Based on Federico Fellini's last confessions filmed by Pettigrew in Rome in 1991 and 1992 (Fellini died in 1993), the film eschews straightforward biography to highlight the Italian director's unorthodox working methods and personal philosophies.
A masterclass in cinema aesthetics , the feature documentary uses excerpts and behind-the-scenes from 8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits, Histoires extraordinaires, Satyricon, Fellini's Casanova, And the Ship Sails On, and City of Women. Also interviewed are Roberto Benigni (La voce della luna), Terence Stamp (Histoires extraordinaires), and Donald Sutherland (Casanova), among other notable Fellini collaborators.
A camera tracks crosswise alongside a wide, brightly appointed beach, in what appears to be the dead of winter. No bathers are in sight, only a rolling parade of empty cabanas, with a tranquil blue seascape in the distance beyond. The wistful, melancholy music of Nino Rota lends these vistas a dreamy familiarity. We then jump from color to luminous black & white, and a quick glimpse of Federico Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece, 8 1/2, in which the monumentally buxom harlot, “Saraghina” is preparing to perform her rumba on the beach for a flock of fugitive schoolboys. It’s the very same beach we were just staring at, but magically denuded of 40 years of succeeding development, and made mythic through the eyes of a master. From this point of departure, Pettigrew juxtaposes archival footage and fresh interviews with Fellini’s collaborators, interspersed with classic clips and the fruits of his own present-day visits to the haunting locales where I Vitelloni (1953), Nights of Cabiria (1957), La Dolce Vita (1960), Satyricon (1969) and other cinematic wonders first came to life. The goal is to fuse these ingredients thematically, to a degree that may better illuminate Fellini’s conscience and philosophies.
“I am a born liar,” the maestro tells us. “For me, the things that are the most real are the ones I invented.” In one way or another, Fellini’s playful habit of honestly admitting falsehood is presented, and tested, as the key to his art, and even his spirituality. The maestro’s boyhood in the Adriatic coastal town of Rimini is conjured through a combination of an unpublished baby picture of Fellini, contemporary footage, and his own spoken reminiscence. Fellini remembers being fascinated, when still a small boy, by the town’s artistic types - bohemian outcasts who were, by turns, dirty, flashy, and inner directed. “A small boy is naturally rebellious,” he tells us, of himself. “He’s reacting to the laws, the taboos, the rules laid down by his family, his school. And my generation was faced with so many taboos, those of the Catholic Church, of Fascism.”
This reflection is intercut with a behind-the-scenes of Amarcord (1973), Fellini’s intimate epic about small-town life in the Mussolini era. The focus is on the scene, both nightmarish and comedic, in which the hero’s father is obliged by the police to drink castor oil, for no reason other than as a clownish, sadistic exercise of small-time power. Fellini circles the action, prompting the actors, crooning to them, snarling, sometimes obliging them to act directly towards him, as he crouches off-camera. Emphasised in this context is Fellini’s intense discomfort at causing such a scene to be re-enacted, however satiric the energy. He scowls, grits his teeth, and admonishes one actor playing a Blackshirt bully to be more precise, for pity’s sake: “Your partner has been suffering for days because of you. Get it right!”
Fellini’s early manhood and lifelong collaboration with his actress wife, Giulietta Masina, are evoked through a combination of interviews (particularly with Fellini’s boyhood chum Titta Benzi) and clips from 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits. While it is an understandable temptation to think of such scenes as “autobiography,” they are counter-balanced by Fellini’s own warnings: “Memory is a most mysterious element, almost indefinable, that links us to things we don’t even remember having lived. It constantly incites us to stay in contact with dimensions, events, and sensations, that we can’t define, but that we know actually happened.” As the great Italian novelist Italo Calvino points out, after a close look at the overtly fake plastic seascapes of And the Ship Sails On (1983): “To a psychoanalyst, whether you tell the truth or whether you lie, isn’t very important. Because even lies are interesting, eloquent, revealing, just as much as what is considered truth. I distrust a writer who claims to tell the whole truth about himself, about life, or about the world.”
