Film/DVD: review

Intervista

Intervista
Written and Directed by Federico Fellini
 
1987, Italy — 108 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Comedy

Fellini's next-to-last film, Intervista is a loving and phantasmagorical tribute to movie-making.

Review

ImageIntervista (1987) is perhaps Fellini's most buoyant and honored late film; and when it is more widely seen, it may also become one of his most beloved. It won several international awards including, by unanimous vote, the Cannes Film Festival 40th Anniversary Prize and the Grand Prize at the Moscow Film Festival. For us Fellini aficionados, it's a special treat to find many of his best-known cast, and rarely-seen crew, members together in one film. (You can easily become a Fellini fan after experiencing only one or two of his pictures, such as La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1955), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963), or the ever-controversial Fellini Satyricon (1969).) With Fellini himself as the master of ceremonies, Intervista is both an uproarious celebration of a filmmaking community – stars, actors, bit players, makeup artists, technicians, scene painters, go-fers, reporters, security guards and gate-crashers, all swirling around each other – and this great artist's poignant (almost) farewell to cinema. Koch Lorber's completely-new digital transfer of Intervista is gorgeously state-of-the-art, in Fellini's desired widescreen aspect ratio and with rich sound (both Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks are included), optional subtitles, and an informative 52-minute documentary (full details below). NOTE that this pristine 2005 release bears no resemblance to the notorious faded-looking "pan & scan" 2003 DVD of the film, since withdrawn, from a different distributor. At last you can see and almost feel – to take just one example – the dazzling orange of Anita Ekberg's caftan, which she wears when greeting her old friends Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni. Along with all of the other cinematic elements at his command, Fellini sometimes uses color as sheer energy, helping propel the entire film forward. Yet even with its visual mastery, Intervista is no stuffy "art film." It is perhaps the most jovial of Fellini's overtly autobiographical films, which include I Vitelloni (1953), 8 1/2, Roma (1972), and Amarcord (1974). In interviews with Fellini, in the included documentary, he notes that Intervista is "like a conversation with friends... maybe a little brazen and narcissistic at times" but, I would add, always warm-hearted and bristling with energy.

ImageThe film begins before dawn on the day Fellini is to begin shooting his latest film, an adaptation of Franz Kafka's only comic novel, Amerika. Also arriving early at Cinecittà (pronounced "chee-NAY-chee-TAH"), Italy's world-famous "cinema city" where Fellini made almost all of his pictures, are enthusiastic Japanese reporters, come to interview the Maestro. We meet several of Fellini's associates, including his real-life cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli and assistant director Maurizio Mein (both of whom worked on many of Fellini's later films), and Nadia (Nadia Ottaviani), Cinecittà's enigmatic archivist who dresses like a '40s femme fatale but whom Fellini refers to, in both the dialogue and credits, as the "Vestal Virgin" (the god she serves is clearly Cinema). As Fellini begins staging a period streetcar scene, he recalls entering the then-new studio for the first time in 1940, as a 19-year-old journalist (Sergio Rubini) sent to interview a famous diva (Paola Liguori). We see his surreal memories of buffoonish Fascist officials, country women almost ready to burst into song, and a beautiful young aspiring actress (Antonella Ponziani), not to mention – as the trolley enters the magical studio – American-type cowboys and Indians, a parade of elephants, one crew shooting a (Fascist) romantic comedy, and another an over-the-top epic set in India. Fellini's memories flow back and forth between the (ahem!) reality of the present, as he fields the questions of his interviewers, and his starstruck first day at the studio. Back in 1940 young Fellini finally interviews the surprisingly earthy diva, while in 1987 his current assistant is looking for new talent in, of all places, the subway. An anonymous bomb scare at the studio brings the police to investigate, but that does not stop Fellini's assistants from conducting a hair-raising casting call. Fantastically, Marcello Mastroiani (Fellini's alter ego in La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2) then appears, hovering outside a second-storey window and dressed as Mandrake the Magician (he's shooting a commercial). Fellini, Mastroianni, Rubini and their merry band journey to visit Anita Ekberg at her country villa. At a party there, Mastroianni waves a magic wand, making scenes from La Dolce Vita materialize on a floating sheet; guests applaud and Anita Ekberg huddles nostalgically with her co-star of 27 years earlier. The next day, Fellini resumes filming Amerika. While shooting exteriors, a violent storm comes up. Then at dawn Cinecittà is attacked by a band of Indians waving spears – no wait, they're actually brandishing TV antennas! Time again folds in on itself as the Kafka film wraps – magically shot in less than three days – and the cast and crew all wish each other a Merry Christmas (hadn't it just been summer? hmmm.).

ImageThe plot is admittedly bizarre, but the film flows, it's genuinely delightful (never hard to follow), and it works.

Enjoying this film so much today, it's sad to recall that it originally took five years (until 1992) and no less a luminary, and lifelong Fellini admirer, than Martin Scorsese (who recently shot Gangs of New York at Cinecittà), to get this "uncommercial" film released in a handful of U.S. theatres. Hopefully this superb new DVD release will let Intervista finally reach the wider audience it deserves. Some of this film's detractors point out, with glaring obviousness, that it's not 8 1/2, Fellini's classic about the travails of filmmaking – but then, what film is? Yet Intervista casts some interesting, and kaleidoscopic, light on that earlier masterpiece, as well as his entire body of work; and it's certainly a contender for the title of "Most Underrated Fellini Film." There is much to revel in in Intervista, from opulent visual style to its many emotional and thematic layers. In other words, it is uniquely and engagingly Fellini.

