While continuing to write scripts for Lux Film, Fellini's debut as a director came about as the result of a collaborative effort with one of Lux's more experienced directors, Alberto Lattuada. The film (starring his own wife, Giulietta Masina, as well as Lattuada's wife, Carla Del Poggio) was entitled Luci del varieta (Variety Lights, 1950). The film was not a success (ranking sixty-fifth in gross ticket sales in the 1950-1 season) and even failed to garner the usual government subsidy given to works considered of artistic merit; yet its bittersweet depiction of the world of show business and the sometimes tawdry reality behind the illusions on the stage of a traveling vaudeville troupe mark this debut in the cinema as a work with Fellini's personal signature. In fact, a number of the recurrent visual images in Fellini's cinema are exploited in this film: the deserted piazzas at night that Fellini frequently employs to provide an objective correlative for the often superficial illusions of his characters; frenzied nocturnal celebrations followed by the inevitable letdown at dawn; processions of grotesque and unusual characters with amusing physical traits reminiscent of the figures Fellini drew for his cartoons and sketches in Marc'Aurelio. Seen in retrospect, Variety Lights contains the entire range of the style and thematic concerns of Fellini's early cinema before the watershed appearance of La dolce vita in 1959.
This interesting but too infrequently studied film was followed in 1952 by the first film directed solely by Fellini, Lo sceicco bianco (The White Sheik). Based upon an original idea provided to Fellini's producer, Carlo Ponti, by Michelangelo Antonioni, Fellini collaborated with Tullio Pinelli (1908- ) and Ennio Flaiano (1910-72) on the script, beginning a collaboration that would last for many years afterward. Nino Rota, thereafter to be identified almost entirely with Fellini's cinema, also began his lifelong collaboration with Fellini as the creator of a particular brand of music that would become an integral part of the Fellini cinematic experience. Lo sceicco bianco represents a hilarious parody of the world of the fotoromanzo - the photo-novel or sentimental true-romance-type magazine that sold millions of copies in postwar Italy and boasted such titles as Grand Hotel or Sogno. Before the advent of mass audiences for television, such pulp magazines filled the
same role in popular culture that soap operas fill today. They were produced by employing black-and-white photographs (not colored cartoon drawings), while the dialogue was contained within the traditional comic balloon. In Lo sceicco bianco, Fellini not only pokes gentle fun at the kind of unsophisticated people who take such publications seriously, but he also implicitly provides a hilarious parody of the film star Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926), the original Latin lover on the silver screen whose brief but meteoric career included several films in which he played a sheik (The Sheik, 1921; Son of the Sheik, 1926). Fellini's sheik is a much less imposing figure, a character in a fotoromanzo played brilliantly by a young Alberto Sordi. Giulietta Masina plays a cameo role as a prostitute named Cabiria, a figure that Fellini will use as the central character in the later masterpiece entitled Le notti di Ca-biria, also starring Masina.
Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste) is chased by a parade of bersaglieri troops in Lo sceicco bianco, a financial failure now recognized as a comic masterpiece. [Photo: The Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive]
Fellini's third film, set in a town obviously based upon his hometown of Rimini on the Adriatic coast, managed to rescue his early career from an undeserved obscurity and critical neglect after the negative reception of his first two works (today considered comic gems). Entitled I vitelloni (1953), it was awarded a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival by a jury headed by the future Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale. It also first attracted the attention of critics abroad, especially in France and the United States, whose accolades would eventually prove an effective counterweight to the harsh attacks within Italy, from both the Right and the Left, that Fellini would endure throughout his long career. Like the first two films in what I have elsewhere termed the "trilogy of character,"18 Fellini's third film concentrates upon the illusory dreams of five young men in the provinces: They are all vitelloni, a word Fellini recalls from his regional dialect to mean an immature, lazy young man without any clear notion of direction in his life. The five vitelloni each harbor a specific dream - to leave for the capital city, to write a great play, to play the local Don Giovanni, and so forth - and the social masks of each are eventually stripped away to reveal the somewhat hollow, superficial reality of their true personalities. Fellini's particular penchant for the world of show business continues in this film, as the moments of crisis during which the flawed personalities of the vitelloni come to the surface have some link to the entertainment world - a beauty contest, a carnival, a movie theater, a variety theater performance. At the close of the film, a single character - Moraldo -abandons the provincial backwater where such superficial illusions have trapped the other protagonists in a lotus-land of tawdry dreams and heads for the capital city of Rome. Many critics, especially those of an autobiographical bent, consider Moraldo Fellini's alter ego and the predecessor of Marcello, the journalist from the provinces who becomes the famous protagonist of La dolce vita. Moraldo did become the major figure in a script called Moraldo in citta (Moraldo in the City), which was written in 1954 but never realized as a film, although parts of the script later surfaced in Le notti di Cabiria and in La dolce vita.19
Fellini's first three films treat the daydreams and the illusions of provincial Italians who grow up longing to change their lives by moving to the capital or by becoming a famous personage in show business. Even though such content was hardly what film viewers had come to
expect from neorealist cinema, which dealt more immediately and more polemically with such pressing social problems as unemployment, the war, the Resistance, and the postwar economic recovery, it was certainly possible at the time Fellini made his debut to include his early cinema within the rubric of neorealism. After all, the view of provincial life and its bittersweet critique as full of comic illusions and failed characters could easily lend itself to a more politicized critique of Italian bourgeois culture by the Left. What such critics failed to comprehend, in their initial attempts to save Fellini from the charge of betraying neorealism's progressive politics, was that even while Fellini poked gentle fun at the characters he created who tried to make their illusions and dreams a reality, he was nevertheless more interested in the subjective side of life and the power of illusion and fantasy than he was in the so-called objective, materialistic, and ideological issues that occupied so many Italian film critics.
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