Some of the contradictions in Fellini’s accounts of himself are just plain funny. “I adore actors,” he tells us. Cut to Donald Sutherland, star of Fellini's Casanova (1976), who quietly seethes that “in his relations with actors, Federico was dreadful, a martinet, a tyrant.” Yet Sutherland is close to a smile as he recalls and then offers an insight which deepens the film’s argument: “Fellini is constantly threatened by his own superficiality, and is constantly running away from it, in the same sense as Orson Welles. Orson Welles created a lie about himself that was in fact the truth, but he knew that it was a lie he’d created - and once everybody believed it, he found it insupportable.” Rocking the stability of these persuasive remarks is Roberto Benigni, star of La voce della luna (1990), extolling Fellini’s charm with actors in bright, broad strokes: “He treated me, for the first time in my life, like I was a real actor. Or better - actress! I was in the center, and to everybody he say, ‘This is-a my Kim-a Novak.’”
Terence Stamp, who played Toby Dammit in Histoires extraordinaires (1968), remembers that when he asked for a bit of directorial instruction, Fellini glared at him at first as if witnessing something unnatural - a puppet who dared to question its puppeteer. Then, off the top of his head, he offered Stamp a lulu of an “actor’s motivation” for Toby, telling him: “Last-a night you play Macbeth. Then you go to a party. Big-a party. Whiskey. Hashish. Cocaine. A whore-gy! And at this-a whore-gy, you fuck some woman while some black-a man fuck you. Then you are on your way to the airport and someone put big tab LSD under your tongue. Now you're here!”
Stamp needed no further preparation. Nevertheless, he was constantly intrigued by Fellini’s love of extreme artifice. When he asked the director why the makeup people had been told to place Toby’s eyebrows at such an unnaturally high angle on his forehead, Fellini replied, “They are question marks. It makes you look like you’re asking a question.”
Tullio Pinelli, screenwriter of La strada and La dolce vita, and cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno outline the varied, often complex approaches to scripting a Fellini film and lighting it. Noted French producer Toscan du Plantier details the frustration of working with a temperamental director who "needs an enemy" for inspiration. “An artist is a medium,” insists Fellini, “a vessel to be filled by fantasy” as painter and long-time intimate, Rinaldo Geleng, evokes the maestro's wild mental states during La dolce vita, 8 1/2 and Casanova. Featured during these interviews are extremely rare behind-the-scenes of La dolce vita, Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini's Casanova, and City of Women that are, in turn, punctuated by mysterious uncredited appearances by Ennio Flaiano, Alain Cuny, and Nanni Moretti.
As the film moves through its final third, we tour the stagier sets and sample the less formally scripted scenes which characterize Fellini’s later work. These scenes are balanced against the filmmaker’s own latter-day musings in such a way that, even if one tends to resist Fellini’s later films, one is better able to see and understand them on his terms as part of an inevitable, continuous growth on his part. “Faking things, constantly faking!” says Fellini as we observe in detail his skillfully crafted, openly false, studio-built seascapes. “Making a fake sea, a fake meadow, a fake storm. All this faking, this representation - probably unconsciously - is merely a repetition of a kind of magic ritual.”
After a clip from 8 1/2 in which a sleepless Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) worries that his latest film will capsize, owing to his own shortcomings - “What if it’s the end,” he asks himself, “of a big fat liar without talent or genius?”- Fellini reflects that “doubt” is also a vital part of the creative process. “Fear is a feeling you have to cultivate. A man cannot do without being afraid. A fearless man is, I think, a fool. Fear is inseparable from being human.” Fear of death motivated Fellini to abandon, sometime around 1966, a poetic film about the afterlife called The Voyage of G. Mastorna. Terence Stamp encouraged Fellini to make the film anyway: “‘You think if you make this film, you will die,’” he recalls telling the maestro. “‘And you will! But not in the way you think. You’ll be reborn.’” Fellini resisted the advice. And yet, Mastorna itself was reborn, again and again as he saw it, in all his later work. “The most intimate and secret part of that film has nourished and found its way into every film I made later,” he reflects. “Like the wreck of a ship that from the floor of the ocean continues to send radioactive signals.” We are then shown footage of Mastroianni with Giulietta Masina on the set of City of Women and Mastroianni during a screen test for the ill-fated Mastorna.
