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Fellini’s heady mix of sacred and profane

24 January 2020

On the centenary of the director’s birth, Stephen Brown considers an artist who reflected desire and the divine


Anita Ekberg at the Trevi Fountain, in La Dolce Vita (1960)

Anita Ekberg at the Trevi Fountain, in La Dolce Vita (1960)

“THE Church never gave me joy. . . The Church frightens me to death. I am a Christian. I believe in the necessity of God. Because I believe in man. And God is the love of man.”

So said Federico Fellini, who would have been 100 years old on 20 January. One of the world’s greatest writer-directors, he made more than two dozen films, including La Strada, 8½, and La Dolce Vita. Although rarely frequenting church in adult life, he could not leave religion alone: his films are replete with imagery, dialogue, and themes both contesting and endorsing his Roman Catholic heritage.

Brought up in the Italian coastal town of Rimini, his mother, Ida, was largely responsible for her children’s Christian education. Fellini attended a series of church schools without much enthusiasm. There was no shortage of Catholic guilt. At one of them, run by the Sisters of St Vincent, he was terrified of the consequences if the processional candle that he was holding blew out, having been told Jesus wouldn’t like it.

Ida hoped that her son would become a priest, but it would seem that Fellini was more drawn to the legends and practices of his Romagna region, with its combination of superstitions and myths running alongside church allegiances and dogma.

This symbiotic relationship between paganism and Christianity was to dominate many of Fellini’s films. For instance, in La Dolce Vita (1960), twin helicopters fly over Rome. Strung from one of them is a huge statue of Jesus, now casting but a shadow over the Eternal City, in both its ancient (the Felice Aqueduct) and modern (new housing) aspects. We are left with the suspicion that only with great difficulty will the Son of Man find a resting-place. The Church has crowded him out amid other distractions, ranging from bikini-clad sun-worshippers to night-club society taking its pleasure in a dancer masked as what appears to be an Oriental deity.

This juxtaposition of disparities continues throughout the film. The other helicopter houses Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a journalist forever desiring the sensational, only interested in Jesus if he offers a better story than the gossip he regularly digs up on the superficial chattering classes. Seven episodes, each potentially and spectacularly a perversion of one of the sacraments, presage Marcello’s fall from grace.

FELLINI displayed a fascination with excess. He retained, in Orson Welles’s words, “a small-town boy’s dream of the big city”. At the time of La Dolce Vita’s release, Count Giuseppe Dalla Torre, the editor of the Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano, published no fewer than seven pieces criticising the film. The faithful who saw it were threatened with excommunication. Dalla Torre himself never watched it. “I don’t need to see that filth,” he said.

Accusations of debauchery and blasphemy had long dogged the director. New York’s Catholic League of Decency managed to ban The Miracle, Fellini’s section of the film L’Amore (1948) directed by Roberto Rossellini. Unlike the Italian Church, the League considered it sacrilegious rather than a simple woman’s pious fantasy of being impregnated by St Joseph. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of the United States delivered a landmark ruling supporting the film.

No doubt Fellini enjoyed pushing the envelope. His interest in society’s vacuity and decadence arising out of spiritual emptiness is crucial to any analysis of his work, which can appear to glorify opulence, depravity, and exoticism. His films explore how much freedom we can attain before realising that we are bound to fail to overcome society’s repression. The director partly blames this on institutionalised Christianity, while simultaneously acknowledging that the search for a pagan alternative is futile.

Fellini Satyricon (1969) is just such an excursion into antiquity — a fantasy drama based on Satyricon, written by Petronius in the first century AD. Fellini filled the gaps in this original work with many an exuberant embellishment. By this stage, Fellini was steeped in Jungian psychoanalysis. When Encolpio (Martin Potter) presents a series of tableaux of pagan Rome, there is a plenitude of archetypes: the Hero, the Mother, etc. Bestial hedonism is rife, and innocent love hard to find.

It is a world about to die. The guests at Trimalchio’s feast rant about the decline in their own brand of religious belief. Fellini suggests that we need something better, something that incorporates humanity’s hidden, darkly unconscious elements (the so-called shadow side) into their known selves. Without this self-awareness, we become slaves to ideological movements driven by hate and fear (hell) instead of discovering new ways of ushering in the Kingdom of heaven.

