Meaningful Beauty

Aldo Tonti, who shot VIOLENT CITY in lurid, searing colour, also shot NIGHTS OF CABIRIA in lambent black and white.

At the film’s climax, there’s an encounter on a clifftop that looks set to be fatal, and is certainly tragic, but is thinly disguised at first as romantic, because that’s how the heroine sees it. The audience is not fooled. By the end of the encounter, the sunset glowing out of the lake comes to seem like a pit of hell, because there’s something unnatural and sinister about light coming from BELOW. (The lake is in fact Lake Nemi, a volcanic crater.)

(Christopher Walken, on some movie, sees the camera crew positioning a reflector at his feet. “What are you doing?” “Oh, we’re just going to bounce a little light up at you, make you look sinister.” Smile. “You don’t need to do that.”)

The hell’s light metaphor seems intentional since Cabiria meets the man at a cinema/music hall called the Lux, and their meeting is trigger by a stage hypnotist who wears devil horns. I recently read Mario and the Magician, the Thomas Mann novella, which Abraham Polonski adapted into screenplay form and wanted to make as a metaphor about fascism, and it’s clear to me that the hypnotist scene was influenced by that.

But what I really want to tell you about is Fellini’s drawing of Giulietta Masina, not as Cabiria but as Gelsomina in LA STRADA, swimming down to feed a puppy to an alligator.

I scanned this image, badly, from Inspiring Fellini: Literary Collaborations Behind the Scenes by Federico Pacchioni. Admittedly the reproductions in the book aren’t great either, but the book is really something — it digs into Fellini’s writing process. The illustrations are all dreams Fellini recorded about his writers. Here, he interpreted Gelsomina’s out-of-character cruelty as a reaction to writer Tullio Pinelli’s tendency to write cruel and violent scenes he was uncomfortable with — though TP was absolutely never guilty of portraying Gelsomina in this way. FF had fallings-out with most of his writers, and one possible reason is his increasing tendency to listen to the promptings of his dreams…

Most books and documentaries on Fellini look at his filming process, casting process, imagery, and the autobiographical aspects of his work. We learn in Pacchioni’s book, however, that the incident of young Guido being punished at school for watching La Sorreghina’s rumba in EIGHT AND A HALF, was taken from screenwriter Ennio Flaiano’s life. Generally Fellini’s writing team get short shrift, something they were well aware and resentful of. I’m always in favour of movie writers getting longer shrifts. Fellini is Fellini, but his collaborators are crucial.

I think I’ll do more of these Fellini dream cartoons…

Oh, and the title of this piece comes from FF’s defense of the ending of IL BIDONE. Someone in the edit objected to the weird procession of vaguely medieval types passing through the contemporary movie. FF asked an assistant for his opinion: the young chap voted in favour of the sequence because it was beautiful. FF became quite agitated: NO, he said, it’s not good because it’s beautiful, but because it’s MEANINGFUL beauty. Critics later would attack Fellini’s films as a meaningless blend of fashion show and sideshow — I think Fellini always believed he was pursuing meaning, but as in a dream, it could be hard to fathom…

7 Responses to “Meaningful Beauty”

  1. The most important of Fellini’s script collaborators on “Nights of Cabiria” is Pier PaoloPasolini. One night on the Via Veneto Fellini spotted a small, louche but very charming hooker who had somehow would up in this swellegant setting. Fellini as Pasolini’s help as he knew no on like this and Pasolini knew EVERYONE like this. He took Fellini into th sub-proletariat world and got him in trouble wit the Church because if “Man with the sack” This character who gave food to the sub-proles living in cave on te outsirts of Rome was thiught to be a riest. But he wasn’t This scandalizedtheChurch whose mission was to help the poor but actually hated the poor/ The Church successfully “Ma with the sack” scenes for many years. They are now restored.

  2. I believe Dino de Laurentiis pretended the negative had been stolen in order to justify dropping the scene. Not an implausible story in Italy – later, both Fellini and Pasolini had negatives stolen for real – most of Casanova had to be reshot.

  3. True.And Fellini planned a sequence for “Fellini Casanova” for Barbara Steele.But the thft scotchd that plan. The Italian fascist thieves were hoping to steal all of “SalO” But they titn’t.

  4. Really interesting to read about the collaborations. Pinelli and Flaiano were responsible for the story, which Fellini found ways to soften, and PPP was their guide to the underworld. With Bruno Rondelli throwing in advice from the sidelines.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    Free idea for a fiction: A powerful director is guided by dreams. Some interested party dabbles in quack psychiatry and/or magic to secretly intrude on the director’s dreams, thus shaping them and consequently the director’s current film.

    A writer may be trying to steer the film back to the script. An actor could be hoping to turn a part into a star turn. A producer might have commercial or political motives.

    Among other complications, the director may wake up from a carefully controlled dream and interpret it “wrong”. In accessing the director’s dreams, the would-be manipulator faces magnified nightmare versions of real-life issues.

  6. That’s pretty interesting! The other film person most influenced by pure superstition was Peter Sellers, and fortunately he chose to work with De Sica, thus avoiding a potential clash of subconscious influences.

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