Such ruminations set the tone for the film’s close in which Fellini reflects (as he approaches his own death in 1993) on the fleeting properties of life in general and the unforeseen, dream-like career which became his life. “I think it is a necessity,” he says of the creative process, alluding not just to filmmaking but to the imaginative ways in which we each navigate our lives. “An interpretation... Which protects, consoles and reassures. I believe that art is the most successful attempt to instill in mankind the need to have a religious feeling. That’s what any kind of art expresses.”
The film ends full circle at the seascape where it began except that, now, the remnant of an abandoned camera-track is aimed straight into the sea. On the ambiguity of this final image, critic F. X. Feeney wrote: "Is this substitution of a real sea for the imaginary ones we’ve been sailing for the past hour and forty minutes a critique, a refutation of Fellini’s beloved fakery? Or is it a validation - an invitation to enter the reality at which those fancies were ultimately aimed? In keeping with the maestro's elusive art, the image is a deliberate paradox."
In the summer of 1983, Pettigrew was planning a documentary about novelist Italo Calvino. But when the two met at the novelist’s Roman apartment, “We sat around talking about 8 1/2 when we ought to have been discussing Calvino,” explained Pettigrew to Newsweek International correspondent Michael J. Agovino. Fellini became such a ready topic whenever the two men relaxed from their more formal interview that after a few days, Calvino told the young filmmaker he had arranged a “little surprise” for him - lunch at Cinecittà cooked by Fellini. "So there he was chopping the garlic," recalled Pettigrew. "The meal was spaghetti aglio e olio, al dente with a sprinkle of black pepper." Appropriately enough, the colloquy between the two Italian fabulists centered entirely on food. “Calvino knew how to steer the conversation. We talked a great deal about French and Italian cheeses - a subject dear to both of them; Calvino had spent many years in Paris and could compare gorgonzola and camembert with expertise.” When Fellini pressed the Canadian filmmaker for word of his nation’s cuisine, the most unique he could come up with was the national snack, maple syrup served on snow. “Fellini looked at me in stupefaction. ‘Thees is not possible,’ he said. ‘It is food for mooses and beears.’” Calvino rescued Pettigrew by repeating a thematic connection he’d made between Elias Canetti’s book Crowds and Power and Fellini’s political parable, Prova d'orchestra (1979). Fellini was duly surprised, admitting to Pettigrew that Canetti’s work had indeed been a conscious influence.
Pettigrew then turned the conversation to film. They were dining in Fellini’s private office above the soundstages at Cinecittà where he was finishing And the Ship Sails On (1983), a joyful production compared to the storms that had attended some of his previous pictures. Talk hinged on Fellini’s now total commitment to using soundstages, for exteriors as well as interiors. Pettigrew raised the issue of landscape as a means of revealing a character’s inner nature, and this struck a deep, sympathetic chord in both Calvino and Fellini. They each recalled favorite film-moments in which landscape and character merged, speaking particularly of Rossellini’s Stromboli, but circling (guided by Calvino) around the beauty and melancholy of the natural landscapes in Fellini’s early work.
When Pettigrew brought up the barren rocky hillsides where Augusto (Broderick Crawford) is left to die at the end of Il bidone, Fellini named the place without batting an eye. “Monte Marino, 15 kilometers south of Rome.” Intrigued that the maestro’s memory was so exact, Pettigrew asked about La Strada. “Bagnoreggio, Ovindoli, Ostia,” replied Fellini. And 8 1/2 ? “Ostia and Tivoli, the Palais del Drago in Filicciano, 90 kilometers north of Rome. The provincial train station was shot in a train washing shed in the via Prenestina near Porto Maggiore.” “The hotel lobby and staircase are based on the Plaza Hotel in Rome,” Fellini told him, “except that I built a larger staircase and added a second lion. I had the elevator doors copied down to the last detail at great expense. The spa is a combination of the Chianciano and Montecatini spas in Tuscany.”
