Fortean Fellini

Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






About Us


The art of film is ideal for conveying magical and supernatural themes, stories, ideas and images. We, as members of the audience, willingly and easily suspend our usual grasp on reality in the darkness of the cinema. Here, the best film directors dazzle and entertain us by their manipulation of our senses through the medium of light and sound.

Film directors are illusionists who play with and bring to life our innermost dreams and nightmares. Frederico Fellini's films are supreme examples of how such effects are achieved.

Fellini (1920 - 1993) was a deeply superstitious person. He always paid attention to omens and for many years he regularly consulted astrologers and indulged in seances. These predilections increasingly influenced the content and look of his films.


Fellini discovered the writings of Carl Jung in the latter part of 1960, and he was liberated by the idea that dreams were a creative well-spring. He had long been afflicted by guilt instilled by his Catholic upbringing combined with an awareness that he had a poor formal education. Jung gave his psychic life a meaning and worth that obliterated what had previously been regarded as bad shortcomings. In addition, his belief in omens and coincidences was validated by Jung's essay 'On Synchronicity'.

As a result of this interest he had regular meetings with Rome's top Jungian, Dr. Ernest Bernhard. This led him to keep a regular dream diary that had a great influence on the content of his films. He was now able to justify, validate and portray his unconscious and subjective view of the world in his films. He no longer felt constrained, as a film director, by the chains of reality.

One early and important dream was of him being an airport administrator who cannot decide whether to allow an Asian man in grey robes to stay or not. The scene shifts to him being a ringmaster forcing a rodent, to swim in circles, with a whip.

Otto e mezzo (1964) was to contain some of the elements of this dream, and it certainly devolved into Fellini's unconscious world. The very start of the film shows the male protagonist (Guido Anselmi, played by Marcello Mastroianni)) in a traffic jam being choked by fumes. He floats out of his car as easily as if he were an astronaut walking in space, then he falls towards a beach. Just as he is about to hit the ground he wakes to find himself in bed.

This trick on the viewer warns us that this film will play around with 'real' and 'unreal' events, it also harks back to the traditional narrative of silent movies where fantastic events occur but are revealed to be 'only a dream' at the end. The same trick was played on us when a whole series of the TV soap opera, Dallas, was revealed to be a dream! Whitley Strieber's filmed version of Communion also includes dreams that have the theme of illusion, magic and trickery which have more relevance to Fellini than ufology.

In Otto e mezzo, Guido is revealed to be a screenwriter who is making a science fiction film. His intention is to show a spaceship saving humanity from obliteration by H-bombs. Church leaders guide the population of Earth onto the ship. Fellini had two huge towers built to show these scenes but at some stage he decided against using them as much as he had planned. It's possible that Fellini intended to make the film that Guido is shown to be involved with. Like most of Fellini's heroes, Guido is  Fellini's alter-ego and the story is about Fellini.

For a film that plays fast and loose with reality and dreams, it's appropriate that Fellini deliberately stopped shooting the film on 14 October 1963 rather than on the unlucky 13th.


Dreams and superstitions fuelled Fellini's imagination and made his films distinctive. The same factors also inhibited him and stifled his creative juices. He was told by a medium that his next two films after Otto e mezzo would be flops, and this came true. Possibly a belief in this prediction brought about these calamities?

Whatever his fears, one of these doomed movies was Giulietta degli spiriti (1965). This came about because Fellini wanted to make a film about a female psychic. His wife, Giulietta Masina, played the main role. This is Fellini's first feature to use colour film, and he tried to use it as a visual language which would reflect Masina's troubled psyche.

One of the scriptwriters, Tullio Pinelli, said the film intended to show a woman with "peculiar supernatural sensations, but in a realistic way. That is, she was disturbed by these strange capacities of hers. Then, we started to have problems."

The basic problem was characteristic of Fellini, his fictional work became increasingly personal and autobiographical. Fellini described the story and main characters in a manner that could easily be compared with his own lifestyle and relationship with his wife.
"Giulietta is the soul of my film; it's her film...Her character is a woman about thirty-five, a tranquil petite bourgeoisie, calm, traditional and superstitious, full of prejudices, but all in all...good. Her husband, Giorgio, is a businessman, surrounded by bizarre people: painters, sculptors, actresses, mediums, fortune-tellers; in short, a gang of crazies."  (1)

Guilietta's interest in the occult was stronger than Fellini's, and she was known to mutter "We are not alone" in the middle of conversations. When Fellini wanted her to attend a seance, prior to shooting Giulietta degli spiriti, she declined the offer because, "I believe in it and am considered a good medium, but that's why I don't want to do it. It reveals a fascinating world and a dangerous one." (2)

Fellini depicts the dangers of entering the alternative realities of our dreams and fantasies with gusto. We are shown the woman seeking some meaning to her life but she is overwhelmed by her increasingly weird inner visions. It is only when she liberates a figure of her child self from its bonds that she is able to walk free of her psychic burdens. Fellini's script outline explains that Giulietta is 'now in complete harmony with the fabulous spectacle of life which is so vastly and so delightfully more rich, magical and supernatural when it accepts in an easy and simple rhythm the miracle of every day.'

The filming of Giulietta degli spiriti did not go well, Fellini had many shouting matches with his wife about her role, and many that were involved with the production were confused. At one point one of actors said he couldn't carry on because "Everything around me is fake." Fellini's neat and rather cynical reply was, "Just like in life."


There was a small sf element in Otto e mezzo, but in his next project he wanted to make a film version of Fredric Brown's What Mad Universe? In this novel a sf magazine editor is blasted into an alternative universe by an electrical explosion. This universe is based on the fantasies of one of the magazine’s teenage fans, so not surprisingly it has planet Earth fighting an interstellar battle with Arcturian invaders. The novel was a satire on the fantasies and stories depicted in the garish pulp sf magazines of the 1940s. Fellini had always had an interest in the Flash Gordon comic-strip stories. He even claimed that in 1938 he had produced a bootleg Gordon strip, which had him, seduced by the high priestess of Phoebus and abducted to a planet populated by hawk-men. This claim like many of his claims about his early life was a total fabrication and the story he is supposed to have invented is based on the 1936 movie serial. Therefore, this Assurdo universo project seemed like the ideal medium for Fellini's imagination.

In the course of events that project was dropped in favour of a film about the afterlife. This was to be called Il viaggio/The Voyager and was to have a protagonist who suffers an accident but doesn't immediately realise that they have been killed. Even then (1964) the idea wasn't that original, but as we can see from the recent successes of Ghost and Truly Madly Deeply the idea has substantial staying power.

Significantly he started having dreams of execution by firing squad, customs barriers and railway level-crossings as the shooting date got closer. Then he had what was originally thought to be a heart attack. In hospital he was given drugs which gave him hallucinations - one was of black walls swallowing eggs! He did not respond to his treatment and he was close to death before an old doctor friend of his identified his rare condition. This diagnosis changed his treatment and saved his life.

This brush with death gave Fellini an excuse not to make Il viaggio for producer Dino de Laurentis. Instead the property was bought-up by Alberto Grimaldi who had made a fortune with such films as A Fistful of Dollars. Fellini's own superstitions, fuelled by his psychic advisors, led him to other projects and he never did make Il viaggio.

Nevertheless he kept an interest in all sorts of Fortean topics. The Bermuda Triangle mystery, for example, inspired him to make E la nave va/And the Ship Sails On (1983). After that he even had an encounter with Carlos Castaneda, whose mystical novels he greatly admired. On the strength of this Grimaldi bought the film rights to the novels with the hope (never fulfilled) that Fellini would turn them into cinematic gold. Fellini alleged that he, Castaneda, a couple of mediums, an actor and a parapsychologist had gone on an expedition to explore ancient Mayan sites. This resulted in a script, never filmed but published as Voyage to Tulum.

Instances of weirdness are certainly prevalent throughout Fellini's films; indeed one could call it a madness. This is a madness of accommodation to a mad world. One who can remain sane in the face of the daily diet of war, terrorism, inflation, unemployment, murder, corruption, etc. on the TV news is madder than any asylum inmate. Fellini was scared of these outside demons, as well of the demons of his dreams and nightmares. This is what makes his films carnivals of fear and terror populated by clowns, freaks and madmen. In Fellini's view these are the subjectively sane responses to the madness and cruelty of the scientific and objective world. He creates nightmare worlds that are perversely safe retreats from the horrors outside the cinema and Fellini's mind.

La voce della luna (1990) amply shows how weird Fellini could get. This features a village dominated by TV moguls. Giant TV screens are erected in the village to show the moon captured by a massive machine. Local intellectuals consider what questions to ask it, but a cardinal dismisses this action because "We know everything". The main protagonist is Ivo an uncured lunatic who is fascinated by the moon and hears voices in his head. It is only the lunatic that thinks that "if things were a little quieter, we might understand something."

Thirty years earlier several Fortean themes shaped his most successful and best-remembered film, La dolce vita. Tabloid stories of visions of the Madonna influenced him in his choice of showing a statue of Christ being helicoptered over Rome in the opening sequence. The central story of the affluent partygoers is concluded when, at dawn, they see a sea monster, which interrupts their sex party. A large plaster model, draped in tripe was produced but Fellini only used this in a long shot. A close up of a real giant ray was combined to create what Fellini called "an expression of absurdity, irrationality." (3) The monster could also be seen as a symbol of doom, which will fall upon society as it descends into decadence, decay and decline. The partygoers shudder at the sight of the monster, thus it could be regarded as the working classes waiting out-there to crush them, or it could be a shudder of self-recognition? The image is ambiguous enough for us to read what we like into it. Like Ivo the lunatic, we should mull over these events but not come to instant conclusions as to what they really mean, if they mean anything at all. This is after all an absurd and irrational universe. Most probably the answer is that there is no answer, but Fellini's films make us ponder many questions...


Fellini was an unsophisticated yet complicated character. He turned the night demons of his dreams into weird cinematic images that transcended the lines between reality and fiction. This opened the door for other filmmakers to explore this territory. Woody Allen's Stardust Memories and Paul Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland, for example, owe more than a little to Otto e mezzo. Allen admitted that, "Fellini is an utter magician but he has no heart. I'm knocked out by his technique but his films bore me." (4)

What made Fellini Fortean was that he was prepared to accept that this is a strange world where 'reality' is not as fixed as we would like to believe. He realised that the world of the imagination and its manipulation through film art (or any other means for that matter) was just as valid as the 'real' world. Indeed, Fellini proved the fluidity of reality by constantly re-creating and changing his past. Like a Hollywood biopic he smoothed out the rough-edges of his childhood, upbringing and the means by which he eventually became a film director. His predilection was for a good story rather than for the pedantic details so beloved of biographers.


1.   Baxter, John Fellini, Fourth Estate, London, 1994, pbk, page 198.

2.   Ibid., page 199.

3.   Ibid., page 161.

4.   Ibid., page 316.
  Search this site or the web        powered by FreeFind
Site searchWeb search

   Book Reviews | Features | Reviews
    News | About Us
Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson