet into a boy. That, however, is the least interesting, and even the saddest part of the book. But, of course, it's true that we all lose the magical, childhood, Pinocchio part of our being ‑ being in touch with animals, with the night; with mystery ...in contact with life the way it should be. And with this loss, we become good idiots, good students, good husbands, good citizens.

Pinocchio is a marvelous book because you can read it forever ‑ when you're a child, when you're young, when you're old. It has the simplicity of the Bible and lacks all presumptuous consciousness. And, indeed, it really is a work of magic. You can open it like a book of oracles, readjust one line, and it will help you. All your doubts and problems find an answer on those pages.

The novelist Italo Calvino has written, "You reach a moment in life when among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living. And the mind refuses to accept more faces, more expressions: on every new face you encounter, it prints the old forms, for each one it finds the most suitable masks." Is this true for you when you look for the “faces" for your new films? 

When a character is born in your imagination, it has a certain function in the story that you want to tell, and the face has to express this character. So you tend to look for one that can immediately suggest to the spectator who this person is. I don't tell psychological stories ‑ stories in which characters develop throughout the film ‑ so the character has to declare himself right from the start. For that reason, I try to find faces that are immediately believable and fascinating. And that is the reason why, when making a picture, I spend most of my time in testing, in order to discover the right facial materialization and incarnation of the role ‑ an expressive mask. And of all the phases of the preparation, choosing the faces is perhaps the most anxious and dramatic one, because what you're looking for is in your mind.

I'll try, for example, to represent on a piece of paper with pen and ink and colors the kinds of faces I imagine. I'll make a sketch at my desk then people will start coming into my office. I have a folder into which I put many different photographic solutions for each character: one actor is little, another tall, another fat, another thin, another has a nice face, another is ugly. Sometimes an actor seems right by himself, but not when put together with someone else. But, finally, I have to decide. And at that moment, I have confidence that my labyrinthine research will have paid off.

For instance, I started And the Ship Sails On without having chosen all the characters. Even during the third week of shooting, I hadn't cast the blind Austro‑Hungarian princess, and the production was going crazy because the day of the first scene with the princess was coming up, and I still didn't know who it was going to be. It's like landing an airplane when you can’t see any sign of an airport. But I always have confidence, even when everybody around me gets crazy. Two nights before the shooting of the first scene with the blind princess; I was still feeling very unsure and lost, because I didn't know where to find a blind princess of an empire that no longer existed. But then that night, a friend of mine took me to see the dance company of Pina Bausch, a German choreographer, who had come to perform for the first rime in Rome. Usually, I don't go to the dance or ballet ‑ I feel a little bit foreign to that. But I went to see this show, it was excellent, and afterward we went backstage. And as I walked into the dressing room, there was the blind princess, waiting for me with a pale face and a detached, cruel smile ‑ someone who was a cross between a saint and a madwoman.

So, this is just to say that if you really put yourself honestly and sincerely, with childish enthusiasm, into the trip or voyage, things will always come to you.

There's an old text from India that gives three rules for the theater: (1) That it must be encouraging and amusing to the drunk; (2) That it must respond to someone who asks, ”How to live?"; and (3) That it must answer the one who asks “How does the universe work?" What do you think?

I'm not Indian; I was born in Rimini [laughing). So I have a completely different…well, not completely different, but a slight­ly different attitude to this. First, I don't think a drunk needs to go to the theater or the movies, because once he's drunk, he sees everything he wants to anyway. So when I’m working, I don't have the thought of making a picture for a drunk.... I don't know, I’ll think about it.

You know, I've sometimes been accused of not thinking enough about the audience. But I find that a really goofy and strange accusation. For if one pretends to be a person who can speak and tell stories to someone else ...if one believes in and has chosen the profession of a storyteller, then it's clear that inside of oneself there must be this sort of push, this drive to be clear to others. But apart from that, it's impossible for me to try consciously, practically, technically to make a film for an audience. You don't know who that is, and it's a silly pretension. If you have a restaurant, you naturally can think of the various tastes of the people who come. But if you intend to make culture or express your fantasies, then you can’t expect to think of an audience. The only things you have to be faithful and loyal to are the characters of the story. You have to obey them. The characters are the real audience to which one must pay attention. And you can satisfy their demands, then you have created the proper ground for the audience to receive and understand them. But if you have to think of a particular audience and an audience of drunks ‑ never!

Now, as far as thinking of satisfying someone who wants to know how the universe works, I can’t imagine why a person would go to a movie expecting that kind of explanation.

In And the Ship Sails On, I thought I found out a little bit about how the universe works ‑ what with the cosmic music played by several passengers on the ship's kitchen glasses and the mantric om intoned by the basso profundo who hypnotizes a chicken.

You did?

Maybe I was drunk.

Maybe [laughing]. But I didn't have that in mind when I made the movie. And as far as answering the question 'How to live?" ‑ if a work of art is honest and sincere and loyally expresses the problems, emotions and experiences of the author's life, then it will always have something in it that concerns and affects the person in the audience who is looking to find some point in common.

When once asked, “What is requisite for an entertainer?" you replied: 'A mixture of magician and prestidigitator, of prophet and clown, of tie salesman and priest who preaches."

I think that someone who pretends to be a storyteller has to be a prophet, clown, trickster and magician. A creative person ‑ let's say that awful word: an artist ‑ makes what we call magical operations. Because if something lives only in his imagination, totally hidden to others, then people won't be able to imagine it. So, with his talent, experience, artisanal sense, materials and colors, an artist makes things visible for everybody, like the magician in a fairy tale who makes something that wasn't there suddenly appear.

The artist always lives somewhere in be­tween the unconscious and the prevailing cul­tural standards, and he attempts to combine the two. Or one could re­fer to the twilight zone between the sun and the moon, which is the same borderline between what is unconscious and what is real. And so the artist is particularly moved by the light that is between ‑ between two attitudes, two sets of behavior, two dimensions. He is moved by the twilight ‑ because then one finds the union of contrasts. And the ground on which the artist stands and works is also like that of the magician who operates on what doesn't exist ‑or just confusedly ex­ists ‑ and turns it into something concrete and ordered.

Do you think there's a connection between the magician and the tribal shaman or medicine man who, through the overcoming of their own psychic wounds, are able to heal others?

You could say that the process of creativity is, in a certain sense, a kind of sickness or illness. You're invaded by a germ, something that has to grow inside you and that makes you completely sick; and the therapy is to materialize the germ of the fantasy so that you become cured. And it's possible that what you've done can turn out to be therapeutic for other people.

In And the Ship Sails On, when you show everyone ‑ the Serbian refugees and the upper classes ‑ dancing together on the lower deck, I felt a kind of curative power at work.

You know, when I make a picture I want to tell a story. And I'm glad and sometimes even a little bit surprised by different interpretations and points of view. But I feel a little bit ridiculous encouraging this kind of approach to my films. What you said now about the dance may be true. But for me, the important thing about a creation is whether it's alive or not.

I don't care about aesthetical, philosophical or ideological points of view. But if had to say something about the dance you referred to, I'd say it's simply a moment of drunkenness, of pure and innocent energy that breaks down the barriers and defenses between the bourgeoisie and the slaves. All that detachment and distance is transcended by means of music. It's a moment of life that suggests that things could be better if we broke through our defenses and egotism.

But basically, I don't like to say stupid things about what is done. Do ‑ don't talk. And do it while being awake ‑ even if sleepily awake ‑ and, as the ancient Chinese used to say, intentionally without intention."

JONATHAN Cott has written a book on Bob Dylan, which will be published this fall.

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