It would be years before Pettigrew could assemble a film crew to make the journey across Italy but it was apparently this defining moment over lunch, mining Fellini’s memory for places and taking notes, that I’m a Born Liar was born. “I thought it might be a way of making a unique film on Fellini which would for once lead us outside the Cinecittà studios, shooting ‘real’ locations, ‘real’ décor and threading these into the ‘false’ images of his films. The aim would be a portrait dealing with truth and lies, reality and fiction. I was excited by the possibilities of mixing black & white film with the locations in color. But it was years before I met a producer who shared my enthusiasm. Until Olivier Gal, my French producer, finally secured funding with Arte, FilmFour, TelePiu, Scottish Screen, and Eurimages, all the other potential backers either wanted to cut costs or churn out a quickie TV program for a fast buck, especially just after Fellini died.”
From the beginning, however, Pettigrew made his plans known to Fellini and secured the maestro’s agreement to cooperate. This proved to be a necessary final step in his education about a paradoxical subject. “Fellini made a cryptic comment to me about ‘opposites’ and the Italian mind: ‘The typical Italian says yes when he means no and no when he means yes.’” Calvino, overhearing, countered with a Joycean adjustment: “Like Nes and Yo.” Much as the elder and younger filmmaker would often write and see each over the next decade, even after Calvino’s death in 1985, Fellini kept putting the interviews off, perpetually telling Pettigrew that he would find time the following year. By the summers of 1991 and 1992, “free time” had alas become inescapable: for the first time in 40 years, Fellini was unemployed. “Ah, Damiano!” he lamented to Pettigrew. “My last film, La voce della luna (1990), is a beeg flop. Producers call me no more. So you come to Rome and we become partners in crime.” Pettigrew managed to obtain more than 10 hours of footage with a Fellini “supremely present, fully aware that the tapes were perhaps his filmed testament -- or, as he later put it in a letter to me: ‘The longest and most detailed conversation ever recorded on my personal vision.’”
Although Pettigrew admits challenging Fellini so aggressively during the final 1992 film shoot that he threatened to walk out, their friendship was such that it became physically painful for him to see the great man grown so depressed. “His health was rapidly declining and producers had written him off as a bad risk. I have photographs of Fellini that would make anyone wince: the expression on his face is that of an artist who knows, against his will, that his life’s work is over. His deep melancholy, in fact, pervades the entire film.” Even so, there were amusing twists in the conversation. When Pettigrew shared a bit of off-handed, amateur medical diagnosis - that the mass of black hairs protruding from Fellini’s ears was a classic sign of arteriosclerosis - the maestro began to treat his provocateur with a superstitious reverence, and cooperated more fully than ever.
In a 2004 radio interview with Australian journalist Julie Rigg, Pettigrew reflected on a passage from Calvino’s last novel, Mr. Palomar, which had inspired Fellini for a rooftop scene with Roberto Benigni in La voce della luna:
The true shape of the city of Rome is in this rise and dip of roofs, of tiles old and new, flat and curved ... TV aerials, straight or crooked, painted or rusting, in the models of successive generations… And domes that lie curved against the sky, in every direction, at every distance, as if to confirm the feminine, Junonic essence of the city... from up here, you have the impression that this is the real crust of the earth, uneven but compact, though furrowed by crevices of unknown depth, cracks or wells or craters, whose edges - seen in perspective - look as if they overlap, like the scales of a pine-cone. What can be concealed, at the bottom? I don’t know: life on the surface is so rich and various that I have no urge to enquire further. I believe that it is only when you’ve come to know the surface of things that you can try to find out what lies beneath. But the surface of things is inexhaustible.
