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8 1/2 Fellini Films

Not much has been left unsaid about Federico Fellini. If ever there has been a filmmaker for whom a "lifetime achievement" Oscar was a career footnote rather than a capper, it was the visionary Italian. The Rice Media Center's retrospective in his honor is either an interesting mix or an odd hodgepodge. It may leave out your favorite -- 8 1/2, for example, or Amarcord -- as it did mine, Nights of Cabiria, but it does have some happy inclusions. I'm especially pleased to see my first Fellini film, Toby Dammit, included. It was part of the '60s horror trilogy Spirits of the Dead. At the time I had never heard of no Federico Fellini, and I've often wondered how many other young horror-movie buffs staggered out of their neighborhoods or small-town Rialtos wondering what in hell they had just seen.

This weekend's offering is also of considerable interest. I Vitelloni and Il Bidone are two of his earlier films. In Il Bidone, at least (I haven't seen I Vitelloni), you see some of his themes developing, but they don't sag under the weight of being Felliniesque, as did some of his post-La Dolce Vita work. By the time Fellini made Satyricon, he had begun to indulge in the stupidities and excesses of an age he had previously stood apart from to satirize, or to judge with compassion.

"Bidone" means "swindler," and this 1955 film follows a group of small-time con men on the rounds in Rome and rural Italy. Fellini films are as noted for the striking faces they contain as for anything else; it's instructive to note that he imported striking visages from our shores, even though American actors are more about the mythic (and therefore generalized) image than about the craggy individual mug. Richard Basehart, Fellini's early male angel-face, appears here as an artist who has to support himself and his wife, played by Giulietta Masina (who later married Fellini), by joining in on the scams perpetrated by Augusto, played by that sad American buffoon-face Broderick Crawford. Basehart's character is incidental and eventually fades away when the film begins to focus on Augusto's age -- he's a used-up-looking 48, and the melancholy fact is that he's still a small-timer, one whose last chance for any kind of future is now upon him. Actually, it's too late for Augusto himself, but he'd like to help out his young daughter, who is just starting to make her way in the world.

This sounds like melodrama, and to an extent it is, but Fellini keeps us wondering what form Augusto's redemption will take and how complete it will be. The climax has high sap potential. Augusto, dressed as a monsignor of the church, has to decide whether he will actually keep a poor little crippled girl's money, even after she's asked him to pray for her. But Fellini and Crawford pull the scene off with a bracing bite of honesty.

There are several fine scenes here. In particular, a brilliantly cinematic rendition of a New Year's Eve party held in the swank apartment of a more successful con man hints at the depiction of Roman decadence Fellini will devote three hours to in Dolce Vita, and the pathos of the crippled girl is surprisingly free of schmaltz. When Augusto and his own daughter are together, however, the tone lowers to more familiar and often-traveled ground.

Il Bidone isn't the very best of Fellini, but it's certainly worth a look.

-- David Theis

 
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