FeFe, we hardly knew ye

Like many great artists, Italian director Federico Fellini tends to be a polarizing figure. While detractors bemoan his tendencies toward plotlessness and extreme self-indulgence, acolytes celebrate those same traits and marvel at the definitive artistry and unending sumptuousness of his films.

The four-film Criterion Collection Director Series for Fellini is unique to the world of directors’ box sets in that it eschews filler and assembles only masterpieces: Nights of Cabiria, La Strada, 8 1/2 and Amarcord (whereas, for instance, Criterion’s Robert Altman collection cobbles together Short Cuts, 3 Women, Secret Honor and Tanner ’88).

Fellini’s first great film was 1954’s La Strada, starring his real-life wife, Giulietta Masina, as a sweet but slow-witted gamine married off to a bestial sideshow strongman (Anthony Quinn). Some consider La Strada the director’s finest hour, but I think it’s the least of the four collected movies, while still an alternately enchanting and grisly work.

Fellini cut his teeth in Italian neo-realism, and 1957’s Nights of Cabiria contains particles of his grittier background, mixed with the episodic dreaminess of his later works. Masina inhabits the role of a hard-luck prostitute who maintains her hopeful nature against all reason.

A few years later, Fellini made La Dolce Vita, an enthralling three-hour odyssey through the social strata of Rome; it proved a tough act to follow, and resulted in several years of artistic stasis. Fellini reformed his director’s block into 1963’s 8 1/2, an inspired, quasi-autobiographical meditation on artistic stagnation starring Marcello Mastroianni as a Fellini-esque director.

It could be argued that Fellini was merely spinning his wheels after La Dolce Vita. Still, I should spin such wheels! In 1974, he made the questionably nostalgic Amarcord, which sifts through his memories (and embellishments) of childhood in Mussolini’s Italy. Amarcord exhibits the filmmaker’s amazing ability to create realized characters in every role, even bit parts.