The International Beverly Hills Film Festival launches its sixth edition Wednesday night at 7 at the Writers Guild Theater with Eugenio Cappuccio’s “Verso la Luna con Fellini” (Towards the Moon With Fellini), an affectionate semi-mockumentary on the making of Federico Fellini’s final film, “La Voce della Luna” (The Voice of the Moon) (1990).
For whatever reason, this great valedictory to the screen has never been released in America and is rarely shown; alas, it is necessary to have seen it to fully enjoy “Towards the Moon,” because Cappuccio’s film does not actually explain what Fellini’s movie is about -- which the director himself wanted to keep shrouded in mystery.
Arguably the most contemplative and philosophical of all of Fellini’s films, “The Voice of the Moon” is an allegory on the quest for the meaning of life, filled with the maestro’s trademark flair for spectacle mixed with compassion for human folly. The setting is a small Italian city preparing for a garish, gala gnocchi festival where two lost souls discover each other -- Roberto Benigni’s wistful wayfarer, who hears voices that he believes are trying to tell him how to change the world, and an older man (Paolo Villaggio), a city bureaucrat who retired against his will and who is convinced that people no longer possess substance and are only playing roles, whether they realize it or not.
“Towards” turns on the conceit that Christina Englehardt, actually one of Fellini’s assistants, is an American journalist whom he has allowed on the “Voice” set -- provided she stay out of his way, not ask him what the movie is about and stay in the background. As an interviewer, Englehardt adopts a swiftly tiresome tone of inane perkiness; Cappuccio points the camera all too often at her, but then, she is a co-producer of the film. Similarly, there is too much of Benigni, of whom a little always goes a very long way. There are moments when he is full of inspired mischief, insight and charm, but Cappuccio gives him too many opportunities to remind the viewer that he is a world champion showoff. Far more welcome is the reflective and insightful Villaggio, a stocky veteran actor grateful to Fellini for providing him with a starring role -- “a moment of great happiness in my career.”
Despite qualifications, “Towards the Moon” is rewarding for anyone who has ever loved a Fellini film. Here he is in all his glory, a warm, patrician presence thriving amid a constant swirl of activity and throngs of people, knowing what he wants and how to get it while one suspects no one else really knows what’s going on. A maze of immense, surreal sets requiring elaborate scaffolding and dramatic lighting is the perfect setting for an artist whose supreme mastery of fantasy and spectacle expresses the eternal dreams and longings of his people -- and by extension, his audiences.
Whenever free of Englehardt and Benigni, Cappuccio is actually able to catch the magical poetic, floating quality of a Fellini film as it is being made and the all-encompassing humanity of the maestro, ever affectionate and compassionate of his fellow human beings. By the time “Towards the Moon” is over, it leaves the viewer with an inevitably poignant sense of loss -- of Fellini’s love of humanity even more than his great gift at expressing it.
Beverly Hills Film Festival
“Verso la Luna con Fellini” (Towards the Moon With Fellini): 7 p.m. Wednesday (Writers Guild); 2 p.m. next Sunday (Clarity)
Where: Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills; Clarity Theater, 100 N. Crescent Drive, Beverly Hills
Info: (310) 779-1206 or www.beverlyhillsfilmfestival.com