FELLINI’s films draw heavily on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Like the poet, he often organises his work around one central observer. Mastroianni’s Guido in (Otto e Mezzo, 1963) is a filmmaker with director’s block. As with Dante, he is “in the middle of the journey of life, finding himself astray in a dark wood”, desperate for a beatific vision. Fellini’s last film, The Voice of the Moon (1990), traces the wanderings of a young man. Through the character of a bewildered priest, Fellini continues to despair of a self-sufficient Church unable any more to send us “news from paradise”. Ginger and Fred (1986) features a Dante marionette in a television advert that is lost until crassly relying on a compass watch.

Fellini was working on a television version of Dante’s Inferno before he died. He perhaps saw Dante as a fellow champion against what he described as “medieval Catholicism which tends to humiliate a man rather than restore him to his divine greatness”. In 8½, a cleric tells Guido: “You mix sacred love and profane love with too much nonchalance.” It neatly describes Fellini himself.

In researching this feature, I was constantly reminded of William Blake’s uneasy relationship with the Church’s “dark Satanic mills” that subjugate our human desires. For Blake, “The treasures of heaven are not negations of passion but realities of intellect from which all the passions emanate uncurbed in their eternal glory.”

AlamyFederico Fellini with Sophia Loren in 1993

Through his films, Fellini advocates our freedom to “cultivate absurd dreams”, granting permission to take leave of reason and engage with a fantasy world packed with creativity. The Church is often associated with repression, as in Amarcord (1973), which dreamily and humorously depicts small-town life in 1930s Italy, under the combined forces of Fascism and Roman Catholicism, which have sentenced people to an eternal adolescence.

Juliet of the Spirits (1965) is an amalgam of imagination, recollections, and mysticism in the life of a woman needing to break loose from an oppressive husband and embrace the world. Fellini’s long association with astrology comes to the fore in this picture. He believed himself typically Aquarian: inventive and flamboyant, open to the possibility of the miraculous. There was a delight in scandalising people with his over-the-top self-indulgence, urging men to acknowledge and integrate their sensual feminine side (anima) with rationality and reason (animus). Blake’s dictum “Better murder an infant in its cradle than nurse an unacted desire” would have a certain extreme appeal to Fellini.

He believed that women were more likely to experience divine radiance than the likes of his male characters, who strive to achieve redemption through work, power, sex, and faith. Take Nights of Cabiria (1957), for instance. Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, plays the eponymous role of an oppressed but happy-go-lucky prostitute. Astray in a dark wood, she is the recipient of “the little wildflower of grace”.

Bob Fosse’s film version of the musical Sweet Charity (1968) is based on Nights of Cabiria. Here, Charity, a dance-hall hostess, embarks on a pilgrim’s progress. Warmed by the generosity of others as well as enduring the hill of difficulty, she ends up living “hopefully ever after”.

A similar role had been played by Masina in La Strada (1954), in which Gelsomina is sold to Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), a circus strongman who takes her on his travels. He frequently brutalises her before finally departing. Entirely dispirited, she is rescued by a stranger.


CATHOLICS applauded La Strada for its portrait of Christian love, grace, and redemption. Fellini believed that the film “tries to show the supernatural and personal communication between a man and a woman who would seem by nature to be the least likely people to understand each other”.

His pursuit of the numinous through various spiritual means would never turn him into a model Christian for church authorities to uphold. And yet Cardinal Silvestrini officiated at his funeral on 3 November 1993 at Santa Maria degli Angeli, Rome. Mourners were led by President Scalfaro, one of those writers who censored La Dolce Vita in L’Osservatore Romano.

No wonder the Church frightened Fellini with its capriciousness, dubious alliances, and power to turn him into a belated respectable figure. Friends described him as a worried Catholic: one who was outraged by organised religion’s petrification of our humanity. More accurately, he was a Clown for God, a holy fool, reminding us of the chaos permeating our subconscious lives and able to communicate to us important truths about ourselves. It was a role thoroughly examined in his 1970 drama-documentary The Clowns.

In La Strada, the fool Il Matto observes: “Everything has a purpose — even this stone,” but admits that he doesn’t know what. “If I knew, I would be God.”

Fellini invited us to entertain the anarchical, irrational. and sympathetic in our search for God.

BFI Southbank is currently running a Fellini season.


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