ImageAnother criticism leveled at it, which I'd like to address up front, is that it's "self-indulgent." Absolutely! What filmmaker, if not Fellini, has so richly earned the right to use himself as the primary but, as we will see, ambiguous subject of most of his films, including this one? Few filmmakers approach not only Fellini's mastery of all aspects of cinema, from narrative (both as a writer and director) to imagery (neorealist to surreal), but the sheer exuberance of his technique. His movies can be dizzying in their energy, but – like Intervista – they are rarely dull. In fact, you could argue that this film is among his most "selfless" works, since he only rarely appears onscreen – although every frame is about his experience of moviemaking. Still, there are very few films with as appreciative, and loving, a respect for the dozens of behind-the-scenes people who let a picture come to life. Here, Fellini doesn't just show us the wide range of crew and cast, from lowly "go-fers" to (self-)exalted stars, he lets us feel their world as a community. This is a film rich in sensuous textures; you can almost feel the scalding arc lights and smell the greasepaint. If I were in a more flowery mood, I'd be inclined to dub Fellini's subject The Poetry of Film Production: you will never see more exquisitely beautiful shots of scaffolding or cranes, or more affectionate though fleeting portraits of crew members. An obvious point of comparison is Day For Night (1973), Truffaut's celebrated comedy/drama about a movie production. But Fellini's (not always merry) film workers feel more like real people captured at particular moments than Truffaut's characters, who are endearing but who often seem to be a bit too "written." In fact, Fellini's Intervista crew did "play" themselves, from the great cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, to the actual grips. Fellini certainly doesn't skimp on, or play for cheap laughs (although there are a lot of unforcedly hilarious bits), the messily controlled chaos of the filmmaking life. He has done an uncanny job of capturing the harried yet controlled rhythms of a real film in production, with all of the slogging and artistry, at least as I have experienced it when moonlighting as a film journalist in Los Angeles, sometimes spending twelve or more hours on a set.

On a larger thematic level, this film is also – and even more than 8 1/2, which is primarily about the creative process rather than actual film production – a sterling example of Fellini's trademark gift for mixing up the profane and the sacred. In, say, Roma his example of that swirling, yin-and-yangy dichotomy was the entire city of the title, while here he embodies the theme from the more geographically limited, but no less engrossing, reality-cum-symbol of a film studio. Riffing on Fassbinder's provocative tongue-in-cheek title, referring to cinema, Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), you could retitle this picture Celebrate a Holy Whore.

ImageWhat makes this film even more than a compelling "mockumentary" (a sly term popularized by Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap, made three years before Intervista), about the making of a fictitious Fellini film, are the many layers of the Fellini character, seen both in his actions onscreen (whether it's Fellini himself or, more often, Sergio Rubini playing his 19-year-old self) and the stylistic inflections of the scenes springing from his incredibly fertile, and complex, imagination (whether in the "real" present of 1987 or the "recreations" of 1940). Fellini is the world of this film; his spirit imbues everything in every frame. Yet if you watch him in, say, the documentaries included on the DVD, you may be struck by how sweet, even genuinely humble, he appears. He is much closer to the bemused – and not infrequently confused – young man who represents his youthful self here than, say, the supreme, and for some people including me, supremely fascinating egotism of the artist behind, say, 8 1/2: I'm referring both to Mastroianni's character and to Fellini himself. Part of our fascination is that we can never completely know the relationship between Fellini's personal myth-making and who the flesh and blood man actually was. It's like the most flamboyant and fun surface wrapping up layers, within layers, of psychological mysteries– and creative genius. If Fellini were less of a great artist, we wouldn't really care about what's inside: but he is, and we do. On yet another level, his supremely fascinating form of artistic egotism, as we will see, serves a much richer thematic and philosophical, even spiritual, purpose than any cheap self-indulgence. Fellini relentlessly uses himself as the raw material for his art, which paradoxically makes his vision all the more universal, as his countless admirers around the globe will attest.

Still, one reason Intervista may feel less satisfying to some viewers is that, unlike Fellini's most popular – and arguably greatest – films, there is no strong central character, no Gelsomina (La Strada) or Cabiria or Marcello (La Dolce Vita) or Guido (8 1/2), or Encolpio and Ascilto, the dual protagonists of Fellini Satyricon. Paradoxically, the central character of this film is both everywhere yet almost nowhere to be seen: Fellini's onscreen time only amounts to a few minutes. In films like Amarcord and Roma Fellini showed us the physical and historical world of his youth, but here the focus is on the tools he uses to create his distinctly cinematic magic. Cinecittà is literally a "cinema city," but Fellini is a cinema man, a cinema artist who knows how to bend all of the medium's elements to his own rambunctious vision.

