BOOK REVIEW / And now what? The reel turns in Rome: Fellini - John Baxter: Fourth Estate, pounds 20.00

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The Independent Online
EVERY time he finished a film, Federico Fellini would hang a huge sign above his desk with the words: 'And Now What?' This was at Cinecitta, the miniature Hollywood built by Mussolini on the outskirts of Rome. The air of tawdry dereliction - empty lots, stray dogs, strange creatures in fancy dress - always appealed to Fellini, and his greatest films came from the studios there, La Dolce Vita among them. For at least a decade, however, the King of Cinecitta has turned from cinema to television, and every Italian knows who made the advert for Barilla pasta, where the voluptuous woman purrs like a vixen over a bowl of rigatoni. It was Fellini. So too the Campari promos.

Fellini, who died on Sunday, suffered a stroke last August in the seaside town of Rimini where he was born. The incident made front-page news in Italy; Woody Allen said how sorry he was, along with Gina Lollobrigida, Anthony Quinn and Umberto Eco. Yet there was a suspicion that Fellini had faked his collapse. He later joked from his hospital bed: 'Rimango qui solo per le infermiere' (I'm only staying for the nurses).

But then Fellini is a great spinner of tales. He has done his utmost to obscure the circumstances of his birth (Was he really conceived in a train? Did he honestly run away to the circus at the age of seven?) and sees nothing dishonest in this. When three journalists complained that Fellini had given each of them a wildly different version of the same event, he snapped: 'All of you got an exclusive story] What's wrong with that?'

The artificial, even the phoney, holds a special place in the life of Fellini. This new biography by John Baxter relates how young Federico was surprised by his mother one day using her lipstick to make himself up as a Red Indian. He adored Mae West and Fred Astaire, the Flash Gordon comic strips and the impossible whiteness of Jean Harlow's skin. His own cinema looked more to the stylised fantasies of Hollywood than to gritty actuality of Italian Neo-Realism. The most striking images in his films are shamelessly unreal: sheets of black polythene for a rolling night-time sea in Amarcord, the ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma, with its overpowdered cardinals.

Fellini is not an authorised biography. Baxter pads out the story with good critical appreciations of the films. It's a gossipy, enjoyable read and we untangle our way towards the truth of Fellini as best we can. There is probably nothing in the story that Fellini worked as a hard-news reporter for a Roman tabloid. He was simply enamoured of the way journalists were portrayed in Hollywood ('I liked the way they wore their hats on the back of their heads'). We are on safer ground with Fellini's post-war career in Rome as a cartoonist, dashing off comic portraits of GIs to earn some extra lire. His middle-class parents sent money for studies at Rome University's law school, but Federico never attended. He was only interested in film.

The big break came in 1945 when Roberto Rossellini offered Fellini the chance to work on the script of Rome, Open City. By then he considered himself more Roman than Riminese, with Cinecitta a second home. Baxter is fun on the scandalous success in 1960 of La Dolce Vita. The Vatican tried to ban the film (Pope John XXIII announced that any priest who reviewed it favourably would be demoted), but it made dollars 1.5m within three months, more than Gone With The Wind. The bosomy Anita Ekberg was too much for the prelates. When this Swedish diva waded half-undressed into the waters of the Trevi fountain, it seemed that Fellini had insulted an architectural miracle of the Eternal City.

Fans of Fellini will find much of interest here. We learn how the maestro befriended Gore Vidal and Georges Simenon (it was to Fellini that the Frenchman confessed that he had slept with 10,000 women since the age of 13), how Boris Karloff and Mae West were considered for roles in Fellini's Satyricon. His films are the thing, though. The lights have gone out, but the reels will roll on.