How Strange to be Named Federico, Scola Narrates Fellini: Toronto Review

'Che strano chiamarsi Federico'

Director: Ettore Scola
Cast: Sergio Rubini, Antonella Attili, Vittorio Viviani, Sergio Pierattini, Tommaso Lanzotti
Out of Competition

Che strano chiamarsi Federico paints the portrait of director Federico Fellini's life with details about Scola's meeting with Fellini in the early 1950s, their "pleasure trips" to visit each other's film sets and other moments shared between the two directors.

The friendship between two great Italian film artists is recounted in a mosaic of humorous anecdotes, in a charming, highly original tribute to Fellini   

Ettore Scola’s tribute to Federico Fellini on the 20th anniversary of his death offers an insider's view

Ettore Scola has done the film world a great service in making a lilting, smart, easy-over piece of (auto)biography that humorously describes his meeting and decades-long friendship with Federico Fellini. Now that twenty years have passed since the master’s death, How Strange to be Named Federico, Scola Narrates Fellini hits just the right notes of whimsy, nostalgia and mocking tomfoolery to bring this memory of Fellini and his times vividly to life. Skillfully mixing actors and archive footage, it’s neither a biopic nor a critical analysis, but more like a filmic reminiscence and an imaginative recreation of Fellini’s inner world by a friend, who happens to be a masterful filmmaker in his own right. Its Venice and Toronto bows should open the doors to many more magical screenings for film fans at specialized venues.

Rather than chronologically discuss Fellini’s filmography, Scola leaps around casting bits and pieces of expressionist portraiture before us. This makes the film much more interesting to watch, even for audiences who know little about the director.

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Wearing his familiar red scarf, tweed jacket and a hat, a gray-haired Fellini (impersonated in silhouette by Maurizio De Santis) slouches in the director’s chair watching outlandish actors perform for him to circus music, against the backdrop of a wall-size projection of sunset over the sea. This very atmospheric but obvious metaphor captures Fellini the cliché. But it is the only scene that seems to reach for something beyond its grasp. The rest of the film veers off in entirely unexpected directions and offers a fresh, anecdotal look at how the Rimini-born Fellini became Rome's most creative personality.

The time is 1939 and the lively banter of the staff of Marc’Aurelio, Italy’s beloved political satire magazine, is interrupted by the arrival of a tall young man from the provinces with a portfolio of sketches and stories under his arm. Fellini is portrayed by Tommaso Lazotti as a mocking, restlessly creative youth sure of his own talent. He starts working with the likes of Steno, who will become a top director of comedies, and the important future screenwriters Ruggero Maccari and Ennio Flaiano, Age and Scarpelli.

Meanwhile, we find the 9-year-old Ettore Scola reading Fellini’s cartoons out loud to his blind grandfather while the war encroaches. The two men will not meet until some ten years later, when Scola (played by Giacomo Lazotti as a well-heeled young intellectual with a good sense of humor) arrives at Marc’Aurelio while still a law student. By then Fellini has already begun to direct films, like The White Sheik with Alberto Sordi.

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At some point Scola becomes regular company for insomniac Fellini’s nighttime drives around Rome, kicking off one of the film’s best sections. As the knowing narrator (Vittorio Viviani) tells us, Fellini had an uncontrollable love of life and insisted it be lived like a party. On one of their nocturnal excursions, they pick up a jolly streetwalker (Antonella Attili) who could have stepped out of any number of the master’s movies and who recounts the sad story of her life without self-pity or bitterness. On another night, they offer a lift to a good-hearted, wine-swilling sidewalk artist (Sergio Rubini) who paints portraits of saints and miracles; he is tormented by his art, and causes Fellini to reflect that “cinema is first of all painting and light falling on objects.”

It’s clear the two directors have much in common, starting with their exceptional talent at drawing and sketching their characters, and in the final scenes their artistic affinity emerges strongly. Marcello Mastroianni was Fellini’s alter ego and starred in his most important films, yet when Fellini was casting Casanova he called on every actor in Italy -- with the exception of MM. But Mastroianni later to played Casanova for Scola in That Night in Varennes, of which a choice excerpt is shown. While Fellini made Marcello's “ordinary face” dazzlingly handsome in La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, Scola turned him into an ugly bum in Down and Dirty.

Scola characterizes Fellini as a perpetual transgressor who believed that “total freedom is very dangerous for artists”; he thought they needed friction from parents, teachers, the police or some sort of enemy to stimulate them. Curious about everything he sees, he casts a mocking eye on the world. Scola sketches him as a big Pinocchio who never becomes a “proper boy,” even after winning five Academy Awards, the last in 1993, the last year of his life.

There is a huge amount of affection in this film, and its warm tone is well reflected in the nearly monochromatic but cheery period recreation of cinematographer Luciano Tovoli and production designer Luciano Ricceri, while Andrea Guerra’s charming score references Nino Rota and other Fellini composers. Editor Raimondo Crociani never permits a single slow-down in the pace.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (out of competition), Sept. 7, 2013

Cast: Tommaso Lazotti, Vittorio Viviani, Sergio Pierattini, Antonella Attili, Sergio Rubini, Vittorio Marsiglia, Giacomo Lazotti, Emiliano De Martino, Maurizio De Santis

Production companies: Palomar, PayperMoon, Istituto Luce Cinecitta’ in association with Rai Cinema, Cinecitta’ Studios

Director: Ettore Scola

Screenwriters: Ettore Scola, Paola Scola, Silvia Scola

Producers: Mario Mauri, Carlo Degli Esposti, Roberto Cicutto

Executive producer: Roberto Cicutto

Director of photography: Luciano Tovoli

Production designer: Luciano Ricceri

Costumes: Massimo Cantini Parrini

Music: Andrea Guerra

Editor: Raimondo Crociani

Sales: Istituto Luce – Cinecitta’

No rating, 93 minutes.