ImageHe also is a master at reeling us in; and few of his films, even his masterpieces mentioned above, are as relentlessly buoyant and infectious as Intervista. This two-hour film subjectively felt like it was over in about two minutes, despite its experimental non-linear structure. It crackles with energy, from revved-up characters, visual design (including its bold color scheme), and its narrative flow: this isn't so much a stream of consciousness as a torrent. The screen crackles with life and delights us with beautiful images, and yet there are hints that there is much more going on than meets the eyes. To take just one example (we'll look at more later), the most breathtaking shots – among the most sublime in all of Fellini – are not of people but of the technical apparatus of moviemaking: cameras, scaffolding, cranes, which take on an unprecedented, and deeply strange, quality of sensuousness, while Fellini compares the now-aged Mastroianni and Ekberg with clips of their former beautiful selves. And although this film is a heartfelt tribute to Fellini's beloved Cinecittà, he reveals that it's a mere shadow of its former glorious self when it boasted such mega-productions as Wyler's Ben-Hur, now hemmed in by (seemingly) ever-expanding knots of soulless apartment buildings. Ruefully, you could speculate that Fellini, who knew that he was near the end of his cinematic life (he only made one more picture), was using film's kinetic ability to ward off his own aging or failing health – a theme which crops up several times in the film. So for all its high spirits, this is a work of genuine, and sometimes puzzling, depths. Before exploring those, let's look at how Intervista fits into Fellini's body of work.

In terms of his career, circa 1987, it's significant that this film was originally made for Italian television, although internationally it was released in theatres. Fellini was acclaimed as one of the most innovative directors of TV advertisements, for such clients as Campari, Barilla pasta, and the Bank of Rome. Note the series of commercials which punctuate this film, from the fabulous Busby Berkeley-style dance number with men in top hats and tails dancing on an enormous typewriter set to the parade of pink-clad cheerleaders to Mastroiani as Mandrake the Magician, who is "really" just appearing in a soap commercial (of course, he seems to have actual magical powers at various points). Fellini's working in television didn't stop him from satirizing the medium (which he saw as homogenizing and constricting modern society), albeit briefly, by having his tribe of rampaging Indians at the end of this film symbolically, and hilariously, attack the dying film studio with TV antennas instead of spears. He also continued making a feature film every two or three years: City of Women (1980), And the Ship Sails On (1983), Ginger and Fred (1985), Intervista (1987), and The Voice of the Moon (1990). Although a number of Fellini admirers, including myself, are not overly impressed with these pictures – although my newfound zeal for this film now makes me want to re-explore his final decade – Intervista can be seen as part of his larger, and interconnected, body of late work. You might call this his Postmodern Period, marked by his most overtly experimental pictures. Fellini was also celebrated for the sketches and cartoons from his dream notebooks, which in his final years he allowed to be publicly exhibited for the first time. The documentary on this DVD includes glimpses of several of his vivid drawings – more fine art than mere storyboards – for Intervista.

ImageThis film also connects with Fellini's universally admired earlier films, including his two pivotal masterpieces both starring his screen alter ego Marcello Mastroianni: La Dolce Vita (which I have reviewed) and the brilliantly self-referential 8 1/2 (consistently hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, as in the Sight and Sound polls of international critics and directors, where Fellini is himself ranked among cinema's ten most important directors). Fellini fans (you know who you are) will undoubtedly have many field days ferreting out the Maestro's allusions to his earlier work. One of the more subtle elements, which struck my fancy, involves dogs. You may recall the wonderful scene in La Dolce Vita in which the Anita Ekberg character shocks Mastroianni by taking a moment to howl with the (offscreen) wild dogs of Rome. Here, we see Ekberg at her villa surround by huge and frisky great danes (Fellini nervously calls them "lions"!). On yet another level, Fellini associates small packs of menacing guard dogs with Cincecittà, both in 1987 (this is one of the first shots) and in 1940 (where they lord it over the long, dark corridors).

Actually, his film closest to Intervista is the wonderful 1969 made-for-TV mockumentary Fellini: A Director's Notebook (included in the Criterion Collection's two-disc release of 8 1/2), which serves as a solid working draft for this film, made almost two decades later. To take just two example, note the similarities between both audition sequences, as assistants scramble to cast "Fellini types," and the use of anachronism (Roman soldiers in modern Rome there, American Indians and imperial Asian-Indian elephants at a film studio here). Intervista is also notable as one of only two prominent performances by Fellini: the other, in which he certainly does not play himself, is in the "Il Miracolo" segment of Roberto Rossellini's two-part Anna Magnani (Mamma Roma) vehicle, L'Amore (1948) which Fellini co-wrote and assistant directed. There, Fellini plays a vagrant who impregnates a homeless woman who believes that he is St. Joseph and that her unborn child is a new messiah (trivia buffs, note that the great filmmaker Jean Renoir plays the innkeeper). For the record, Fellini's few other cameo appearances are, for his own films, in The Clowns (1970), Roma, and Orchestra Rehearsal; he also appeared in a handful of other directors' pictures, including Paul Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland (1970) and Ettore Scola's We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974; Scola recreates La Dolce Vita's Trevi Fountain scene, complete with Mastroianni and Fellini).

