Judge Joe Armenio enters the world of Federico Fellini.
"I don't really consider this a movie…it's unlike other movies because its tone is that of a friendly chat."—Federico Fellini on Intervista
The above quotation, taken from an interview included as an extra on Koch Vision's DVD, is overly modest: Intervista shows off too much visual imagination to be "not a movie." Still, Fellini's comment gets at some of the problems with his penultimate film, made in 1987. The movie is an elegiac trip down memory line, a series of films within films that both celebrates the golden days of Rome's Cinecitta studios and laments their passing. With its haphazard structure, elaborately stylized visuals, and life-as-circus tone, Intervista is the work of an artist who, rather than challenging himself, is content to have a friendly chat, to revel in nostalgia and recycle old images and themes.
Facts of the Case
Fellini, playing himself, is at Cinecitta shooting an adaptation of Franz Kafka's America and being interviewed by a Japanese film crew who want to capture life on the set. Fellini reminisces about his first trip to Cinecitta as a young journalist sent to interview an imperious starlet, a trip that is dramatized with Sergio Rubini (The Talented Mr. Ripley) as the young Fellini and Paola Liguori as the star. Back at modern Cinecitta, the director's assistants (these crew members also play themselves) scan the subway for "Fellini-esque" faces for the Kafka film, and shoot screen tests. Fellini's leading man Marcello Mastroianni drops by, and the gang heads to Anita Ekberg's house, where the pair of stars watches their famous scenes from La Dolce Vita projected on a screen that Mastroianni conjures from nowhere. Fellini manages to finish the America film despite rain and an attack from TV-antenna wielding Indians.
Intervista opens with a sequence in which the Japanese interviewers arrive at Cinecitta as Fellini is shooting at night; the mixture of artificial light, moonlight, and smoke-machine fog creates a particularly evocative example of the creepily artificial beauty for which Fellini is best-known. The most effective section of the film, for me, was Rubini's wide-eyed encounter with Cinecitta in its prime, portrayed as a larger-than-life amusement park and fractured microcosm of the wider world. He sees waterfalls, (American) Indians, Fascist officials, and elephants on the train ride in; interviews Liguori in her elaborately pink dressing room as her cronies mutter sexual innuendo in the background; stumbles onto the set of an (Asian) Indian epic at which cast and crew bustle and argue, the surroundings are a fantastically cheap simulation of opulence, and the elephants turn out to be made of cardboard. Those who are familiar with the rest of Fellini's work might find all of this a bit stale or overly familiar, but the director approaches the sequence with a gusto I found lacking in the rest of the film; it's shot with a brilliant eye for the glamorously artificial and a whimsical lack of regard for logic.
The scenes set in modern-day Cinecitta have an elegiac feel, as the old place is somewhat run-down, hemmed in by apartment buildings. The classic days of cinema, represented by the studio, are gone, replaced by TV, with which Fellini had a notoriously ambivalent relationship. At one point he sued mogul Silvio Berlusconi (now Italy's prime minister) for cutting up his films with commercials, and he often denounced TV programming as tacky and soulless, but he also accepted TV financing for his films (including Intervista) and even made a series of commercials in the early 1980s. Intervista can be understood as an episode in that peculiar love-hate relationship; it's a movie partially financed by television but suspicious and hostile of it, down to the all-too-overt symbolism of the final sequence, in which "savages" brandishing antennas attack a huddled mass of defenseless film folk.
The sequences in which Fellini prepares and shoots America are the least successful in the film. In them the director seems less like a creative artist and more like an icon and celebrity, giving a behind-the-scenes look at the ways in which he produces the "Fellini-esque" effects for which he's known. The whole thing feels too self-congratulatory, too much like an in-joke. I have to admit that I was unmoved by the scenes featuring Ekberg and Mastroianni, which most reviews of this film seem to consider its most notable aspect. Perhaps this is because I'm not the world's biggest fan of La Dolce Vita, but I don't think that's the whole problem. It's beneath Fellini to be indulging in this sort of where-are-they-now nostalgia; the scene at Eckberg's house reminded me of the sort of potboiler oldies concert at which aging bands play their old hits, because they know what the audience wants to hear and aren't creative enough to come up with anything new anyway. An artist of Fellini's stature should be carving out new paths rather than spinning the old tunes again. Of course, uncharitable critics would say that all of Fellini's work is corrupted to some extent by self-indulgence at the expense of creative growth. I wouldn't go that far, and I think that Intervista has its moments of unusual beauty, but ultimately it deserves to be thought of as a minor work.
Koch Vision's DVD preserves the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the video quality is excellent, much better than some other Koch DVDs I've seen recently (Kusterica's When Father Was Away on Business, for one). The most substantial extra is a 51-minute piece described as a "special" and directed by Vincenzo Mollica. It's too formless to be a documentary, consisting mostly of interview footage (both from 1987 and later) of Fellini and the film's cast and crew. Fellini fields inane questions from various reporters with grace, shows a little embarrassment at winning awards, and modestly suggests that the film "might be a little too personal." (Still, Fellini apparently felt a great fondness for Intervista, as he put it on his own list of the ten greatest films ever made for Sight and Sound's 1992 poll.) Anita Ekberg expresses fondness for the director but says wistfully that "he neglected me" after La Dolce Vita and that she was typecast in bombshell roles. There are also interviews with Mastroianni, Rubini, and Antonella Ponziani (who plays a pretty fellow passenger on Rubini's surreal train ride). Composer Nicola Piovani discusses Fellini's approach to music, and comic book artist Milo Manera talks about his assignment to produce the film's poster. All seem to feel genuine admiration and warmth for the director, who died in 1993.
The DVD also includes a stills gallery (including a neat picture of Fellini on the set with David Lynch and Isabella Rosselini; I would like to hear the story of that encounter) and unusually detailed text biographies of the cast and crew, including Fellini (of course), Mastroianni, Rubini, Eckberg, Piovani, director of photography Tonino Delli Colli, costume designer Danilo Donati, and producer Ibrahim Moussa.
I probably don't need to recommend this DVD to Fellini devotees, who will have purchased it already; it will delight enthusiasts with its visual grace, its wry behind-the-scenes look at Fellini's methods, and its nostalgic references to his other films. Detractors will see it as typically indulgent nonsense, while those who stake out a middle position (your humble correspondent included) will classify it as an occasionally striking but minor work.
I can't bring myself to convict anyone involved with this film of excessive fondness for the old days. All are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Cast and Crew Bios and Filmographies
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