Cultural Cohesion, p.67Clive James
“Didn’t you know the devil is Saraghina?” The question that rings through rang through Fellini’s life. In the young Guido, making an appearance in the mature Guido’s memory, hears that question from the priests and doesn’t know how to answer. Saraghina is an enormous, blowsy, barefoot madwoman who lives on the beach and dances and exposes herself for Guido and his fellow inmates of a church school. After a flagrant exhibition by Saraghina, the young Guido gets caught, led off by the ear and made to kneel on dried peas while the priests put him to the question. In real life, Fellini never made a secret of Saraghina. Fellini commonly told interviewers anything that would get rid of them, but on the subject of Saraghina he either always told the same lie or else it was a fact. In Fare un Film—cobbled together from a baker’s dozen interviews and articles by other people, but reprocessed by Fellini and bearing his signature—the Saraghina story is given neat. He says that while he was at the church school in Fano, the only period in his childhood when he spent much time away from his native town of Rimini, he visited Saraghina often and paid the price for inciting her to her revelatory routine. (She was cheap: her name meant “sardines” and she would do her number for a few of them as payment.) Refusing to believe that Saraghina was the Devil was obviously the essential early decision of Fellini’s emotional life. He preferred to believe that she was an angel.
Whether or not the Saraghina episode ever happened to Fellini, or merely something like it—or, still more merely, numerous and diverse episodes scarcely at all like it but he synthesized them later in the way that artists do—for Saraghina is one of the elements that help to dramatize Guido’s memory as a convincing determinant of his imagination. The memory of Saraghina is the gross, unfrocked and irrepressible guarantee that Guido’s imagination can’t be a thing of refinement: the most he can hope for is to make refined things from it, but his imagination itself must remain primitive, shaped incorrigibly by the initial impact of her uncorseted oomph. Guido is unsettled by the knowledge that his memory should dominate his imagination in such a way. He still half-regrets that he can never give the priests a satisfactory answer, still hopes that the cardinal in the steam can show him the true path. But Fellini himself, judging from the sum of his films, seems to have been glad enough, if not exactly grateful, to have a story in his mind that would help him to script and shoot the male sexual imagination as a divine comedy.
The mind is the house of the Lord, and in the house of the Lord there are many mansions, and one of them is a honky-tonk. Fellini’s central boldness is to embrace that fact and body it forth without shame, but without any knowing pride either—just the embarrassment necessarily involved in being consciously human. Self-revealing without being self-exculpatory, he is not offering carte blanche for adultery, a concrete act that needs excusing at the very least and is often a crime. Besides, there are married men who have never committed adultery, and one or two of them have even reached the White House. But there is no married man who has not, like President Carter, committed adultery in his heart—meaning, of course, in his imagination, which grows out of his memory, and has been with him always.
This interior imbroglio is ’s real subject. In real life Guido is merely entangled. In his mental life he is tied to time: the rope that threatens to drag him by the leg from the sky back down to the beach is a doubly exact metaphor, because the beach is where Fellini’s imagination began its life. Saraghina was as meaty, beaty, big and bouncy as all the world’s women rolled into one and that’s what Guido has wanted ever since—all the women in the world. Not every woman he wants is an uncomplicated culone like the one played by Sandra Milo. There is also the young, vital ideal of fructive beauty, played in by Claudia Cardinale, whose looks and personality made a unique contribution to Italian movies in the early 1960s before she went international later in the decade and rather dissipated the effect. Silvana Mangano, Sophia Loren and Monica Vitti could all act better. Even Virna Lisi could act better, although few ever appreciated her as an actress because she was so beautiful. But Cardinale wasn’t just beautiful, she had the knack of incarnating a dream type, the aristocratic peasant. Visconti used her for that quality, twice and at length, in Vaghe stelle dell’Orsa (hardly seen outside Italy, it had a title from Leopardi—Beautiful Stars of the Bear—and a plot from hell, but she looked unputdownably scrumptious) and his much-mangled international blockbuster The Leopard (she was the gorgeous upmarket earth girl that Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon both cherished as the personification of authenticity, a judgement which received ironic reinforcement from the film as a whole, camped as it was somewhere between Sicily and the abstract outworld we have since come to recognize as Planet Hollywood). In Fellini got the same charge out of her as a glorified walk-on, a bit part with billing. Practically all she does is turn up. But she triggers Guido’s mixed vision of carnal purity and we believe it. Dante’s Beatrice on the cover of Vogue. Petrarch’s Laura with an agent, an unblemished spirit in perfect flesh, she is infinitely desirable: we know he’ll be longing for her on the day he dies, if only because he has never touched her. As a token of her power to stir his imagination, even her appearance in the actual now has a tinge of the altered, heightened pseudo-reality of the hero’s wish world, whose bridal candour, we come to realize, doubles as white mourning. When she and Guido are for a little while alone together, in the empty piazza in Filacciano, the authentic architecture around them, built long ago by other hands than Gherardi’s, is the only setting in the film that looks artificial, and the breeze that stirs Cardinale’s black feather boa blows only for her, rather in the way that the envoys from the beyond in Cocteau’s Orphée are contained in their own micro-climate. Cardinale is Guido’s dream walking, but when she realizes that he is idealizing her she laughs, and he realizes that she is right.
