By John Budde
Frederico Fellini was certainly one of the most influential of modern directors. His films are filled with delightful fantasy and mischievous irreverence. After having made his first eight films, this one became something of a departure, not only in theme but, most notably, in the richly textured visual interpretation of Gianni di Venanzo, his cinematographer for the project.
The film presents the story of a film director, suffering a creative block amid a work in progress. Faced with overwhelming pressures from his producers, and wanting, against his indulgent nature, to be a better husband, he escapes into a world layered with exaggerated and reinvented childhood memories and romantic dreams about the small harem of women in his life. How much of this is autobiographical and how much just sheer fantasy is somewhat ambiguous, but in his search for a conclusion, he realizes that, perhaps, there is no conclusion to anything…and that, maybe, he can now finish his film.
What seemed so very apparent at the time of the film’s release was that the cinematography and lighting were very fresh and, in some rather imaginative way, represented a visual interpretation of their time…not entirely unlike the modernist international style in architecture or the shape and design of cars, or the look of fashion. It was 1963. The world was inspired. It would not last much longer.
As you watch this film, pay particular attention to its simple but meaningful compositions and layered lighting which often places dark foregrounds against nearly white backgrounds, and vice versa. There is an emphasis on the extremes of the dynamic range in black and white cinematography. Some sequences are nearly all white, some even greatly overexposed to emphasize white. Others are very dark, but usually with the presence of white somewhere in the frame. Somehow, that visual atmosphere seems metaphorical for a man in the midst of a struggle between his nature and his obligations.
One will also find an abundance of more formal imagery, in which these modern characters play out their roles against precisely composed architectural backgrounds from antiquity. These reminders of history seem to complement the content in ways which may remind us that this is a story which has, perhaps, been told many times.
I was very young when I saw this film. I had never seen anything like it. It was so alive with new ideas. Although it had a strong influence on many cinematographers, I wonder how many remember Gianni di Venanzo’s name.