ImageIn terms of Fellini's most conspicuously autobiographical films, Intervista connects with 8 1/2 in its filmmaking milieu and surreal subjectivity, while in terms of detailing a period in his life it recalls I Vitelloni and Amarcord, set in and around the resort town of Rimini where Fellini grew up, and Roma, city of his young manhood. In particular, note the connection between the streetcar in Intervista, which magically transports us (and Fellini's latest alter ego, Sergio Rubini) from the present "reality" of 1987 back to 1940, and the train in the final scene in Fellini's first masterpiece, I Vitelloni (the title literally means "veal calves," and refers with mocking affection to the aimless band of young men with whom Fellini grew up). In that 1953 film, his alter ego character, Moraldo, boards a train leaving for Rome to pursue his career as a writer, at long last able to break the inertia of the small home town which has trapped him.

But there are more levels to both scenes, including the sexual ambiguity of Moraldo and the hinted-at bisexuality of Fellini himself (his biographer John Baxter, in notes to the Criterion Collection's release of Juliet of the Spirits (1965), remarks, "Though Fellini and [his wife and star Giulietta] Masina shared a house, they occupied separate floors and had very different friends. Fellini flirted overtly with women but made his closest relationships with a succession of young gay assistants, among them Pier Paolo Pasolini...." – whom Fellini introduced to filmmaking). Moraldo is one of the most intriguing of all Fellini characters; some believe that he is the one closest to the "real" Fellini. Moraldo's succession of nocturnal scenes with a handsome young man can be read as everything from his communing with a Symbol of Innocence to platonic yet sexually-charged encounters (in striking contrast to the many overt same-sex couplings in Fellini Satyricon). I've mentioned this aspect of I Vitelloni because I think it also casts some light on the notorious "masturbation discussion scene" in this film, with Mastroianni and Rubini – Fellini is squeezed in next to them – in the car headed for Ekberg's villa. This scene might also have homoerotic layers: although I'm certainly not making any assumptions about the sexual orientation of anyone in front of or behind the camera. It also boasts some of the film's most trenchant lines, as when Mastroianni quips that masturbation is "an exercise in concentration that stimulates imagination, and I'd say it develops a novelist's [might he have substituted 'filmmaker's'?] frame of mind." That scene, still a bit daring in 1987, is representative of the entire film in that it's unexpected and hilarious, but it can also be read as a mask for implications... or not. The surface of this film is resolutely fun, but there are many ambiguities underneath (not all of them sexual, of course), which make it so rich and compelling.

ImageThat subtle tension, between what we see and hear and its implications, runs throughout every aspect of this film. Fellini even gave his great cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli (who shot many of Pasolini's films, as well as Fellini's Toby Dammit" sequence in the 1968 compilation picture Spirits of the Dead, Ginger and Fred, and The Voice of the Moon) at least as much screen time as himself. The obvious friendship between these two giants of Italian cinema is wonderful. As director of photography, Delli Colli helps make this one of Fellini's most visually fully-realized late works, which is especially important considering the strategy. It is shot mostly with a standard lens, which allows characters, even the most seemingly grotesque, to be spatially integrated with their surroundings. That helps to give the film's frequent surrealist bursts a surface of real-ness, which in turn visually/stylistically helps keep us connected to the proceedings.

By contrast, notice that Fellini uses sound to set up a disconnect between his characters and their environment – and us. Post-dubbing is, of course, a hallmark of Italian cinema; some directors, including Fellini, are known for having their actors mouth anything, including numbers, while being filmed, since all dialogue (in a variety of languages, for international release) will be recorded later and edited in. However, by 1987 the technology had progressed far beyond what Fellini employs, which suggests that he is possibly using voice quality for a thematic purpose. It sounds like the person is in the wrong space, because obviously the voice does not register the ambience of the physical surroundings. The most extreme example is Fellini himself, whose voice takes on a high-pitched, almost feminine quality, which you do not hear in the several interviews with him included on the accompanying documentary (there, with synch sound, Fellini's voice is intimately connected to his body and environment). Yet this aural disconnect in Intervista works to the advantage of the film: the unnatural fragmenting of voice, body and space parallels the fantastical form of the narrative flow and images.

ImageThere is a comparable relationship between characters as real people (Fellini, Mastroianni, Ekberg, Delli Colli and others as themselves) and as symbolic figures. Even though Fellini refers several times in dialogue to Sergio Rubini and Antonella Ponziani, among others, by their real names, in the credits they are listed only as types: The Reporter, the Young Woman. In fact, all of the principal characters, in the credits, are listed in similar allegorical fashion: the Diva, the Bride, the Spouse and, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, the Vestal Virgin (Nadia Ottaviani, Cinecittà's archivist, who is referred to throughout by her actual name). Fellini keeps these, and all of the other people/characters, immediate by making sure that, however subtly, each person is constantly reacting to everyone else, validating the reality of their shared world.

One of the most endearing aspects of Fellini is his empathy, although it sometimes takes on a Rabelaisian quality (most notably in Fellini Satyricon). Although everyone notes that Fellini's films are filled with grotesques, and this film is no exception (who can forget the auditions for "Fellini types"), it's also true that he can see beyond superficial qualities. Fellini's characters, even his most scurilous (like the fat Fascist officer or the too-earthy Diva), are treated with humorous indulgence, not venom. The ones he seems most deeply connected to – the waiflike women played by his wife Giulietta Masina (Gelsomina in La Strada, the title character in Nights of Cabiria), even the lusty pair of gay adventurers circa 2,000 years ago in Fellini Satyricon – receive his special understanding and love. With all of the sometimes scathing social satire which runs throughout his work (hypocrites, beware!), I can't think of a single out-and-out villain in any Fellini film; there certainly are none in Intervista.

ImageFellini shows his mastery of screenwriting as well as directing through his handling of time, which is of course a fundamental aspect of this film which flows freely, and surreally, between 1987 and 1940 (even, briefly, the nineteenth century American "wild West" and the present). He has brilliantly structured his original screenplay like a mobius strip, constantly pressing back onto itself in an unbroken circle. Note that what would traditionally be opening credits (title, director) are not presented until the very end, thus reinforcing the loopy nature of the picture. Fellini also – as if magically – uses the ellision of countless scenes to create the illusion that the several-week shoot of Amerika takes place in about two long days, thus further playing with both narrative time and our perceptions.

Why did Fellini choose a Kafka novel, from all the books in the world, for this film? Franz Kafka (1883–1924) is, of course, best known as the author of such satirically macabre works as The Trial, in which a man is accused, convicted of and executed for a crime which no official will ever divulge. But Amerika, written when Kafka was 30 (he never did visit the country of the title, which he idealized as a place of happy and free people), actually does connect in several ways with Fellini's own vision. Amerika is about the picaresque, comic misadventures of Karl Rossmann, "a poor boy of sixteen," as we learn in the book's first sentence, "who had been packed off to America by his parents because a servant girl had seduced him and got herself a child by him." (Some readers might ask if it's ever the man's fault.) The Felliniesque qualities become apparent in the very next sentence, in which we read of the Statue of Liberty's "arm with the sword." Kafka knew as well as we do that it's a torch, not a sword, in the hands of New York City's most famous monument, but – like Fellini – he is already tipping his hat that this is a personal, mythic vision of his subject, intended to disturb our sense of reality. It's not the real Statue of Liberty – or the real Fellini or Mastroianni or Cinecittà – it's the artist's surreal and symbolic use of them. There are some riotous scenes in this novel which one wishes Fellini could have filmed, such as the spectacle of the parade for the judge who is running for election.

ImageI don't mean to lapse into English majoritis, but I can't help wondering if Fellini might have considered using, instead of Kafka, Nathanael West's (1903–1940) The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931). That first novel, by the author of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust (filmed to acclaim in 1975 by John Schlesinger – Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday) feels even closer to the spirit of late Fellini. It's an intensely surreal tale of a modern man who climbs into the rear end of the Trojan Horse (note the hilarious shots of elephant's posteriors in Intervista, especially the one of a cutaway mechanical pachyderm rump with crew guys inside), and discovers a phantasmagorical world whose mind-boggling inhabitants include a holy man trying to crucify himself with thumbtacks and, taking reflexivity to new depths, a biographer writing a biography of another biographer. West's fabulous blending of artistic and religious allusions with erotic and grotesque humor smacks of Fellini at his over-the-top best.

ImageAnother reason I believe Fellini chose Kafka's novel is that he wanted to have a little fun with America, in particular its primary dream factory, Hollywood (which honored Fellini with many awards, including four Oscars for Best Foreign Film). As Kafka's novel ends, his misbegotten hero is headed for parts West, which brings to mind the American Indians which figure so playfully in Intervista (both when young Fellini first enters Cinecittà and then, as noted above, in the next-to-last scene, when their spears have become TV antennas). In what may be a bit of double-edged eclecticism, the ending of this flm brings to mind the anachronistic final scenes of two otherwise wildly divergent pictures: Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles (1974), in which the parodic movie Western literally crosses over into the Hollywood studio, and (former Fellini protégé) Pasolini's Oedipus Rex, with Oedipus and his guide shockingly adrift in modern Rome, thousands of years after the main action.

That anachronism – the juxtaposition of a past and present – also resonates with the mobius strip-like structure of the film, which collapses time: going seamlessly from 1987 to 1940 and back, or ending with the opening credits. Sometimes that temporal fluidity – which brilliantly dramatizes the nature of memory (Proust would love this film) – feels like freedom, but other times it feels like a trap. Thinking about this film, I keep coming back to what seems like its key line, when Fellini – early on, telling his Japanese interviewers about his dream – refers to Cinecittà, and by implication cinema, as being both "a fortress and an alibi." Note that dual-metaphor's implications of solidity and (self-)defensiveness, as well as the potential for prevarication. And that brings to mind that all of Fellini's films, in the most resonant ways, feel like they are hiding something, or several somethings, beneath their brilliant surface.

ImageConsider the title. Intervista literally means "interview," and there are several throughout the film: (1) the Japanese reporters enthusiastically asking Fellini about his new film in 1987, (2) young Fellini as a reporter taking down every word of the Diva in 1940, (3) potential actors being auditioned for roles in Amerika, and less obviously, (4) Fellini "interviewing" himself through the way he depicts his life and earlier films. Arguably, there is yet another level to the title's meaning, in which we question the film about its veracity: was that "really" what young Fellini was like? Of course, with interviews how do you know if the subject is telling the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Also they are time-delimited events, and superficiality is expected (in the case of some Divas, devoutly to be wished) – yet it can also suggest, by implication, much more than what we literally see or hear. And that applies both to the subject and, it should be added, the interviewer too.

