Ettore Scola’s Che strano chiamarsi Federico is a clearly loving and inventive tribute to Scola’s close friend and for our purposes, one of the most acclaimed, legendary filmmakers of all time. It’s a rather fun and whimsical documentary essay that despite having moments that will please Fellini fans, won’t be accessible or interesting to those less familiar with the Maestro’s films, and for those that are, it won’t prove particularly illuminating.
It’s not a strict documentary per se, and its greatest strength comes from its formation as a tribute to Fellini’s films. It’s framed by a narrator introducing and walking us through the film that recalls Amarcord or the Fellini substitute Moraldo in I Vitelloni, as we follow a young adolescent leaving his town of Rimini to work for satirical humour magazine Marc’Aurelio. Shot in black and white, these early scenes of Fellini (and later, Scola himself, whose career did mirror much of Fellini’s) introducing himself to the world of satirical cartoons where he would make his mark in the early forties. This aspect is one of the least explored areas of at least the Western narratives of Fellini’s career and it’s a fascinating look at a young artist developing his sensibilities – we see that Fellini can produce crass and clever jokes with the best of them, but is chastised for wanting to put serious stories in the paper. But also as narrative it works – less reminiscient of a Fellini film than Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto of a young man travelling to work in a big city, it’s very charming. Among the many jokes and depth lost in translation, when the boss surveys young Federico’s cartoon portfolio, he’ll say “This is funny”, stone-faced and deadpan. This joke is compounded when you consider the Italian phrase for funny, “mi fa ridere”, translates literally as “this makes me laugh”, when it clearly doesn’t. In any case, the opening half hour is the best portion of the film.
After which, the film becomes less incisive – long restaged conversations with a prostitute and street artist which Scola recollects don’t really resonate, and once we switch to colour the recreated scenes lose their lustre. Fellini loved artifice, but there’s an element of fantasy that’s lost in this tribute – scenes and backdrops look fake (which in itself isn’t a bad thing – one of the most beautiful scenes Fellini ever shot was that of the townspeople in Amarcord rowing out to greet a cruise ship, with the water around them clearly cellophane), and its clear the Fellini style doesn’t translate well from celluloid to digital (or at least, to cheap digital). More fascinating are some of the cultural documents we are exposed to – Fellini’s own cartoons and caricatures are great inclusions, as well as rare footage like Vittorio Gassman and Alberto Sordi auditioning for the lead in Fellini’s Casanova (reminding us that the final choice, Donald Sutherland, is one of the strangest – though not necessarily disastrous – casting decisions in cinema history).
There are some great observations into Fellini’s mind, however. Stories of how Fellini would compulsively lie and make up elaborate anecdotes and tales to tell his friends, and his insomnia and hatred of loneliness do illustrate Fellini as a figure who above all cherished storytelling and entertaining. His connection with Cinecitta, the legendary Italian film studios where Fellini created entire worlds and spectacle, is a strong point of the film. In one of the best recreations of the film, Scola and Fellini walk through one of these sets – shot from afar, the two figures look like ants walking through a gigantic dark studio with scaffolding and props everywhere; one of Fellini’s dreamscapes coming to life. The closest real-life equivalent to Caden Cotard’s expanding warehouse in Synecdoche, New York, in Cinecitta Fellini in the later stages of his career had the greatest train set any director could ever play with, and in this scene he walks through and bemoans what he perceives as the limitations on his artistic freedom. It plays as delicious irony, but reinforces that Fellini’s vision and imagination were boundless, with no blank canvas in the world large enough to do them justice.
However, more often than not the film doesn’t pierce too deeply. Many of the most interesting aspects of Fellini’s career (the particular resonance and connection many Italians felt with his films) as well as lasting criticisms (his portrayal of woman in his films, as well as his treatments of Fascism) are at most given a cursory mention, or not at all. Furthermore, framing it around his relationship with Scola, merely a friend, mostly bypasses all the more interesting relationships Fellini had – professionally, his early collaborations with Rossellini and Pasolini were important in developing his own style, or Mastroianni as his alter-ego in some of his most personal films (8 ½, La Dolce Vita and less successfully, City of Women) and his complicated working and personal relationship with Giuletta Masina is so important to understanding to understanding Fellini as the artist and person. The film is clearly important to Scola, but we don’t gain enough out of Scola’s recollections to be of interest to others.
Ultimately, it works more as tribute than documentary, and given the wealth of scholarship on Fellini already maybe this was a sufficiently different and personal approach to justify its own existence, but the tribute in style is not completely successful, and it doesn’t illuminate much about Fellini enough to garner a recommendation as a documentary. It is easy enough to watch, but it will likely alienate anyone other than hardcore Fellini fans, and even for those, this author included, there’s not a whole lot to take away from this except as an occasionally charming tribute. For both camps, the best scene is the final montage which is made up of clips from Fellini’s films – reminding us how singular an artist he was, and that even in supposed lesser works such as Roma or Casanova there are moments of such spectacle, absurdity, beauty and humanity that the Maestro’s films may survive longer than those of anyone else. You come out of Che strano chiamarsi Federico wanting to revisit his films, so on that level at least Scola’s film does succeed.
How Strange To Be Named Fellini: Scola Narrates Fellini is playing again at MIFF at 9pm on the 14 August – tickets can be bought here.