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CINEMA ITALIANO: Fellini’s influence on contemporary film and culture

September 5, 2011

by Timothy Graves

With Federico Fellini’s  La Dolce Vita (1960) & 8 ½ (1963), less than 6 hours of film inspired several generations of filmmakers, and those not inspired directly by his films were inspired second hand by those who were. The list of American filmmakers includes Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Woody Allen, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, among many others. Essentially any film director known for iconic visuals or unique styles has tie backs accredited to Fellini.  These films helped pioneer many techniques used in contemporary film such as non-liner story lines, visuals to create mood instead of dialog, unique lighting effects (i.e. the use of spot lights as emphasis), blurring dreams and reality, and abrupt endings open for interpretation.  Obviously, he was not the first to use these techniques, but he was one of the the first to make it look really good.

Music has also plays a key focus in his films; not just to enhance a visual or to make dialog more dramatic; when he used music it was often the key focus for that scene.  In many of 8 ½’s most compelling scenes, the music took center stage.  For example, when a young Guido and his friends visit La Saraghina on the beach, she dances the Rumba in an amazing combination of visuals and music that helps the viewer understand the main character further. The scene is particularly effective in that music is not used often in the film, but when it is, it becomes the centerpiece of the scene.  This similar style can be seen in nearly all of David Lynch’s work. Some great examples you may want to check out on YouTube, for comparison’s sake:  Club Silencio in Mulholland Dr., Dean Stockwell’s character singing “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet,  Audrey’s abrupt diner dance in Twin Peaks.  In addition, the mix of music and visuals of 8 ½ was effective enough to inspire a Broadway musical spin-off in 1982, titled Nine, later translated to a motion picture in 2009.

Iconic images at the "Fellini, la Grande Parade" exhibit at Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris. Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.

In addition to influencing contemporary cinema, Fellini’s films have also had a strong impact on popular culture, most notably with his film La Dolce Vita, released in 1960.  Even though the film is now over 50 years old, it still receives press on the style that it represents.  For example, Details magazine regularly cites La Dolce Vita’s look as it relates to quintessential Italian fashion.  Also, according to the Guardian, the film introduced three new terms into the English language:

  • “The first is ‘Felliniesque’ as an adjective to describe something quirkily outlandish or bizarre in the style of the director.”
  • “The second is ‘paparazzi’, the pejorative term for brazen celebrity-stalking photographers, named after the journalist hero’s camera-toting sidekick Paparazzo, which in turn was borrowed from a hotelier in George Gissing’s 1901 travel book, By the Ionian Sea.”
  • “The third, is the title, La Dolce Vita, used ironically thereafter to describe a shallow materialistic lifestyle, though Fellini claimed he’d used it without irony to mean ‘the sweetness of life’ rather than ‘the sweet life’.”

Fellini is an important part of a group of Italians who have taken an art form, learned its principles, and defined that form for years to come:  It happened with opera, with painting (frescoes, murals, etc.), architecture, fashion, etc.  His films were able to have a lasting influence on the Hollywood machine in form, style, and content.

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