So, who is the real man behind the cinematic genius who is Fellini? And what about the paradox of perhaps the most autobiographical of great filmmakers who yet obscures so much about his own life? And how does he expect anyone, even his most devoted admirers, to unravel the mysteries which are Fellini? As frustrations go, this one is delectable.

ImageAlthough I have never, in any review, used that old chestnut of a phrase – phallic symbols – I think it does apply here, since there is much sexual energy bubbling beneath the surface here – and because Fellini all but announces this motif with a bullhorn at several points: when Mastroianni floats in as Mandrake, he twirls his magic wand and tells the startled production team, "Sexual problems? Forget your woes! With one tap of this stick, up comes your dick!" A bit more subtly (thought not by much), the film opens with a rising crane mounted with a camera (which is shot in profile: some viewers may see parallels with the male reproductive organs). Tonino Delli Colli asks Fellini if he wants to come up; no, says the director, "I can imagine it from here" – then we watch the shaft with the camera rising, higher and higher, until it is fully distended (you have to get it up before you can start shooting). In another instance, there can be no doubt of the feelings of Fellini's young alter ego for the beautiful young woman on the streetcar: his attraction is paralleled by the gushing waterfall they (magically) pass by; it even splatters the window they're behind. Perhaps the funniest male symbol is the fake elephant's trunk, in the 1940 Indian "epic," being hoisted up and jiggled, as commanded by the decidedly un-Fellini-like director of that ludicrous racist musical mess (intentional on Fellini's part but, alas, not the director character's). You might also count the field of TV antennas, poised for attack, by the bare-chested Indian braves in the penultimate scene. If you are so inclined, I will leave you to find still more instances of this tongue-in-cheek motif throughout the film: trust me, they're there.

ImageThere is also some intriguing sexual ambiguity in this film, beyond the subtle tenor of the masturbation discussion scene noted above. In an early scene, Fellini's assistant Maurizio Mein brings some teenage boys for the director to inspect but it turns out that one of them is actually a young woman named Sophie in drag. Near the end of the film, when Fellini is doing camera tests of the two top candidates for the lead – Kafka's protagonist is a teenage boy – the diminutive Sophie is one of them. Although when I recently resaw La Dolce Vita I was surprised – and intrigued – by the large number of gay, lesbian, bi and transgender (GLBT) characters running throughout the film (I'd certainly missed that element in previous viewings), I saw fewer overtly GLBT characters here. On the set of the 1940 campy (and by implication "gay") India epic, one effeminate artiste calls the (presumably) producer a "faggot dwarf" and threatens to seek artistic freedom in Germany (Fellini certainly knew the irony of this – note his satire of Fascist officials and their adoring fans in this film – since the German film industry was controlled by the Nazis, whose favorite role for "deviants" was death). Also there are the flamboyant, even stereotypical, make-up men and hairdressers surrounding the Diva. Weirdly, I kept thinking that Fellini was going to surprise us with the revelation that the Diva – who felt like a female impersonator mimicking the actions of a movie star – was actually a man. But no. (I do not intend any disrespect to actress Paola Liguori; this was her only film appearance.) In terms of same-sex friendship, all of Fellini's closest – although relaxed and seemingly open – relationships depicted in the film are with other men, specifically with Maurizio Mein, Marcello Mastroianni, Tonino Delli Colli, and Sergio Rubini. I love the bit where Fellini paints a pimple on his nose, ostensibly as an acting aid, so that the "cute" – as the women on set gush about Rubini – actor "will think of its ugliness while interviewing" the Diva, and hence deliver a more convincing performance.

ImageThe women in the film are often depicted more problematically than the men. Young Fellini is shown as having a crush on the beautiful, almost doll-like, Antonella, but at the end of their long scene on the streetcar, in voice over we learn that he never saw her again. Young Fellini, we're told, had a major crush on the Diva, yet she's presented as boorish. Fellini clearly has real affection for Anita Ekberg, but you can also sense the tension between them as she scolds him for not getting together in years.

Another key thematic element is darkness, both literal and metaphorical. It seems that the more you re-view this film, the more shadows, and outright darkness, you find throughout. The film begins eerily at night, with mist swirling through the almost-deserted studio, guard dogs on the prowl; for the first few shots it feels like a thriller, even a horror movie. As you'll see at other points in the film too (especially the 1940 scenes on the India epic soundstage), Fellini lays on the fog via smoke machines. (At one point his assistant, Maurizio Mein, shouts, "We need more smoke!") Some of the other forms which darkness takes include the endless shadowy corridors at the studio, both 1940 and 1987 (at times it feels like the place is haunted: paging Mario Bava!), as well as the massive sets, which are pitch black except for the small lighted areas where filming is taking place. There's also the dark subway tunnel (what better place to cast a Fellini film than on the subway, eh?) and the storm at end, which seems to make the night even blacker. Some of this darkness, as well as studio-as-labyrinth, imagery brings to mind Kafka (there is even a hotel-as-labyrinth sequence in Amerika, which Fellni does not dramatize, although Cinecittà's actual corridors give a similar feeling). As Intervista progresses, this accumulation of literal obscurity comes to take on a disturbing symbolic feel; and it may connect with some deeper layers in the film, as we'll see.