Another version of breathtaking unavailability is played by Caterina Boratto, as the guest at the spa who does nothing but descend the staircase of the grand hotel and cross the lobby. Statuesque in a personal cloud of white chiffon, she is a poised blast from the past of the Italian cinema. Boratto was a diva of those escapist movies, made at Cinecittà in Fascism’s heyday, in which the protagonists indicated their luxurious lives (Vivere! was the title of her big hit of 1936: To Live!) by talking into white telephones. To present a white telephone star as a womanly ideal is Fellini’s indication that in Guido’s sexual imagination even the ideals of subtlety and refinement have something cartoonlike about them. The women in his brain are all caricatures. He knows they are, but he’s stuck with it. His mind is in poor taste.
All the caricatures get together in one of the film’s most elaborate sequences. When he hears the word Asanisimasa pronounced by his old friend the vaudeville mind-reader, Guido is propelled back in his memory to a favourite place of his childhood, the barn fitted out as a small wine factory—a fattoria—where he was teased, tucked up, looked after and generally spoiled by older women. Guido goes back to the same fattoria in his imagination, to stage a wish-fulfilment scene in which all the women in his life, along with all the women whom he would like to be in his life, live together in harmony: united, instead of divided, by their common desire for him. They all take their tune from the old peasant women who teased him and tucked him up. Their only role is to spoil him. They compete in nothing except subservience. His wife is there, smiling in acquiescence: she understands his needs. Every woman he has even fleetingly noticed in the course of the film’s real-time story turns up as a worshipper. Women we have never seen before are there too: this place has been in business for a long time. A black girl dances through, flashing an open-mouthed white smile before snapping it shut. (I can still remember, from the first time I saw the movie, how a single American male groan outsoared the collective Italian male whimper in an audience whose females has already audibly made it obvious that they found the whole scene a sciocchezza—a foolishness.)
But this isn’t just the place where Guido’s dreams come true. It is also where they go sour. An earl
Just as clearly, it is Fellini’s confession too. This is really why he made Guido a film director: not just to give him a believable role, but to show him cracking his whip over his tumultuous desires—to show him marshalling fantasies. Fellini is assuming that in this respect a film director is just everyman writ large, or at any rate writ more obvious. It is a big assumption, which will provide ammunition to condemn him if it is rejected as an excuse. Fellini’s real-life wife, the distinguished actress Giulietta Masina, was on the set to witness the filming of ’s key scene. It was her dubious privilege to watch her husband’s surrogate setting about his harem with a whip to bring them back into line. Masina had no doubt long before been made aware of Fellini’s belief that what goes on in a man’s mind he can’t help, so he had better be judged on his conduct. What she thought of that belief is one of the many secrets of their long marriage. What Fellini thought of his wife is brought out explicitly in Fare un Film, where he ascribes their marriage to a decision of fate and would obviously, had he been a believer, have ascribed it to a decision of God. But you don’t need to read his book to know what she meant to him. All you have to do is look at the films, which from La Strada onwards are about their marriage even when she is not in them. Sometimes, indeed, they are at their strongest on that subject when she isn’t there. In Anouk’s face, la faccia, is enough to establish that this wife is no willing victim but a strong, independent woman with as much class and style as her famous husband, if not more.
Anouk’s incandescent performance shows why a director needs his prestige. Able to persuade her that she was participating in a serious project, Fellini talked her into acting against her charm and in line with her magnificent bone structure. Fully exposed by a boyish hairstyle, those knife-edged facial planes that kept her beautiful for decades could take on overtones of a hatchet when she was angry, and Fellini made sure that anger was almost the only emotion she was allowed to register. We are obliged to conclude that if this is a long-suffering wife, it isn’t because she’s a patsy. The film’s moral edifice pivots on this point, because if it isn’t accepted then the whole thing looks self-serving. The plot provides Luisa with a young, handsome, adoring admirer. She can’t get interested in him. Is Fellini saying that she forgoes mere devotion because her faithless husband is more fascinating? Most feminists would say yes. They would have half a point, but only by hindsight. Fellini was a feminist avant la lettre: he had already proved that much with his early films, all of which feature, and some of which focus on, men’s manipulation of women.
God knows he had enough to go on. In the early 1960s Italy was still in the grip of a chest-beating male supremacy stretching back to the Borgias, among whom Lucrezia probably took up poisoning just to get some attention at the dinner table. The first week I was in Rome, the papers were running editorials about a young Italian male whose Dutch girlfriend had told him she wanted to break off their affair because her real boyfriend was about to arrive from Holland. The Italian boy stabbed her sixteen times with a carving knife. The editorials daringly suggested that this sort of thing was giving Italy a bad image abroad. It was still a bold innovation to suggest that the crime of honour was unforgivable. From Sicily as far north as Naples, if a girl refused a man’s hand in marriage he could still get her by raping her, because then no other man would want her. (Scandal arose only when he didn’t want her either, on account of her being no longer a virgin.) As for men pestering young women in the streets, there was no north and south: Milan was as bad as Messina. Foreign women suffered most. They were assumed to be whores just for being there. In Florence I used to get so angry at what I saw that it would spoil the visit. After the Florence flood in 1966 there was a startling change, which hit the other big cities not long after. Suddenly the women’s magazines, which had previously been almost exclusively preoccupied with the mysteries of the trousseau, started carrying articles about how to divorce a sadistic husband without getting killed. Women’s rights got a look in at last.
