Looking for Fellini: HOW STRANGE TO BE NAMED FEDERICO (2013)

Ettore Scola might not be as renowned as his lifelong friend and fellow filmmaker Federico Fellini but before he died in 2016, Scola’s work had earned him ample critical acclaim and numerous Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. Four of Scola’s films are currently streaming on FilmStruck including UGLY, DIRTY AND BAD (’76), A SPECIAL DAY (’77), LA NUIT DE VARENNES (‘82) and his very last film, the pseudo-documentary HOW STRANGE TO BE NAMED FEDERICO (‘13).

HOW STRANGE TO BE NAMED FEDERICO is a tribute to Fellini that dramatizes the Italian director’s life through a series of whimsical vignettes and creative reenactments combined with archival footage. It chiefly focuses on two stages of Fellini’s life beginning with his move to Rome in 1939 at age 19 and his employment with the influential satirical magazine Marc’Aurelio. Fellini worked as a cartoonist, gag-writer and interviewer for the magazine between 1939-1942 alongside Scola as well as many other future legends of Italian cinema such as screenwriters Cesare Zavattini (BICYCLE THIEVES [‘48]) and Age & Scarpelli (THE ORGANIZER [‘63]). During this time Fellini and Scola became fast friends thanks to their shared passion for drama, mutual love of comic books and deep disdain of physical activity including sports.

At the time Italy was under Fascist rule and Marc’Aurelio had gained a reputation for boldly using absurd and abstract humor to address political and social concerns. The magazine’s unruly nature and rebellious politics caught the authorities’ attention and after several government sanctioned judicial seizures the content was toned down. Despite this hiccup, the staff never lost their sense of humor and the magazine continued to thrive until it published its final issue in 1958. The film suggests that Fellini’s own funny bone and surrealist sensibility was developed at Marc’Aurelio while living under constant threat from one of the most repressive regimes in history.

The second half of Scola’s docudrama focuses on his late-night drives with Fellini through the city of Rome. Later in life, Fellini’s car became a kind of confession booth for the colorful cartoon-like characters that inhabited the margins of Italian society and inspired his films. Aging prostitutes, failed artists and frustrated drunks all found a safe haven in Fellini’s car where they share their personal stories and hard-earned street wisdom to pass the time. Its easy to imagine how many of these outsiders and malcontents eventually found their way into Italian cinema by way of the filmmaker’s fanciful imagination and intelligent wit.

HOW STRANGE TO BE NAMED FEDERICO concludes with a recreation of the director’s 1993 memorial service that took place at the historic Cinecittà studio in Rome. Some 70,000 mourners reportedly attended to say goodbye to the Maestro of Italian cinema and Scola imagines the event as a kind of romantic celebration of a life well lived.

Curious viewers eager to learn more about the director and his work will undoubtedly be disappointed by the film’s loose narrative and limited scope. Besides some interesting footage of Fellini directing and a few brief interviews with his collaborators including his talented wife, actress Giulietta Masina, there isn’t much weight or substance to Scola’s film. This is not a traditional documentary by any stretch of the imagination.

At the start, Scola quotes his subject declaring that, “Life is a party! So why not live each moment as one?” He then proceeds to turn Fellini’s life into a kind of reverie that he hopes viewers will participate in. The film becomes a poetic ramble and quixotic love letter to a dear friend. Its heart is in the right place but it’s so slight and ephemeral that it’s difficult to grasp at times. While watching I couldn’t help but wish that Scola had made a more in-depth dramatic study of his early life with Fellini and the fascinating goings-on at Marc’Aurelio magazine.

Despite any misgivings I may have about Scola’s approach, HOW STRANGE TO BE NAMED FEDERICO is definitely worth a watch but I recommend pairing it with a double bill of Fellini’s biographical 8 ½ (’63) along with Gideon Bachmann’s documentary CIAO, FEDERICO! (’70) to get a better understanding of the director and a richer appreciation for his work. Subscribers can presently enjoy all three films on FilmStruck.

by Kimberly Lindbergs

Originally published on FilmStruck.com