ImageFellini also creates this effect of things being off, even menacing, with sound, notably the chilling echoes we hear in the dark storage house for abandoned streetcars. Metaphorical darkness registers in several ways, including the Fascists mentioned above and the implied Nazis (it's a German-themed romantic comedy, presumably to butter up the Teutonic Axis brethren, being filmed as young Fellini enters the studio). Perhaps the most evocative dark element, at least for us in the post-9/11 world, is the bomb threat, which comes at the two-thirds point. Even in this brightly-colored film, just around the corner is terrorism, which was much on Italy's mind even then. Between 1974 and 1988 the so-called Red Brigades carried out fifty bombings and other attacks, including the 1978 kidnapping and murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro. The shot of the police officer searching for the bomb underneath a huge scale model of Cinecittà is pure Fellini: ingenious in its originality, funny in its incongruity, yet also disturbing: that cute model may, in fact, be about to explode.

ImageMuch less dramatic, but more universal, is the film's poignant theme of the passing of time, of aging. Even at 67, Fellini felt that his best filmmaking days were behind him; and you can feel his melancholy throughout this film, for all its gaiety. Perhaps that's one reason why he spends such an inordinately long time on the Diva being made up – layer after layer after layer – by a team of cosmetic magicians, to give the illusion of youthful beauty. Interestingly, the talented actor Fellini chose to play his 19-year-old self was, in fact, ten years older than that: Sergio Rubini is perhaps best known to English-speaking audiences for The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), playing Inspector Roverini, but he is also the writer/director of over a half-dozen films to date, including his award-winning debut, La Stazione (1990). Indirectly, even the soundtrack also reminds us of the passing of time, since it is the first instance of Fellini using any music by his inimitable collaborator, composer Nino Rota, since his death in 1979. Rota scored virtually all of Fellini's films – he was truly the director's musical voice – from his first picture until the composer's death. Nicola Piovani has created some evocative original scoring for Intervista, but the fleeting yet unmistakable excerpts from Rota's scores – those singularly jaunty yet heartbreaking melodies from The White Sheik (1951), Il Bidone (1955), La Dolce Vita, and The Clowns – only remind us of how much Fellini, and cinema, lost when Rota died.

ImageThe most heartbreaking moment in Intervista is the scene, at Anita Ekberg's villa, when she, Mastroianni, Fellini, and the assembled crew and cast members watch clips from La Dolce Vita, playing on a magically hovering sheet which Mastroianni/Mandrake the Magician has conjured out of thin air. While the excerpts play out, Ekberg and Mastroianni huddle close together. When Mastroianni tells Ekberg, "You are still beautiful", there is not a trace of irony in his voice; although Ms. Ekberg has become fleshy, like a Rubens model, she still radiates the life-loving spirit she demonstrated in the earlier film. Mastroianni's, and screenwriter Fellini's, classic line in the 1960 film – when, infatuated, he asks the Ekberg character, "Who are you? A goddess? Earth mother? Eve, the first woman?" – is no less resonant in 1987, despite the changes which time have brought to everyone who lived, and filmed, "the sweet life" so long before. You can't help but wonder if Fellini filled Intervista with so much energy and life – and memories – in an attempt to defuse time's inexorable power. (Maybe that desire can also be used to read one of this film's funniest bits, when a fully-bandaged mummy, at the 1940 studio, furiously pedals around the lot on a bicycle.) Of course, such an intention is doomed in the short run – but as long as films can be seen, this work will remain, with Fellini and his friends, and characters, frozen in time.

His including Mandrake is not only a plum role, albeit a brief one, for his friend Mastroianni, it's also an acknowledgment, to us and himself, that Fellini knows he will never get to make his lifelong dream project of Mandrake the Magician. (Created in 1934 by Lee Falk, Mandrake was the first super-powered crime fighter in comics, fighting arch-villains in tuxedo and top hat: Fellini's first film, as a solo director, was 1951's The White Sheik, about a comic book artist). But at least Fellini can see a little bit of Mandrake onscreen, starring the ideal actor. Mandrake's profession might also be Fellini giving a little tip of the hat to his affectionate nickname in Italy: Il Mago ("the Magician"). When you pair this comic strip character with Kafka, it's also a reminder of how Fellini brilliantly straddles the seemingly irreconcilable worlds of popular culture and high art, drawing from both to create his unique vision – and in the process satisfying almost every type of audience.

