Rome—He was 18 and inexperienced -- in all respects -- when he came to Rome in 1938. For Federico Fellini, it was the beginning of a love affair that lasted more than 50 years.
Rome dazzled and indulged him. It fed the dreams he turned into such movies as "La Dolce Vita," "8 1/2," "Roma" and others so imaginative that a word had to be coined to describe them: "Fellini-esque." He could hardly bear to be anywhere but Rome, even when Hollywood summoned him to receive an Oscar (four for best foreign film and an honorary award in 1993, just a few months before his death).
The city has been marking the 10th anniversary of the director's death this fall with "Romacord Fellini," a celebration through the end of the year that includes concerts, presentations and showings of the master's films. I went in October for the festivities and to see Rome through Fellini's eyes, to sit in his favorite cafes and wander past the places from his films that lodged in my imagination: the Colosseum at night, lighted up like a birthday cake, as in "Roma"; the Bernini colonnade at St. Peter's Square, where an errant young wife is reconciled with her husband at the end of "The White Sheik"; and, above all, Trevi Fountain, which some aficionados cannot conjure without envisioning Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni of "La Dolce Vita" wading in it.
To prepare for the trip, I spent most of my free nights for about a month watching videos: "La Strada" (1954), "Nights of Cabiria" (1957), "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963), "Satyricon" (1969), "Roma" (1972), "Amarcord" (1974). Bizarre, vulgar, illogical, brimming with psychological disorder, Fellini's films don't submit easily to interpretation. Loving them is a visceral thing, a little like his love for Rome.
"FeFe," Roman taxi drivers used to call to him, using the nickname by which he was known around the city, "why don't you make pictures we can understand?" He says in "I, Fellini," "I answer them that is it because I tell the truth, and the truth is never clear, while lies are quickly understood by everyone."
It seems as though all of Rome knew Fellini. I met some of his old friends and colleagues almost effortlessly while I was here: Luigi Esposito, retired concierge at the Grand Hotel Plaza, who knew Fellini when he was sketching American GIs on the streets of the city during World War II to make money; and photographer Carlo Riccardi, who used to run into Fellini around town while taking pictures of people living the sweet life before Fellini's film taught us to call it "La Dolce Vita."
"He was a lovely man," Esposito said. "Even when he was young, he was something."
Filmmaking and fame
Fellini was tall and skinny when he came to Rome from his hometown of Rimini, too ashamed to wear swimming trunks at the beach in the nearby seaside town of Fregene, where he later bought a house and is remembered with an annual film festival.
In his imagination, he looked more like suave, sexy Mastroianni, whom he cast as the lead in such autobiographical films as "8 1/2." The director filled out and adopted accessories -- tweed hat, brim turned down, and a coat, collar turned up -- that created a look for him. As he aged, his eyebrows remained dark when his hair turned gray, and his bella figura increased in girth because he couldn't resist pasta and pastry.
I frequently felt his presence. Walking the Pincio, a park on the northeast side of Rome, I fancied I saw him and his wife of 50 years, actress Giulietta Masina, on a dignified afternoon passeggiata. At the window of a shoe store on Via della Croce near the Spanish Steps, I wondered what FeFe would think of a certain pair of boots.
This section of Rome, stretching from about the Spanish Steps to the Piazza del Popolo, was Fellini's neighborhood. He used to have coffee at Canova, a stylish cafe on the Piazza del Popolo, which he is said to have preferred to adjacent Caffe Rosati because Canova's sidewalk tables were shaded from the morning sun.
Sandwiched between these, one on each side of the Via del Corso, are the almost-twin Baroque churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Monte Santo, designed in the 1660s by Carlo Rainaldi. Santa Maria del Popolo is across the way, justly more renowned for two Caravaggios depicting the crucifixion of St. Peter and the conversion of St. Paul, intimate images that could serve to remind us that, unlike many directors, Fellini took his inspiration from painting, not literature.
The piazza at the churches' doorsteps is a terrific wide-open space, centered by an Egyptian obelisk, with steps leading up to a breathtaking overlook in the Pincio. The view of Rome from there is almost as good as in the opening scene of "La Dolce Vita," which follows a helicopter carrying a statue of Jesus Christ over the Eternal City, dangling from a cable as if it were a toy action figure.
An excellent sampling of Roman humanity rushes across the Piazza del Popolo in plain view of an espresso drinker at Canova. "The show [in Italy] can be so engrossing that many people spend most of their lives just looking at it," Luigi Barzini wrote in "The Italians." Fellini was a great people watcher and collector; it stimulated his thinking about the characters in his films. He often drew people who interested him on napkins and tablecloths -- fat, ugly, grizzled, dwarfish, the odder the better and, if female, magnanimously endowed.
Along with filmmaking, pasta, the circus and dreams, women are what Fellini adored most. It was part Italian machismo, part rebellion against the Catholic faith in which he was raised and part mother love, as evidenced by his fascination with big breasts. Fellini's sexism struck me as more sexy than sexist, a quality often missed by tourists flocking to the chaste Vatican and Forum.
I felt it all around his neighborhood, where some of Rome's ritziest shops cluster. On Via del Babuino, near Fellini's apartment, a woman can buy a negligee to match her sheets, and on chic Via dei Condotti, running from the foot of the Spanish Steps to Via del Corso, there are costly gifts for lovers from La Perla, Max Mara, Dolce & Gabbana. In "I, Fellini," the director told author Chandler something that echoed in my mind about rich men taking their mistresses shopping there in the afternoon: "After that, they go to the 'nest,' and the man is finished in time to arrive home for dinner with his wife and children."
Regardless of where he'd been, Fellini went home to elfish Giulietta, his soul mate and muse. Her performance in "La Strada" as the heart-rending clown Gelsomina, opposite a savage circus strongman played by Anthony Quinn, helped make Fellini famous. He loved the privacy of their life together. In his brief 1993 Oscar acceptance speech, he brought down the house by saying, "Thank you, dearest Giulietta. And please, stop crying." At the end of his funeral in Michelangelo's church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, near the Piazza della Repubblica, she did the same, waving and saying simply, "Ciao, amore." She died of cancer five months later.