If Fellini's trilogy of character retained a neorealist flavor in what critics today now praise as the accurate and believable (if comic) portrait of the Italian provinces in the 1950s, Fellini's subsequent trilogy of grace or salvation moved immediately beyond the ideological boundaries of neorealist cinema defined as socially relevant cinema and toward a philosophical position of Christian existentialism that exploited traditional iconography or religious concepts (such as that of conversion) to mark out an entirely different kind of cinema.
Immediately after shooting I vitelloni, Fellini shot a single brief episode, Un'agenzia matrimoniale ([A Matrimonial Agency], 1953), for Amore in citta (Love in the City), a project conceived by Cesare Zavat-tini, perhaps the most famous of the neorealist scriptwriters, who wanted to create a new style of cinema comparable to the daily newspaper. Zavattini called this kind of cinematic journalism that would focus upon current events il film inchiesta - the film inquiry or investigation. He hoped that by using six different directors (Fellini, Antonioni, Lat-tuada, Francesco Maselli, Carlo Lizzani, and Dino Risi), all of whom would employ nonprofessional actors to create something like a news magazine, he could keep Italian cinema on what he considered its proper course toward the simple representation of daily life. Fellini's contribution involved a complete overturn of Zavattini's plan, for he proposed a story about a reporter who goes to a marriage agency, posing as a client, to look for a woman willing to marry a werewolf. Apparently, the naive Zavattini actually believed Fellini's claim that his film was based on a true story. So much for social realism!
Fellini turned in his next three films toward a sharper break with his neorealist heritage than was first apparent in his earlier films. The most important of this trilogy, La strada (1954), Fellini once described as "really the complete catalogue of my entire mythical world."20 La strada is a fable about a circus strongman (Zampano) who takes on a dim-witted girl (Gelsomina) to assist him in his act.21 He accidentally kills a high-wire artist (Il Matto or the Fool) before her eyes, causing Gelsomina to go mad and forcing Zampano to abandon her after he has realized, only too late, how much she has changed his brutish, animallike existence through her mysterious presence. Because La strada rests squarely upon a secular form of a major Christian notion - the Catholic belief that a conversion can radically change a person's life - the unprecedented international success of this work also touched off a very interesting debate between warring critical camps in France and Italy that was to continue (but with a reversal of protagonists and intellectual positions) until the appearance of La dolce vita.
After La strada won for Fellini the Silver Lion at Venice in 1954 and his first Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1956 (not to mention dozens of other awards), still continuing his interest in the fundamental psychological changes of conversion that would come about from an act of secular grace in ever more complex individuals, Fellini next shot Il bi-done (1955), casting Broderick Crawford in the leading role of a con man named Augusto who often poses as a priest. Il bidone means "the swindle" in Italian, and Fellini had originally thought of Humphrey Bogart for the leading role, but Crawford was perhaps equally as suitable, since he was associated by audiences all over the world with Hollywood gangster pictures. With Il bidone, Fellini took a traditional Hollywood genre and gave it a special Fellinian twist, for the plot of the film represents a variation of the Christian story of the good thief, the character near Christ on the cross, and traces Augusto's descent into a personal hell through five days of confidence games and a growing sense of remorse.22
The presentation of Il bidone at the 1955 Venice Film Festival was a disaster and would prevent Fellini from presenting one of his films at Venice until the opening of Satyricon in 1969. Nevertheless, the subsequent Le notti di Cabiria (1957), assisted by another brilliant performance by Giulietta Masina as Cabiria Ceccarelli (awarded Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her efforts), enjoyed international acclaim and earned Fellini's second Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Fellini initially had difficulty obtaining backing for this film, which he had in mind even before Il bidone, because he wanted to shoot a picture on prostitution at precisely the moment when the question of legalized prostitution had become a burning social issue in Italy. Ultimately legalized prostitution was banned in 1958 by the Merlin Law, finally closing the state-inspected brothels that had played such a large role in the sexual education of every Italian male of Fellini's generation. Although Fellini toyed with the idea of a pseudoneorealist study of prostitution in Italian society - interviewing numerous women in "the life" and even hiring the then little-known Pier Paolo Pasolini to help him with realistic or earthy Roman dialogue that would reflect the milieu in which Cabiria thrives - Le notti di Cabiria employs a by-now familiar Fellinesque picaresque plot, ambling around Rome with Cabiria and her friends or acquaintances, to suggest an entirely nonrealistic and essentially illusionistic vision of the world. In fact, the key sequence of the film - a vaudeville act during which Cabiria's dreams and aspirations are revealed to the audience while the plucky prostitute is in a trance - underlines how completely Fellini's cinema has focused upon the irrational, subjective states of his characters and how little Cabiria's socioeconomic status (the focus of any neorealist inquiry into the social aspects of prostitution) matters to the director.
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