ANYONE familiar with the films of Federico Fellini knows that he gave importance to dreams. But the extent of that devotion has become fully evident only now, with the publication of "Il Libro dei Sogni" -- "The Book of Dreams." These sketches, mostly done with variously colored felt-tip pens, are a reminder that Fellini came to Rome in 1939 to study law but instead spent two years as a cartoonist and writer for a satirical fortnightly.
A Jungian psychologist encouraged Fellini to record his "night work," his dreams, and he did so assiduously from 1960 to '68 and again from 1973 to 1990. It was fertile ground. As a child, Fellini could not wait for bedtime, when he would close his eyes and see absorbing spectacles. He had named the four corners of his bed after four cinemas of Rimini, his birthplace on the Adriatic coast. True to his childhood self, he later was to regard his films as dreams on celluloid. His sketchbooks were partly a record of possible film ideas. One sketch has the worried annotation, "Have I just let a film idea escape while engaged in my usual neurotic masturbatory fantasies?"
The sketchbooks, similar in format to the large comic books that Fellini said were crucial to his education, reflect his fears and activities in the film world. They also function as a celebrity portrait gallery. Many of the dreams were nightmares: He woke in fright after sensing his father's corpse beside him; he saw himself sealed in a runaway train or in a brakeless car careening along a dangerous mountainside road. He felt menaced by the atomic bomb, by the approach of a hurricane and by German soldiers. He drew himself with Michelangelo Antonioni, witnessing the calamitous explosion at the end of Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point." Sometimes, he saw himself condemned to be hanged, killed by a firing squad, imprisoned, haunted by a ghost, locked in an elevator or besieged by sharks. One sketch has him arriving at his office letter box, to find it labeled, "The Most Lost of the Lost."
Many of his females are menacing viragos with luxuriant pubic hair and, even more characteristically, bloated breasts. Fellini's reaction to such lewd witches and Rubenesque trollops seems an adolescent mixture of attraction and apprehension. Several scenes in which they feature are set on the Adriatic beaches of his adolescence. There are a few references to actresses, such as a sketch of his dream of making love to Anita Ekberg. A significant sketch is set in a Chinese castle where he dreamed of being "a prisoner of skilled prostitutes -- sadistic in the extreme" who "set on him like hungry wolves." A friend warns him to flee to avoid being eaten alive, but instead he goes on "dueling " with his assailants. Several sketches are scatological. "The Book of Dreams" also has more than 100 caricatures of celebrities, among them Henry Kissinger, Fellini's beloved Pope John XXIII, Ingmar Bergman, Orson Welles, Salvador Dali and Sophia Loren. Some were not even acquaintances: Jimmy Carter, portrayed saying, "Jesus." Fellini succeeded in making several caricatures that were both recognizable and a commentary on the subject.
In his introduction to "The Book of Dreams," Tullio Kezich reports that the filmmaker was an exuberant, happy man in his early Roman years; Fellini said his arrival in Rome was his real birthdate. He graduated from cartooning and writing for a satirical magazine to turning out radio and burlesque sketches and, later, film scripts for Roberto Rossellini.
After working as an assistant director, he began making his own films in the 1950s -- which went beyond the then-prevailing neo-realism -- achieving success with his film second about growing up in the provinces ("I Vitelloni") and directing several Oscar-winning films starting with "La Strada." But Fellini was often plagued by fears, even with the success of "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "Amarcord" (1973), "Prova d'orchestra" (1978) and other films. A 1974 annotation refers to his depression, guilt, inertia and self-loathing.
He also feared the future because it would bring him to the threshold of death. He dreamed of being legless in a mobile cart or in a wheelchair. In 1982, he dreamed of being in bed and reading the morning papers, which gloatingly announced his death ("Fellini finally succumbs"). He feared the death of his imagination, when his dreams, a reassurance of creative vitality, would dry up. According to Kezich, Fellini's melancholy and dissatisfaction grew apace in his last, dreamless years, when producers were not prepared to back his film projects.
It is somewhat sad that his last picture was a brief, three-episode publicity film for the Bank of Rome. It showed a middle-aged man afflicted by nightmares: In one episode, he drives his car into a tunnel, which collapses; in another, he has to fend off a lion in a basement; in the third, he is anchored between railway lines as a train bears down on him. In each case, he wakes up and rushes to a psychologist, who suggests he will have less anxiety if he becomes a client of the friendly Bank of Rome. At least Fellini was always true to his dreams. He was always protective of them. That could explain his annoyance with sophisticated interpretations of his films, his elusiveness, the smokescreen of inventions or lies ("I'm a great liar -- my truth is invented" ) with which he confused those who wanted to write about him.
What kept him going despite his freight of fears? Giulietta Masina seems to have been a major factor. He was a big man, over 6 feet tall, with a formidable head that emerged more as he lost the battle for his hair. As he walked through his Piazza di Spagna neighborhood, he evoked the image of the liner Rex in "Amarcord," sailing serenely. In contrast, petite Giulietta seemed vulnerable but proved resilient and sagacious. Fellini can be identified with the strong man of "La Strada" and Giulietta with Gelsomina, the innocent waif who gives her life for him, but in the film, also she proved the stronger. She was also the Ginger of "Ginger and Fred," more judicious and mature than fragile Fred, Fellini's alter ego, Marcello Mastroianni. His sketches repeatedly showed his fear of losing Giulietta. In one, he depicts her as the fairy of "Pinocchio" but dead. He is crying as he looks down at her. But the real Giulietta stayed on: Fellini died Oct. 31, 1993, the day after their 50th wedding anniversary, and she the following year.
His other major resources were his fertile imagination and his sense of wonder. A large, mainly blue sketch dated Aug. 20, 1984 shows him during a pause in shooting a film, reclining on the grass in Rome and gesturing at the starry sky. In this midsummer night's dream, Fellini says to a colleague reclining beside him: "We can only recognize that we're part of the inscrutable mystery that is creation. We obey its unknowable laws, its rhythms, its changes. We're mysteries among mysteries."
Desmond O'Grady's books include the novel "Dinny Going Down" and a travel book about Italy's Abruzzo region, "The Sybil, the Shepherd and the Saint."
The Book of Dreams
Edited by Tullio Kezich and Vittorio Boarini
Rizzoli: 584 pp., $125
Today's Headlines Newsletter
A digest of essential news, insight and analysis from L.A. Times editors.