Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Fellini’s dreaming

The great Italian film director, Federico Fellini, died 30 years ago today. He won four Oscars for best foreign language film, more than any other director, and is considered to be one of the most important and influential European directors of the 20th century. Although not a diarist, he did, for many years, keep a record of his dreams, with descriptions and richly-coloured illustrations. These were given a lavish publication a few years after his death. 

Fellini was born in 1920 to middle-class parents in Rimini, on the Adriatic Sea. He was educated locally in Catholic schools, though ran away once to join a circus. He and his younger brother, as teenagers, joined the Avanguardista, the compulsory Fascist youth group for males. Lacking any interest in his education, Fellini began drawing comic portraits, and writing humorous articles. He enrolled in law school at the University of Rome in 1939, but barely attended, and continued trying to earn money by selling portraits.

Fellini worked for a short while as a local news reporter, but gravitated quickly to Marc’Aurelio, the highly influential biweekly humour magazine, for which he wrote a regular column for several years, and through which he met many other writers and artists. He composed monologues for the comedian Aldo Fabrizi and collaborated with variety radio shows, on one of which he met a young actress, Giulietta Masina, who he married in 1943. Their only child died soon after birth.

Through the 1940s, Fellini developed a name for himself, as a scriptwriter on some of Fabrizi’s films, with Roberto Rossellini on films such as Roma città aperta and Paisà, and in partnership with the playwright Tullio Pinelli. One of the directors he and Pinelli worked for, Alberto Lattuada, wanted Fellini to co-direct a film, Luci del varietà - it was self-produced and left them both in debt.

Fellini’s first sole directorial debut, Lo sceicco bianco, was also a failure. Thereafter, though, his films earned huge international praise. He won four Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film (La Strada in 1954, Le notti di Cabiria in 1957, 8 1/2 in 1963, and Amarcord in 1974), and was much honoured for others, such as La dolce vita and Satyricon. In 1993, just months before his death on 31 October, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, the Fondazione Federico Fellini, The New Yorker, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or IMDB.

Although not a conventional diarist, Fellini did, at the suggestion of the Jungian analyst Ernst Bernhard, keep a diary record of his dreams, and these records, along with his illustrations of them, were first published in 2007 by Rizzoli International Publications as Il libro dei sogni di Federico Fellini, and then in English as The Book of Dreams.

The publisher says: ‘A unique combination of memory, fantasy, and desire, this illustrated volume is a personal diary of Fellini’s private visions and nighttime fantasies. Fellini [. . .] kept notebooks filled with unique sketches and notes from his dreams from the 1960s onward. This collection delves into his cinematic genius as it is captured in widely detailed caricatures and personal writings. This dream diary exhibits Fellini’s deeply personal taste for the bizarre and the irrational. His sketches focus on the profound struggle of the soul and are tinged with humor, empathy, and insight. Fellini’s Book of Dreams is an intriguing source of never-before-published writings and drawings, which reveal the master filmmaker’s personal vision and his infinite imagination.’

A review can be read at Frieze, and there are a few extracts from the contents available at Penguin Random House which brought out a new edition in 2020. 

23 June 1974
‘It’s nighttime. What an awful night. I am driving a black car that’s racing dizzyingly down a path that spirals down around a mountain. I can’t seem to stop despite the fact that I’m pushing the brake pedal. On my right there’s a precipice. Other cars are coming up, flashing their lights with fear.’

27 June 1974
‘A wooden root falls from the sky. “It’s the wooden harp!” someone tells me with a tone of devotion and exultation as if a miracle had taken place. “Play it!” Dressed like a monk/mendicant, I (but was it me?) draw incredibly sweet sounds from the rough piece of wood. They make people cry. Even I am moved to tears. This last part of the dream was followed by me commenting on the dream itself, as if it were a film created for television by a young director. My comments were very positive.’

14 September 1974
‘I am on the dock in Rimini on an extremely stormy night, a violent gusty wind is blowing in off the sea toward the land, raising the waves. I’m drawing. Behind me, Peppino Rotunno is sitting in an attitude of indifferent and peaceful detachment. Norman lifts my drawing, which shows a black ship daring set sail up into the water-filled air on a night similar to the one we’re experiencing. Then he puts the drawing into a hiding place.’

15 September 1974
‘Where am I going? Confused, I know that I have to leave. Are we looking for track 26 for Paris? I follow my porter, who has my bags on a car, in a disordered procession of baggage carriers. Now we’ve gotten down and lost among the others, it seems that we have to struggle to get back on.’

20 September 1974
‘In Piazza Barberini in the middle of the day, in the midst of all the traffic, I’m completely naked in bed with Sandrocchia, who is also nude. Maybe we’re making love, but nobody pays any attention, nobody notices us, as if doing so were the most normal thing in the world. Later Sandrocchia (in P.P. she vaguely resembles A, as well) says to me “When I think about you I cry right away. I always cry when I think of you.” This was her way of telling me that she loves me very much.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 31 October 2013.

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