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Fellini: I'm A Born Liar

      Endlessly interviewed during four decades of fame, from his first feature, Variety Lights, in 1950 until his death in 1993, the Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini admitted in one of those endless interviews that "Maybe I talk rather too much. Afterwards when I read what I've said, it depresses me and I find it all rather stupid... [B]ut because I can never say no, I do the same thing all again. I'd like to keep a note of the replies I've already given and then say to the journalists who always ask the same questions, anyway, 'Look at reply No. 2005.'"

     Would Damian Pettigrew, the clueless documentarian of the pale, pedestrian Fellini: I'm a Born Liar, have been knocked silly if the Italian maestro had yawned and blurted, "No. 1998" and "No.2465," to the obvious and predictable (and, no doubt, fawning) off-screen queries? Instead, for this 1993 video taping done just months before the filmmaker's demise, Fellini, in a tie, burgundy sweater, and herringbone sports jacket, sat back in his chair and politely regurgitated samplings of what he'd been offering awed journalists forever. You know: the old cozy platitudes and airy quarter-baked philosophies about cinema and painting, cinema and dreams, the identity of the artist.

     High modernist meanderings. Even the juiciest gushings have been told elsewhere, like the two seminal dreams he's had involving Picasso, his artistic idol, in which the painter has (a)appeared bald-headed out of the sea and (b)sat Fellini down at a table and made him a delicious, twelve-egg omelet.
Charming tales. Fellini, the director, was quite an actor. As with all clever thespians in long-running productions, he says here what he's said ions of times with conviction and a sense of improvisatory discovery, as if
he's putting Pettigrew, the so-honored audience, into his deepest confidence.

     A confidence man.

     A born liar? You bet. Almost the first thing in the documentary out of the maestro's mouth (and unchallenged by the interviewer) is that "I never see my films again." Right! He'd only once in his life viewed La Strada, La Dolce Vita, and 8 1/2? Another bold-faced fib: when, oozing false humility, he slips out the old line about how he's an unconscious artist, a mere vessel, an artisan, that someone else whom he really doesn't know directs his films. Right!

     But observe him on the set (there are random scenes here of Fellini directing actors) where he's a control-freak little "roi," actually playing the off-screen characters being addressed by his cast, and giving stern line readings which must be mimicked by the intimidated performers. He's in his element all right, Mr. Fellini hungrily running the show. And he's got the perfect situation because of the crudities of Italian filmmaking. Even today, all the sound is post-sync, the dialogue dubbed in later. As in silent days, the Italian filmmaker can shout by the side of the camera while the shooting his happening. And shout Fellini does! And he even used a commanding megaphone.

     At one point in the documentary, Fellini sheds his humble-pie act, admitting (here we believe his rhetoric) that making films for him provides "a pleasure tied to the Narcissist legend of semi-divine power, of the almighty God." And when the film is in the can? "I feel a bit empty...I've been exiled."

     The Fellini interview, done in one sitting and one setting, poorly photographed with a switching between two stagnant camera positions (a medium closeup and a very tight closeup), constitutes about 60% of this two-hour film. Another 20% is totally arbitrary shots from Fellini movies, in no logical order, 35mm downgraded by being reshot on video, and with no film titles given. The origin of some clips will stump all but the most ardent Fellini-ites. On the other hand, there's lots of familiar footage clipped from 8 1/2, but meaningless because it isn't contextualized.

     We're left with 20% of the documentary, talking-head interviews with others than Fellini. The stupidest ones involve metawords from novelist Italo Calvino, irrelevant words which are not about Fellini at all, and annoying showboating from Roberto Begnini, surely tossed into the documentary just to help it sell. The most frustrating comments are from former Fellini collaborators trying to throw light on the director's personal torments: an early-dying child with his wife, La Strada and Juliet of the Spirits actress Giulietta Massina, a traumatic affair (apparently alluded to in La Dolce Vita) in which The Other Woman considered suicide. In each case, the filmmaker, Pettigrew, cuts quickly away, before the somber anecdote involving Fellini can be really understood.

     And the last 10%? The only real energy in this documentary comes from the few minutes of screen time given to Fellini's detractors. The director contends in I Am A Born Liar that he had no trouble with actors, even the most temperamental of them, that he loves their infantilism and even their peacock struttings. Cut to a seething Donald Sutherland, some time after starring, unhappily, in Fellini's Casanova. He goes on and on about Fellini "the martinet" who routinely shouts down his cast. Then there's Daniel Toscan du Plantier, several times Fellini's beleagured producer, still angry at being made The Enemy on the set. "And Fellini has no respect for The Enemy," he explains.

     Finally, there's a long, very colorful interview with British actor Terence Stamp. No matter that he starred in the most marginal of Fellini's, the "Toby Dammit" section of a three-piece horror anthology, Spirits of the Dead. Stamp has the most uproarious, irreverant things to say about the great auteur, and, the best thing in the whole documentary, he does one hell of a Fellini imitation.

     Oh, are you interested in Fellini properly interviewed, and by someone with the nerve and know-how to challenge him? I recommend Conversations with Fellini (Harcourt Brace, 1995), great, ripe talks with his long-time friend, ex-Il Messaggero newspaperman, Constanzo Costantini.

(September, 2003)

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