Federico Fellini on Storytelling and the Ultimate Change

Federico Fellini

[Federico Fellini with Marcello Mastroianni in a pause during the filming of 8½]


It's the story of a man like there are many: the story of a man who has reached a point of stagnation, a total traffic jam that strangles him. was Fellini's autobiographical movie. He admits so himself in a bizarre conversation with Oriana Fallaci in 1963.

A cathartic move. The story line was meant to show people their fears, doubts, rogue behavior, cowardice, ambiguity, and hypocrisy. All things that are the same in a director, a lawyer or a family person. Mirror, mirror. According to Fellini, after looking at your own reflection, you should feel liberated.

Scorsese watched the movie several times and still wonders:

How is it that it all feels uncanny and inevitable, as in a dream? How could every moment be so rich with inexplicable longing?

Sound played a big part in this mood. Fellini was as creative with sound as he was with images. Italian cinema has a long tradition of nonsync sound that began under Mussolini, who decreed that all films imported from other countries must be dubbed. In many Italian pictures, even some of the great ones, the sense of disembodied sound can be disorienting. Fellini knew how to use that disorientation as an expressive tool. The sounds and the images in his pictures play off and enhance one another in such a way that the entire cinematic experience moves like music, or like a great unfurling scroll.

Were he still alive, the Maestro would have said that we mustn't insist on understanding, but try to feel, with abandon. And accept what comes back. I like cinema because with cinema you express yourself while you live, you tell the journey as you do it,” says Fellini.

Scorsese suggests Fellini was compelled to create because, the artistic process doesn’t have a resolution either—you have to just keep going.” What you find in his movies are major revelations about human nature.”

You could watch La Dolce Vita in different phases of your life. Each time, you'll see a different part of yourself looking back at you. Fellini's movies are biographical stories. They take you home. Human instincts become alive with possibility.


Stories are a funny thing

Nearly 30 years later, Fellini gave one of his last interviews to graphic journalist Renato Pallavicini. The director explained how cartoons inspired his work. Their role in strengthening imagination and encouraging critical speech through jokes and irony. And a comfort during the fulfillment of life's obligations: school, gym, processions, Sunday mass.

Comic strips were the first source of inspiration for Fellini. Amarcord is the movie that most mirrors cartoons. A tribute to childhood in which my mother, who grew up not far from Fellini's hometown, sees so much of hers. But also to the world of comics: fixed shots, few camera movements. 

Some of the greatest Italian illustrators worked on the comic Marc’Aurelio: Mosca, Attalo, Merz, Guareschi. The publication was also a school, a seminar, an extraordinary forge for cinema. Steno, Scola, Marchesi worked there; many writers and directors did. It was a very popular weekly, a bit annoying for the fascist regime in 1938.

From life to story, and from story to life. In a conversation with journalist Enzo Biagi, Fellini talks about his tendency to invent. But his imagination seems to be vivid and acute observation. You can find the image of his father holding him up in the theater during projections that mixed sparkles with the smoke and the large faces in all his movies.

As a child, cinema was a mystery—prohibitive for the admission price, and prohibited for the Church. Catholicism is very much part of his story. Priests and nuns are part of his world. A tall woman with an apron that smelled of potato peels was his first memorable embrace at 5, 6, or 7.

She was a helper in the St. Vincent convent, those with the nuns with big hats that looked like seagulls. Something funny young Federico said, she laughed and embraced him tight. To Fellini, it seemed that in addition to the smell of potatoes and minestrone, there was also a certain languor. A sweet vertigo.

He tried often to say funny things and get a tight hug after that. But likely the nuns had warned her. It was the discovery of something obscure and indefinite in a physical contact. The director felt all sins warranted understanding.


Structure and geometry of stories

Fellini had extraordinary charisma. Like other great artists, he had the ability, to invent his own language. Within Italian, his language was shining and glittering, always surprising, thriving with images and adjectives, prosperous and pulpy like the overflowing forms of the feminine in his films. 

His verbal fantasy is perpetually kaleidoscopic, nourishing through its effervescence. Later in his career, Fellini collaborated on the creation of commercials. He abhorred interruptions, but appreciated the artistic experience. Commercials allow you to tell a story in a short time, to suggest developments open to the viewer's imagination.

