September 16, 2020

Celebrating Fellini’s Centenary on Capra’s Bridge

By Stuart Mitchner

I’ve been thinking about the time I saw Frank Capra in person. It was in the late 1970s, in a classroom at Princeton’s Center for the Visual Arts on Nassau Street. The meeting got off to a rocky start when one of the students asked a question that distinguished between art films and popular, commercial movies like It’s a Wonderful Life. Immediately on the defensive, Capra insisted that the artistic value of any work in any medium was ultimately determined by its popularity. Critics, scholars, reviewers be damned! The people had the last say. “All great art is popular!” he insisted, citing Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and da Vinci. “Look at all the people who come to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa!”

The students were a bit rattled. Why was the old guy so touchy? Clearly, he still believed that his populist, upbeat films had been misunderstood and devalued by elitists. I considered weighing in to say how often I’d argued with film-buff friends who scorned It’s a Wonderful Life and invariably cited Fellini’s La Dolce Vita as an example of “great art.” Instead, I said something about Jimmy Stewart’s performance as George Bailey, aware that the mere mention of the other film might only make things worse.

A British Bridge

My bridge from Capra’s Life to Fellini’s Vita is the British film critic David Thomson, who slammed both directors in his Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994). It’s only fair to note that Thomson may have updated his comments in later editions and that when he’s not righteously venting, he writes as well about film as anyone this side of James Agee. That’s why I quoted his thoughts on the “uneasy depths” of It’s a Wonderful Life to close out last week’s column. After giving the film his mixed blessing, however, he couldn’t resist another personal dig: “I think I like Capra less than ever, even if I have become interested in his emotional muddle.” 

Name Calling

Now, even as I’m writing a 100th birthday tribute to Federico Fellini (1920-1993), I find myself fending off condemnations of his work, not only from David Thomson but from Pauline Kael (1919-2001) in her essay “The Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties,” wherein she compares watching La Dolce Vita to “poking your head into a sack of fertilizer and then becoming indignant that you’re covered with excrement.” She finds “the aim, the scale, the pretensions, the message … too big for the subject matter: tabloid sensationalism and upper-class apathy and corruption.” (As for Capra, Kael once pondered whether he “had an honest bone in his body.”)

Thomson’s heavy handed trashings of Fellini are all the more lamentable because, again, they come dressed in the authority of a biographical dictionary. Of the four films that preceded La Dolce Vita, he decrees, “This quartet needs to be put firmly in its place. They are slick, mechanical stories, feeding on superficial feelings.” A radiant work like La Strada (1954) is therefore dismissed as “a desperately portentous film laboriously drawing a trite humanist message out of a picture of a circus brute,” while Nights of Cabiria (1956) is “a woefully sincere story about a tart with a heart that seems oblivious to its own coarseness.” As for La Dolce Vita, hailed by consensus as “a brilliant satire in the new self-conscious permissiveness of European high society,” Thomson faults its “sluggish dismay at corruption” while grudgingly admitting the “scandalous success that made Fellini into the self-sufficient star name he playfully grappled with ever after.” In the end “we know nothing more about Fellini than that he was an obsessional, vacuous poseur,” as well as “a half-baked, play-acting pessimist with no capacity for tragedy.”

There’s nothing like name-calling to discredit the person passing judgment, not to mention the citing of unworthy alternatives. After describing Fellini’s introduction of “the metaphor of the circus as a way of papering over the artistic cracks” in , the only superior examples Thomson can come up with are the “searching demonstrations” of the same subject area “by Godard and Warhol.”

Joy and Wonder

It’s easy to imagine Thomson’s gag reflex to Fellini’s statement in a 1966 Playboy interview: “I accept life’s infinite mysteries without knowing its finite borders, accept them with joy and wonder.” Where else but in Playboy would the director of a film publicized with images of a sex goddess in ecstasy (Anita Ekberg) hold forth on “life’s infinite mysteries”? For filmgoers who bonded with Italy, Fellini, and Giulietta Masina in La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, the experience can be read into lines like “life’s infinite mysteries” and “joy and wonder.”

But then comes La Dolce Vita, in which Fellini says he “wanted to put the thermometer to a sick world,” according to the quote on the back of my ancient, disintegrating paperback of the screenplay. Also on the back of the book, which boasts “over 96 pages of photos,” is a thumbnail shot of the director in his signature Fedora, a scarf around his neck, and a small white kitten on his shoulder. The pose suggests nothing like Dr. Fellini preparing to take the temperature of the world, nor does it resemble the “pessimist with no capacity for tragedy.”

