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In Fellini’s La dolce vita
the germs of today’s Italy
There is a very close relationship, almost a symbiotic one, between cinema and reality. Oscar Iarussi speaks about it in his latest essay, C’era una volta il futuro, l’Italia della Dolce Vita, in which the Apulian film critic individuates in the “Fellinian” Italy of the Sixties a prophetic vision of the future by Enrica Simonetti
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Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in a scene from La Dolce Vita (1960)

      An authentic maestro of the cinema like Jean-Luc Godard understood it a long time ago: he used to say that film “is truth twenty-five times per second”. A parallel reality, a world that strangely is not only similar but even identical to ours because it is immersed in our lives, entering with a “clap” of the clapperboard into our way of being a society. It is hard to believe it, given our idea of what cinema is, what surrounds it, with its thousand fictions, with its sets capable of transforming a landscape, uprooting a context, creating illusions and dreams. But if we reflect carefully, we realize that a film can be much closer to reality than a photo, a painting or a novel. Because in these forms of art the scenic construction is less evident, but only as far as appearances go.

      The cinema of the real does not lose its dreamy atmosphere. Just the opposite, it is always much dreamier than us, who sit still and watch it while we participate unconsciously, because we are a little inside the film. Even when it’s science fiction, which might seem a remote dimension but which really does no other than compare the alien with man, so markedly that E.T. is remembered for his desire to “phone-home”. The sentiment, the humanization, of the characters makes cinema lean towards its real side. In every epoch, from Gone with the Wind (1939), to The Sound of Music (1965), up to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – just to cite a few Oscar-winners – there is so much society on film. Our romanticism, our fears, the Sixties, the nightmare of mental asylums: everything that we are ends up sooner or later in the cauldron of the silver screen, which almost becomes a mirror of ourselves. Sometimes, by telling the past like it is, in a truthful way (one example could be Noi credevamo directed by Martone, which gave us to reflect on the Italian Risorgimento) and sometimes by insisting on current affairs (and here we could name several films from those that relate the odyssey of so many immigrants to the two “docu-films” by Michael Moore on the America and the world of today).

      But if we wanted to analyse historical films or those full of the news of our times, the list would go on and on. There is, however, a type of film that is worth considering at length, because without relating great history or real news, it has become prophetic and the art of divination is not all that common in the world! An author like Federico Fellini joins this glorious host and we can consider him a “wizard” not only for the indisputable value of his films, but also for all that he put into them, for his having investigated, more or less deliberately, the future. Oscar Iarussi, film critic and writer of the Arts and Entertainment pages for the Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno and lecturer in the History of American cinema at the University of Bari has understood this extraordinary talent and wrote of it in his interesting book entitled C’era una volta il futuro. L’Italia della Dolce Vita (edited by Il Mulino). His essay grapples with a thesis and demonstrates it with acute deductions: Fellini, in his celebration of the Italy in the Sixties prey to Dolce Vita, was talking about the Italy of today, too. The euphoric and disorderly profile of a country with a miraculously booming economy (still ridden with tics and shadowy areas) is also our self-portrait, children that we are of that time, in the same way torn between depression and enthusiasm.

      The country that Fellini depicted was experiencing great hunger pangs for the future, like we are feeling now, with the young people round the world wanting to “occupy the future” and making do with stopping over to sleep in the squares outside the banks. Ours too, therefore, is a slightly Fellinian society, as Iarussi demonstrates; as we go forward rather uncertainly, feeling like “bullocks” (I vitelloni – The Bullocks – is the title of another famous Fellini film) but at the same time pulled back by strings, balancing uneasily on the myth, seeped in that past that Fellini so ably outlined.

      A Dolce Vita continues, in a nation that gets excited about the “Anita Ekberg” of the day, while remaining, says Iarussi, “hallucinated and visionary, short-sighted and cross-eyed, if not altogether blind”. A characteristic that the author defines “as Italian cyclothymia, an alternating of moods caught in a Fellinian fresco that presages a spleen that is still far from showing itself in the Italian social fabric.” From this comparison of epochs and sensations, springs, in the essay, the attempt to understand our world, resigned and tired, satisfied by that glossy Dolce Vita that seems to insinuate itself into our families, notwithstanding the crisis, despite the collapse of an aging system. And here we have the “Real Italy Show”; this is cinema that, without realising it, depicts the reality of today and yesteryear, that looks into the Big Nothingness, with the absence of certainty and the desire to cradle itself in well-being (that might exist or not).

      Fellini’s cinema illusion becomes a meteo-pathic forecast of the way we are in the Third Millennium of the undecided. Few authors have ever been so far-seeing, and Iarussi’s essay insists on this novel comparison between the Sixties and our days, explaining that “film of modern times” that is our life, some decades later. Not forgetting journalism, that together with the cinema tells of current affairs: what is there to say about the “paparazzate” of the Fellini era that we still nourish today? And of the overwhelming power of the caption and the photo that today, like then, is the plague of so much of the printed press, of the web… Not to mention T.V., myth of “cold” emotions that McLuhan spoke about (and these days we could add that the small screen is the House of the Sad Passions). In 2013 it will be twenty years since Federico Fellini passed away, but his work – as you see – has not lost its charm, because the real about which he spoke has stayed with us, and not only in our imagination.

      This is the magic of the cinema, that capacity to surprise even a long time after the sound of the clapperboard, even a long time after the cameras have been switched off. In the States, but also in Italy now, there is a new therapy which is gaining hold, “cine-therapy”, or rather, film considered as a method of psycho-analysis. If you scan the titles used in these sessions, you often find lovely old films like It’s a wonderful Life, by Frank Capra, a real generator of self-confidence, explain the experts. And people believe in it, apart from those who explain that they have benefited greatly from this new application of the universal passion for the cinema. How much power in a film: Fellini was right, and perhaps was not even exaggerating when he said that “the cinema is the most direct way to compete with God”.

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