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INTERVIEW : Fellini on and as Fellini : 1987 Work Making U.S. Premiere Has His Autobiographical Touch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One bright morning in 1938, a young Italian newspaper reporter, a shy and gawkish lad who might have had a pimple on his nose, caught a blue tram from downtown Rome and rode it to a new world.

Cinecitta, the Italian government’s cinema studio-city, is just one more subway stop today, but it lay deep in the countryside then. Along the way, in the company of a twittering blonde going to a film test and a black-shirted Fascist Party hack, the reporter in his wonderland trolley even spied a giant waterfall and a herd of elephants.

It was intimidating enough to be dispatched at age 18 to interview a famous movie star. Worse, she was a porcelain beauty whose smoldering eyes, those very eyes that made brave men weak, riveted on that pimple.

A traumatic day for the lad--but a great one, you’ll say, for that was when it all began. It was Federico Fellini who went on that trolley to Cinecitta all those years ago.

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And there he stayed. Anyway, that’s what it says, more or less, in Fellini’s 1987 film “Intervista,” which is being released in the United States for the first time and opens in Los Angeles today.

The tram actually ran to Cinecitta. But the rest? Waterfall, actress, fascist, elephants, that improbable three-level Roman aqueduct. . . . Does it really matter?

“It is a bit confused. I don’t know what is reality and what invention in that film. . .,” says Fellini. “I started it like lots of others: I was a young reporter and went to do interviews in Cinecitta. I can say that even if it is not exactly like that, it should be. That’s the whole point. This is almost a dream that should have come true.”

Encountered one morning in his office near the Via Veneto--where else to reflect on one director’s dolce vita ?--Fellini, who recently had his 73rd birthday, calls “Intervista” (the title means “interview”) “a director’s notebook.” Why on Earth, he asks in an intervista of his own, should it have taken the movie five years to cross the Atlantic?

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“Intervista,” in fact, begins as an interview with Fellini by an earnest Japanese camera crew. Then, of course, they become part of the pastiche as Fellini’s usual collection of outlandish people and improbable sets revolve, like errant planets, around the ego of their creator.

“ ‘Intervista’ is done in a very easy way. It came really like a conversation,” Fellini muses.

Autobiography stalks the set in “Intervista,” even when Fellini is not being Fellini. In one scene at Cinecitta, a director-dictator filming an extravaganza from some Arabian night descends from his lofty bird’s nest like a deranged dervish.

“I asked for real elephants!” he screams in fury, even as the voice of wisdom reminds him that the circus has left town. The director is a small man, but with a giant’s shove he knocks over the set’s life-sized cardboard elephants like dominoes.

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“That wasn’t meant to be me,” Fellini insists. But then he reflects on his blue tram period: “These early days when I came into the studio, it was unbelievable: directors screaming at beautiful women. How was it possible to treat a beautiful woman like that, insulting her, screaming at her, threatening her? It was quite far from my temperament. Then I became a director, and now I, too, insult beautiful women.”

Still, it’s all fun, Fellini says from deep in a leather couch in a room filled with books, pictures and memories. “When work becomes your expression and the meaning of your existence, then there is joy and also good work.”

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As he somewhat fitfully prepares to start a new film, Fellini says he is moved by the same carrot and stick that stimulated artistic effort in Italy for centuries before there were movies.

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“The motive is always the same for me. It’s not so much poetic inspiration, ritual coincidences, autobiography, remorse, disdain. I think I represent, within my modest limits, a type of Renaissance artist, the one who needs a patron, a Pope, a prince--and an advance payment.

“When journalists ask me, all animated and with the best of intentions, ‘Why did you make that film?’ the answer is always the same. I sign a contract, I get an advance, I don’t want to give it back . . . and so I make the film.

“But apart from that, the psychological mechanism is just that I need a commitment. This is the adolescent aspect of an artist’s psychological makeup--I need someone by whom I am protected and threatened . . . like a painter when he didn’t finish (an assignment) in time. Either they cut off his hands or they showered him with gold.”

His new commission, for which he thinks shooting may begin this spring, will resemble “Intervista,” Fellini says. It, too, will be a “director’s notebook,” but with a different focus.

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“I will make a movie about actors. I think I would like to talk about my friends the actors, the psychology of an actor. Just stories, gossip: a chiacchierata (chatter), a colloquial little picture, the director who wants to chat after dinner with friends. So also the film with the actors will be like a conversation among friends, about the art of playing.”

Drifting comfortably between Italian and neorealistic English, Fellini is relaxed and upbeat about most things on a gray winter’s morning--but not the health of the cinema in Italy.

“Cinema has lost its habitual interlocutor,” he says. “People no longer have the same kind of friendship with the cinema. They have lost the habit of going to the movie house. It used to be like waiting for special friends coming for Christmas, or Easter. There was really the expectation of something magical, something to celebrate. It was a wonderful rapport; it seems to me that this kind of rapport has gone.

The villain of the piece might be a cassette society spinning too fast for old pleasures. But then again, television, as dominant in Italy as in America, might have something to do with cinema’s erosion.

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“The cinema has lost its charisma, suggestion power, its mystery. . . . And TV has created new mentalities, different ways of acting, different way of writing stories, a different audience,” insists Fellini, who has gone to court here in an effort to stop commercial interruption of movies on television.

Once, he says, he thought of experimenting with “the language of television,” thinking he could use it to peer into peoples’ lives, into their homes. He abandoned the idea, convinced that television has no language: “It doesn’t exist. It’s all quizzes and newsreels. It’s a consumer item. People use it, like they use the fridge.”

In Fellini’s view, the destruction of cinema by television is, unhappily, irreversible.

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“Don’t think the television was discovered with the idea of destroying cinema, because in Italy the TV lives off the cinema. This is the true disaster: not just that TV has distorted the taste of knowing how to narrate a story, look at an image, be together in silence, to go into the theater and wait for the lights to go out. It has inflated cinema.

“In Italy, television projects 100 films a day. So the movie house is like a church which has lost all its faithful. No one goes anymore, it’s empty. People go to enjoy silence, or in summer to feel a bit cooler.”

“Intervista” is not Fellini’s most recent film. That one, “Voce della Luna” (Voice of the Moon), opened in Italy in 1990, has not yet been released in the United States.

Why not? Fellini shrugs. A shame, he says teasingly, because “Moon” fires on all cylinders:

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“It’s a masterpiece. I can safely say it is a masterpiece because it hasn’t been released yet. It’s also very Fellini-esque.”


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