After the ample serving of decadence, corruption, and cinematic spectacle in the opening scenes of La Dolce Vita, from the helicopter hoisting a statue of Christ over “a vast panorama of the Roman countryside” to the arrival of Sylvia, the Marilynesque American movie star played by Ekberg, there’s not much joy and even less wonder until the 23rd scene (“a silent narrow street in the old part of Rome,” according to the screenplay) when Sylvia is finally by herself, having sent her besotted escort Marcello (the Via Veneto journalist played by Marcello Mastroianni) off in search of milk for the tiny white kitten she’s just discovered, the one she’s holding on the cover of the soundtrack album I used to play whenever I wanted to feel the film again, the essence of the Nino Rota-Fellini mood, the sad clown’s theme faintly audible, one note at a time, “as if plucked on a distant harp.”

As the screenplay notes, this is the first time since her gaudy arrival in Rome that “the hard glamour” of Sylvia’s public role” dissolves: she’s having a little-girl moment all to herself, holding the tiny kitten close to her face, meowing gently back as it cries (milk, milk, milk), then putting it on top of her head like a hat and smiling up at it (“Oh hello pom-pom”). Here’s wonder, mystery, atmosphere, pathos (mewing kitten, thy name is pathos) as the woman in the low-cut gown steps from one alley-narrow Roman street into the sudden spacious vista of the  large open square with the Trevi fountain at its center. “Oh my goodness!” sighs the sex goddess.

The rest is photo shoot heaven, the image that launched a film “acclaimed throughout Europe, seen by 20,000,000 people.” Sylvia goes to the edge of the pool, takes off her white stole and puts it next to the kitten (“Wait just five minutes,” she tells it), takes off her shoes, and steps into the water. In the words of the screenplay: “She wades forward, lifting her evening gown as the water rises against her thighs. Then she drops the gown and lets it float on the water … goes to the back of the fountain where the water spills off a ledge of rock, and stands in the flow, letting the falling water bathe her face and breasts.”

Meanwhile, Marcello has arrived with milk for the kitten. Here he is, having whisked her away from a night club brawl and the predatory paparazzi while doing his frantic best to make love to her, and now there she is, calling him, “Marcello, come here.” He “stares at her in wonder, a saucer of milk in his hands,” puts the milk down for the kitten, and takes off his shoes. “He would like to enter her mood, yet he feels absurd.” He steps into the water, saying, “Yes, yes, she’s perfectly right. I’ve been wrong about everything. We’ve all been wrong about everything.”

That could serve as the caption for everything that follows, with rare, brief exceptions like the moment in a seaside cafe where Marcello is charmed by a young girl whose face in profile reminds him of “one of those little angels in the churches of Umbria.” The same girl is there at the end, as he stumbles out of an all-night orgy in which he has thoroughly debased himself. She’s a sweeter, younger more “modern” version of the waif in La Strada, but the dynamic is not all that different from the moment the strong man Zampano hears Gelsomina’s music on the dark shore, groping toward the sea. The girl smiles, she says something he probably needs to hear, the music is in her expression. But he can’t hear her. All he can do is shrug.

Fearing the Future

The girl also bears an eerie resemblance to the young daughter of Steiner (Alain Cluny), the intellectual whose life Marcello sees as a vision of what his might have been (a writer comfortable among poets and artists and intellectuals). At a party hosted by Steiner that is the antithesis of “joy and wonder,” the little girl and her younger brother, a toddler, appear and are affectionately introduced to the gathering by Steiner and his wife before Steiner carries them both gently, lovingly, back to bed. After kissing each sleeping child, he confesses to Marcello that sometimes “the night, this darkness, this calm” weighs on him. It is “peace” that makes him afraid: “Perhaps because I distrust it above everything. I feel that it’s only an appearance, that it hides a danger. I think of the world my children will know. They say that the world of the future will be wonderful. But what does that mean? It needs only the gesture of a madman to destroy everything.”

On the Bridge Again

The undercurrent of terror in that quiet scene, the soft spoken dialogue, the gravity of Steiner’s expression, his suppressed anguish, has something scarily in common with George Bailey’s agony, his suicidal moment on the bridge in It’s a Wonderful Life. You can’t see the bridge Steiner is standing on, but it’s there. In Capra’s world, Jimmy Stewart trashes the living room, terrifies his children, gets drunk, and prays for deliverance. In Fellini’s world, Steiner takes the unthinkable future into his own hands.

And in September 2020, five days after the 19th anniversary of 9/11, I’m thinking about the double meaning in the title of last week’s column, “George Bailey’s Bridge Is Nearer Than You Think.” Although the title refers to the location of the original Bedford Falls bridge in neighboring Hunterdon County, a short drive from Pottersville and the Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, I also couldn’t help seeing it in the light of an election that may leave the whole country standing on the bridge between November 3 and January 20. At least George Bailey had an angel to keep him from taking the plunge.