PRINT May 1990


Federico Fellini

“BLUE MOON, NOW I’M no longer alone, without a dream in my heart . . .” In his latest film, The Voice of the Moon, which will open the Cannes Film Festival this month, Federico Fellini dispenses with dreams and with those who dream them, especially directors. Instead we have Ivo Salvini—a clever, candid Roberto Benigni—fashioned by Fellini as part Pinocchio, part the poet Giacomo Leopardi. Salvini is one who hears voices: not only the classical voices of literature, great and minor, and the murmurings of the oral tradition, but also the cacophony of voices we are forced to listen to every day. So it is that Salvini’s innocuous follies and his so-called “lunatic” (from the Latin luna, for “moon”) friends, who follow isolated routes and desires—to see the world from the roof, to feel oneself pursued by a musical note, to imprison the moon—come to seem the only sane manifestations of humanity in a world that tends to normalize every extravagance.

The beautiful first novel by Ermanno Cavazzoni, Il poema dei lunatici (The poem of the lunatics, Turin: Boringhieri, 1987), beyond offering Fellini his first literary inspiration in 20 years (he hasn’t made a film based on a literary text since Toby Damnit, 1968, and Satyricon, 1969), also provides the director with a well-defined scenario—the violent, disruptive urbanization of the rural zones of Emilia. Fellini clings to traditional values, which he rediscovers in that vanished countryside, cleverly represented in The Voice of the Moon by a field of groin (which was sown and harvested “alive” in the studios of Cinecittà, and thus offers a sense of real time to the film); the well where the moon is reflected; the fireflies feigned by special effects, which take the place of those that, by now, have almost vanished; and the leading characters, the lunatics, who maintain the humanity that we are in the process of losing, suffocated by the ubiquitous voices of the media. And indeed, the little Fellinian moral that concludes the film is articulated by Salvini as he stands before the well, saying, “If we all would shut up, perhaps it would be possible to hear something.” All this amid an often incongruous succession of past and present histories, mythical and minimal stories, small parables that unfold in an imaginary town in the Emilian countryside.

Salvini, the character-guide on this voyage into the hell of today’s civilization, is approached by other madmen, the lunatics, who represent the only tie with the wisdom born of contact with nature, with the primordial emotion of the encounter with the fable, with the story. There are the worker brothers who interminably dig underground passages, and who seek to capture the moon because it is a “great spy”; the timid Nestore, who has married the town beauty, called “Locomotive” because of her steamy sexuality; and the ex-prefect Gonnella, magisterially played by the best-known Italian comic, Paolo Villaggio, who represents the desperate folly of those who cannot accept their old age. Built like a great Gogolian character, Gonnella can confide only in Salvini, who sees him, despite his faults, as a true human being amid a mass of treacherous robots.

Fellini, like his lunatics, often loses touch with the rules of good, refined cinema, following a path made up of bold and poetic passages that destroy a traditional narrative, offering instead an extremely strong image of the reality we are living. The film hasn’t been well understood by most Italian critics, who have seen its abstraction as an indication of senile confusion on the director’s part. (Nevertheless, unlike most of Fellini’s recent films, it has been a huge box-office success.) But Fellini has made the choices necessary to reflect the truth of his material. He has preferred a crazy, visionary film, gloomy and without apparent construction, to confront us with that which we have lost, perhaps irremediably, and that which we have become, equally irremediably. Through his various lunatics, Fellini salutes Roberto Rossellini’s postwar films (Francesco—Giullare di Dio [Francesco, jester of God; released in the U.S. as Flowers of St. Francis, 1950] and Il miracolo [The miracle, 1948, which, significantly, was written and acted in by Fellini himself), and brings us back to an order and a purity of image that seems almost impossible to obtain.

