While critics are still talking about Slumdog, I have been watching two old masters at work.
Federico Fellini began making films only a few years before Satyajit Ray started working on his debut film, Pather Panchali (1955). Yet, as I watch the early Fellini films, the one director they remind me of is Ray.
Working independently in two opposite corners of the globe, Ray and Fellini invented modern realist cinema.
Like Ray, Fellini overlooked no social aberration, concealed no human folly. Poverty, indulgence, eccentricity, human fantasy, and tragedy were all scrutinized by his camera.
If you want to study Fellini, you should start with Amarcord (1973), or I Remember, his intensely autobiographical coming-of-age film. A chronicle of seasonal festivals and daily rituals of life in rural post-Second World War Italy, the film has the dreamlike quality of our own childhood memories, complete with their exaggerations and incredulities.
The Catholic Church is always a character in Fellini films, complete with its outlandish parades and displays.
Another “character” is music. In this one respect, Ray and Fellini were soul mates; both loved music and used its rhythms to syncopate scenes and move viewers deeply. The scenes in Amarcord in which the town’s oversized blond beauty has an assignation with a handsome military officer in its castle-like hotel, while a peacock flares its feathers in a snow storm outside, are laced with luxurious longing and yet stop short of becoming seedy, acquiring instead the quality of magical realism.
Pather Panchali also portrayed a child growing up in a hamlet. But while Fellini’s scenes vacillated from absurd and hilarious to melodramatic, Ray’s were more controlled. His characters’ emotions were subtly displayed, his art evenly paced and steady.
Fellini became famous for his outlandish films like La Dolce Vita (1960), in which he coined the word “paparazzo,” and 8-1/2 (1963), in which he portrayed his egocentric fantasies. Ray, by contrast, never succumbed to such indulgence.
While Ray depicted India’s downtrodden in his first film, as well as in Ashani Sanket, or Distant Thunder (1973), many of his works focused on the middle or upper class, never scouring the depths of a Calcutta slum, say. In contrast, Fellini was unflinching in exposing the haunting degradation of the human condition.
My favorite Fellini film is Nights of Cabiria (1957), starring his wife Giulietta Masina. The movie opens with Cabiria in the midst of an amorous rendezvous with her beau. In a brilliant bit of foreshadowing, the next moment we see Cabiria being thrown into a canal by her companion, who runs away with her purse. This kind of close encounter with death and treachery does not steel Cabiria’s heart; on the contrary, it makes her more romantic than ever, even though she is a mere prostitute.
Again and again, Fellini returns to the theme of Italy’s religious fervor. In a haunting scene, Cabiria joins other street walkers and the infirm to beg salvation at a shrine. Caught up in the moment, Cabiria earnestly beseeches deliverance. But when a cripple attempts to stand, only to collapse, Cabiria wails at the hoax played on the poor.
More than 50 years later, that one scene remains fresh and relevant in its depiction of the Catholic Church.
I cannot think of an equivalent scene in a Ray film. Although Ray explored religion in Aparajito (1956)–the second film in the Apu trilogy, set in the holy city of Varanasi–his depiction of the sacred rites were depicted matter-of-factly, lacking the irony that Fellini highlighted.
While both Fellini and Ray exposed the squalor, the deprivation, the poverty and inequity of their post-war worlds, their depictions of human pathos mirrored their cultural contexts. Ray’s characters rarely explode with fury or disillusionment, containing their emotions within the boundaries of their agrarian and feudalistic societies. Fellini’s characters seem quintessentially Italian, vacillating from joyous rapture to debilitating grief.
Fellini was attracted to the bizarre and the fantastic; he was drawn time and again to magicians and circus artists. His film La Strada (1954) is a haunting meditation on street performers, epitomized by a young woman who is sold to a traveling street artist. The Italian countryside, with its quaint seaside towns, snowy mountains, and arid planes, is beautifully filmed in black and white.
Ray portrayed people out of step with their times or their milieu. The one Ray film that reminds me most of Fellini’s works is Jalsaghar, or The Music Room (1958), which depicts a man obsessed with music to the point where his life is destroyed.
Yet, the two artists had other things in common. Pather Panchali almost did not get released because of the Indian Government’s objections to its portrayal of the country’s poverty until Jawaharlal Nehru intervened. A crucial scene in Nights of Cabiria which depicts a man distributing food and clothing to Italy’s poor was likely censored by the Catholic Church, which claimed to be the only righteous donor of largesse; the scene was restored in a recent DVD release.
Ray and Fellini: who was the better director? Is it possible, or necessary, to compare? If you only saw La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, and Amarcord, you would have to say Fellini. Alas, the problem is that once Fellini became famous, he seemed to be at a loss for topics and started to focus on his own fantasies, prompting the adjective “Felliniesque.”
Ray was a much more consistent director, making masterpiece after masterpiece; the only flaw in his portfolio was the Chessplayers, or Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), a largely wooden film that did not evoke the same level of sentiment or subtlety as his other films.
Still, it is miraculous that nearly five decades after they first started making films, both Fellini and Ray remain ageless.