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Fellini: I'm a Born Liar (NR)
First Look Pictures
Official Site
Director: Damian Pettigrew
Producer: Olivier Gal
Written by: Damian Pettigrew, Olivier Gal
Cast: Federico Fellini, Donald Sutherland, Terence Stamp, Giuseppe Rotunno, Roberto Benigni, Italo Calvino

Rating: out of 5


Watching a Fellini film, Iíve always gotten the feeling that heís in on some kind of private joke that heís not telling us. Itís as if, behind all the surreal pageantry, behind that method of making the personal universal by giving it an epic context, heís hiding the punchline in plain sight. And his films all seem to know that weíll never quite figure it out.

I got the same feeling listening to him speak in Fellini: Iím A Born Liar. You never hear the questions asked of him, only his answers, and this gives the impression that heís on his own time, that heís holding back something because he can, that heís in total control, guiding the information where he wants it to go. Much like his films, Fellini speaks in circles, at tremendous length, saying very little even as he talks continuously. Sometimes you find yourself wanting him to pick a point and go with it, to just concretely outline his reasoning. Then you find yourself saying ďAha!Ē as you realize that his long-windedness is making a cracked kind of sense: This documentary may very well be continuing his tradition of concealing the secrets his films always have. This is a documentary with the apparent purpose of giving insight into his creative process, but it ends up serving as a combination of cinematic retrospective and the cryptic swansong of one of the greatest film directors of all time.

This isnít to say that no information can be gleaned from the film. While there are no real revelations, no scandalous surprises, Liar does a terrific job of explaining where Fellini was coming from, how his own personal beliefs and experiences shaped the stories he put on screen. This information is probably the most valuable material to come from the film, if only in that it sates the art loverís curiosity about inspiration and perspective. Felliniís wisdom comes from very simple places, places fueled by observation and especially by his own instincts, which seem unique but are actually, Fellini admits, quite ordinary. Thereís still a lot to learn, though. For example:

  • On the subject of art, Fellini insists that it must be vital. It must challenge us to think about life, and therefore give life the weightiness it deserves. Without art, he says, life would be stripped down to its basic biological functionality, a clinically scientific outlook with no room for interpretation or rebelliousness. And rebellion, he says, is the most essential aspect of the artist. One needs an authority to clash with, to offend, so that the art may be powerful enough so that ďAll of life can be suggested to a lifeless creature that wants to live.Ē
  • Women, he says, are a bedrock for the male species. Men project expectations on women in order to alleviate their own fears, hoping for a message that can make everything make sense.
  • He proclaims his fascination with art to be founded in the excessive character of the artist, how artists are often considered to be ďscoundrels,Ē but never have to meet with repercussions.
  • The title of the documentary refers to a comment Fellini makes about his preference for the constructed reality of his films over their real-life counterparts. To him, what he has invented is infinitely more real than anything life has brought him. The documentary emphasizes this by intercutting the talking heads with both static and panning shots of the sets of his films, and of scenes from his films, very rarely stepping out of the construction to acknowledge the artifice by showing the actual filmmaking process.

Liar doesnít serve as merely a lecture from Fellini, though. As luck would have it, many of Felliniís collaborators were still alive to shoot interviews, and the portraits drawn of the man tell fascinating, conflicting stories about working with him. Donald Sutherland, who starred in Casanova, has the most negative things to say, claiming that Felliniís directorial method consisted of a marionette mentality, with Fellini the grand master and the actors unwilling puppets. He asserts that Fellini was always terrified of his own superficiality and used filmmaking as a way to channel those fears into profound displays of value.

Terence Stamp,one of the stars of Spirits Of The Dead, Felliniís first collaboration with English actors, paints a decidedly different but no less demonized picture of Felliniís interaction with his actors, stating that Fellini was too hands-off, that to get direction, you had to demand it, and then you might only get a vague run-down of the script, but absolutely none of the motivation that Stamp insists English actoront-family:Verdana'>Despite the conflicting depictions Felliniís collaborators throw around, what comes shining through in each interview is their respect for the manís vision. Fellini claims never to have pretended that filmmaking wasnít a selfish act for him. For him, creating was a narcissistic enterpriseóhe got to play God. Unable to cope with a normal existence, he turned to film as a way to direct himself, and in the process, fashion his own survival. Authorship sustained him, and it shows in his films. At one of the few points of the documentary to actually show Fellini directing, we see him flitting around a scene setup for Satyricon. Since Fellini often chose to film scenes without dialogue and later dub them (the reason why, in may of his films, the dialogue never syncs up with the actorsí lips), he is able to direct the scene verbally, standing just on the edge and telling his actors exactly where to look and how to react to each other. If ever there was a need for evidence of Felliniís authorship of his films, itís this moment, which illustrates the organization behind the perceived lack of structure in his films.

The lack of structure, in fact, may be what makes his films so rich. Not so for this documentary. Director Damian Pettigrew fails to give his film any kind of actual composition. Itís as if he just filmed his interviews and then stuck them together without any regard as to how they might fit best. This sort of thing may very well work within a surreal narrative such as Felliniís. For a nonfiction film, on the other hand, that doesnít work. While the film does sometimes summon the mood that a Fellini movie might, the effort is too visible, too obvious, to make it as effective as Pettigrew seems to think it is.

This extends to many of the interviews. The way the speakers are filmed sometimes comes off as forced and arty. One of the interviews in particular, which captures the speaker in profiled silhouette with the reflection of light through his glasses bouncing off the backdrop and looking like a kind of laser guiding his vision, is so self-consciously composed as to cause distraction. It just doesnít work. The staginess of these interviews emphasizes what comes off as artificiality in the film, as if the whole thing is some kind of joke, a put-on play that thinks itís fooling you into believing it, and is laughing at your gullibility.

Of course, this goes back to Felliniís assertion that he is just a big liar. Maybe this film is some last-ditch effort to fool the audience. And while we should consider just how insulting that idea may be, the fact remains: Even lies can be interesting.

óCole Sowell

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


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