FELLINI: I’M A BORN LIAR (Fellini: Je Suis un Grand Menteur)

(director/writer: Damian Pettigrew; screenwriter: Olivier Gal; cinematographer: Paco Wiser; editor: Florence Ricard; cast: Roberto Benigni, Italo Calvino, Federico Fellini, Terrence Stamp, Donald Sutherland, Rinaldo Geleng, Luigi ‘Titta’ Benzi, Daniel Toscan du Plantier, Tullio Pinelli; Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: R; First Look Pictures; 2002-Italy-in English and Italian with English subtitles)
“Invaluable for Fellini fans.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Filmmaker Damian Pettigrew’s documentary about the legendary Federico Fellini as a film magician is mainly taken from ten hours of interview footage he collected with the director beginning in 1991 and ending shortly before the director’s death in October of 1993 at the age of 73. It’s invaluable for Fellini fans as well as cinephiles interested in probing his ideas on art and life. Though it should be pointed out that tedium sets in because too much of the talking head interviews become repetitive and the camera focusing long takes on its posed subjects is not that visually imaginative until it goes for location shots (revisiting scenes of the original films). Fellini embraces his huge ego and holds court with a rambling but at the same time eloquent offering of his comments on memory, the creative process, his dreams and how he handles actors (whom he says all love him because he’s so understanding). He argues that he was only the medium for his artistic visions, where his ideas swelled from expressions of the subconscious and his job was not to explain but bring the vision to fruition in a narrative form. The film’s main value is in the treasure trove of excerpts and previously unseen outtakes from his many great films and from shots taken behind-the-scenes. The films covered ranged from La Dolce Vita to Juliet of the Spirits, with 8 1/2 his most autobiographical film receiving the full-treatment. He is also shown in action directing Satyricon and Amarcord, which allows the viewer to get an idea how the director worked (there’s also one fascinating moment of him directing a sex scene in Casanova with a befuddled Donald Sutherland).

The film tries to be balanced, though Pettigrew is definitely an admirer and assumes that Fellini’s reputation has already been established and therefore views his critics more with bemusement than anything else. Fellini’s artistic talents are contrasted with his dictatorial presence on the set and his superficiality and vanity. An amused Terrence Stamp and a highly critical Donald Sutherland separately tell their horror tales of acting in the maestro’s film and both take the position that the director treated them like puppets and he was the martinet, and that he had a two-dimensional view of actors. While off-camera artistic collaborators and admirers like Luigi ‘Titta’ Benzi and Rinaldo Geleng can see only the good side of Fellini. They tell how Marcello Mastroianni was the perfect actor for him because he just did what he was told and didn’t question things. The film bears out that for Fellini the look of the film was more important than the substance, as one can see what both his critics and admirers said seemed true to a certain degree.

Fellini tells about being raised in Rimini in the Italian Adriatic resort, and how he was confused as a youngster as to what career to pursue. His middle-class father wanted him to be a doctor, while his mother had hopes he would enter the church and become a cardinal. In his films I Vitelloni and Amarcord he recreates a fantasy-vision of his hometown, where in the former he focuses on aimless adolescents he identifies with and in the latter with living under fascist rule. The film borrows its title when Fellini calls himself on a camera a liar to preserve his fantasies in the face of going for the whole truth, something he doesn’t completely trust in any artistic endeavor. At another point of the interview Fellini recalls a dream, in which Picasso serves him an omelet made from 12 eggs, and reflects on how when the artist served it to him it tasted so great. The point made as to how both artists were of the same temperament and had reached for the same artistic styles and relished in the excesses of their visions.

One fault is that Pettigrew assumes a lot by believing or not caring if the viewer will recognize the many interviewees and the excerpts, as he doesn’t identify either with clarity until the final credits roll by and by then connections are hard to make. I respect his artistic decision to go in that direction, but that makes it difficult for the casual viewer and even for the serious film buff to recognize all of the out-of-sight artistic talking heads from novelist Italo Calvino to screenwriter Tullio Pinelli.

“Fellini: I’m a Born Liar” does not go the usual biopic route, but in a fascinating way has Fellini spell out what film meant to him and in his own clever and impish way he conveys his ongoing fears and how he shaped his visions into film. His greatest successes came in the 1950s and early 1960s with occasional successes in the later years, but he also was much criticized throughout his career as there were swings in both directions as to the critical appraisal of his works. But Fellini never stopped being inspired by his free flights of personal fancy and distaste for too much reality in his labyrinth search for new forms of expression. Pettigrew’s film is not the comprehensive or last word on the flamboyant director, but what it catches about him is of everlasting value to the film community.

REVIEWED ON 3/12/2004 GRADE: B   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/