Fellini: I’m a Born Liar Profiles the Filmmaker’s Love of Artifice (and Features Italo Calvino)

“If you know lit­tle about Felli­ni,” warns Roger Ebert in his review of Felli­ni: I’m a Born Liar (watch it free online here), “this is not the place to start.” Per­haps he right­ly issues such a dis­claimer about a for­mal­ly unortho­dox doc­u­men­tary that plunges deeply and imme­di­ate­ly into the aes­thet­ics of its sub­jec­t’s work while pay­ing bare­ly any heed to the facts of his life. But if you can’t say that Fed­eri­co Felli­ni dealt near-exclu­sive­ly in aes­thet­ics, you can’t say it about any­one. The direc­tor’s love of arti­fice, which even­tu­al­ly led to his total ded­i­ca­tion to shoot­ing all scenes on a sound­stage, pro­duced motion pic­tures so flam­boy­ant yet so dis­tinc­tive and per­son­al that first-time view­ers still find them­selves unde­cid­ed as to whether to call them ele­gant or grotesque. The ver­dict, as any reg­u­lar attendee of revival screen­ings of , Juli­et of the Spir­its, Satyri­con, and Amar­cord knows, is that they’re both: grotesque to the extent of their ele­gance, and ele­gant to the extent of their grotesque­ness. This already gives doc­u­men­tar­i­an Dami­an Pet­ti­grew much to work with, and indeed, he would have had the mate­r­i­al and exper­tise to assem­ble a robust essay film on Fellini’s visu­als alone. But he chose to make a fresh­er exam­i­na­tion.

Though he pre­miered the movie in 2002, Pet­ti­grew’s real work on I’m a Born Liar began near­ly twen­ty years before. In 1983, he met with the Ital­ian nov­el­ist Ita­lo Calvi­no, intend­ing to shoot a doc­u­men­tary about him. But upon real­iz­ing that their con­ver­sa­tions came around inevitably to Felli­ni, the writer arranged a sur­prise meet­ing of the two film­mak­ers. Years lat­er, Felli­ni would sub­mit to the ten-hour inter­view from Pet­ti­grew that struc­tures this film. Cer­tain col­lab­o­ra­tors give tes­ti­mo­ny, notably still-shak­en actors like Don­ald Suther­land and Ter­ence Stamp. But Calvi­no’s own appear­ance turns out to shed the most light on his coun­try­man’s work, and vice ver­sa, not least because both of them pre­ferred to find the truth through elab­o­rate fab­ri­ca­tion. I’m a Born Liar’s sur­pris­ing­ly thor­ough Wikipedia page quotes a pas­sage from Calvi­no’s Mr. Palo­mar that sup­pos­ed­ly inspired Felli­ni on a shoot, but may also reflect the whole basis of his craft: “Life on the sur­face is so rich and var­i­ous that I have no urge to enquire fur­ther. I believe that it is only when you’ve come to know the sur­face of things that you can try to find out what lies beneath. But the sur­face of things is inex­haustible.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Fed­eri­co Felli­ni Intro­duces Him­self to Amer­i­ca in Exper­i­men­tal 1969 Doc­u­men­tary

Fellini’s Fan­tas­tic TV Com­mer­cials

John Tur­tur­ro Reads Ita­lo Calvino’s Ani­mat­ed Fairy Tale

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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