He's made one commercial each for Barilla (Alta Societa or “High Society”) and Campari (Oh, che bel paesaggio! or “Oh, what a beautiful landscape!”) in 1984, and three for Banca di Roma (Che Brutte Notti or “The Bad Nights,” then “The Tunnel Dream” and “The Dream of the Lion in the Cellar”), in 1991. Here's the backstory on what turned out to be his last works.

In Federico Fellini: His Life and Work, renown film critic Tullio Kezich notes of the Campari short:

“In just one minute, Fellini gives us a chapter of the story of the battle between men and women, and makes reference to the neurosis of TV, insinuates that we’re disparaging the miraculous gifts of nature and history, and offers the hope that there might be a screen that will bring the joy back. The little tale is as quick as a train and has a remarkably light touch.”

Film, like any art form, is designed to transmit a subverting truth.

All stories are about change. Geometry and structure are the tools of good storytelling. For my Ignite Austin talk (see sidebar), which coincidentally was about 2021: Uploading Humanism, I used these tools to fit a 5- minute space:

  • The first 1:15 are about getting the audience to identify with something. I talk about the need to fulfill human potential, something we all have in common with Leonardo da Vinci at birth. Then I open the door to changing circumstances.
  • In the second 1:15 I introduce someone who was dealing with circumstances, brain-injured children, and point to the thing that we need.
  • The third 1:15 is about the drama in the story of Marie Curie, and the price she paid. In this section, we start heading back to the original circumstances.
  • In the last 1:15, I talk about how those original circumstances have changed as a result of the journey. My vision took the audience from fragmentation of roles and thought into co-creation or collaboration.

The feminine in classic storytelling, which is not one and the same with female, is connected, nurturing, protecting, and encouraging. Growth, development toward the better, what you return to are characteristics of the feminine.


How change depends on us

In a vintage interview from 1959 during the filming of La Dolce Vita, Fellini says he drew inspiration for the movie from the lone figure of a woman. He shows us what happened next:

On a sunny morning, in Via Veneto , this figure so clearly cut of a woman, may have triggered a series of sensations that had to do with aristocratic Rome, the attendance of the environments where movie rituals take place, Hotel Excelsior, the Grand Hotel, the Americans …


Yes, Via Veneto is a bit the heart of the film, most of the scenes take place in Via Veneto because the protagonist, Marcello, who is a journalist, has his newspaper office just above the Cafe de Paris.

And because in Via Veneto there is a chance to meet the whole world, both Roman and cosmopolitan, that gathers precisely here, so sprawling along the various cafes of Via Veneto. 

Some long shots I filmed in Via Veneto, but, however, for traffic reasons I listened to the advice of Peppino Amato, who from the beginning said "to me "Look, you cannot shoot in Via Veneto" I stubbornly insisted instead because I feared to lose something by shooting in the studios …

So Amato provided me the largest theater in Cinecittà, and ordered to make a reconstruction that really as you see has nothing to envy – that is, to the Via Veneto, which you know well.

And then I could play around and shoot as if I really were in the street of Via Veneto with the difference that… there's all the amenities of a sound stage.

Every time you have a character reacting or adapting to a situation, going through trials, and returning changed, you have a story. Stories are about transformation. They follow a rhythm: biological (life, death), psychological (conscious, unconscious), and societal (order, chaos).

Fellini had internalized these transitions. His first paid job was caricaturist, making portraits of famous actors for the Fulgor cinema in Rimini. His activity as a draftsman and caricaturist continued in the following years and resulted in collaborations with newspapers and magazines.

In January 1939 he moved to Rome and got to work on his love affair with cinema. He was the winner of 67 awards and 50 nominations.# According to Kezich, the director was born on a moving train… and he just kept going.

At the end of the interview with Pavallicini about his love for comics, Fellini points out that we refuse to admit that change is up to us:

Yes, I know, these are generic and obvious phrases, but I seem to be obliged to confess that I too am a bit guilty, I tolerate, remove, step over, I tend to forget, I want to be comfortable. On the other hand, who doesn't want to be comfortable?

Dan Harmon, co-creator of Rick and Morty, and co-founded the alternative television network and website Channel 101, says there's a point in the hero's journey, after passing the threshold, entering unfamiliar terrain, going through trials, and finding what they wanted.

“When you realize that something is important, really important, to the point where it's more important than you, when you gain full control over your destiny. Fellini found that point early in his life, and kept going until the end.