Nail Chiodo

Close Encounters with Fellini

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It was more or less towards the start of my own, disastrous career in the movie business, round about twenty years ago, that my first “close encounter” with the Master, Federico Fellini, occurred. I was walking down the Via Veneto – the nerve center of the dissipated way of life Fellini himself had portrayed and made famous the world over in La Dolce Vita – when I spotted our man sitting at an outdoor table of one of his favorite haunts, the Caffè Doney. The purple riot that suddenly overcame my heart and made tears come streaming from my eyes surprised me as much as they did my walking companion, K, a brilliant and beautiful collaborator of those years. I hesitated a few moments while I got a hold of myself and then beckoned K to follow me as I aimed straight for the vacant table next to the one the Master was occupying. He was in the company of another gentleman of more or less the same age, whose elegant manners and attire made me imagine was an important producer. Just after K and I had sat down, however, and before I had any chance to savor the privilege of physical proximity to the man who, more than any other, embodied my artistic and professional ideals, he and his companion got up and slowly walked off. I remember that the Master only hobbled away, as one of his legs was blocked in a cast.

My own career in films and bid to become a director in my own right were themselves being all but crippled at the onset in those early days – so full of youthful faith in the Amor Rationalis of others as in my own – by the viscosity of the barriers to entry in that prized and glamorous profession. Suffice it to say that in Italy at the time it was customary to describe rookie directors in their late forties as “young beginners” to somehow repair for and discount the years and years of brainless loitering about the corridors of power that was normally expected of aspiring film-makers. Today, since many of the children of the influential directors of the old generation are grown up and have moved quite naturally into their parent’s line of work, the average age of novice Italian directors has dropped considerably. Unfortunately, however, the overall standards of the national cinema are still not being held as high as they might be if much of the “young blood” being infused were somewhat less spoiled, less jet-set vitellone (bullock, lay-about) as it were, to use an expression from the Fellinian typology. Characteristically, it was only thanks to my own eligibility to favors of a nepotistic sort that I eventually landed a job as a volunteer assistant to the director on a full-scale motion picture crew – and it was on that occasion that my second close encounter with the Master took place.

I was walking down a long narrow empty corridor in the building that housed the editing facilities of Rome’s famous movie studios “Cinecittà”. Fellini emerged from a door at the other end and started up the hall in my direction. The situation had the characteristics of putting us face to face as in a western-style gunfight. I advanced, wondering what would happen. At the perfect pitch of the crescendo, when we were finally only a few meters apart, Fellini suddenly removed his broad-rimmed black hat, waved it before me with sweeping gesture, took a deep bow and exclaimed a drawn-out, heartfelt “Buongiorno!” I was, of course, caught entirely off-guard by the extravagance of his greeting and just managed to return a respectful nod as he passed.

Either he was in a particularly cavalier mood that day and his behavior only extremely gallant, or there must have been something special in my demeanor, some ill-disguised air of self-importance perhaps, which he sensed and felt prompted to acknowledge with the sweetest irony. The two hypotheses are not exclusive, however, and the occurrence, for all of its fleetingness, remained a riddle to me. It contained something veiled and premonitory of my own future in the business which, if it could not but elude me at the time, did ever-so-gently brace me for whatever was held in store.

I would be transgressing the aims and scope of this article were I to enter into any detail in relating the continuation, agony and ultimate termination of my career as a film director, a story which spanned over more than a decade of my life and might be more felicitously relegated to the annals of some “hidden intellectual history” of our era. I once heard Fellini himself being quoted as having said that film directors should be killed while they are still in the cradle – a boutade one can easily imagine coming from the Master, who had single-handedly almost reeked civil war upon post-war Italy with his lighthearted, tactful desecration of clergy and aristocracy. What instead actually took place in Italy as in other western countries in the seventies and eighties was rather more like a massacre of the innocents on an imperial scale: it was in those years that Italy, in particular, passed from being one of the world’s leading film-producing nations (second, I believe, only to India and the United States in terms of the number of feature-length films produced annually) to a country in which the industry had to struggle pathetically simply in order to survive, and whatever there was of any artistic value all but disappeared completely. For the purposes of this article, therefore, I am content to wear the vests of a mere quantum in the statistics of that international disaster. Let me instead proceed to describe my last close encounter with Federí, as the Romans used to call him, which occurred some years after I had given up all idea of following in his tread.

This time we crossed paths one morning under a grayish sky at the beginning of the Via del Babuino, just off the Piazza del Popolo. Fellini appeared somewhat aged and lost in his own thoughts, and he in fact passed next to me with barely a glance of acknowledgement. For him I was just another face in the street, of course. As I added the first steps to the distance that was growing between us, I reflected that this time I had to grab the occasion to finally say something to the man. So I quickly turned and almost yelled after him: “Excuse me, but…” Fellini slowed down in his steps while I approached him, without however turning towards me; when I was nearer, he showed me a tried, irritated face and, clenching his fist and jabbing it towards the ground to emphasize his annoyance, repeated twice “Mi dica! Mi dica!” (“What is it?! What is it?!”’) I hadn’t had any time to think what it might be that I should say to him, but the words came on their own, thank God, and I said: “I just wanted to express my gratitude to you.” A warm, sympathetic smile instantly took over the Master’s face and he gave me his hand and said “What a kind thought!” We then immediately parted, conscious of having somehow made each other’s day.