But anyone interpreting Italy then from the vantage point of now should realize that feminism was starting from a long way behind. Looking at Fellini’s wide screens full of big breasts and accommodating thighs, it is easy to decide that he was part of the problem. The truth is that he was part of the solution. He was saying that men should be held responsible for what they did, not for how they felt. It was an especially important message for a country in which what men did could beggar belief. Trying to change the way a man felt who had just stabbed his girlfriend sixteen times, you might possibly persuade him to stab his next girlfriend only fifteen times. The trick was to call his outburst of passion by its proper name, murder. And to do that, you had to argue that passion was every man’s property, and the management of it his responsibility.
Feminism was one of Fellini’s touchstones of liberty. The anger he aroused in feminists later on was because of his other touchstones, one of them being the liberty to express the full squalor of the male mind. He did it with such bravura that it struck the censorious eye as a boast. It wasn’t, though: it was an abasement, and Anouk’s tight-lipped fury is there to prove it. “Vacca!” is the word she spits at the culone, Carla. It means “cow” and in Italy it is a harsh word for one woman to use about another—the last word, the fighting word. Luisa is insulted by the banality of her rival. For Guido to take a mistress might have been forgivable. But if this is what he dreams of, what sort of man has she been living with?
If Fellini had not driven a wedge between how Guido thinks and how he acts, Guido would stand condemned, and Fellini along with him. But the wedge is there, in the beautiful form of Luisa. Guido once dreamed of her, too, and he is still involved with her even though she has become real—the best evidence that she must have been the most powerful dream of all. Luisa is what the German socialists used to call a Lebensgefährtin, a lifetime companion. Strong in her anguish, graceful even in despair, she is the true Felliniesque womanly icon. Anouk looked the part. Masina’s misfortune was that she didn’t. When it came to the crunch, she didn’t have the right face to play herself.
In La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, Masina played the waif. She could be funny, resilient and even tough, but with a face like a doll she just couldn’t transmit flintlike fury. You always wanted to pity her, and the point of Luisa is that she finds her husband pitiful, and hates him for it. Fellini followed with Juliet of the Spirits, the all-colour extravaganza which is nowadays the most neglected of his major films. This time Giulietta Masina plays the wife. With the inexorable proviso that her face is borrowed from a Cinderella who will never get to try on the shoe, the film is an opulent, radiant, unmanningly reverent tribute to her stature in Fellini’s life. This was the last film Fellini made with Gherardi and Di Venanzo. They both excelled themselves. The sets are a cumulative marvel from an unsung opera and the photography makes colour film look as if it were being invented all over again. Giulietta’s imagination and memory are explored like Guido’s in . In addition, there are layers of Jungian analysis, parapsychology, voodoo and drug-induced hallucinations. Fellini subsequently told Cahiers du Cinéma that he didn’t need LSD to have visions, but there can be no doubt that he was willing to try anything in order to
. . .
He still had plenty more, but first he had a crisis to get through. Juliet of the Spirits tanked in a big way, he broke with Gherardi, lost Di Venanzo, swapped Rizzoli for Dino de Laurentiis, sailed straight into a real-life situation with a film he couldn’t start, and wound up suffering from what seemed like terminal depression. Most directors would have quit at that point and gone off to give lectures, but Fellini was on the verge of a string of films that are, at the very least, all interesting sidelights on , and some of which, in one aspect or another, actually supersede it. Peter Bogdanovich once pointed out that Fellini’s first few movies, the ones we rarely see, would have been enough to establish him as an important director. It should also be said, but rarely is, that the films after Juliet of the Spirits would have been sufficient to work the same trick. A few weeks ago, on a plane between London and Bangkok, I watched videos of Fellini Satyricon and Fellini’s Roma. I still didn’t enjoy Satyricon very much: except for the scene where the patrician married couple commit suicide to get away from the moral squalor—a clear echo of Steiner’s unexpected yet inevitable exit from La Dolce Vita—it just doesn’t offer enough relief from its own all-consuming animality. The people in it behave like pigs, but not even pigs behave like pigs all the time; sometimes they just lie there. (Fellini was too decent to be any good at decadence, and even if he had been, decadence dates: this is the reason some parts of La Dolce Vita now look passé.) Roma, however, came up fresh as paint. The traffic-jam scene is a far more effective comment on modern barbarism and insanity than anything in Satyricon, which was supposed to reflect our own age but made it look good by comparison. In Roma, the threat of industrial society’s inhumanity is made real by the intensity of the humanity. The trattoria on the street, with the tram clanging past, looks like the way of life we all want but suspect that only the Italians have ever had. It was probably never quite that folksy in Rome: Fellini is remembering Rimini.
Cultural Cohesion by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes