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La bolshie vita: Fury in the Fellini family

The late, great Italian film director's niece resigns in high dudgeon from his foundation – taking four of his Oscars with her

Federico Fellini is one of the finest film directors the world has known. His works La Dolce Vita – with its famous scene filmed at the Trevi fountain in Rome – and 81/2, are often cited on lists of the greatest European films ever made, and ensured that Fellini was a regular guest at Oscar ceremonies.

Now, as his home town of Rimini, in northern Italy, gears up to celebrate what would have been his 90th birthday this month – he died in 1993 – a furious row has broken out between the eponymous foundation in Rimini, which preserves his legacy, and his niece.

Francesca Fabbri Fellini resigned, with some drama, from the foundation's board, taking four of the director's five Oscars out of the family vault, as well as removing Fellini's library of 2,000 books.

Her timing couldn't have been better, or, perhaps, worse. The film Nine, a musical starring Penélope Cruz, Daniel Day Lewis and Nicole Kidman, and inspired by 1963's masterful 81/2 , opened in Italy last week.

Yesterday, Fabbri Fellini broke a period of refusing to discuss the matter and claimed that she felt snubbed by the Fellini Foundation, which in November awarded its prestigious Fellini lifetime achievement award to the American director Sidney Lumet. The award was doubly significant as it was awarded on the 50th anniversary of the year La Dolce Vita was shot. But Fabbri Fellini was left off the guest list of a dinner held in Paris in October to mark the anniversary.

"When the Fellini prize was awarded to Sidney Lumet in November, no one bothered to introduce me to the American director," she told an Italian newspaper. "I had to chase him down the corridor of the Grand Hotel in Rimini at the end of the evening to meet him. It should be natural to think of me as Federico's ambassador to the world. Look at Paloma Picasso. OK, she is the daughter, but still it comes down to DNA.

"I don't want this to be reduced to a squalid row that is beneath my uncle."

The foundation seemed unperturbed by Fabbri Fellini's "irrevocable" resignation, however. It said that its activities would remain unaffected and added that it is about to receive 1,500 rarely seen Fellini film and television clips from the broadcasters RAI and Cinecitta.

The foundation's director, Vittorio Boarini, pointed out that Fabbri Fellini had resigned twice before. "Francesca is what you might call a vivacious person," he said. "Last time [she resigned] she organised an award in Fellini's name for Ingmar Bergman, who did not show up. We held an awards ceremony in Rimini for Martin Scorsese, who did."

Observers have also drawn mischievous parallels between the row and Fellini's films, such as I vitelloni about his youth in Rimini, which often poked fun at small-town attitudes.

Pupi Avati, the foundation's president, said: "This is typical of the small-town row you find in Fellini's film Amarcord. If it boils down to arguing over whether the Oscars go to my house or your house, you can be sure Fellini would have laughed hard.

"Francesca is a dear friend, but maybe she should be helping to find sponsors for the Foundation to stop it closing down."