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Federico Fellini, unfettered

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Times Staff Writer

“Fellini: I’m a Born Liar” is a documentary about the celebrated Italian director and what he called “a life spent with light and shadows” that’s made with an ambition the maestro himself would have appreciated and approved. For the rest of us, that is largely, but not entirely, a good thing.

Canadian Damian Pettigrew’s film centers on 10 hours of interviews he did with Fellini just months before the director’s death in 1993. “Born Liar” is both completely fascinating and intermittently frustrating; however, as with Fellini’s own films, the downside is far outweighed by the pluses.

One thing that is beyond doubt is Pettigrew’s devotion to Fellini, whom he first met in 1983 and pursued for a decade to get the extended interviews, which the director called “the longest and most detailed conversation ever recorded on my personal vision.” Then Pettigrew sat on the material for years before he found collaborators willing to finance his vision of how it should be used.

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Pettigrew used the intervening time to dig up remarkable visual ephemera. Some of the most intriguing items, like an unnerving baby picture of the great man and candid, 8-millimeter black-and-white footage of the youthful director and star Marcello Mastroianni on the set of “La Dolce Vita,” have never been made public before.

Though Mastroianni is unaccountably missing, Pettigrew also interviewed key people in Fellini’s life, from actors Terence Stamp and Donald Sutherland to some of the director’s old friends and collaborators. Though the actors are recognizable, individuals like Titta Benzi, Rinaldo Geleng and even cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno are not, and the film’s overly arty decision not to identify any of the speakers until the final credits is an unnecessary irritant.

This unwarranted insistence that “Born Liar” is, in the press kit’s words, “no mere biographical portrait but an energetic philosophical inquiry” leads to another bothersome omission. For though Pettigrew has gone to considerable trouble to shoot contemporary footage of the exact spots where some of the director’s classic scenes were filmed, the lack of identifying subtitles make it unclear, except for those who’ve memorized every frame of Fellini’s films, exactly what locales we’re revisiting.

Despite these self-imposed obstacles, there’s a lot to like about “Born Liar,” starting with that comprehensive interview, which reveals Fellini to be an intoxicating conversationalist, articulate, expansive and capable of giving radically different takes on the same subject.

At different points, for instance, Fellini describes a director as “a craftsman who’s a medium,” “an impostor, clown, general and chief of police” as well as “a creator who always has something of almighty God.”

He also claims not to recognize his films once they’re finished and talks engagingly of how when he directs “a mysterious invader takes over the whole show.... It’s someone else, not me, with whom I coexist, someone I don’t know, or know only by hearsay.”

Though Fellini claims to have wonderful relationships with his actors, he is immediately contradicted by eye-popping anecdotes from both Stamp (“Toby Dammit”) and Sutherland (“Casanova”), the latter calling him “a martinet, a tyrant, a dictator. The first five weeks of shooting were hell on Earth.”

Equally intriguing is vintage behind-the-scenes footage showing Fellini in the act of directing. For a sequence in “Amarcord,” he intensively coaches an actor, playing two parts and giving verbal as well as facial clues. Shooting a carnal threesome for “Satyricon,” he walks the actors through the scene, talking them through it beat by beat as they are performing just as if he were directing a silent film.

After experiencing all this, it is no surprise to hear the director say that “things that are most real for me are invented.... I feel exiled, a bit empty away from the set. I can’t cope with what is called normal existence.”

Fellini may have been a born liar, but that made him a born filmmaker as well.

*

‘Fellini: I’m a Born Liar’

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Sexual clip from “Satyricon”

Q&A;: Donald Sutherland will participate in a question-and-answer session following the 7:30 p.m. show on Saturday.

Released by First Look Pictures. Director Damian Pettigrew. Screenplay Olivier Gal, Damian Pettigrew. Cinematographer Paco Wiser. Editor Florence Ricard. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Exclusively at the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 478-6379.

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