In Italy, in the wake of the Neorealist movement, Federico Fellini was the country’s most visible director. Fellini began his career as a cartoonist and then enrolled in the University of Rome Law School in 1938 in order to avoid being drafted into Mussolini’s army. He never actually took any classes, however, and instead spent his time as a court reporter, where he met the actor Aldo Fabrizi, who hired him at a nominal salary as an assistant. By the early 1940s, Fellini was writing scripts for Italian radio programs and developed an interest in film as a result of his work in the relatively new medium. In 1945, after the fall of Mussolini, he and some friends opened up a storefront business that he christened the Funny Face Shop, where, functioning as a sidewalk sketch artist, he drew caricatures of American soldiers. A chance meeting with Roberto Rossellini developed into a friendship, and Rossellini asked Fellini to help with the script for the film that became Open City.
The success of the film encouraged Fellini to delve further into the cinema. He wrote several more scripts for Rossellini, including the scenario for the groundbreaking segment of L’Amore, “The Miracle,” in which he also appeared.
Now working within the Italian film industry on a regular basis, Fellini served as an assistant director and/or scenarist for the young Italian directors Pietro Germi and Alberto Lattuada, both of whom had attended the Italian national film school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. In 1950, Fellini made his first film as a director, Luci del varietà (Variety Lights, co-directed with Lattuada), but the modest comedy, about a vaudeville troupe, failed at the box office. His second film, now as solo director, was Lo Sceicco bianco (The White Sheik, 1952), a parody of the fumetti comic books then popular in Italy, which used captioned photos rather than drawings to tell their story. This film, too, failed to meet with public favor, but Fellini finally clicked with his next effort, the semi-autobiographical film I Vitelloni (The Young and the Passionate, 1953), about a group of young loafers who hang about a small Italian town waiting aimlessly for something to happen in their lives; the film would be remade by George Lucas as American Graffiti (1973), set in a small California town. La Strada (The Road, 1954) was an even bigger success, starring Fellini’s immensely talented wife Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina, a sort of “holy fool” who tours the Italian countryside as an assistant to the strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn). Alternately heartbreaking and comic, this deeply perceptive film about the vagabond carnival life struck a chord with audiences worldwide and won an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film.
Marcello Mastroianni, in the role that made him an international celebrity, plays Marcello Rubini, a scandal reporter for a sleazy Rome newspaper. Marcello spends his nights searching for gossip and scandal, going to endless, meaningless parties, hanging out on the Via Veneto in Rome, constantly looking for action. His sidekick, Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), is a stop-at-nothing photographer who specializes in catching stars in compromising situations. As the film progresses, Marcello sinks deeper into the “scandal sheets” and work on some project worthy of his undeniable talents. His best friend, Steiner (Alain Cuny), is an intellectual with a wife and two children who has nightly literary “salons” at his high-rise apartment, and urges Marcello to quit wasting his life. But when Steiner suddenly and inexplicably commits suicide, after killing his two infant children, Marcello feels there is no way out. The film’s final sequence finds him drunk and unshaven, hanging out with a worthless group of party people, intent on momentary pleasure and nothing more. Marcello has now given up writing even for the gossip magazines; he has been reduced to being a publicist for hire, who dispenses instant, fraudulent celebrity—for a price.
Coming as it did at the end of the 1950s, La Dolce vita is a film that sums up the excesses and follies of the decade, and also gestures toward the on-rushing 1960s. With La Dolce vita, Fellini ended his first great decade as a filmmaker. Perhaps significantly, his next feature film, Otto e mezzo (81/2, 1963), dealt with creative block, as film director Guido Anselmi (Mas-troianni) cannot get his new film off the ground because he has run out of material from his own life with which to create. The sets are all built, the actors hired, the costumes prepared, and the money in place, but Guido has no idea what to shoot. The film ends with the situation unresolved, but by looking more intensively into his past, it is implied that Guido will find hope for his future work. 81/2 won Fellini his third Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and he was soon involved in a series of captivating, dreamlike projects that occupied his attention in the 1960s and 1970s.