Anita Ekberg as Sylvia in ‘La Dolce Vita’, one of the director’s most famous films. Photo: Courtesy of the Independent Visions Archive with exclusive representation by MPTV Barbara Steele in ‘8 1/2’ in 1963, sometimes described as one of the greatest films ever made. Photo: Courtesy of the Independent Visions Archive with exclusive representation by MPTV
Arriving in Rome in 1960 was like flying straight into the sun. It was blazing, ripe, optimistic, feral, and fecund; enjoying a huge economic boom. It seemed to embrace everyone caught in its collective thrall.
It was a more intimate city then, still very Catholic, full of parades and rituals. Everyone ate at midnight. It seemed that no one ever slept, except during the siestas, when the city closed its eyes from two to six. Rome was charged with an erotic vitality and bursting with creativity. It was full of young painters and designers as well as amazing filmmakers: Visconti, De Sica, Rossellini, Antonioni, Pasolini, Monicelli, and Bertolucci… The emperor of them all, of course, was Fellini — the magician in the top-hat, the man with the golden whip.
The vast cult of celebrity and outrageous money had not yet revealed its Gorgon head. The paparazzi were like a hive of busy gossip-mongers, as much part of the scene as the street musicians and gypsies — we knew every one of them by name.
We were surrounded by 2000 years of ancient buildings and fabulous art. The Circus Maximus was still a thread that ran through everything. Even in the present moment, you were always connected to a deep past. Rome itself was an emotional and theatrical circus; the air full of perfume and desire, fabulous weddings, christenings, and funerals; a world filled with pageantry and ritual. Then there was this amazing light that surrounded us. Skies of such immense beauty and drama that you could believe they contained heavens within heavens. Fellini’s universe was filled with processions and parades — occult, mystical, generous, bestial, elusive, and full of the fantastical, of mythic Odysseys and solitude, composed with great tenderness. All of this was his own internal mythology. The deserted piazza, invariably seen at night in every Fellini film, that allows one to have an encounter with solitude and the soul; the wind another constant, and always a sense of space, the space of a dream, the internal space; and the eternal return to the sea, representing hope, the sea as mirror of the soul, the sea of departure, eternal, infinite.
La Dolce Vita, released in 1960, was like a prophecy for the upcoming decade. At first glance, both gorgeous and seductive, it was a bull’s-eye at interpreting the energy and atmosphere of that moment. But the subplot was one of self-loathing, decadence, and death.
8½ was Fellini’s masterpiece of beauty and guilt, anxiety and psychic terror. Like a fugue, it addressed the unconscious reality and the dream simultaneously. This was the last of his black-and-white films, and for me this was the end of an era, the end of his most personal and authentic films.
He saw all of Rome when he was casting. He received everybody like an emperor — anyone could get to see him then. He luxuriated in casting: he took four or five months on 8½ alone. He had a tiny little office, his walls seething with photographs of hundreds of faces and, to the exasperation of the producers, he was intensely interested in everybody. Casting was ecstasy and agony for Fellini because he was so intrigued with everyone he met. The corridor was filled with people waiting to meet him: immaculately dressed counts and contessas, butchers, nuns, ladies of the night, dwarves, one-legged men, women with babies, professors, journalists, actors, acrobats, gardeners, house-keepers, tutto-Roma.
This great bear of a man would meet you; his huge eyes totally focused on you, and out of this enormous fellow would come this tender conspiratorial voice, dolce and amused. Everyone who worked with him felt they shared a private secret with him — that he and he alone could mirror their souls like a great, slightly ironic Buddha.
I was very lucky; he sent me straight to costume fittings. No one received a script. We were merely given pages every day. Some kind of fabulous alchemy occurred out of this collective turmoil.
The shoot for 8½ was very joyful. We had a little 16-piece orchestra that would play for everyone, sometimes over dialogue, which was always looped in those days. We were all caught up in an atmosphere of abundance and love. We somehow unconsciously all knew that we were part of a fabulous dance, an extraordinary moment in time. With Fellini at the height of his powers, Rome felt like the centre of the universe.
Marcello Mastroianni would arrive for makeup in his striped pyjamas. He slept in his makeup chair while they poured espressos into him. Many times he would arrive in a horse-drawn carriage. They were available as taxis in those days. Occasionally, I would receive a phone call from Fellini at unexpected hours, usually in the middle of the night.
“Barbarini (his name for me), what are you doing?” “I’m trying to sleep,” to which he would reply, “Come for a walk with me, please.” And I would say, “Are you crazy, its 3:30am!”
And he would say, “It’s beautiful outside and I have umbrellas. We’ll go to the Appia Antica.” He was a nocturnal creature who loved to wander Rome at all hours of the night. So we would go to the Appia Antica, the storied road built by the Romans that leads like an arrow straight to Naples; the large paving stones still have chariot indentations on them in certain parts. And on some, huge penises are carved that apparently worked as arrows pointing the way to long-lost brothels of the Romans. Lined with massive dark cypress trees, it looked like a street of fate. On the right side were the ladies of the night, cooking sausages on sticks over little bonfires, all of them looking suspiciously like La Saraghina waiting for the early morning truckers. On the left the transvestites, pale and beautiful like apparitions from one of his movies. At dawn we would stop at a little cafe that would just be opening up. The owners always knew him and were thrilled to welcome him.
For me, the film Juliet of the Spirits was an apologia and mea culpa for his wife, for the long affair he had had with Sandra Milo. And then he made the extraordinary insult of putting her in the same movie. If you look carefully at this film you can see the face of Giulietta displaying such misery and sadness … I found it a very troubled movie.
Fellini hated working in colour. “It can never be authentic. . . It takes too long for the eyes to adjust in a darkened room to the brilliance of colour. It will never have the depth or the truth of black and white. If I shoot a scene of a stormy sea in black and white, the audience can project onto it their own experience of the ocean; if I shoot it in colour, it’s too literal and less emotional and effective.”
Fellini’s obsession with orgies, in La Dolce Vita, Satyricon, City of Women, Juliet of the Spirits and Casanova, were always extremely angst-ridden. In all of his narratives, this old Roman pagan desire inevitably ended in destruction and guilt. Years later, after I’d left Italy and was living in Malibu, I received a phone call from my old friend, Gore Vidal: “Ciao, Barbara – guess who I’m with? Federico!”
On that phone call, Fellini asked me to come to Rome for costume fittings to play the role, in Casanova, of a Venetian alchemist who, with her spells and potions, cured men of their impotence. I was personally thrilled; this was a sublime role and the most amazing costumes, with extraordinary and exotic headdresses, were made for me. But I could see that he was not happy with the thought of this project. “Why is he doing this?” I said to myself. “Is it some kind of spiritual exorcism?”
Six weeks into the shoot, and over budget, it was decided that a chunk of the script needed to be cut and along with it my part, before I ever stepped in front of the camera. I was never to work with him again. But I have many wonderful little letters with his beautiful little drawings on them. He was as Roman as the Coliseum. Sixty thousand people attended his funeral in 1993—five months later, Giulietta Masina died of a broken heart.
This is an extract from FELLINI: The Sixties by Manoah Bowman (Running Press, NewSouth Books), $79.99.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.