ImageThere's also a hint of Fellini cozying up with his beloved Shakespeare, who bid farewell to theatre in his last work, The Tempest, perhaps as Fellini felt, at the time, that he was here bidding farewell to filmmaking. Fellini, as the master of ceremonies who is both everywhere yet rarely seen, parallels the Bard's great, but old and weary, magician Prospero (although no wands were broken here). Fellini's including the old standard "Stormy Weather" (also used it as source music in a scene in La Dolce Vita) near the climatologically tempestuous end of this film (the final night of shooting Amerika) serves as a playful pun on Shakespeare's title, but it also brings to mind the great and openly gay filmmaker Derek Jarman's film of The Tempest (1979). Jarman used "Stormy Weathre" for a rousing final big production number, replete with a chorus of sailor boys, which is as revisionist as it is weirdly faithful to Shakespeare's mood: if Fellini saw Jarman's film (and he may have) he could not help but notice how, yes, Felliniesque it was in its more sublimely surreal passages, but also how effortless were its homoerotic moments, even in comparison with Fellini Satyricon. I'm not saying that Fellini necessarily had Jarman on his mind when making Intervista, but there may be some intriguing connections.

The duality between so-called high and popular culture also reminds us, on another level, of the split nature of Fellini's entire body of work. His films are all so gorgeous visually yet filled with the grotesque; they at once feel comfortable yet always off, sometimes just a bit (I Vitelloni), other times outrageously so (Fellini Satyricon). And that tension runs through every frame of this buoyant-yet-divided picture. It is simultaneously a love letter to moviemaking, with all of its tedium and joys, and a deconstruction of its mystique. (Fellini is, oxymoronically, the most genial postmodern filmmaker.) Perhaps one reason that we can return to his films again and again with pleasure is that their surfaces are always delightful, even deliriously so, but underneath – held in delicate balance – there are worlds, within worlds, of contradictory implications: psychological, sociological, spiritual, and aesthetic.

ImageThe final shot in this film is one of the most eerie, beautiful, and perhaps revealing in any of Fellini's films: a tiny man with a clapper on a vast, shadowy, deserted soundstage, while high overhead a camera – made to look enormous by the framing – with an operator in complete darkness prepares to film... what? In this film, bursting with color, energy and life, we end with the ominous darkness of the first shot: and then the opening credits roll (there had been none), and we realize just how much of a mobius strip this film is.

That shot, emphasizing not only literal – and metaphorical – obscurity but the apparatus of filmmaking also reminds us that, throughout the film, Cinecittà itself had come to be the most important character in the film. The sudio, in its myriad aspects, is in every shot, while Fellini himself appears in only a few. Cinecittà becomes the locus of his dreams and memories (both real and invented), his past and his present, until it seems to engulf him and everything else. Fellini manages to imbue himself in every brick, arc light, and cast/crew member on the lot, with his fabulously surreal and unmistakable sensibility, until he becomes synonymous with the studio which he often referred to as his true home. On one level this demonstrates his love, not to mention mastery, of cinema and his extraordinary gift of empathy (which we see in every one of his films), but on another, darker level it suggests that the Maestro is not at one with himself. Recall the countless instances of disconnection – visual, sound, thematic, psychological – which we have looked at throughout this review. It's as if he needs to remake the world so that maybe he will somehow be able to fit into it – but it never quite comes off, even when he is – literally – calling all of the shots.

That final image can be read, or perhaps I should say intuited, as a mysterious and poignant acknowledgment by Fellini – after implicitly "interviewing" himself throughout the entire film – about the ultimate futility of a 'cinema man' trying to set up home in a 'cinema city.' I'm not saying that this is in any way an aesthetic failing on Fellini's part – far from it. Rather, this disconnection – between himself and the world, as well as perhaps between himself and himself – is one source of his unique, paradoxical, and profound artistry.

I'm reminded again of Fellini's most haunting line in the film, that Cinecittà, and cinema, is both "a fortress and an alibi."

There is plenty of giddy fun in Intervista, but there is also a lot to think about – regarding Fellini, the nature of film, and perhaps even ourselves – if you so choose.

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Crew

  • Directed by Federico Fellini
  • Written by Gianfranco Angelucci & Fellini
  • Produced by Ibrahim Moussa
  • Executive Producer Pietro Notarianni
  • Cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli
  • Edited by Nino Baragli
  • Production Design by Danilo Donati
  • Costume Design by Danilo Donati
  • Original Music by Nicola Piovani
  • Additional Music by the late Nino Rota (excerpts from his scores for Fellini's The White Sheik, Il Bidone, La Dolce Vita, and The Clowns)

Cast

  • Sergio Rubini as the Reporter (young Fellini)
  • Antonella Ponziani as the Young Woman (on the streetcar)
  • Paola Liguori as the Diva (movie star)
  • Lara Wendel as the Bride
  • Antonio Cantafora as the Spouse
  • Nadia Ottaviani as the Vestal Virgin (the Cinecittà archivist)
  • Marcello Mastroianni as Himself
  • Anita Ekberg as Herself
  • Tonino Delli Colli as Himself
  • Maurizio Mein as Himself
  • Federico Fellini as Himself

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DVD

The image and sound quality of Koch Lorber Films' new widescreen DVD transfer of the film is superb. Beware of the notorious faded-looking "pan & scan" 2003 DVD of this film, since withdrawn, from a different distributor. NOTE that this is the full 108-minute version, although a typographical error on the DVD package indicates it's 114 minutes (there has never been such a print): this is the complete film as Fellini intended it to be seen. There are also several special features, including Vincenzo Mollica's excellent 52-minute documentary on the making of Intervista, featuring several interviews in which Fellini discusses the film and how it relates to his other works and his life.

DVD Details

Reviewed April 26, 2005

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