2020 is Fellini year, as Federico Fellini was born on the 20th January 1920 in Rimini, Italy. This centenary has become a kind of Italy-wide party that will be celebrated for the entire year with numerous events and festivals. It even has a name, “Fellini 100” (click here
to view the official website listing all the celebrations). Who knows what Federico Fellini would think of it, as when asked what he thought of his surname being turned into the neologism, Fellinian, he replied: «I had always dreamed of becoming an adjective when I grew up. And I’m very proud of it.»
We have decided to celebrate this anniversary by looking at how the great director uses light and shadow to shape his stories. Fellini believed that light was the first element needed to construct a film. In his book, “Making a film” (Contra Mundum Press), he writes that «light is ideology, feeling, colour, tone, depth, atmosphere, and story. Light creates miracles, adds, cancels, diminishes, enriches, softens, highlights, alludes; it makes the fantastic and the oneiric acceptable and believable and, on the contrary, can suggest transparency, vibrations, mimicking the grayest, most banal reality.» He then adds that «A film is written with light, and style is expressed with light.» In short, light is to a director what ink is to a writer.
If light, then, is a kind of technical instrument that is just as indispensable as the film camera, exploring the dichotomy the director creates between night and day may reveal hidden symbols and meanings. Fellini’s nocturnal world, in fact, has a mysterious, fairy-tale quality. In his films, the action that moves the plot forwards, and is more realistic, usually takes place in the daytime, whereas at night, dreams and desires take over, creating a version of reality that runs parallel to normal life. In Fellini’s night-time world, everything is plausible, but also rarefied, enigmatic and suspended. Here are some examples from three of his most famous films:
1. La Dolce Vita (1960)
Once you have seen La Dolce Vita it is difficult to picture Rome without your imagination being influenced by the image of the city portrayed in the film. You can’t help but see its deserted streets in black and white immersed in the haze of a hot summer night. And who can picture the Trevi Fountain without thinking of Anita Ekberg taking her nocturnal dip? At the start of those four unforgettable minutes, Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) wears a white fur wrap which acts like a spotlight that illuminates her and creates an intense contrast with the silent stillness of the Roman night that surrounds her with empty streets and the dark shadows of towering palazzos. Sylvia is an emblem of magnetic female sensuality, and as such, she emanates her own light.
Then, out of nowhere, the Trevi Fountain appears in the frame, lit as if it were a stage set. Sylvia wades into the pool and lets the water from the fountain cascade over her, and when Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) follows her, the closeness of their bodies creates a level of tension that makes their attraction almost palpable. Marcello’s hands hover over her body, first her cheeks, then her shoulders and finally her blonde hair. They draw even closer and are about to kiss when suddenly the fountain is switched off and the frame widens. The dream has gone, and a passer-by on a bicycle stops by the railing on the pavement to look at them. The night has disappeared. And as dawn breaks, a shaft of light shines through the darkness, destroying the scene’s sensual and oneiric mood.