There’s that great scene in Annie Hall, with Annie and Alvy on line at the Beekman Theater and the pontificating middle-age academic behind them:
“We saw the Fellini film last Tuesday. It is not one of his best. It lacks a cohesive structure. You know, you get the feeling that he's not absolutely sure what it is he wants to say … Like all that Juliet of the Spirits or Satyricon. I found it incredibly indulgent. You know, he really is. He's one of the most indulgent film makers. He really is.”
What’s funny about this man-in-line’s rant, besides Woody Allen’s reaction to it, is that Fellini is indulgent, and joyfully so. A cinema artist who traffics in images and memory, psychology and, most of all, the personal, Fellini’s films and dreams are very much one. Emphatically a non-linear narrator of stories, Fellini is a raconteur, colorfully telling snippets of stories, episodic ideas and images that express his dreams, thoughts, ideas.
If you are looking for political or social commentary in Fellini's work, you will be adrift in images that don't support either. He wasn't interested in politics. It is this very non-ideological--yes self-indulgent--formalism that led to the critical re-appraisal of his work. The early exemplar of the auteur theory became the very symbol of what was wrong with the auteur theory in light of more radical cinema theory of the '70s and 80s.
But not to me. I believe that one can apply any and all critical theories to any film and/or filmmaker, but one is not more vital--or more right--than another.
That said, Fellini is an acquired taste, I think; aggravating if you favor narratives that follow the classic Hollywood style. But if you have some general guideposts, and an open mind, Fellini will take you on a wondrous, phantasmagoric journey through his mind.
Here are some early guideposts we’ve established for the four-film course I’m currently offering through the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Program.
First, there is Fellini’s intent to make strange the familiar in order to allow a fresh, different perspective;
Second, consider his two versions of man and woman in relationship. There is the man who is both master of his universe and a prisoner of that very universe--his gender role. The first male is, at least superficially, respectful of women and on the other hand resentful, conflicted and angry at them. Mistrustful, perhaps. Confused, certainly.
Then there are Fellini’s women. The one demanding, needy, nurturing mother/wife—and partner in an ultimately problematic relationship—versus the available (often grotesquely so) sexual object. One can argue that only Juliet, in Juliet of the Spirits, is the most fulfilled of Fellini’s women and that Maddalena, in La Dolce Vita, is most complex;
Fourth, Fellini comes back repeatedly to the idea and images of religion as spectacle, both fantastic and ritualized but most often disappointing, perhaps even disillusioning;
And finally is the episodic nature of his films. Loosely beginning with Nights of Cabiria, but in full throttle with La Dolce Vita, Fellini works in episodes rather than linear narrative form. There is little if any cause and effect in Fellini’s richest work, and each episode can be considered a film within a film, unified by a visual design that becomes more and more dreamlike as his films mature.
A good, overview is offered by Antonia Shanahan, at the online film journal Senses of Cinema. You also can read his New York Times obituary.