'Born Liar' finds the truth behind Fellini's genius
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By Wesley Morris
The Boston Globe
Posted: July 15, 2003
Not long into "Fellini: I'm a Born Liar," the often revelatory documentary containing the last interviews of Federico Fellini, we learn that when the now-deceased master happened upon one of his films, he couldn't recall who the devil made it. That sounds a bit like Michael Jordan happening upon his highlight reel and denying that the gent flying toward the hoop is him.
With Fellini, it's somehow less disingenuous. Over a 43-year career, his movies were his dreams.
"I'm a Born Liar" is Fellini trying to get to the bottom of himself. And as anyone knows who's seen "8 1/2," "Amarcord," "Fellini Satyricon" or "Fellini's Roma," that well is so deep as to be bottomless.
For anyone who hasn't, there's still much to behold, and most of the Fellini catalog awaits, upon exiting the Brattle.
Over the course of his lifetime, Fellini dismissed psychoanalysis, choosing instead to recreate onscreen the trippy particulars of his slumbers: the phantasmagoric sex carnivals, the grotesquerie, the madonnas, the whores.
Director Damian Pettigrew, a Canadian-born Parisian, met Fellini 20 years ago in Rome, while interviewing the writer Italo Calvino, who brought him along for homemade spaghetti at Fellini's place near the legendary Cinecetta soundstages. In the years before Fellini's 1993 death, Pettigrew seduced the director into talking at length on film about his work.
Pettigrew surrounds his epicurean subject with haunted landscape shots and equally enlightening testimonials from erstwhile members of Fellini's casts and crews, folks who often found themselves perplexed and infuriated by the task of unloading the contents of Fellini's head onto celluloid. He was particularly rough on actors, whose inability to fully bring his vision to life drove him to exasperation.
For proof, there's Donald Sutherland characterizing his time on the set of 1976's woozy "Casanova" as "hell on earth." Or Terence Stamp, who offers a rousing impersonation of the director explaining how to be on acid for a role in the 1968 Euro auteurs-do-Poe collection "Spirits of the Dead."
Even Fellini's mythic on-camera stand-in, Marcello Mastroianni, gave him doubts. Pettigrew has included some scintillating footage of the director wondering aloud why he ever hired the screen legend in the first place.
But "I'm a Born Liar" is only loosely concerned with behind-the-scenes gossip and is squarely focused on the nature of Fellini's insatiability. How he and his collaborators accomplished what they did remains forever out of reach. We simply have their fruits -- these surreally orgiastic dream-books; movies that, for ill and naught, functioned according to their own sensory and non-narrative logics. (longtime New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who threw in her towel on Fellini in his later going, refused to sit through the second half of "Casanova." She was bored, she boasted.)
Many a genius and many a hack had attempted what Fellini was up to, and this movie suggests why few succeeded to his extent: they just weren't as deeply committed to profligacy. Fritz Lang tried once with "Metropolis" and, with "Apocalypse Now," Francis Ford Coppola did, too, and it nearly killed him. Orson Welles's numerous attempts put him out of business. And Terrence Malick's visionary obesity has produced a rather svelte body of work.
For Fellini, life was just a second-hand experience compared to the movies he wanted to make, the fantasy always more powerful than the real thing. Roberto Benigni, with the boom of a cannon, tells us of Fellini's dislike of Freud. And Pettigrew's movie functions nicely as a posthumous couch trip, with Fellini explaining the soulful puppetry of his art without pulling the curtain up far enough to let you catch him pulling the strings.