When Calvino originally dictated the text to Pettigrew, both were struck by how much it evoked Fellini, "the mystery man covered in the scales of a pine-cone." Serving as the basis for his question to Donald Sutherland on Fellini's notoriously facetious temperament, the actor read the above text and replied, “Fellini is constantly running away from his own superficiality.” Pettigrew recalled that Fellini not only knew the Calvino text by heart, "'he encouraged me to make use of it. It was to be our little homage to Calvino, our way of thanking him. ‘After all,’ quipped Fellini, ‘landscape ees character.’”
For the Canadian director, the leap from Calvino (born 1923) to Fellini (born 1920) was a straight line: “Both were from northern Italy. Both began their artistic careers as more or less frustrated neorealists seeking to develop forms that would accommodate their fantastic imaginations. To my question, ‘Are novelists liars?’ Calvino replied: ‘Of course. They tell that piece of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie.’ Fellini was delighted: ‘I always knew I had a robust reason for being a born liar.’”
The film premiered at the 2002 Edinburgh International Film Festival, won the Rockie Award for Best Arts Documentary at the 2002 Banff World Television Festival , the Coup de Coeur at the 2002 International Documentary Film Festival of Marseille, and was nominated for Best Documentary at the European Film Awards, Europe's equivalent of the Oscars.
Selected in over 40 international festivals including Cannes, Moscow, Amsterdam, and Montréal, the film was distributed theatrically in 15 countries and sold to television worldwide. It was honoured at the maestro's 2003 gala retrospective at the Fellini Foundation in Rimini and the Cinémathèque française in Paris.
In France, it was acclaimed in major magazines and newspapers including Les Inrockuptibles, Le Nouvel observateur, Libération, Le Figaro and Le Monde, the latter describing it as a " fascinating film, porteur d'une grande beauté." Vincent Malausa of Les Cahiers du Cinéma was particularly impressed by the film's structure and wrote: "By the extreme rigour of its movement, the film succeeds in illuminating the fundamentals of Fellini's entire œuvre."
Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune felt it was crafted for the happy few but "a must for Fellini lovers... Seeing Fellini again in the flesh and in his films is, as always, a pleasure and a teasing mystery - Fellini: I'm a Born Liar is best watched in conjunction with the films themselves.” Although he was "happy to have seen it," Roger Ebert declared the film "lacked specifics" and that as "a biography of Fellini the film is almost worthless but as an insight into his style, the film is priceless." In his New York Times review, A. O. Scott argued that Fellini's style was precisely what the film was all about: "The interviews with Fellini and some of his collaborators, the snippets of movies both famous and obscure, the glimpses behind the scenes and the master's own garrulous, charming presence make for a thrilling masterclass in cinema aesthetics, with footnotes compiled by an intelligent and devoted disciple."
Harper Barnes, longtime editor and cultural critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, praised the film as a “remarkable, intellectually daunting and mind-stirring documentary that deals with philosophical and psychological questions, but always in a Felliniesque way. It tells a story, one that is visually rich and emotionally compelling and charged with one of the great director's favorite concepts - expectation, the sense that something always new and marvelous will come along.” Barnes placed it on his Top Ten list of the best films of 2003.
The feature documentary is available in the following DVD editions:
The Opening DVD is an 8-disc anamorphically enhanced international Collectors Edition that includes the theatrical version together with six films by Federico Fellini, and 105' of bonus material featuring the animated film, Il lungo viaggio di Fellini (directed by Khrajnovski, written by Tonino Guerra), a 20' documentary by Pettigrew that takes the viewer from Rimini across the Apennine Mountains to Rome and the Tyrrhenian Sea, interviews with Roland Topor and Donald Sutherland, artwork by Jean Giraud, and rare footage of the maestro drawing a caricature of himself.
Designed as a companion to the documentary (which, in contrast, uses a single photo of Fellini as a baby), the book I'm a Born Liar: A Fellini Lexicon has 124 film stills of Fellini at work and many unpublished photographs restored by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna (Italy) .