BOOK REVIEW / The vita, not so dolce: Fellini by John Baxter 4th Estate pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
THE opening sequence of Fellini's La Dolce Vita says it all. Shot from above, two helicopters sweep by the ruined Felice aqueduct and on across the cityscape of Rome. There is a sense of enormous freedom and liberation, a usurpation of Hollywood's claim on the cinematic tour de force. Fellini's use of CinemaScope stretches the conventional frame of the film image so that it seems to spill off the screen. And there, dangling beneath the leading helicopter, preposterously iconic, hangs not some machine or weapon but an enormous gilded statue of Christ, hand raised in passive benediction. Whether he is blessing the raddled eternal city, or the chutzpah of the director himself, is difficult to tell.

La Dolce Vita was Fellini's bridge film, standing between the furiously inventive calling cards I Vitelloni, La Strada and Il Bidone and the mature, autobiographic Eight and a Half, Roma and Amarcord. It was also the film in which the director's peculiar brand of praxis first crystallised. In John Baxter's exhaustively detailed biography we learn that so central was the film's premise of a corrupt and venal city viewed through the eyes of its scrabbling media that Fellini co-opted real events - such as the burning down of the Albergo Ambasciatori - as he went along. Baxter describes the film as a 'sensational and scandalous piece of tabloid cinema', but this hardly captures its essence. Far closer is Fellini's own comment to his long-time screenplay collaborator Tullio Pinelli: 'We must make a film like a Picasso sculpture; break the story into pieces, then put it back together according to our whim.' This could stand as the schema for all his subsequent films: dissatisfied with constrictions of traditional narrative forms, Fellini moved increasingly towards a life-in-film that was itself a film-in-life.

Frederico Fellini, who was born in Rimini in 1920 and died last Sunday, won every major prize for film excellence. One of the most resounding was granted in 1987 by a panel of 30 film professionals from 18 European countries who named Eight and a Half the best European film of all time, and Fellini the best director. The 'European' accent of this plaudit is significant, for while Fellini's work was hardly some collective vision of continental destiny, he remains - with Ingmar Bergman - the standard that European cinema has raised against the tyranny of Hollywood.

More than that, Fellini represented the incarnation of that Sixties coinage, the auteur. Disdaining the input of the writer (one of the writers whose screenplays he discarded was Gore Vidal - but Vidal showed no rancour, remarking: 'To my mind Fellini is essentially a painter rather than a narrative artist . . .'), he took to composing his films on the hoof. In full spate, in the middle of his career, he would - according to Baxter - start shooting the second he arrived on the set. No matter that the actors weren't made up, or the lighting adjusted: the important thing was to start the camera and keep it rolling.

Given this ferocious marriage between life, film and the act of filming, it is surprising that Baxter has managed to concoct such an effortlessly dry biography. Indeed, that so seminal an artist should be reduced in this - the first full-length biography - to the status of a moody adolescent, frigging cinemagoers much as he frigged his peers in Thirties Rimini, is a scandal. What we have here is Baxter's Fellini, much as we have Fellini's Roma or Satyricon. But whereas Fellini, even in his darkest and most self-indulgent moments, created gold out of the dross of his own confabulation, with Baxter it is the reverse.

True, as a primer for aspirant directors, the book is about as good as you can get. And if you are looking for a definitive filmography of Fellini go no further, for Baxter is nothing if not thorough. But comprehension is exactly what Fellini - as an artist - set out to avoid. Baxter marvels at his desire to fabricate his own identity and past, but lacks the courage to go with him into the shadowplay of the creative mind. Instead he resorts to febrile Freudianism, speaking of Fellini as 'possibly impotent'.

The pivotal moment in the whole Fellini story is the suicide (or accidental death) of Ettore Mani during the shooting of La Citta delle Donne. Baxter quotes Fellini as saying - apocryphally? - that 'it was a tragedy, but at least it proves that the script works', but fails to dwell on this. Like much else in this book, it is a missed opportunity to contemplate the magical calling in of art that had been so integral to his subject's life and work.