Defeated, clinging to a cinema that no longer exists in Italy, both because of changes in taste and the introduction of new models of production in the 1980s, incapable of hooking into an international Spielbergian cinema where he clearly would not be able to realize himself, Fellini, in his latest films, has fallen bock on “small” reflections on the media. TV, advertising, and film, in fact, were central to Ginger and Fred (1985) and Interview (1987), and they continue to be so in The Voice of the Moon, which can be seen as the conclusion to the Fellinian trilogy on the media. It is no accident that for this film, Fellini has chosen his players from a roster of popular television actors. This theft represents almost a vendetta against TV, staged by an old maestro who hates what the medium has come to represent. For although it might seem as if television had come out of a Fellinian dream, the excess, the exhibition of the monster, sex as pure spectacle, and the attention to “provincial” events are elements that are displayed by Italian television with a rash cynicism that has little to do with Fellini.

Ever faithful to himself, Fellini here offers us another example of his love for the circus and vaudeville, freeing the bodies of the comics from television stereotypes and returning them to their original freedom—through the dart, the leap, the ancient gestures of clowns. When Benigni and Villaggio move, for a few moments, like comics—for example, in the fundamental scene of the revolt and escape from the piazza where the “Re Gnocco” (King of the dumpling) festival is going on—there is a moving return to that comic force that too often is repressed in conventional cinematography. White as a Bunraku puppet, Benigni seems congealed and blocked by his own role, bereft of the acting skill that made him famous (cf. Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law, 1986). And yet, he only has to move an eye, or lift his legs acrobatically, or run away through the field of grain in pursuit of his “voices,” and his body once again becomes that of an authentic comic.

As in a horror or science-fiction film, the lunatics are the survivors in a society that does nothing but produce monstrosity and chaotic mobs. One need only witness the degradation of the legendary Italian piazza, where most of the film unfolds, to an unfortunate, noisy mix of cathedrals enclosed in plastic, advertising posters exhibited like equestrian statues, and cars and trucks everywhere. This is where the poetic and temporal incoherence of Salvini and his friends becomes conspicuous. And this is the site of the capture of the moon, which is shown live on television—a large mass of light imprisoned by ropes in a country farmyard. A town crazy wonders how to free it, and spouts the existential questions that the moon eternally seems to provoke: “Who are we?,” “Where do we come from?,” etc. But the poor moon, like a mirror, like the water in a well at nighttime, cannot help but reflect these concerns, now confused with television messages. This is the least effective part of the film, partially because the special effects are weak, and because what on paper seems like a poetic parable does not so easily translate into images.

Where Fellini does manage to achieve perfection is in the minimal story that surrounds this event. The crazy and hasty reasoning for the capture of the moon is that since “she” is a woman, indeed the very image of femininity, the moon “only wants to be taken.” One only has to wait. Throughout the film, the relationship between moon and femininity is an insistent one. It begins with the erotic dance of a fat woman in front of a humming television in a farmyard, who reminds us of the many Saraghinas in Fellini’s films. It is there, in a rural, indecent striptease, that sexuality emerges as a spectacle. And then Salvini cannot help but register the secret and special charm that all women have for him, particularly the extremely white Aldina, whose face he will end up confusing with that of the moon. Disquieted by her feminine mystery, Salvini’s only moment of revolt against the order of the world is when he sees Aldina seduced by a very rich, repellent local. Naturally he rebels like a clown, dumping a plate of gnocchi with sauce on the head of his fat rival.

But even as Fellini seeks to return to the past—to a rural and poetic Italian landscape where Salvini is a Pinocchio lost in the countryside in the rain, or, in a flashback, is saved by his grandmother from a fire in their large farmhouse, where everything is gigantic, as in the Laurel and Hardy comedy Brats (1930)—so he reopens film to critical and moral reflections on the great themes of his own work: sex, fear, old age, memory. Is it possible, he seems to ask, that everything begins here, with the flames emerging from the chimney, casting shadows as if on some future movie screen? With the apples that form a crazy piece of stage-set furniture on the floor? With the gigantic, barely heated bed of the grandmother, who offers the right remedy and the possibility of hearing new, comforting voices? It is in this mythical dimension of childhood that everything seems to return to its proper place. Secure, protected by the large grandmother figure, Pinocchio-Salvini-Fellini falls asleep, in what is perhaps the most beautiful scene on film. “Grandma, how I love to remember,” murmurs Salvini, more Pinocchio than ever, “more than living. What’s the difference, after all?”

Marco Giusti is a film and television critic who lives in Rome.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.